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“Bible Hunters” Part 2, and What They Omitted

February 21, 2014

The second (final) programme in the “Bible Hunters” production aired here in the UK last night, and, as I suspected focused on the discovery of various extra-canonical texts.  The discovery of any early text is cause to be grateful, and the discovery of any early copy of a Christian text (biblical or not) likewise (or even more so for scholars in Christian origins).

So, to be sure, the fragments of extra-canonical texts turned up by Grenfell & Hunt at Oxyrhynchus in the late 19th century, and the more substantial cache of writings found at Nag Hammadi in 1946 are rightly to be seen as important.  The Nag Hammadi texts in particular confirm the vigorous text-producing nature of ancient Christianity, and its theological diversity as well.

But I have to say that I found it strange that some really crucial (arguably more important) manuscripts finds were totally ignored.  If we’re talking about “Bible Hunters” and the attendant concern for early manuscripts that may tell us something about the Bible, I think that the programme missed the boat entirely.

In fact, with all due gratitude to those 19th century and early 20th century figures mentioned in the first programme (Tischendorf, the Smith sisters, and also Freer), the 20th century was the time when perhaps the most spectacular biblical manuscript finds appeared.  Certainly, spectacularly early in comparison with anything available previously.  Here are the “biggies”.

We can start with the fabulous collection of biblical codices acquired by Chester Beatty (now housed in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle).  For a generally accurate and brief introduction the Wikipedia entry can be read here.  First announced in late 1931, over the ensuing years the eleven codices were edited and published in a series that included both photographic facsimiles and transcriptions (with introductions and analyses).  The codices include 3rd century CE Greek copies of Paul’s letters, the four Gospels and Acts, and Revelation.  The great F. G. Kenyon handled the NT volumes.   In addition, there are (Greek) copies of Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Esther, dated variously to the 2nd-3rd century CE.

So far as NT studies are concerned, the Chester Beatty papyri were of monumental importance, and remain so.  Earlier scholars had been pleased to have copies of NT writings as early as the 4th century (Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus).  But the Chester Beatty papyri took scholars back to the early 3rd century, well before Constantine, Nicaea, and to a time when Christianity was still fighting for its life, well before a NT canon had been fixed.

The Chester Beatty gospels codex (“P45” in the reference scheme used by NT textual critics) contains the four canonical gospels and the book of Acts.  The gospels are in the “Western” order:  Matthew, John, Luke, Mark.  And it’s very interesting that Acts in included with the four gospels (whereas its more familiar location in early manuscripts was with the so-called “catholic/general” epistles).  Although a NT canon wasn’t yet closed, this codex suggests that by its date (ca. mid-3rd century CE) the four gospels were a closed circle, at least for many Christians.

The Chester Beatty Paul codex (“P46”), early 3rd century CE, is our earliest example of a collection of Pauline epistles.  We know that there were collections circulating much earlier (as reflected in 2 Peter 3:15-16), but in P46 we have copies phenomenally early.

Just about contemporary with the Nag Hammadi discovery in the late 1940s was the find of hundreds of manuscripts at Qumran, the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls.”  These manuscripts date variously from the 2nd-1st century BCE, and were copied and read by devout Jews (often thought to have formed a sect whose base was at Qumran).  The Qumran manuscripts give us copies of OT writings in Hebrew ca. 1,000 years earlier than what had been available.  Even though the cache includes no NT or Christian writings, the Qumran manuscripts are of unsurpassed importance for anyone concerned with the textual history of the OT writings and/or the religious context of Jesus and earliest Christianity.

For NT textual history, however, there was more to come.  Beginning in 1954, the Bodmer Papyri began to be published.  Two in particular have rightly received enormous attention.  P.Bodmer II (or “P66” in NT textual parlance) gives us a substantially preserved copy of the Gospel of John, and is palaeographically dated to the early 3rd century CE.  P.Bodmer XIV-XV (“P75”) gives us substantially preserved copies of the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John, also dated about as early (ca. 175-225 CE). (For a brief description click here.)

One of the things shown by the Bodmer papyri is that the textual copying tradition reflected in Codex Vaticanus (mid-4th century CE) is clearly attested already by ca. 200 CE (and likely much earlier).  This copying tradition seems to reflect a concern for careful copying, with no evidence of substantial variants (either of omission or addition).

To be brief, one net effect of the biblical manuscripts discovered in the 20th century was to provide a much earlier and much more secure basis for textual criticism of the OT and the NT writings.  So, contrary to the narrative pursued in the “Bible Hunters” programme (despite my attempt to warn them off), for anyone in “the know”, the 20th century was a time of discoveries that actually enhanced our ability to chart the textual transmission of the biblical writings.  Whether one treats them as “scripture” and whether one assents to faith in what the NT writings project is another question.  But the fabulous finds gave scholars a massively enhanced knowledge of the early textual history of these writings.

Oh, and one more point relating to the “Bible Hunters” programme.  Despite all that talk of writings that were “excluded” from the NT, such as the Nag Hammadi texts, there is actually no evidence that the authors of these texts ever sought to have them included!  Indeed, to judge from the highly esoteric and sectarian nature of the writings, it is highly unlikely that the authors would have been happy to have these writings lumped in with the various writings that came to be included in the NT.  These so-called “gnostic” texts seem to reflect an elitist stance, the authors and intended readers treated as “special”, superior even to other garden-variety Christians.  These texts profess to give “secret” teachings that were withheld from mere Christians, and given only to the special person (Thomas, Philip, Mary) posited (fictionally) as the favoured recipient.

As Fred Wisse suggested decades ago, it seems more likely that these texts didn’t really function as the “scriptures” of “gnostic” groups/churches (and weren’t intended so), but instead were probably passed from hand to hand among individuals who liked esoterica and may have thought of themselves as some kind of superior type of Christian.

To return to manuscripts of biblical writings, they continue to appear.  In the last few decades, for example, fragments of a number of early copies of NT writings have been published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, some of these palaeographically dated to the early 3rd or even late 2nd century CE.  And, given that only about 1% of the estimated body of Oxyrhynchus papyri has been published at this point, who knows what more lies in the vaults awaiting someone with the skills to identify and edit it?

On Oxyrhynchus, see the conference volume: A. K. Bowman et al., eds., Oxyrhynchus:  A City and Its Texts (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007).  On its relevance for NT textual criticism:

Eldon Jay Epp, “The Oxyrhynchus New Testament Papyri:  ‘Not Without Honor Except in Their Hometown’?,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004): 5-55 (but his list of NT papyri is already out of date).

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  1. Please forgive me my ignorance, but can you help me with a reference for Wisse’s suggestion? As a PhD student of Valentinian and proto-orthodox Gospel interpretations, I think I should check it out.

    • Wisse’s paper was critical of the tendency of scholars to posit “communities” behind each and every text, and he cited Nag Hammadi texts as examples for his counter-thesis that many were likely “thought experiments”, texts that may have circulated among others interested in the somewhat esoteric ideas, and not really functioning as “scripture” of any “community”. Frederik Wisse, “The Use of Early Christian Literature As Evidence for Inner Diversity and Conflict,” in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity, ed. Charles W. Hedrick and Robert Hodgson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 177-90.

  2. What’s really sad about this documentary – which I didn’t watch – is summed-up in the Radio Times review, pinpointing 1859 as a key date with the Codex Sinaiticus: “There were more than 35,000 edits to the text – and the Gospel of Mark ended 12 verses short of what was in the King James Bible. Where did this leave people who believed in the Bible as the actual word of God?”
    A tragically misleading summary of what you’ve explained is a much more complex and interesting picture that, as you remind us, actually increases the Bible’s credibility and helps us to better hear the word of God. So disappointing that those introduced to the subject by this documentary come away with a very crude view of the most important book(s) ever written. Too many people sadly allow one ‘expert’ on telly to shape their stance.

  3. Greg Hillendahl permalink

    I’m very interested in one observation Dr. Hurtado made in his article. It pertains to this text: Despite all that talk of writings that were “excluded” from the NT, such as the Nag Hammadi texts, there is actually no evidence that the authors of these texts ever sought to have them included! Indeed, to judge from the highly esoteric and sectarian nature of the writings, it is highly unlikely that the authors would have been happy to have these writings lumped in with the various writings that came to be included in the NT. These so-called “gnostic” texts seem to reflect an elitist stance, the authors and intended readers treated as “special”, superior even to other garden-variety Christians. These texts profess to give “secret” teachings that were withheld from mere Christians, …

    My question is, could this have some bearing on the so-called Johannine Community hypothesis advocated by Louis Martyn (and others) regarding the Gospel of John? Namely, according the hypothesis, the so-called Johannine Community ostensibly was sectarian in nature, and their texts were supposed to be for “insiders only”. If the gnostic writers were reticent to have their writings included in the NT, could one argue analogously that the Johannine Community had no interest in including their Gospel with the rest of the NT? That clearly does not seem to be the case, so I’m thinking that since the Fourth Gospel was included in the NT (from the beginning it would seem – no evidence otherwise), then this would argue against a “sectarian” nature of the authorship and audience for the FG. Any thoughts would be appreciated. (I see that Richard Bauchkam made a comment above. Perhaps he might be able to comment on this.)

    • In the case of the Gospel of John, I think it inappropriate to refer to it as reflecting a “sectarian” form of Christianity. The text clearly promotes the “beloved disciple” as having a special place for readers, but also approves of Peter and other disciples, and refers to “other sheep not of this fold”, etc., which suggest that the author(s) accepted other Christian circles and points of view. Certainly chap 21 reflects this outlook. In strict usage “sect” = a group that holds its views as exclusively true and all others as false.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Isn’t the fact that extra-canonical authors never “sought” to be included in the NT a rather empty observation, given that the authors of the NT texts themselves didn’t seek such a status either? In fact texts such as 2 Peter and 2 Timothy actually seem to position themselves consciously outside the body of “scripture”.

      • Donald: No. It’s not an empty observation. By the time that the so-called “gnostic” works were composed (which, by nearly all accounts was, for most of them at least, sometime well into the 2nd century and later), Paul’s letters were already being read as scripture (2 Pet 3:15-16), as were at least some of our present four Gospels (so, e.g., Justin). Moreover, by ca. 140, Marcion had already reacted against the plurality of the Gospels by preferring Luke and solely Paul as valid texts.
        The texts I refer to reflect a highly sectarian, exclusivist stance. Compare this, e.g., with the attitude toward Paul taken in 2 Peter, or the attitude toward other apostles and “sheep not of this pasture) in Gospel of John, or Paul’s efforts to maintain ties with Jerusalem apostles.
        You’re right that the NT reflects “an exercise in bringing different factions [I’d say “types/voices”] of early Christianity together”. And as I read some of the “gnostic” texts, there is no readiness to take part in this process.

  4. Ferdie Mulder permalink

    The very energetic professor Goldhill of Kings College seems a bit out of his depth. These showbiz American documentary makers’ preconceived agendas shine through …

  5. JasonR permalink

    As very much a layperson, I enjoyed the programme, even if I think the first episode was markedly better. It certainly piqued my interest to find out more – here I am! To encompass all the 20th century finds you mention would surely have entailed extra episodes. Maybe if it was exclusively a BBC project that would have happened, because three or four part series are quite common. I suspect that the involvement of the Smithsonian affected the programme in two other important ways. 1)the choice of presenter, Dr Jeff Rose. The Beeb, despite their preference for the handsome and telegenic, usually choose someone who is an academic/specialist in that field; Rose evidently wasn’t. 2)The fact that the show is also destined for an American audience influenced the rather simplistic/sensational approach in that it seemed to want to draw an obvious parallel between 19th Victorians and modern-day American evangelicals.

  6. Thanks for your helpful review, Larry. I enjoyed the first episode a good deal more then the second, though this one too had a lot to like — especially Eddie Adams, Scott McKendrick and you! I was also delighted to see the discovery of P.Oxy 1 discussed at length before we got to the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Documentaries of this kind usually forget about the Oxyrhynchus discoveries altogether in their rush to get to Nag Hammadi.

    However, I agree with your comments about what was omitted. I can’t fathom how one could not discuss the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course these were not discovered by “Bible hunters”, but then neither were the Nag Hammadi codices, which were discussed at length. Moreover, the way that the narrative proceeded gave the strong and erroneous impression that the earliest papyri finds were all non-canonical texts. As far as I remember, there was not a mention of the many Biblical fragments found at Oxyrhynchus.

    There were also a couple of egregious errors. The Gospel of Mary (not “the Gospel of Mary Magdalene”, but lots of scholars call it that too) was not among the Nag Hammadi codices. And Jeff Rose’s version of the find story did not correspond to any of Robinson’s versions, or to Mohammed Ali’s video-taped version from 1987. It was a completely garbled version.

    There was no credited academic consultant, and these and other issues could have been helpfully addressed if they had had someone like you, Larry, to look at scripts and view pre-aired versions of the documentary.

    • Oh, one more thing. Lengthy discussion of P.Oxy 1’s discovery in 1897 and then it was referred to as if it was the only fragment of Thomas. Nothing about P.Oxy 654 and 655, which were discovered only a few years later, and P.Oxy 654 includes the Incipit & Saying 1!

  7. Philip Plyming permalink

    Thank you for this really helpful post. Having watched the programme I too was pretty frustrated by what was left out cf the Dead Sea Scrolls and Chester Beatty texts. Also, the presenter never really honed in on the key difference between the canonical and ‘excluded’ gospels, namely their date of writing. He alluded to the fact that the Gospel of Thomas etc were 2nd century texts but didn’t say that this therefore set them apart from the canonical gospels which were generally accepted as 1st century texts.
    So thank you for the reassurance that textual discoveries in the 20th century have given us more confidence in the reliability of the biblical text, and not less.

  8. Jean permalink

    Thank you for the clarifications. I think I will skip episode 2.

  9. I haven’t yet watched the series, but I heard from one friend (who has a background in academic Biblical research) that he turned it off because of what he percieved to be its unhelpful bias. I do wonder why there is this push in the media, even in the most reputable media outlets such as the BBC, to sensationalize and push minority views. I know that over the past 15 years those in the sciences (particularly in biology, medicine and climate science) have learned that they need to purposefully advocate, and in some cases shame such media outlets in order to get them to be more responsible and balanced in their future handling of such topics. It seems otherwise the bent will always be to go for the conclusions that gain them the most audience figures. With history (and issues relating to Biblical history in particular!) there is little comparable effort. Perhaps it is just not something we do well. The sciences maybe have more money and people engaged in public engagement… Anyway, thanks for the reflections here.


  10. Richie Cronin permalink

    “And, given that only about 1% of the estimated body of Oxyrhynchus papyri has been published at this point,” ???
    Why is this the case? Hasn’t Oxyrhynchus been publishing results for some time now?

    • The reasons are these: (1) There are very few people capable of doing the work (by one count maybe 65 worldwide); (2) it’s damned difficult and time-consuming and so the pace is unavoidably slow; (3) there is little glamour to the work, and very few take it on; (4) there are simply hundreds of thousands of unidentified papyrus fragments involved.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Do they really have no idea what’s left in the 99% left to be examined, or have they got a way of sifting through and dealing with the most important stuff first? Might there be new gospels, lost gospels, first century copies of NT texts, and the like, lying, waiting there to be published? If so can’t academics with the skills just stop writing their books for a few months over the summer and go and sort out these papyri first? Where are the materials being kept and are they safe in the meantime? If in Egypt that’s surely a concern. Mind you with a fire at Kew last week it’s a remininder that archives everywhere are vulnerable to neglect, negligence or active destruction.

      • Donald, There are very few scholars with the abilities/training to do the work, and the work is slow and difficult and time-consuming. You can’t just “sort out” the several hundred thousand papyri fragments held by the Egypt Exploration Society alone “over the summer”.

  11. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, so we have gnostic Christians living side by side with traditional Christians, in Egypt, a place where the Jewish religion had been known for centuries.

  12. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, do the gnostic texts take us a step nearer to the original christianity? For the gnostics, Jesus was a spirit being. Then there is Judas. Some would argue that the gnostics took a positive view of Judas, and that he was anti-priest and anti-sacrifice. And which Judas were they referring to? In my view there can only be one.

    • The so-called “gnostic” texts tend to have come from sometime in the 2nd century and thereafter, and so are most commonly taken as indicative of emergent forms of Christians/Christianity in that period. That means that these texts are not evidence of an “original” form of Christianity, but of subsequent forms (among which there were many). And, yes, some of these texts have different views of Jesus/Christ. In some cases, they distinguish between “Jesus” (the man) and the divine Word/Son/Spirit. In some cases “Jesus” is presented as only appearing to be a man. All of this contrasts, of course, with the earlier texts (preserved in the NT) where there is a firm insistence that the human figure Jesus of Nazareth is also of heavenly significance.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, I don’t see that you have proved that the gnostic texts come later than the traditional texts. But I think that you are probably correct.

        For me the question to ask is why did the gnostic texts emerge? The gnostics had a spiritual Jesus, which in my book cannot go unnoticed. And it had a Judas who worshipped in the sanctuary, and who rejected priests and sacrifice. Was this a dim remembrance of what Judas the Maccabean was really about? Did Judas reject priests and animal sacrifice? This would make sense of what Antiochus was about also. Antiochus was for animal sacrifice. Was it also a dim remembrance of why a Jewish temple was built later in Egypt? Did this temple also reject priests and animal sacrifice? The link back to older times of the gnostic texts shows us that their version of ‘christianity’ was more original.

      • Geoff: The so-called “gnostic” texts are judged later (2nd century & thereafter) on a number of grounds, which are accepted by pretty much all the scholars who’ve worked on them.
        What you call a “spiritual” Jesus is actually often a figure portrayed as one of the numerous emanations of the ultimate divine essence (referred to variously, e.g., “the All”), and the basic scheme seems to be heavily influenced by late versions of “middle-Platonism” that went on to generate both Christian and non-Christian types of elaborate speculations. So, these “gnostic” texts seem to show that some early Christians were influenced by, and interested in, this kind of Platonic-influenced speculation and mysticism. That’s why they were written.
        You’ve confused the “Judas” of the Gospels and the gnostic texts with Judas Maccabee. And you’ve completely fabricated what the latter stood for. There is no evidence that he stood against sacrifice. For heaven’s sake, Geoff, he was from a priestly family, and what do you think Jewish priests did back then?
        Instead, the Maccabean revolt was over Antiochus’ attempt to assimilate Jews religiously, perhaps urging the identification of YHWH with Olympian Zeuw, etc. (Where do you get these weird ideas? Don’t you read the scholarship and primary texts??)

  13. Why has only 1% of Oxyrhynchus papyri been published? This, of course, would lead some to think about “conspiracies” involving a “true” (read liberal) version of Christianity kept from the public by ivory tower academics.
    What can we expect to see when all of these are published?

    • The reasons for the bulk of material not published are simply the practical demands of the work, and few qualified to do it. What can we expect? Could be anything. But based on what’s been published, lots of pagan literary texts, various kinds of “documentary” (administrative) texts, and occasional Christian ones.

      • Which departments of theology and religious studies in the UK offer Coptic language/papyrology studies?

      • There are few places that offer either Coptic or papyrology as a focus of study. There are a few more places where you have scholars who read Coptic and can offer some supervision in the subject: e.g., Gathercole (Cambridge).
        On papyrology, again, few places with a focus in the subject. And few places with proven papyrologists. Here in Edinburgh, between one or two people in Classics and one or two of us in Divinity, we can put up some resources. But there isn’t enough demand to warrant taught courses.

  14. Thanks for this, Larry. I just watched the second episode of Bible Hunters and was annoyed at the sensationalist narrative chosen by the producers, and the inaccuracies that were portrayed without shame (ie, the claim the Gospel of Philip says Jesus supposedly liked to kiss Mary Magdalene ‘on the lips’ when even a bit of simple Wikipedia research shows there is no such mention of lips in the document, etc). We have either a poorly produced documentary bent on sensationalism, or one with a distinct cyclical agenda.

  15. Did you notice that Simon Goldhill said that Gnostics were burned to death by orthodox Christians? If so, I’ve never heard of it.

    • Yes, I too wondered at that! And his reference to “riots in the street” in Victorian times over textual variants! The guy works in classics, but sure had his opinions about various things. He made for lively TV, which is likely why he was featured so much, not because he had facts behind his colorful claims.

      • Tom Lake permalink

        I agree: the sensationalist interpretations were aggravating especially at the end of episode 2. The implication we were left with was that:

        1. The Bible has massively reduced authority because of the many, many thousands of variations in the ancient texts. This is such a wild claim!


        2. There were various “Christianities” around after Jesus and the brand we now recognise (as if there is only one ‘brand’ in the 21st century anyway!) only survived because it had a more effective PR machine. What a wild and amazing claim!

        In other ways (e.g.. when they presented the facts) it was an interesting programme.

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