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National Geographic on “Bible Hunters”

November 20, 2018

I’ve just received in the post my complimentary copies of the latest issue of National Geographic (December 2018), which features a major article on “Bible hunters” and the (sometimes frantic) search for ancient manuscripts of biblical texts.  There is also an elaborate multi-page graphic laying out the time-frame of the composition and collection of the biblical texts and many other matters.  I’m listed as one of the “sources” for the information that lies behind the graphic, along with Craig Evans, Brent Nongbri, Lawrence Schiffman, and the editors of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (Martin Abegg, Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich).

In the late Summer and early Autumn, I was asked to advise the magazine on various matters, and responded to a large number of questions.  Converting volumes of information into a graphic such as this one must have been a daunting task.  Despite the input from me and the other consultants, there will be individual matters on which there will be disagreement or on which we would demur.  I note, for example, that the graphic identifies the Gospels as “Eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ Life,” something that I think none of us noted in earlier versions of the graphic (or else we missed it somehow).  And the graphic appears to include the book of Hebrews among the Pauline texts.  This reflects a view attested in early Christian circles (as reflected in P46), but isn’t held today by scholars of whatever stance.

But, overall, the graphic is an impressive attempt to convey an array of information in a compressed and visual form.  And the essay in which the graphic is embedded is a breezy overview of the process of finding ancient biblical manuscripts, ranging from Tischendorf (19th century) through the Qumran discoveries, and on to continuing archaeological projects.  There is also another graphic describing some of the latest applications of technology to recovering and reading ancient manuscripts (e.g., multi-spectral imagery, and software to enable reading charred scrolls).

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  1. Martin permalink

    Dear professor Hurtado.

    This doesn’t really address the subject of your blog-post, but I bring it up anyway. I have read and appreciated your books. Like Dunn (in his writings about christology) you have touched upon the relevance of your research for the church of today and its worship. How do you feel the reception of that has been?

    I thoroughly sympathize with this, but I also feel there exist a very strong reactionary spirit in the church in keeping talking about God in the same way as defined by foreign philosophical terms from antiquity. As I think you have pointed out this is not a very good thing. Perhaps the articulation of theology in the conceptual framework of Greek philosophy made it somewhat accessible then, but now the accessibility of those ancient concepts like substance and essence and one god in three persons and hypostasis is entirely lost and confuses more than they explain. No to mention that these are foreign to the text itself.

    I do feel an irritation with people keeping up with this when you can be truer to the biblical text and at the same time explain it so that people understand. And even if people want to explain christian beliefs without the texts own context, why should they do this with a toolkit and vocabulary from the second, third and fourth century? Perhaps it is just my own experience but even some new testament scholars can be too committed to this later terminology. Douglas Campbell (who I find a very interesting scholar) has a fondness for terms like Arian and Athanasian and Trinitarian. Does there exist a gap between new testament scholarship, systematic theology and the wider church?

  2. Tom Hennell permalink

    With respect to the application of technology, is there any mention of recovering texts from cartonnage?

    • No, Tom. Recovering texts from cartonnage isn’t really “technology” or new.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Though non-destructive recovery of text from cartonnage would seem to require a technological solution. I know that Roberta Mazza has been pursuing this.

        Which in turn opens the door to a debate on the ethics of ‘Bible Hunting’; both in respect of the destruction of one artefact to get at another; and also in general as referring to the ethics of publishing inadequately provenanced texts.

        I assume that these ongoing ethical debates do not feature so strongly in the article.

      • The article briefly mentions the debates about ethics and legal matters.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Brent Nongbi has some interesting observations on his blog; including reference to ethical/legal concerns

  3. Duane Dunham permalink

    I still hold to Pauline authorship of Hebrews! Does this invalidate my integrity as a Greek scholar?

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