We didn’t know much about the quality, age, or contents of this manuscript, but we did know it was uncatalogued, and that meant it was unknown to the world of New Testament scholarship. To think that my first encounter with a real New Testament manuscript could turn out to be a new discovery. I could be one of the first people to read this document in centuries. To say I was excited is putting it mildly.
When they brought the manuscript out, I was given the task of helping set up the camera equipment, so I didn’t get to see it up close immediately. But I did my best to eavesdrop on Dr. Wallace as he examined all the details of this precious document. The pages were measured, the lines counted, the page numbers deciphered, and a stamp on the back was closely inspected.
Dr. Wallace was intrigued by several unique features of this manuscript. The parchment was of a very high quality but only written on one side of each page—a very rare feature for an ancient Christian document. The ink was faded, almost illegibly so in normal lighting, but he could make out some text from several different Gospels. This suggested it was a lectionary, a type of document used for Scripture readings in churches. But if it was, where were the introductory phrases typical in lectionaries? Most curious of all, there were no abbreviations for sacred names (known as nomina sacra)—again, a standard convention in New Testament manuscripts.
By the time the photo shoot was done, the whole team was thoroughly intrigued. Could this be the first known Gospel synopsis in Greek? That was just one of the ideas floating around as we headed back home. The next step was to process the photos and begin transcribing the text of this exciting find.
But from the beginning one of the most questionable pieces of the puzzle was the modern cover letter that accompanied the manuscript. In this letter, a Mr. Louis Meccia describes how he received the manuscript in 1919 while traveling in Europe. It was given by an old man who “decided to entrust them into my hands, being moved by the act of my generosity and because he doubted that he would reach his destination, being seriously afflicted with a malady which he had for a long time.” The letter never explains who this elderly, afflicted man was or what the act of generosity was that warranted such a gift. Still more curious was the letter’s claim that these parchments had once belonged to the mother of Constantine and then sold by one of her servants, only to end up in the famous library of Alexandria in Egypt.
This modern cover letter certainly raised our suspicions, but the proof is in the pudding as they say and in this case that pudding was the actual document itself. The story was surely apocryphal, but was the manuscript also a fake? With more questions, we persisted in our investigation.
Shortly after the images were processed, I was assigned the task of transcribing and deciphering two of the seven pages. But before I could start, I received a deflating email from Dr. Jeff Hargis, one of our teammates. He had been working through the text of the first page and was seeing more and more questionable signs. The handwriting style, the use of modern paragraph indenting, and the capitalized names were all raising red flags for Dr. Hargis. But we still needed to do more work and, in particular, we needed to decipher more of the actual text.
Finally I got to start working on my assignment. I opened the photos of the page I had been assigned. Without the UV lighting, the text was nearly impossible to make out. But the UV lighting made it much easier. Slowly I began to make out letters until I had a few complete words. When I finally had what seemed like a full phrase, I ran a search in my digital Greek New Testament and Matthew 9:36 popped up as the only result. By the time I had two lines done, the text I was transcribing matched the last few verses of Matthew 9 with only a few variations. As I finished these few lines I got another email from Dr. Wallace. He had tracked the stamp on the back of the manuscript (“Ri Questura Di Foggia”) to the state police in the town of Foggia, Italy and wondered if this had been a stolen document at one time. It seemed we had more and more pieces of the puzzle, but still no picture.
In the meantime, Dr. Wallace was shifting his attention from the text of the document to some of the other details about it, in particular, the strange account of Mr. Meccia’s acquisition of it. With some help from Google, Dr. Wallace discovered that we were not the first Americans to examine this document.
Almost 80 years ago, Edgar J. Goodspeed, a professor at the University of Chicago, had examined these same pages. But he knew something in his examination that we didn’t: the whole document was a hoax and Mr. Meccia himself had admitted to it. From Goodspeed’s description of the manuscript and its peculiarities, there was no question that this was the same document. Its discovery was first reported in Italian newspapers in 1927 and some even claimed that Henry Ford himself had offered to buy it for a large amount of money. But Mr. Meccia soon confessed and the hoax was lifted. Upon Mr. Meccia’s death, the document passed into the hands of a man from New York who, it seems, then donated it to Christ for the Nations.
And so the riddle of an unknown Greek manuscript is solved. What could have been a thrilling new discovery turns out to be a modern forgery. The work was not all in vain, of course. In the process our team learned a good deal about how to spot a forgery. And perhaps more importantly, our efforts may keep from happening in our day what Goodspeed said happened in his: “some sincere but uninformed people have welcomed the new gospel as a genuine discovery and find it useful in practical religious work” (New Chapters in New Testament Study, 201).