Around the World in Three Short Stories
For three and a half weeks last year I had the privilege of joining a CSNTM trip to Greece and Romania to photograph a series of New Testament manuscripts. Our work took us to the busy streets ofdowntown Athens, the marvelous cliff-top monasteries of Metoria, and the dusty roads of outer Romania. By the time our team touched down again in the blistering heat of Dallas, we had photographed almost a dozen manuscripts, four of which had never been seen by New Testament scholars until our trip.
I could write a dozen stories of the excitement of discovery, the joy of learning, and yes, even the monotony of a CSNTM expedition. But I would like tell three brief stories that each taught me something I never could have known without flying half way around the world to photograph ancient, hand-written copies of the New Testament.
Jumping the Gun
The first lesson I learned came on the first day of real expedition work. After we settled in to our apartment we headed to a wonderful museum in downtown Athens where we would spend the next two weeks photographing some of their collection. Being the only freshmen on the team, I could hardly wait to get to see the real thing—a real hand-written New Testament manuscript.
I had read about these manuscripts, studied their texts, and seen lots of photos. But this was the real thing. It was almost too much. So it won’t surprise you to hear that, after unloading our gear from the taxi, I was the first one to approach the museum staff. Here was the new guy on the team leading the charge. I approached the museum staff and, when they asked how they could help me, I blurted out with a great deal of confidence and pride,“We’re here to photograph your Greek manuscripts!” I can only imagine what kind of American stereotypes I helped enforce with that stellar introduction.
As the staff tried to figure out what in the world I was talking about, I heard a gentle but firm voice from behind me say, “Peter, we haven’t met with the director yet and there’s no guarantee that they are going to let us shoot. They haven’t even signed the contract yet.” I was quickly learning that we were in their debt not the other way around. And so as the trip progressed and we met with museum directors, librarians, and even monks, I realized that with all of them we were dependent on their goodwill to let us shoot their manuscripts. And not all of them saw as clearly as I did the great value of our work.
In short, I was learning that not everyone has the same interest that we have in preserving these ancient documents.
Hiding in Plain Sight
During our three-and-a-half weeks, we came across more than a dozen New Testament manuscripts that we were unable to photograph because we simply didn’t know they existed until we arrived. On one occasion, we were working in a massive art museum in downtown Romania. The entire wing of the museum we were working in was closed to the public. It was just our team and handful of museum staff.
Sitting there at a table in a large room full of ancient Christian art we got to examine a handful of Greek New Testament manuscripts. One was a complete New Testament—all 27 books. We worked through it meticulously: counting pages, counting lines and columns, marking the start and end of each book, and noting carefully any odd or unusual features. Finally at the end of Revelation, we were just turning what we thought was the last page only to find one more page. We checked, and sure enough, Revelation ended as expected but then it was followed by one more page. A quick computer search revealed that this extra page was from Matthew’s Gospel. Wanting to avoid wrong assumptions, we turned back to the beginning of the manuscript to see if this was just a misplaced page from the same manuscript.
After some careful comparisons, it was obvious that it wasn’t a misplaced page but rather a single page from a different manuscript. Who knows how it found its way into the back of this manuscript. Perhaps at some point this lone leaf of Matthew had been separated from its home and, rather than throwing it away, someone had the good sense to incorporate it in an already complete copy of the New Testament. However it got there we were thrilled to have found it.
From this encounter I learned just how easy it is for these manuscripts to hide in plain sight.
There’s no telling how many more manuscripts are hidden away in ancient monasteries, out-of-the-way libraries, or (as in this case) even in national art museums. A series of experiences like this taught me how true it is that there’s still enormous potential for future discoveries.
One Very Mixed-up Manuscript
A third lesson I learned is that like us, every manuscript has a story to tell. This time we were working at the Romanian Academy in downtown Bucharest, just a few blocks from the art museum. When the team is on location to photograph, we always work in teams of two. But on this occasion we were only being permitted to examine the manuscripts. No photographs. Nearing the end of our trip and wanting to cover as much ground as we could, we decided it was best to work alone. So there I sat with my first solo encounter with a New Testament manuscript. In front of me I had what was supposed to be a normal copy of the four Gospels. At least that’s what our list told us. What it turned out to be was one very mixed-up manuscript.
Right off the bat I knew something was off when the first Gospel turned out to be not Matthew but Mark. I didn’t know a lot about Gospels manuscripts but I knew enough to know that this was unusual. Working my way through Mark, I soon found a few pages from Matthew! Luke followed and then John, as expected. But John had its own surprises. The first and last pages of John were missing and, as if that wasn’t enough, I found a lonely leaf of Matthew sewn into the binding at the very end of it all. After some rough-and-ready comparisons of page measurements, line counts, and style of handwriting I concluded that all these bits and pieces did belong to the same original manuscript. But at some point the binding must have fallen apart and when it was finally put back together it was done by someone who either didn’t know or didn’t care enough to put the pages back in their proper order.
One thing was clear: all this confusion had not dulled the appetites of the book worms one bit. The trails left by their feasts were scattered all through these ancient pages creating little tunnels running here and there through the whole manuscript. It turns out that scholars aren’t the only bibliophiles to take an interested in these ancient manuscripts. As our time came to a close that day, I jotted down as much detail as I could before closing this troubled little manuscript and returning it to its shelf. As I did, I couldn’t help but think that this was one manuscript that had earned a well-deserved break from the ravages of time.
The lesson I was learning was that every manuscript has a story to tell. And you never know what that story will be until you sit down and take the time to listen carefully.
Portholes to the Past
What I discovered on my trip to Athens and Romania was that these amazing manuscripts are full of surprise. Each one provides a porthole into the past and gives us a tiny glimpse into the life and worship of those who have gone before us. More importantly, these manuscripts give us the text that was heard, memorized, preached, and believed by countless Christians from past generations. When we look at these marvelous images, we’re not just seeing old words on old pages. We are seeing the Bibles that were read by our brothers and sisters in the faith. We are seeing the words that real men and real women read and prayed and sang as they walked with their God.
The Privilege of Preserving God’s Word for God’s People
For thousands of years God has preserved his Word for his people. He has used rich and powerful kings as well as quiet and secluded monks; he has used the invention of the printing press as well as the sands of Egyptian trash heaps; he now uses the invisible ones and zeros of a computer hard drive just as he once used the thin fibers of dried goat hides. In a thousand ways big and small over thousands of years, our God has preserved his Word for his people. And you and I have the great privilege and responsibility to help preserve this amazing Word for generations to come.