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God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts

God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts

By Brent Nongbri. Pp. xi + 403. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2018. $35. ISBN 978-0-300-21541-0 (cloth).

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The collecting of early Christianity’s remnants has an extraordinary history. In the fourth century, the Empress Helena made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and allegedly returned with the True Cross, Holy Tunic, and Nails of the Crucifixion. Following Helena’s miraculous discovery, medieval Christians accumulated so many relics that John Calvin, in his Traitté des reliques, described the pieces of the True Cross alone as “la charge d’un bon grand bateau.” Since the 19th century, both scholars and amateurs have been similarly obsessed with ancient biblical manuscripts, often from Egypt. As recently as December 2018, Robert Draper contributed an article on this infatuation to National Geographic, tracing the latest debunked rumor of a first-century gospel fragment, P.Oxy. 5345.

Nongbri’s God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts offers a sober assessment of our knowledge of these texts. The author’s main argument is that many of our hypotheses are tentative and that we must proceed cautiously, awaiting the results of new studies, especially of “museum archaeology” (i.e., the history of collections). After relating the story of the Freer Manuscripts, Nongbri describes the physical aspects of ancient codices—their material, assemblage, and binding—as well as the messy business of assigning them dates and provenances. Then he examines the Beatty, Bodmer, and Oxyrhynchus papyri, referencing other finds, such as the Nag Hammadi Library.

Nongbri stresses that dating early manuscripts can be challenging. If we are extremely fortunate, a text will have a datable document on its reverse, or else be copied onto one. So the back of P.Ryl. 1.16, a scroll fragment of an unknown comedy, bears part of a letter from 253 or 256 CE, providing a secure terminus ante quem (50–51). A text might also have an instructive archaeological context. For instance, P.Dur. 10, a parchment fragment of a gospel harmony, comes from Dura Europos, a city destroyed in 257 CE, so it must be earlier than that (55). Finally, a codex’s leather cover might be reinforced by one or more datable documents (94–95). Papyri from the cover of P.Bodmer 23 contain financial information from the fourth century, affording a similar limit (167–68).

In most cases, however, we must date documents chiefly based on paleography—that is, from handwriting. Nongbri rightly characterizes this analysis as inexact, particularly in view of the persistence of styles, individual predilections, and archaizing practices (59–72). And he notes that when texts are paleographically dated by comparison to hypothetically dated others, the reasoning becomes circular. Such is the case with some of the Beatty Papyri (154–55). Unfortunately, radiocarbon dating offers limited help, only yielding a probable range of dates, say 250 CE ± 50 years, with no greater likelihood attached to the median (74). Also of partial assistance is ink analysis; scribes started using inks with metallic compounds, which fade from black to brown, in the third and fourth centuries CE (80).

Nongbri adds that tracing origins can also be difficult. Professional archaeologists did not discover many of our materials—the Oxyrhynchus Papyri being notable exceptions (216–28, cf. 246)—so we must often depend on the unreliable accounts of locals and dealers. By way of example, Phocion J. Tano, an antiquities trader involved in the acquisition of the Bodmer Papyri and the Nag Hammadi Library, seems to have proposed three different findspots for the former: Dishna, Asyut, and Dabba (167). Incidentally, the aforementioned papyri from P.Bodmer 23’s cover are critical to resolving this issue. One mentions a man thought to be from Dendera, 25 km from the first site (168).

A final complicating factor is curatorship. Nongbri points out that conservators used to disassemble codices and place their leaves between glass panes for protection, destroying their original form (41–44). Moreover, a text later incorporated into the New Testament received a Gothic “P” with a number, like 𝔓52 (P.Ryl. 3.457), the famous fragment of John’s Gospel, most likely dating to the second century (17–18, cf. 269). In this way, a small, imperfectly understood piece of papyrus might acquire an undeserved aura of authority.

Although Nongbri’s goal is to problematize our knowledge of early Christian manuscripts, he also proposes theories about specific documents or groups of documents. Among other ideas, he suggests, following James M. Robinson, that the Bodmer Papyri were deposited in the late fifth or early sixth century (207) and come from a Pachomian monastic setting (214). And of course, he provides descriptions of important texts, such as Codex VII from the Beatty Papyri, a Greek translation of Isaiah with early Coptic glosses (131–32, 150). God’s Library may thus be described as a critical introduction, broad in scope, but more engaging than a textbook, ideal for students of late antiquity as well as informed lay readers.

Overall, God’s Library is an excellent and necessary book, but it may not go far enough in some areas. Nongbri observes that archaeologists often unearth early Christian texts from rubbish piles (246), but he does not elaborate on the fact. To be fair, God’s Library is more concerned with ancient book production than with the function of writing, but the discovery of the Scriptures amidst refuse raises significant questions about how believers conceived of them.

Additionally, the acquisition of antiquities outside of scientific archaeology almost inevitably involves crime. This includes not only smuggling, illicit dealing, and forgery, but also violence. Only two years ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized thousands of cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, shipped with false labels from war-torn Iraq to Hobby Lobby. (The president of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.) To be sure, Nongbri highlights and disapproves of the dubious ways in which people too often have obtained materials from Egypt (e.g., 86, 191 n. 75, 213, 230, 270), but an even more forceful condemnation of this sort of modern relic hunting seems quite in order.

Steven M. Stannish
Department of History
State University of New York at Potsdam

Book Review of God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts, by Brent Nongbri
Reviewed by Steven M. Stannish
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Stannish

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