Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Snap: "Encountering the Manuscripts"

After dealing with a kidney stone this weekend, it's nice to have back issue E-Block material to offer when I don't feel like writing. :P This is from November 2008.


This volume by Philip Comfort isn't one of those you'll take to bed. It's a textbook for students, as well as a reference manual, and its coverage is so thorough that I'd like to highly recommend it, to the point that it'll go in my "Apologetics Arsenal" listing. The wealth of manuscript data for the New Testament is well known, but Comfort's focus is on the very earliest manuscripts -- the papyri that come from prior to the fourth century.
The heart of the book is the reference listings naming and describing in detail the attributes and conditions of the papyri: You can learn who discovered them, where the discovery was first published, what the contents are, and the date, with extra comments by Comfort on the reliability of the manuscript. Comfort adds a dimension to his assessments that no doubt goes on behind the scenes, but which I have never seen discussed in popular books: That of the scribes' personal habits which can tell us how conscientious they were in their copying, and therefore, how much stake can be put into their work.

The remainder of the book is quite helpful as well. It repeats some of what may be found in other books I've recommended in the past, but don't take that as a negative:

* Chapter One gives us background information on how ancient books were published, distributed, and copied. This sort of information is like a hidden treasure at times, and can often be used to answer obscure objections that start with the assumption that ancient people could have easily made multiple copies of the NT at any time, or suppose that ancient scribes were woefully incompetent sorts who couldn't get anything right because they lacked the necessary Xerox technology. There's also useful information on things like the typical "lifespan" of a codex, which Comfort uses to roughly factor out how many copies of the NT books we can expect to have existed in the first century.

* Chapter Two is the extended catalog of the significant manuscripts, taking up around 50 pages of this 400 page book. It's not narrative reading, but mostly entry listings with descriptions.

* Chapter Three discusses procedures used for dating manuscripts, such as paleography (essentially, handwriting analysis) and style. This chapter also offers an extensive catalog of information on various manuscripts in terms of the chapter subject, along with numerous illustrations, and takes up about 90 pages.

* Chapter 4 is a special chapter on the use of nomina sacra, that is, abbreviations used for words like "God" and "Jesus". It discussions the origins of and reasons for their use. Of some interest is the fact that words like "cross" or "Jerusalem" were also subject to be abbreviated the same way.

* Chapter 5 is essentially a lesson in the history of textual variations from the first century onward. This contains a valuable discussion of claims that there might have been all sorts of unknown changes to the NT text prior to the dates of the extant manuscripts, a view popularized by Bart Ehrman. There's also a valuable section on the psychological impact of scribal activity and how it affects copying procedures.

* Chapter 6 is on the theories and methods of NT textual criticism and becomes quite technical, delving into the process of dividing manuscripts into textual groups.

* Chapter 7 discusses the "harder" aspects of textual criticism, such as identifying types of scribal error (haplography, dittography, etc) and the reasons for various types of intentional scribal alterations. This is especially useful with reference to arguments (often derived from Ehrman) that scribes were interested in distorting the texts for theological purposes, to the extent that they changed Christian doctrine as well.

The last 50 pages or so of text are "case studies" of problem passages.
Encountering the Manuscripts has tremendous value as a reference source for the serious student. Highly recommended.


  1. Ouch! Kidney stones: no fun! My wife has had those numerous times. The first time around, she said the pain was worse than child birth!

  2. Sounds like its worth obtaining a copy.

    Where is this "Apologetics Arsenal" listing you speak of?

  3. It's my old term for what's essentially found at

    Thankfully all my stones have been very small...but likely no more fun on account of it. :P

  4. Thanks, now I remember seeing that page in a previous incarnation of it. Or something similar anyway (or maybe because it has bits of the old home page). The bibliography of social study resources looks intriguing, if a bit overwhelming (lots of good books, but would take a while to get through!). That's the kind of material I was urging you to write your own book about: condense those 20 or so books into something digestible by a typical lay person.

  5. That's indeed the plan over the next few years (among other things).

  6. With the name of Allah, Peace be unto those who follow the guidance from their Lord.

    The best thing for kidney stones is pure organic cranberry juice. The acidic nature should help to dislodge and 'break up' the stone.

    The rest you just need to drink more water, and watch what you are currently drinking.

    All the best.