5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2009
Around 1901, an Englishman, Charles Huleatt, who was a scholar as well as an Evangelical missionary to Egypt, was living in the Egyptian town of Luxor when he came into possession of three tiny papyrus fragments, on which were written, in Greek, words from the 26th chapter of Matthew's gospel.
In 1994, scholar Carsten Thiede came upon the fragments, which had been largely ignored, stored in a display case of an Oxford University library. In the 1950s, the fragments had been dated to about AD 180-200, but Thiede thought it might be worthwhile to re-analyze them using modern techniques not available in the 1950s.
For example, Thiede, together with biologist Georg Masuch, developed and patented a new type of "epiflourescent confocal laser scanning" microscope, which can differentiate between twenty separate micrometer-(millionth of a meter; micron)-thick layers of a papyrus manuscript. This instrument showed that a certain puzzling dot "which has caused so much debate and irritation" (p. 60), and which was on one of the three fragments... was only 4.0 micrometers thick (thickness = height of ink on, plus depth of ink within, the papyrus sheet).
Yet the recognizable Greek letters were 12.1 micrometers thick. The troublesome dot was thus revealed to be nothing more than an accidental ink blot, common enough on ancient papyri.
And now we come to the matter of dating--when was the papyrus manuscript (of which the three scraps remain) actually written? In dating the three fragments, "The weakness of previous estimates was clear: certain key assumptions had persisted out of respect for tradition rather than because they were logically defensible" (p. 114).
So I wondered why carbon-analysis (a standard method for dating ancient manuscripts) had not been done on the three fragments, to settle the question of how old they are, once and for all? However, upon reading further, I learned that a portion of the manuscript is necessarily used up--destroyed--during the process of carbon-dating it. Hence, only blank margin space is ever used for such analysis.
But the three pieces of papyrus have no blank margin space; writing covers them to all their edges. To radiocarbon-date them would result in the destruction of one of the three postage-stamp-size fragments (including the text written on it), which is not an acceptable option (p. 71).
Fortunately, it turns out that there are other methods, besides carbon-dating, to determine the age of an ancient manuscript.
When Carsten Thiede analyzed the handwriting style of the three fragments (p. 113), he found it to be quite similar to manuscripts discovered at Qumran. (AD 68 is the most recent that Qumran manuscripts can have been written, since that is the year the Jewish settlement of Qumran was abandoned, right before the conquering Roman army arrived [p. 116].)
Thiede discovered that the handwriting style of the three papyrus pieces was also very similar to at least one manuscript found at Herculaneum, a town in Italy. (AD 79 is the most recent the Herculaneum manuscript(s) can have been written, because the Mount Vesuvius eruption's lava flow buried Herculaneum [as well as Pompeii] in that year [p. 104].)
Therefore, based on the 'most-recent-possible' dates for manuscripts from Qumran (AD 68), and from Herculaneum (AD 79), Dr. Thiede concluded that the three papyrus fragments of Matthew's gospel "should be dated to the first century AD, toward AD 70 or even earlier" (p. 106).
Incidentally, Thiede was the first person to use the Greek-language fragments from among the Dead Sea Scrolls ( = Qumran Caves manuscripts), in order to date other ancient Greek-language writings (in this case, New Testament manuscript fragments) (p. 116). (Since the Dead Sea/Qumran scrolls were discovered 1947-1955, I wondered why nobody else had made such comparisons any earlier. But no explanation is offered, which omission I consider a deficiency of this book.)
And now I turn to a somewhat peripheral matter, yet of some value in understanding more about Matthew's gospel, and hence indirectly setting the three papyrus pieces in a broader perspective. The author of Matthew's gospel is evidently Levi / Matthew, the tax collector. (The authors provide some evidence of his authorship in the text, which I will not go into here.) He managed the tax office at a border-crossing (between Galilee on the west, and to its east the Tetrarchy of Philip), on a trade route (from the Mediterranean Sea, to the inland city of Damascus), in Capernaum (on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee).
As a result, though his occupation made him a social outcast, it also made him wealthy enough to throw a big party at his house for Jesus, which was attended by "a large crowd" (Luke 5:29, New International Version). "A large crowd" leads me to conclude that Matthew's house was a large one...confirming that he was indeed wealthy. More importantly for us, in order to operate such a (relatively important) customs station, he must have been both highly intelligent, and well-educated, being "fluent in Aramaic and Greek" (p. 17).....So that is the background scoop on Matthew the tax-collector, who, after leaving his lucrative but disreputable position, later became Matthew the gospel-writer.
By the way, it is not only Matthew's gospel which turns out to have been written earlier than was once supposed. A snippet from the Gospel of Mark was found in Qumran Cave 7, proving that, like Matthew's gospel, Mark's gospel also was written before AD 68, the year when both the town of Qumran "and the nearby area of the caves were overrun by the Tenth Roman Legion" (p. 30).
Furthermore, a papyrus fragment from the Gospel of Luke--which was acquired at Luxor, Egypt, the same town where missionary/scholar Charles Huleatt obtained the three fragments of Matthew's gospel--has a handwriting style which is remarkably similar to that of the three Matthew fragments. As a result, it is now generally regarded as being (part of) the earliest known manuscript of Luke's gospel.
In fact, author Carsten Thiede agrees with the assessment of American scholar Philip Comfort; in Thiede's words, "the Paris papyrus [named for the city where it now resides] of St. Luke's Gospel is not much later than" the three scraps of Matthew's gospel (p. 70). Furthermore, Thiede concludes that "the Paris codex--quite probably came from the same scribal school or center, commissioned by a different patron, and only slightly later" (p. 68).
The overall SIMILARITIES between the three Matthew fragments, and the Paris papyrus of Luke....are the basis for postulating that they both came from the same scribal center, probably somewhere in Egypt.
Slight DIFFERENCES in the handwriting on the Paris papyrus (differences from the three Matthew fragments)...are the basis for assigning a "slightly later" date to the Luke papyrus, since ancient handwriting of Greek letters evolved gradually over time in characteristic ways, such as changing from a cursive joined-letters style....to a more printed separate - letters style (pp. 119-120); thus the handwriting style of a particular manuscript gives a good idea of when it was written.
There is much more in "Eyewitness to Jesus" than I have discussed. Such as abbreviation of holy names, which the three papyrus fragments of Matthew's gospel are the earliest example of among all ancient papyri. Specifically, one of the three Matthew fragments abbreviates "Lord" which in Greek is "kyrie," as "KE". Likewise another of the three fragments abbreviates the name of "Jesus," which in Greek is "ieous," as "IS". Suffice it to say here.... that the authors feel such abbreviation "asserts unequivocally the divinity of Jesus" (p. 143).
If you wish to follow their complete line of reasoning about how abbreviation of holy names signifies that the writer (Matthew) believed in Jesus' divinity, I encourage you to read the book. In fact, for anyone who is interested in finding out more about what science (papyrology)...can tell us about religion (the origins of the New Testament), I heartily recommend reading this fascinating book.
I also liked and recommend two other books on related topics: "The Stones Cry Out" (which I have also reviewed) describes how modern archeology--often surprisingly--confirms the Bible as a reliable record of actual historical events.
And "Brother of Jesus" (also reviewed by myself) is about an ossuary (stone burial box) that might have contained the bones of the same James who is mentioned in the New Testament as being the brother (or cousin?) of Jesus (!) (Just make sure you are getting the revised "UPDATED AND EXPANDED" 2004 [paperback] edition, which contains new material that is not included in the original 2003 [hardcover] edition.)
Also worthwhile reading for me has been "The Miracle Detective" by Randall Sullivan, about apparitions of Mary (the mother of Jesus), which the author personally investigated (by interviewing people involved in the visions).
And not to be overlooked is a book my sister told me about, and I surprised myself by liking it, as well as its sequel: "The Bible Code" and "Bible Code II", about a code seemingly present in the words of the Christian Old Testament / Hebrew Bible.
Finally, Joan Wester Anderson has written a bestselling collection of true stories, "Where Angels Walk" which I enjoyed immensely, about people's encounters with...real-life angels(!)
p.s. If you are interested in another letter of the New Testament (in addition to the Letter of James) which was written by a brother of Jesus, please see my "Comment" following the end of this review.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2010
What could be of greater moment than the discovery of ancient papyrus fragments which date to a period which would place them as eyewitnesses to Jesus? And if these fragments capture contentious passages, what might be the implications of their "witness"? I anticipated the arrival of ETJ with great excitement. However, I was put off by the newsy approach to this story which detracts from an otherwise interesting account that needs no artifice. The story is the fragments and should be centered on these remarkable witnesses. However, there are no *detailed* photos of the critical fragments. The dust jacket has better images than what are inside. Very disappointing.
There is one page (2 photographs) dedicated to the three fragments, but the image is so small, that it's nearly impossible to read the uncials. A large image of a Qumran fragment was shown; the authors should have afforded the same attention to the Magdalen fragments. (Arg!)
Although the fragments in the photos are shown verso in one image and recto in the second, the fragments themselves are not identified using the numbering convention as in the text. So, it is extremely difficult to establish a correspondence with that portion of the text which analyzes the fragments. (Arg!!) With extreme difficulty I was able to identify portions of Matthew 26:31 -- [totelegei]AUTOISOIx[pantesumeis]SKANDALIS(theta)E[se(theta)e]ENEMOIEN[entenukti][TAUTE]. I could not completely make out the sacred name, the two character abbreviation, for Jesus (see "Ix" above for "IS" -- IESOUS) following AUTOIS.
Since special imagery was needed to enhance fragment 3 in order to read the uncials in line 1, an overlay showing the recovered characters would have been helpful. As it is, I cannot find the critical word "auton" (Matthew 26:22-23), or any portion thereof, on the recto. The fragment is claimned to exhibit a reading in agreement with the traditional text ([hekastos] auton "each of them") and not the critical text (eis auto "each in turn") (principally Vaticanus B). Where is the enhanced scan? I'll just have to take their word on the matter.
Worth the time and effort, to be sure, but ETJ could have been much improved. Thus 3 stars. (Does anyone know if the later publication/edition corrects these oversights/deficiencies?)