- God's Library: The Archeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts by Brent Nongbri
God's Library: The Archeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018
Pp. xii + 403. $35.00.
In God's Library: The Archeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts, Brent Nongbri presents an interesting argument. He wishes to "reintroduce the early Christian manuscripts," by establishing "what we are able to know about these manuscripts as archeological artifacts" (14) and by raising "consciousness about how messy and fragmentary our knowledge about these books is" (15). The concrete result of this program is a discussion that formally introduces the early Christian manuscripts, with detailed chapters notably on paleography and codicology, but also that presents a careful and provocative meta-critical analysis of the methodologies used in the field for decades. Consequently, both advanced scholars and young scholars and students will find much of interest in this monograph.
The state of the art behind this monograph is presented in the Prologue. Brent Nongbri considers that previous writings have been too focused on a biblical canonical approach (Hurtado), or have put aside the materiality of the artifacts (Gamble). By analyzing the Freer codices as the first example, the Prologue underlines from the beginning of the study a double ascertainment that is applied to all the further examples: dating the manuscripts and knowing their provenances are very difficult tasks, almost impossible to achieve. As regards the Freer codex I, for example, it means that "the most recent assessment of the age of the gospel manuscript concluded that we are simply not in a position to offer a precise date for the codex on the basis of handwriting and closed with a plea for radiocarbon analysis" (5).
Chapters One, Two, and Three are focused on general features of the study of ancient Christian books, whereas Chapters Four, Five, Six, and Seven present specific cases. All students and scholars interested in acquiring training in ancient codicology will find an excellent overview of the question in the first informative chapters. For example, Chapter Two gives a clear overview about the fact that "to assign a date to literary papyri of the Roman era [scholars] rely on paleography, the comparative analysis of handwriting" (56). At the same time, Nongbri raises at each step numerous incertitudes and difficulties in this way of dating: "The almost complete absence of datable samples of Greek literary handwriting [End Page 506] before the ninth century meant that opinions about dates of any given manuscript of the Roman era could diverge wildly" (64). For example, P.Duk. inv. 5 has been estimated as a second-, third-, fourth-, or fifth-century document (69). One wonders how scholars will react to this lucid and critical analysis of the field, considering, for example, that Nongbri estimates that "paleography is so subjective and problematic" (72), and that even carbon 14 dating can in the best cases provide only a large scale of years as possible dating (80).
In a similarly prudent way, Chapter Three illustrates the extreme difficulty involved in accurately reconstructing where ancient manuscripts were found, through employing the example of the Nag Hammadi codices. The author concludes that "although scholars of early Christianity often speak as if we know the exact circumstances of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, in fact we know only the general area in which locals assert the books were found" (113). The reasons for such difficulties are the involvement of professional and non-professional people at the moment of the discovery, and the divergences of interest between the dealers and the buyers. In some cases, "even scholars all have reasons to be less than forthcoming about the locations of finds" (115).
Chapter Four develops the analysis on the Chester Beatty papyri, with a particularly fascinating presentation of the materiality of these codices. Codex Beatty I appears as an "anomalous" document, with very fine pages, which is not easy to use. Very profitably for biblical scholars, Nongbri also exhumes Kenyon's opinions: for example, Codex Beatty I shows for him that "the Vaticanus text represents the result, not of continuous unaltered tradition, but of skilled scholarship working on the best...