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Database aids study of ancient texts

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–A unique electronic database amassing a wealth of information for scholars regarding ancient biblical manuscripts is emerging from nine years of painstaking research at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

The database can play a key role in upholding the Bible’s authority, noted Bill Warren, director of the seminary’s H. Milton Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies (CNTTS).

A video explanation of the database — called the Center for New Testament Textual Studies NT Critical Apparatus — can be accessed on the seminary’s YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/nobtspublications.

It is available with Accordance Bible Software and is coming soon to BibleWorks software.

By definition, a “critical apparatus” is a collection of notes identifying the variant readings found among Greek New Testament manuscripts. Over the centuries, these variations occurred as scribes created handwritten copies of the New Testament. Examples of the types include spelling differences; the reverential abbreviations of sacred names; and the addition of details that can clarify the meaning of the text.

By consulting ancient documents, biblical scholars seek to provide a Greek New Testament text as close to the original as possible. Thus the CNTTS apparatus is an important complement to the standard Greek text. In chronicling information about the consulted manuscripts, it can show why a particular reading was favored over others, Warren noted, and it can help scholars understand how the biblical text was preserved and passed down through hundreds of centuries.

The highly searchable CNTTS apparatus developed by Warren, NOBTS students and visiting scholars is the most detailed and comprehensive electronic critical apparatus on the market. An electronic innovation with nearly 17,000 pages of compiled data, the project simply would not be feasible in a printed format. The CNTTS includes 10 times as much data as the critical apparatus printed in the United Bible Societies’ editions of the Greek New Testament.

“This is a first in the field, both as a comprehensive, electronic apparatus and in terms of how searchable it is,” Warren said.

The software includes detailed information about each verse in the manuscripts the CNTTS has examined, including dates, contents, characteristics and variants. The software also allows users to search and compare multiple texts to the current Greek New Testament. A graphing feature helps users compare manuscript variations visually.

The center’s unique research is yielding expanded detail and new information; many of its findings have never been published before in any format.

“We give all the variants, major or not, and then we classify them as to what types of variants they are,” Warren said. “The big difference on this is that we actually classify [the differences] for people.”

The CNTTS apparatus identifies every textual variation found in hundreds of ancient biblical manuscripts, and the center is continuing to expand the project by researching more manuscripts. The CNTTS team currently is studying ancient papyri of Acts as well as several other manuscripts.

Today, many authors and skeptics travel the country arguing that the New Testament cannot be trusted. They often point to the sheer volume of variants to undermine the authority of the biblical text, giving very little attention to the nature and purpose of many of the variants in question.

On the other hand, the CNTTS staff looks at every variant in the text and seeks to classify even the smallest differences such as variations in spelling and abbreviations of sacred names.

Rather than eroding confidence in the biblical text, Warren believes the center is showing that the New Testament text is worthy of trust. Through the research, Warren has developed a theory as to why many of the variants exist.

Many of the additions found in ancient manuscripts were simply designed to explain the text, he noted. In some cases, when the original text attributed something to “the prophet,” scribes inserted the name of the prophet to help the readers and hearers understand the reference.

Warren compared these notes to the notes in a modern-day study Bible. “The scribe wants to make sure nobody misunderstands which prophet,” Warren said, “so the scribe puts the ‘study Bible’ note in the text.”

Developing the electronic apparatus involves a tedious process of researching and comparing a Greek manuscript to the Greek New Testament, thereby creating what is called a “collation.” To collate a manuscript, a CNTTS researcher starts with a copy of an ancient NT manuscript, usually a digital image or a microfilm, and a printout of the current edition of the UBS Greek New Testament.

The researcher checks line by line, word by word, and even letter by letter, for even the slightest differences. The differences are noted on the printout of the Greek New Testament. Another researcher repeats this process, and then the two collations are compared and reconciled to ensure the best results.

The process is long and requires a high level of skill, not only in reading ancient Greek but also in deciphering ancient handwriting and common abbreviations for divine names. It takes a researcher on average 40-60 hours to work through one ancient manuscript of John; Luke, with its longer text, requires 70-100 hours. So for John, for example, the CNTTS staff invests 100-160 hours of work to create a final collation (collated twice and reconciled) for use in the database.

“The Gospels have more variations than any of the other books simply because they were the most used and the most copied,” Warren said. “We have more manuscripts of the Gospels than of the other books” of the New Testament.

The researchers keep all of these notated printouts in an archive in case they need to refer back to their original work.

The difficulty of the collation task is multiplied when only a low-quality manuscript copy is available. However, the CNTTS has developed a strategic partnership with Daniel Wallace, director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. Wallace visits churches, libraries and museums around the world taking high-quality digital photographs of ancient New Testament manuscripts.

The center in Dallas focuses primarily on manuscript digitization through photography while the New Orleans center concentrates on the collation and study of the text. Together, the two research centers are leading contributors to biblical research in the digital age.

“We are up to about 800 manuscripts that we can access on-site,” Warren said. “We don’t have them all worked through, but at least we are working to study all of them.”

Very few universities in the United States, and even fewer seminaries, are attempting the type of research that is being done by highly skilled students in the master’s and doctoral programs at NOBTS.

“We are among the top U.S. institutions working with the manuscripts,” Warren said. The other top manuscript research universities, including Duke, Michigan, Penn State and Yale, read like a “Who’s Who” of academic giants.

In addition to the ongoing collation work, the CNTTS staff is working on several future projects including iPhone and iPad applications for their field. Warren has also started a multi-year project to construct a New Testament commentary based on the variant readings the center has carefully studied.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.