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NOBTS center playing key role in Scripture manuscript studies

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–What started as a simple “Yes” to a request in 1991 for help on a new edition of the Greek New Testament has grown into the establishment of a Center for New Testament Textual Studies on the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary campus.
Already internationally recognized for its productive and meticulous work with the International Greek New Testament Project (IGNTP), the Center for New Testament Textual Studies is coordinated by Bill Warren, NOBTS professor of New Testament and Greek and an NOBTS graduate from the master of divinity and doctor of theology degree programs. In March Warren was named to the seminary’s newly endowed Landrum P. Leavell II Chair of New Testament Studies, funding for which was completed during the seminary’s spring trustee meeting.
Construction began this spring on a permanent home for the NOBTS Center for New Testament Textual Studies, which houses a substantial number of microfilm manuscript copies, including working copies of the IGNTP collection.
Upon completion of the center’s fund for purchasing additional manuscripts, Warren anticipates in the near future NOBTS’ Center for New Testament Textual Studies will be the second-largest biblical manuscript center in North America, second only to the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont, Calif. Only $32,000 more is needed to complete the fund.
In addition, “While New Orleans Seminary is not the only institution working on this international collation project, we are doing more work on this endeavor than any of the other schools, colleges, universities or seminaries in North America,” Warren said.
Warren began work with the IGNTP in November 1991. His first assignment was to collate (“examine and compare carefully in order to note points of disagreement”) previously uncollated minuscule (accent on second syllable; “a small cursive script used in the Middle Ages”) manuscripts of the Gospel of John dating from 800-1500.
Having successfully completed that assignment, Warren, whose doctoral dissertation was on the subject of collation work, undertook more work for IGNTP in 1993, this time receiving six never-before-collated manuscripts of the Gospel of John.
Warren recruited assistants from his department — fellow professors and several doctoral students — and went to work, not only setting the stage for New Orleans Seminary to become recognized worldwide for the research abilities of its professors and students, but also for their innovative methods for proceeding with the research.
They started off small, pretty much in a cubby-hole room on the second floor of the library that also was stacked with part of the seminary archives, and worked at their offices and homes.
Nonetheless, in that small, quiet, out-of-the-way space, Warren was working diligently, and was one of the first in the world to work with the IGNTP’s computer database system for manuscript collation, a system which has revolutionized collators’ abilities to enter, retrieve and tabulate the evidence found in manuscripts.
Previously everything was done by hand.
“Over the past few years we have generated more collations for the IGNTP than any institution in North America, not only because of the use of the computer database system for performing the collations, but also because of the persistence of our participants’ efforts,” Warren said.
Besides the new computer system, Warren and his assistants also use microfilm readers with zoom lenses for this project, in order to see every possible pen marking the scribe made in the manuscript.
Accurate determination of the gospel text is some of the most difficult textual work there is, Warren said, because of the number and variety of manuscripts. “A tremendous number of old manuscripts of the New Testament and especially the Gospels have been found,” he said, “and therefore they need to be studied to make their information available for scholars to use. This requires collating the manuscripts,” such as the work currently being done at New Orleans Seminary, and noting the variant or different readings.
“Variants especially crept into the manuscripts in the first three centuries,” Warren said, as copying errors occurred and as oral traditions were recorded into the Scriptures by the early scribes as they made copies of texts.
“The scribes would sometimes add items they had heard about,” Warren said, “and occasionally they would change or take out parts they didn’t like.
“For example, the scribes might accidentally include a marginal note that a previous scribe had written in the text, or might overlook including a marginal correction by the previous scribe that re-inserted an accidental omission.”
Over the years handwriting discrepancies created additional scribal difficulties, sometimes leading to a misreading by the scribe that would create a different word or phrase in the manuscript tradition.
“Our job in textual studies is to try to distinguish what was the original and what is the variant,” Warren said. “This is where the computer compilations are so helpful, for they give easy access to a database of manuscript information that can better inform our decisions.”
As an example of the significance of the work of the IGNTP, when translators compiled the King James Version of the Bible in 1611, 32 manuscripts dating from the 12th-15th centuries were used as the basis of their Greek texts.
Now available for compiling the Greek New Testament are more than 5,000 manuscripts, with some dating back to the second century.
With all of these resources and collation tabulations available, “We can have more confidence today than ever before that we are reading a reliable text of the Bible,” Warren said.
Warren and the people collating under him follow published guidelines from IGNTP and are careful to number the pages of their work, as the manuscripts they are collating predate the era when verses and chapters were added into the text.
In addition to their recognized ability on the collation work, several recent NOBTS doctoral graduates have completed dissertations in the area of textual analysis and collation, and several others currently are engaged in such projects.
“The work of these doctoral students will propel New Orleans Seminary to the forefront in the areas of textual analysis and collation,” Warren said.
Warren also has recruited some of the seminary’s outstanding master of divinity students in his New Testament textual criticism course to assist with the collation work, to double-check the accuracy of information in a new database system Warren has created and to add information to the database.
So far, Warren and his assistants have completed nearly 70 collations. Precision is imperative; therefore, each manuscript must be collated three times, Warren said, to check and re-check for accuracy.
Currently he has in progress collations of about 50 more manuscripts.
Concerning the new home for the Center for New Testament Textual Studies, he said, “The new work area will serve not only as a spacious central study area for manuscript analysis, but also will enable us to attract scholars who may want to do textual studies during their sabbaticals.”

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  • Debbie Moore