Beckett: Review – God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts

Author: Brent Nongbri
Publisher: New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018

Rating: 5 out of 5.


Discussions surrounding the discovery and dating of ancient Christian manuscripts and codices are always shrouded in mystery and complexities, even mischief. Brent Nongbri’s God’s Library does not aim to make the discussion any less complex, nor does he aim to resolve these mysteries in full. Rather, he provides a helpful in-depth analysis of the original construction of these codices and the circumstances surrounding their discoveries and dating.

A rather dense reading, God’s Library is best suited for pedantic, detail-oriented minds who have an interest in the provenance and dating of Christian codices and manuscripts. Familiarity with the names of the databases that retain these ancient texts are also necessary, such as the LDAB (Leuven Database), which is mentioned frequently throughout the book, among others.

There is no slow introductory into the book’s density; it begins immediately in chapter 1, which covers how codices were made. Nongbri is extremely detailed in this chapter and the diagrams he utilises to illustrate how ancient Christian codices were made are somewhat helpful (I found myself looking up YouTube videos on how they’re made). Nevertheless, the material presented in this chapter gives the reader a respect for the ancient copyists’ trade. The amount of time and minute detail that went into creating books in ancient times was a painstakingly long and expensive process. Add animal skins into the mix and the process becomes all the more difficult and expensive.

In addition to this respectful trade is the intense complexity of dating, which is amply covered in chapter two. Among other considerations, one interesting factour that aids dating a codex or manuscript is when the back side of a manuscript is used at a later date. The main part of a writing would be alongside the horizontal fibers of the papyrus, as this was much easier to write on; this is the front side. The back side for later use would be written along the vertical fibers.

This is useful for two different reasons, “First, a literary manuscript can be reused for a dated document. Such is the case of P.Ryl. 1.16 (LDAB 2661),” which was written along the horizontal fibers and then, on the back vertical side, was later “reused for a letter written in either January 253 or January 256 CE. This fact gives us a terminus ante quem [point before which] for P.Ryl. 1.16, which must have been written earlier than 256 CE” (p. 51). The reverse can also happen that gives us a possible terminus post quem (point after which) “when a dated document [e.g., tax returns, receipts, deeds, official government decrees] is reused for a piece of literature [e.g., a gospel, epistle, work of Greek literature]” (p. 51).

One interesting note is that while Nongbri concedes that radiocarbon analysis is somewhat helpful in dating codices and manuscripts, “it is not necessarily the panacea it is sometimes thought to be” and, like paleographical dating methods, needs “to be treated with caution” (p. 80). Nongbri’s thesis throughout the book is to move beyond these typical dating methods and toward “archaeological provenance and codicology” (p. 72). In so doing, his aim is to challenge these often-misinterpreted dating methods by uncritical eyes, due largely to “misinformation about provenance, repetition of dubious ‘facts’ about manuscripts, overconfidence in assigning dates, media sensationalism, and more” (p. 247).

He stays true to his thesis when discussing the Beatty Biblical Papyri in chapter four and the Bodmer Papyri in chapter five. In both these and the remaining chapters, Nongbri goes into extraordinary details about the history and dating of the papyri as well as other literary happenings, providing diagrams and maps to aid the conducive pedantry of his survey.

After the first two chapters, one would expect the conversation to be geared toward usual higher critical concerns such as textual variants and copyist errors. Instead, the rest of Nongbri’s analysis on ancient Christian codices (both canonical and non-canonical) is focused on textual composition. In other words, his concern in the book is not with the grammar and syntax of the ancient codices but with their groupings (e.g., Beatty, Bodmer, and Oxyrhynchus). Nongbri does not treat these manuscripts with Christian piety as one might expect. Instead, he regards them as candid archaeological artifacts largely found in trash heaps (pp. 105, 216-246).

Despite all the complexities and the mysteries surrounding the discovered codices we have so far, what can we gather from Nongbri’s survey? First, what can we make of the vast amount of the dating debates he covers? It is evident that dating is a matter of interpretation and opinion. As Nongbri says, “Each proposal must be evaluated on its merits, and the establishment of the contours of these collections of early Christian books will always be subject to revision in light of new evidence and analyses” (p. 154).

Are the current dating debates for the codices we have reliable? From Nongbri’s perspective, no. Can they ever be reliable? From Nongbri’s aforementioned comment, not for long it seems. Will we ever acquire enough knowledge? God only knows.

Lastly, we can respect the difficult task of acquiring and studying found ancient manuscripts and codices. While paleography is a helpful field but imprecise when it comes to dating, Nongbri is not optimistic that radiocarbon analysis can shed light on these dating issues, the media overexaggerates dating, and the antiquities market is widely unreliable, Nongbri argues not only for increased attention to museum archaeology (collections agencies openly allowing scholars to work through their records), but surprisingly digitisation as well in order to facilitate dating efforts.

While inspecting manuscripts by hand is irreplaceable, in Nongbri’s opinion, “The increased availability of images of manuscripts will help to grow an international team of people who can make progress in a field where secure knowledge is a hard-won battle” (p. 271). Indeed, such digital globalisation of the discovered manuscripts and codices will widen their availability to scholars across the globe. However, as there are many conflicting opinions on dating already, which Nongbri has amply shown, perhaps this would only further complicate such efforts.


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