A great question was recently asked on our New Testament Textual Criticism Facebook group. “James D.G. Dunn says 90-95% of the findings of Oxyrhynchus have never been edited or opened and lives in the basement of the British Museum. Forgive my amateur knowledge but, is there a particular reason why it’s not been looked at? I guess there could be scrolls they couldn’t unroll, but they have the tech now to see what they say. Just wondering if there’s just creates of potential that’s not accessed yet. It’s just that in the 5-10% there’s been some exciting discoveries. Any gleaning information on this would be great! see 00:02:35 – 00:03:00 of the video for verbal reference from Dunn.” Below is the video that the Facebook group member is referring to, but I have linked it back to the beginning. You can fast forward to the section he has referred to if you like or watch it all.
One could argue that many of the manuscripts have been looked at over the past 140 years. However, many in comparison to hundreds of millions mean nothing really. Let’s look a little deeper as to how they have helped and why some may have been reluctant to invest time into working their way through this treasure.
Manuscripts Saved from Egyptian Garbage Heaps
Beginning in 1778 and continuing to the end of the 19th century, many papyrus texts were accidentally discovered in Egypt that dated from 300 B.C.E. to 500 C.E., almost 500 thousand documents in all. About 130 years ago, there began a systematic search. At that time, a continuous flow of ancient texts was being found by the native fellahin, and the Egypt Exploration Society, a British non-profit organization, founded in 1882, realized that they needed to send out an expedition team before it was too late. They sent two Oxford scholars, Bernard P. Grenfell, and Arthur S. Hunt, who received permission to search the area south of the farming region in the Faiyūm district. Grenfell chose a site called Behnesa because of its ancient Greek name, Oxyrhynchus. A search of the graveyards and the ruined houses produced nothing. The only place left to search was the town’s garbage dumps, which were some 30 feet [9 m] high. It seems to Grenfell and Hunt that all was lost but they decided to try.
In January of 1897, a trial trench (excavation or depression in the ground) was dug, and it only took a few hours before ancient papyrus materials were found. These included letters, contracts, and official documents. The sand had blown over them, covering them, and for nearly 2,000 years, the dry climate had served as a protection for them.
It took only a mere three months to pull out and recover almost two tons of papyri from Oxyrhynchus. They shipped twenty-five large cases back to England. Over the next ten years, these two courageous scholars returned each and every winter, to grow their collection. They discovered ancient classical writing, along with royal ordinances and contracts mixed in with business accounts private letters, some from Christians, shipping lists, as well as fragments of many New Testament manuscripts.
At 500 thousand, a person may have to look through tens of thousands of documents, such as letters, shopping lists, administrative documents, and so forth before ever possibly picking up any New Testament text. Imagine how much time that would take. One person working alone might spend 40 years doing this only for 10-12 hours six days a week and get through 20-30 thousand documents out of 500 thousand. It takes a person with impeccable, special skills in paleography to look through these and maybe find something of value. It is a low going process because of the condition of the material and the painstaking time in trying to read the documents, date the documents, and so forth.
There are few people in the world who could be called on to do so. However, they are likely busy with work and lives. Any, who have joined Facebook groups will have noticed that Old Testament Textual Criticism and New Testament Textual Criticism groups on Facebook are VERY small in comparison to other groups. This is because there is little interest in this technical field. Truth be told, you have to think like a forensic detective who uses scientific methods to analyze physical evidence and help solve crimes. The textual scholar or student has to use the science and the art of textual criticism, analyzing external documents and internal evidence, to discover the original reading. The interest is very low, the students that become scholars is extremely even lower. There are probably, maybe a few hundred notable, highly skilled textual scholars in the world. And not all textual scholars are paleographers, as that is a specialized field within (deciphering, reading, and dating), so there are even fewer of those.
Of what benefit were all these documents? Foremost, the bulk of these documents were written by ordinary people in Koine (common) Greek of the day. Many of the words that would be used in the marketplace, not by the elites appeared in the Greek New Testament Scriptures, which woke scholars up to the fact that Biblical Greek was not some special Greek, but instead, it was the ordinary language of the common people, the man on the street. Thus, by comparing how the words had been used in these papyri, a clearer understanding of Biblical Greek emerged. In fact, when Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament was published in 1889, it was almost immediate worthless because of the soon improved understanding of Koine Greek.
As of the time of this writing, less than ten percent of these papyri have been published and studied. Most of the papyri were found in the top 10 feet 93 m] of the garbage heap because the other 20 feet [6 m] had been ruined by water from a nearby canal. If we look at it simply, this would mean that the 500 thousand documents found could have been two million in total. Then, we must ponder just how many documents must have come through Oxyrhynchus that were never discarded in the dumps. We have almost a half-million papyrus documents (likely there were millions more that did not survive) in garbage dumps in the dry sands of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.
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