In Praise of JPEGS
S. M. Baugh
As I wait in the jury lounge once again (summons to jury duty, stifling traffic, and deadly wildfires are fixtures of the Southern California lifestyle) I’m cheered by a high resolution JPEG of P46 here on my little netbook. I know this may seem cryptic (and probably strange), but there’s a history here.
When I looked ahead for further graduate work after seminary 25 years ago, I had interest in pursuing textual criticism of the New Testament (NT). It’s modern alchemy. Text critics produce these beautiful editions of the Greek NT—marvelous compendiums representing the results of centuries of reflection on the original inspired text, punctuation, and reporting on important variant readings in the manuscripts. Behind it all is an intriguing thicket of sometimes bewildering complexity. We possess literally thousands of ancient manuscripts of the NT and the job of sifting through them all to make judgments on how the various readings correlate with others and particularly how they all inter-relate to one another is just the sort of detective work that would provide a rich and fascinating career. But it’s alchemy to outsiders.
But for me text criticism was not to be. In the 1980s I had never seen an ancient NT manuscript in person (I still haven’t), and travel to various far distant libraries with special permission to look at and handle their precious manuscript treasures was the only way to really learn how the manuscripts worked. Yes, there are facsimile books on some of the manuscripts, but, frankly, they just give you a tantalizing glimpse of the real thing.
More importantly, text criticism requires an all-out commitment to that discipline. It is not something you can dip into or pursue as a side interest. It would be like a general practitioner dabbling in brain surgery. Besides, text critics belong at big, well-funded universities with specialized library holdings and a lavish travel budget, and I wasn’t working to end up there.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets at all. I love our seminary and believe most fervently in our mission to train pastors who will be “specialists in the Bible” with all the various disciplines they must master including at least some acquaintance with textual criticism. Teaching at Westminster Seminary California is a tremendous privilege I would never trade for anything. But there are times when the siren song of handling the ancient manuscripts still calls to me.This is why when I began a brief study leave from class duties in February to begin work on a commentary on Ephesians, the siren call came to me too loudly to resist. When I should probably have been skimming the modern literature on Ephesians, I instead spent a blissful month reading and copying Ephesians from P46 from the comfort of my computer. Let me give you some background on what I’m talking about.
“P46” is one of the common names for a papyrus codex or book (hence the “P” of “P46”) which originally contained most of the Pauline Epistles and Hebrews. It is also called the “Chester Beatty” papyrus after the collector who acquired most of it in Egypt in the 1930s. The University of Michigan also acquired parts of this manuscript and its library now holds the Ephesians portion which they refer to by inventory number 6238 (more on this below).
The dating of P46 is an interesting story in itself. However, the short story is that it is the earliest copy of Ephesians dating probably from AD 150 to 200.
“Papyrus” is paper. The Egyptian papyrus reed has a triangular stalk which was spit lengthwise, soaked, placed in a two-layer perpendicular crosshatch pattern and pounded into a smooth writing surface. The dry, desert climate of Egypt has yielded a rich harvest of papyrus finds of ancient literature and, even more precious, many hundreds of copies of biblical texts.
P46 of Ephesians, as mentioned, is held in a special collection at the University of Michigan library. I have heard that they are not eager for you, understandably, to visit their campus and grab hold of P46 to examine it. It is rather fragile. But most happily, the UM has taken high resolution (4826 x 6000), public domain digital photographs of these papyrus holdings and have made them freely available for download on their website. I encourage you to visit their site (link below). If you want to find P46 simply search for “6238” in the APIS search page. Even if you don’t read Greek, you may still want to visit their site, because they have some nice pages on the making of papyrus, ancient writing materials, and other points of related interest.
Now, textual critics warn that digital photographs are no substitute for examination of the real thing. Granted. But having high-rez color photos is 100 times better than the old facsimile books (some of which were published in black and white). Here, is a sample from P46 at the beginning of Ephesians (in a lower resolution). In the high-rez version with a nice sized monitor, you can easily zoom in on some of the specks to see whether they are ink, worm-holes, or defects in the papyrus layer.
As I said earlier, I treated myself to reading through Ephesians in this early manuscript. In our modern editions, Greek is written with word divisions and other markings which make the text
relatively easy to read. In the sample, you can see that the ancients wrote their texts without these modern conveniences. “White space” which marks our modern writing system is rare, so, for example, there are no spaces between words or paragraph breaks. (I don’t even mention verse and chapter numbers in our modern Bibles, which were used consistently well over 1,000 years after P46 was copied.)
So why did I bother to read this old manuscript? Initially the reason was simple: Because it was there. Those high-rez photos are really, really cool. How could anyone resist just looking them over? And once you look, you want to read a page. And one page led to another. And then I thought it would be good to copy it for myself (making typical scribal mistakes in my copy as I went along).
In the end though, I think the real benefit of my little retreat with P46 was the glimmer of a connection with the scribe of this important manuscript from so very long ago. After a few pages, his reed pen got dull and the letters started to get blotchy. After sharpening the pen with his pen knife, the letters came out too spikey and thin, so he doubled up some of the lines to give them more weight. There are other things I discovered that I won’t bore you with now (I will in the commentary!), yet when I see a variant reading of P46 reported in our modern Greek editions, I feel now that I can understand its background a little better.
Link: University of Michigan Library Papyrus