Only two biblical topics reliably receive attention in the mainstream media: new versions of “the historical Jesus,” and the discovery of ancient manuscripts by archaeologists. When these two topics converge, headlines trumpet the event and interviews ensue, followed by claims and counterclaims from opposing camps of scholars, as for a frenzied few moments the press bestirs itself from its customary lethargy concerning religion (apart from scandal and Vatican politics). The post–World War II era saw the shock created by the discovery of the Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and the Jewish library at Qumran in 1947. More recent instances include the 1996 claim by Carsten Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona to have uncovered a mid-first-century version of the Gospel of Matthew, and the publication of the Gospel of Judas, which earned headlines in 2006.
Such excitement is understandable. In a field notoriously weak in hard facts, archaeology has scientific credibility; dealing with real things and evidence, rather than mere opinions, it is to biblical studies what DNA analysis is to forensic science. The material remains of Christianity, moreover—this most literary of religious movements—tend to be manuscripts, precious artifacts dug out of the desert sands that have preserved them for nearly two millennia. Even for Americans whose attachment to Christianity is tenuous and whose knowledge of the Bible is nugatory, the announcement of new evidence about Jesus or the Gospels can divert conversation, at least for a moment, from fantasy football or the latest Kardashian meltdown.
Brent Nongbri, an Australian scholar and author of many technical studies on ancient Christian manuscripts, now provides a more popularly accessible overview of “God’s Library.” Building on work done by Larry Hurtado and Roger Bagnall, he sets out to demystify the “discovery” of ancient writings, advancing a more sober and realistic framework for assessing the breathless claims and counterclaims that appear in the media. Nongbri’s instincts run toward a highly responsible form of debunking. He wants to show, from a careful analysis of specific finds, that actual field archaeology has had little to do with many of the “discoveries,” and that the provenance of many important collections is murky at best. He also seeks to show that while we can know a great deal about the actual artifacts now in our possession, we do not, in fact, have the sort of knowledge that is supposed to support academic and popular claims concerning them.
In his introduction, Nongbri identifies two tendencies that he seeks to counter. The first is press hysteria, a phenomenon he shows is anything but new. When the American businessman Charles Freer purchased four ancient manuscripts from an antiquities dealer in Egypt in 1906—a Greek manuscript with portions of Deuteronomy and Joshua, another containing the Psalms, a third with Paul’s letters, and a fourth with all four gospels—the find touched off such headlines as “Biblical Errors to be Corrected by Newly Found Manuscripts,” and “New Verse is Added to the Gospel of Mark.” The New York Times ran a banner headline, “Old Greek Bible Reveals Verses Lost for Centuries.” As God’s Library demonstrates, the actual details of the “discovery” had deliberately been obfuscated, and even today remain considerably in doubt.