Ancient evidence about the accuracy of the New Testament ...

I. Egyptian Rubbish-Heaps and the Study of the New Testament

James Hope Moulton: I am trying to give you some sidelights upon important things in the New Testament, and I am going to give them, not as things which everybody knows already, or as things about which there is no question. They come from recent opinion, and some are speculation. Sometimes speculation maybe wrong, but at least it may possibly prove stimulating.

The documents about which I am going to speak this morning are documents which have been known to a certain extent for over a hundred years; but it is a very strange thing to reflect that, although known, although actually published, they were not in the hands of scholars likely to read them, and practically nobody paid any attention to them. Indeed, so far was the opposite true that one of the three greatest biblical scholars England produced in the nineteenth century, Bishop Lightfoot, remarked as early as 1863 that if we could only get hold of a large number of private letters from individuals who never thought that their writings would be read by after ages, we should have a unique way of learning the meaning of Biblical Greek. And all the time there were two or three volumes of such documents which Lightfoot might have read. If he had only read them. I believe he would have anticipated by fifty years the discovery made in our time.

I have said that from the sands of Egypt have come to us vast numbers of documents from antiquity. The excavations that have been made in Egypt, especially during the last twenty years or so, have brought these documents to light by the hundred thousand. We have now a large library of books in which these old papers are made available for our study. All nations have co-operated in this fruitful work. Among your own American scholars I would especially mention my friend Professor Goodspeed, of Chicago. In Great Britain the foremost place belongs to those famous Oxford pioneers Drs. Grenfell and Hunt. Then there have been the busy investigators from Paris, Lille, Leipzig, Berlin, and many another place, who have all been at work gathering together these documents from antiquity, reading them, translating them, annotating and indexing them.

What is the nature of them and where do they come from? Well, to begin with, they come from rubbish-heaps. It seems to have been the custom in Egypt in the olden days not to burn waste paper, but to dump it outside of the town, and then let the sand of the desert sweep over it. Egypt, you remember, is the country where it hardly ever rains. (I said `never' in my lecture. Then in October, 1915, I had my first glimpse of Egypt - and we landed at Port Said in a shower!) It is out of this sand that we get these documents, perfectly fresh after thousands of years. How many thousands of years is best illustrated by the fact that some accounts have been found which belong, they say, to the thirty-sixth century before Christ.

These documents are written upon the paper of antiquity. Our word paper is, as you know, taken from the word papyrus, which word I shall use during these lectures. I might tell you the way in which this writing material was made. They used the papyrus plant, a plant with a very long straight stem filled with pith. It grew in the marshes of the River Nile. We are all familiar with the word from the story of Moses. The little basket that contained the baby Moses was put among the `papyri' in the Nile. These reeds were gathered, cut open, the strips of pith taken out, laid upon a flat table and soaked with clayey water. On top of them another layer of strips was laid crosswise. Then it was rolled with a heavy roller, put out in the sun to dry, and the paper was ready to be written upon.

Now this paper when it was done with was, as I have said, simply thrown away. The sand came up and covered it. Another layer of paper accumulated, and the sand covered that also. The excavators are able to-day to show us where we are most likely to find this paper. Drs. Grenfell and Hunt have been for many winters carrying on researches in some specially favoured spots, where they have been very careful to preserve everything they have found. When documents are found in pieces, these pieces must be carefully put together, so that the investigators can study them.

These papyri have their characteristic difficulties. Papyrus is very brittle, and a great many of these documents are remarkably like the Irishman's coat, of which it was said that it mostly consisted of fresh air. When you have documents consisting mainly of holes-when you have a few holes and then a few words and then more holes, it takes a great deal of skill to be able to read them; but it is perfectly marvelous how highly trained observers can read things not there-calculate how many letters must be put into a space in order to fill it up, and do it so carefully that there is little danger of a mistake. All this labor goes to the composition of the volumes I am describing; and when the transcripts are complete there is still the commentary to write and the indispensable toil of the indexing.

But I must tell you that these documents come from other places as well, and particularly from tombs. The tombs of ancient Egypt are the places from which in all ages men have been recovering relics of antiquity. The ancient Egyptians, as you know, had a very strong belief in the continued existence of the soul; ant. they thought that when the man was put in the grave it was necessary for him to be provided for in every way. Especially it seems to have been thought necessary that he should have his favorite reading; so they buried with him copies of the books he loved to read. I am afraid we have very unkindly taken away large numbers of these books, which repose in our libraries to-day. On one occasion Drs. Grenfell and Hunt excavated a tomb which gave them a great deal of trouble. What was their disgust when at last they found that a tomb which promised so richly contained only mummified crocodiles! The crocodile was, you remember, a god in ancient Egypt. I rather think that that was politic, for it clearly might be wise to keep such a dangerous beast in good humor by deifying him. When orders were given that the tomb be abandoned, one of the workmen, vexed at so many hours of useless digging, broke with his spade the back of one of the crocodiles, and behold! from the interior of the beast there came rolls and rolls of paper. The explorers found this was mostly material written in the third century B.C.; and the waste paper which came out of the crocodiles in that tomb was enough to make almost two big books full.

There is one other kind of writing material which you would not think of. The ancient pottery was generally not glazed, and it took writing very well. That was convenient, for although the pottery was not so nice to look at or to use, at the same time it had advantages. Suppose a piece of it dropped and smashed into a dozen fragments. These fragments were saved, and when the mistress of the house wanted to send a note to a friend, or when the master wanted to send a receipt, or a bill, or a cheque, a fragment of broken pottery was used for the writing; and we have to-day multitudes of these ostraca - `treasure' veritably `in earthen vessels,' as Paul puts it (2 Cor. 4:7). Such, then, are the materials about which I am speaking.

Now what is there written upon them? Sometimes the documents contained in these old papers are literary. We have a very large number of new literary finds. We have classical writings, some that we have had before and some quite new. Not only so, but we have a great many documents bearing directly upon the New Testament. We have, for instance, a precious fragment manuscript of the first page of the Greek New Testament of the third century A.D., a good hundred years older than the oldest manuscript we possess [now we have fragments dating back almost to 100 A.D.]. There is also a manuscript of the fourth century, of the Epistle to the Hebrews. That is a great find for us, because it happens to have some parts complete in that portion of the Epistle where the greatest of all manuscripts, the Vatican manuscript, comes to an end.

But there is one precious half-sheet of paper, very tattered and torn, which must have given its discoverers a thrill of delight when they read thereon, half a dozen times repeated, the two words: `Jesus saith.' Some of the sayings thus introduced we have in our Gospels already. There is our Lord's word about the mote and the beam, and (in an expanded form) that about the city set upon the hill. Then there are other sayings not found in our Gospels at all, about which we have no information outside. I myself believe that they are real and genuine fragments from the teachings of Jesus, possibly changed and damaged in the process of transmission, but at the same time beginning from Him. For, when you come to think about it, to invent a saying which anybody could possibly attribute to Him who spake as never man spake, is an almost impossible task to set even those who have made the closest study of the Great Teacher's style. One of these new sayings [from the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus], runs thus: `Jesus saith, Wherever there are two, they are not without God; and where there is one only, I say I am with him. Raise the stone, and there thou shalt find Me; cleave the wood, and there am I.' There is the characteristic parabolic form; there is also the surface obscurity which makes one feel that if it had been forged the inventor would have made the meaning of the pregnant aphorism more obvious. The depth of meaning which rewards a little study of it makes it highly probable that the words fell from the Master's lips.

I might say more about these discoveries of literary and biblical material, but I want to talk to you of some things that at first sight seem entirely secular and utterly uninteresting. But they prove to be full of valuable information with regard to the language and meaning of the New Testament. In these rubbish-heaps you find all the kinds of writing you would expect to find in sacks of waste paper collected down street nowadays. In one house there is a lawyer's office; lower down there is a shop; next door a private house. Farther on we pass a school, a church, a court-house, the government offices, and so on. Suppose waste paper collected from all these, you can picture the very large variety of documents included, and will see how many characteristics of our modern life they would illustrate, especially if among them there are many private letters, from people of all ages and degrees of culture.

Now that is exactly what we have got in these Egyptian rubbish-heaps. We have official documents, some of them very much elaborated. Petitions to officials account for a good many papyri. Procedure in what seem to us decidedly urgent matters was very deliberate in ancient Egypt. Thus before a householder could get a burglar arrested he had to address a formal petition to the proper official, setting forth his grievance in detail.

(I noticed a good illustration of this in a street in Bombay, where a signboard gave a man's calling as `Authorized Petition-writer.' The sameness of the petitions shows that this calling flourished in ancient Egypt. By the way, those who want to read specimens of these and other papyrus documents should get the excellent selection (in Greek and English) entitled Greek Papyri, by my friend and fellow laborer, Prof. George Milligan (Cambridge University Press).)

The waste paper of a government office accordingly presents us with various pictures of private life in documents of this kind.

Now let me mention in a word or two what we may get from the more definitely official forms and papers. I want to speak especially of one point. A large number of the papyri are census papers. You will remember how there has been for many years past serious difficulty about a noteworthy verse in the Gospel of Luke, in the second chapter. That chapter begins, as you know, with the statement that in those days there went forth a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the inhabitants of the world - that is, of the Roman Empire - should be enrolled in a census. `This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria' (Luke 2:2). Fifty years ago historians who read those words were forced to say that they contained almost as many mistakes as it was possible to get into two lines. Even those who were most unwilling to admit that Luke had made such mistakes found themselves obliged to have recourse to conjectures which, I am afraid, sounded much like special pleading. But the explanation some of us kept hoping for has come, and come mainly through the papyri.

First came the proof, from the masses of census papers found among our new sources, that every fourteen years there was a general enrolment. For, fortunately, the papers are dated. This is their normal style: `In the year so and so of the Emperor so and so' - then would follow the whole string of his titles - `I, A. B., son of C. D., aged x years, with a straight nose, black hair, scar on my right shin, enroll myself, together with E. F., my wife, aged y years,' and so on, with name and description of each person. The census paper would proceed further with a statement of effects. They had twenty sheep, two camels, and their house faced a particular street on the south, and adjoined somebody's garden on the west, and so forth.

It is reasonable to assume that as Egypt was under the Imperial Roman Government at that time, there was a similar fourteen years' census taken in other parts of the world. Now we know that there was a census taken in the year A.D. 6. We actually possess a census paper from the census of A.D. 34, and probably one from A.D. 20. [We also possess papers from 48 A.D. and 104 A.D.]

The only thing we have to conjecture - and it becomes highly reasonable to conjecture now - is that not only was there one in the year A.D. 6, but that there was also one in the year 8 B.C., which on other grounds has become a more and more probable date for the birth of Jesus.

Now for Luke's second `blunder,' for there were three chief blunders attributed to him. It was regarded as certain that if there was a census people did not have to go up to any ancestral town for it. Well, but we have now got two or three pages from a Roman official's letter-book, dated A.D. 104, and in it we read a rescript from the prefect of Egypt ordering that all people are to go back to the county in which they live within the next six weeks in order to be ready for the census. Exit blunder number two!

What about blunder number three? Quirinius was governor of Syria in the year A.D. 6. We know that, and he carried out the census in that year. Therefore, it is a blunder when Luke tells us that he was looking after a census somewhere about 8 B.C. Moreover, we actually know the name of the man who was governor of Syria in that year, and it is not Quirinius. But about a couple of years ago Sir William Ramsay dug up a stone which shows that Quirinius was in Syria at that time after all. He had been sent there especially, as an extraordinary commissioner, to look after the census, which was a new thing and likely to be unpopular. I suppose it was because he did such good work that he was sent to the job again when the next fourteen years were over. So you see how with the aid of these rubbish-heaps of Egypt and the stones of Asia Minor we can show what an excellent historian Luke was after all.

Let me spend the remaining part of this hour in showing you how the non-literary papyri of all sorts help in the interpretation of the New Testament. I proceed to describe a memorable discovery made by a great scholar, a dear personal friend of mine, Adolf Deissmann, of the University of Berlin. I hope many of you have read his books. There is no more absolutely fascinating book than his Light from the Ancient East. Adolf Deissmann, who is still under fifty, made twenty years ago a great discovery. He was only a young pastor when, in a library one day, he saw on the table a book that had just come in, a new section of the Berlin Greek papyri. The Berlin collection now makes four splendid volumes, in which the sheets are lithographed and signed by the scholars who had deciphered them. Deissmann picked up this book casually and turned over the pages till he came to the name of a friend of his at the bottom of a page. This stimulated his curiosity. He read the page through, and as he read the thought flashed across his mind: `Why, this is just like the Greek of the New Testament.' You may imagine that he immediately began to read other papyri. So it was that in the year 1895 there came out a little unpretentious book with the plain title Bible Studies. Two years later there was a sequel, More Bible Studies, and the two books are now put together in an English volume.

Let me show the precise nature of this discovery. Scholars who have studied the Greek Testament through generations past have always been struck by the strange difference between the Greek of this little Book and all the other Greek, not only of previous ages, but of its own age. It is very natural that the Greek of the first century A.D. should differ much from the Greek of the Attic period of the fourth or fifth centuries B.C. Why, just think of the difference between the English of Chaucer and the English of to-day. Let me repeat, in the pronunciation of the time, the first few lines from the Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne.

I daresay few in this audience have known what I was saying. Some might even question whether I was speaking English at all. Yet many of these words are the same now as they were five hundred years ago, except that they were pronounced differently and have different grammar. Well, if this is the case with our language, we can easily understand that it might be the case with the Greek language, and that the Greek of the first century A.D. would be different from the Greek of the fourth or the fifth century B.C.

Of course, we have plenty of Greek that comes from that very first century. There is the great Plutarch, whose Lives, translated in a famous Elizabethan version, supplied material for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and other plays. Plutarch wrote in the same century as the New Testament. But you can come nearer still. Everybody here knows something about Josephus. Josephus was a Jew, a man of the same nationality as Paul and Peter and the rest, and he was a man who wrote Greek just as they wrote it. But if you were to look into Josephus's Greek you would say that it was not the same language as the Greek Testament. The words are the same and the grammar is more or less the same, but there is all the difference in the world.

Take two samples of English. One is a full-blooded page from Samuel Johnson, with words half a foot long, and elaborate grammar and style to match. The other is from a letter written home by a schoolboy in the earlier stages of his education. There is an amusing passage - I quote from memory - in Macaulay's Johnson, in which he calls attention to Johnson's literary pose. In his own private diary he wrote something to this effect: `When we got in, a dirty fellow jumped up from the bed in which we were to lie.' Then when he put it down in his published book he wrote: `There emerged from the chamber in which we were to repose a man as black as a Cyclops from the forge.' We need not further prove that there is a difference between English and English.

I can assure you there is a difference between Greek and Greek. There is a difference between Josephus and the New Testament. The New Testament is written in plain, unadorned language which everybody can understand.

A German theologian a generation or two ago said the Greek Testament was unique because it was written in the `language of the Holy Ghost.' It was written in a language that never professed to be in common use, fit therefore for a Book so sacred. Yes, it was the language of the Holy Ghost; there is no mistake about that. But we can give a better reason to-day for that assertion. Deissmann's discovery gives me a thrill which I should like to pass on to you. It proves nothing else than this: that the Book is the only book written in the language of daily life, in the very language in which the people talked at home, in the very language in which they communicated their deepest thoughts one to another.

The Holy Ghost inspiring those who wrote this little volume inspired them with the common sense to avoid the literary, archaic, old-fashioned, out-of-date language in which the literary men were writing. And, mind you, they are using it still. If you were to read a modern Greek newspaper, you would find it is mostly written - allowing for blunders - in the language of the fourth or fifth century before Christ. Of course, it is a language nobody would think of talking. But the Greeks still feel that the language of daily life is not good enough for use in writing a book.

Now the writers of the New Testament did not care about that. They were not anxious about the literary impression. Paul did not care about having first-class reviews in the daily papers. Mark and John were not in the least degree particular if people were going to pull their style to pieces. You can find all sorts of words and idioms in their writings that are not to be found in the best writers. What did it matter if everybody could understand them. Does this not show us that the very grammar and dictionary cry out against putting the Bible into any other language than that which will be `understanded of the common people'?

I will give you a few illustrations in detail. Here is something that gives us light upon the first verse in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, which tells us what faith is. `Now faith,' says the Revised Version, `is the assurance of things hoped for' (Heb. 11:1). The word translated `assurance' occurs in a long legal document, the `Petition of Dionysia.' She was a widow who had had some trouble with her property, which had been claimed by litigious persons. She writes out a copy of the judgement delivered in a previous litigation, and a full statement of her claim is sent with this to the prefect of Egypt. In the course of that document there occurs this Greek word hypostasis. Drs. Grenfell and Hunt tell us it was a technical legal word, and meant a collection of papers bearing upon the possession of a piece of property. When anybody bought a piece of land there were always some papers connected with it. There would be old census papers in which the owner and his land were registered, bills of sale, correspondence about it - in fact, any sort of thing that might be put in as evidence if any question should arise as to the title of the land. All this was carefully collected in a docket and then put into the public archives office. Each large town had a special keeper of the archives to look after the papers and produce them when demanded in order to help the security of property. In other words, this word may be translated `the title-deeds.' Can we not see what a depth of meaning that puts into the word? `Faith is the title-deeds of things hoped for.'

Now do not forget what hope means in the New Testament. The `hope' of the New Testament means absolute certainty about the future. Things hoped for are things not yet seen, but things which God guarantees to us as something that absolutely belongs to us. Faith is the `title-deeds of things hoped for.' Suppose I go to a real estate agent and buy a piece of land in Canada. I have not time to go and see it; but if I buy that land I have certain papers put into my hands, title-deeds of that property. I take these home with me, and if ever I want to realize on that land I can go to an office and say: `I have some land to sell. Here are the title-deeds.' I present the paper, and that paper is accepted as being the equivalent of the land.

Even if I never saw my property, that paper represents it for me. And if you look at the eleventh chapter of Hebrews you will find that this is just what faith is there. Men and women who received a promise from God counted that promise as being the title-deeds to something they could not see yet, but which they were going to see some day. They were so sure of it, because God had promised it to them, that they acted upon the belief, treated it as their estate, as something absolutely theirs.

We are told that Abraham so treated the son that was to be born to him, and we remember that the birth of that son was an absurdity, a wild impossibility. But God had said that he should be born, and Abraham behaved as if that child were there in the cradle at home already. That is the nature of faith as described in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews.

Take another word, this time from Paul. You will remember a verse which includes the phrase `us upon whom the ends of the ages are come' (1 Cor. 10:11). Some years ago in reading papyri I came upon a whole series of wills, and I noticed how frequently this very Greek word came in an obviously technical sense. It is a legal word in documents dealing with property, which has `come' to a man from his father. We remember Tennyson's great line:

We the heirs of all the ages.

I was speaking with Dr. Rendel Harris about it, and he asked why we should not translate the word `ends' toll - a meaning it bears elsewhere in the New Testament. That seems to fit the metaphor still better. `To us the toll of all ages has come as our inheritance.' We are the heirs of the spiritual wealth of all the ages past, the wealth of Greece and Rome and Israel, the wealth of the Middle Ages, the wealth of all times and of all countries, of all the accumulated experience of mankind - all this has come down to us to-day in order to teach us the wonderful works of God, and make us realize better than ever before what is the wealth that God has for those who put their trust in Him.

from "Egyptian Rubbish Heaps", Five Popular Lectures on the New Testament with a Sermon, delivered at Northfield, Massachusetts, in August, 1914, by James Hope Moulton, Professor in Manchester University and Tutor at Didsbury Wesleyan College.

James Hope Moulton: "From Egyptian Rubbish Heaps", Northfield, 1914
I. Egyptian Rubbish-Heaps and the Study of the New Testament
II. A Sheaf of Old Letters from Egypt
III. Some Sidelights upon Paul
IV. How We Got Our Gospels
V. The Fullness of the Time
VI. The New Song


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