THANK YOU FOR THE HELPFUL ARTICLE “How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts?” (BAR, Summer 2020), I think overall this is an excellent treatment of a complex subject, but there are some oversimplifications I would like to address. For one thing, the way Mr. Nongbri writes one might think that Greek was the only language that any New Testament manuscript was written in the first four centuries of the Common Era. There is no mention of Syriac, Old Latin, Armenian or Coptic witnesses from these same broad periods of time and some of these witnesses affect the overall conclusions of the article.
For example, Mr. Nongbri writes, “but colophons with dates only become common in Greek biblical manuscripts in the ninth century.” While that is a perfectly true statement, it is a tad misleading if the reader equates the New Testament only with the Greek witnesses as if none others exist. In the Syriac Peshitta traditions for example, colophons with certain dates are much more common and much earlier than those on the Greek side. The oldest biblical manuscript with a certain written date on it, from 464 CE, is an Aramaic version of the Torah (lacking Leviticus) called BL 14,425. On the New Testament side, we have manuscripts with fixed dates going back to the early 6th century, so this I feel should have been brought out more thoroughly. It is common for Syriac and some Armenian witnesses to give us the name of the scribe, the monastery it was done, the name of the city and the year it was composed.
Another related area where we get historical testimony from manuscripts are rubrics, introductory and concluding statements at the start and end of biblical books. These statements, usually in red ink, tell us things like, “Here ends the Gospel of Matthew who wrote and preached in Hebrew in Palestine” or, in the case of Old Syriac Sinaiticus, that scribe affirms he wrote the entirety of the Gospel text, “Here ends the Separated Gospels, four books,” along with a request to “pray for the sinner who wrote it.” Granted, rubrics may not speak directly to manuscript antiquity, but they do speak to overall history and tradition that the scribe wanted to pass on to the generations.
Finally, I would have loved to have seen a more detailed treatment of Dura Europos 24, but I do appreciate that Mr. Nongbri referred to it as a Diatessaron fragment, because it very likely is just that. The relationship of the Diatessaron to the Peshitta and Old Syriac traditions is something I have not seen dealt with much in BAR over the years, so I will merely point out here briefly that I agree that Dura Europos is probably the earliest fragment that we have a secure archaeological context for. That being said, it is also significant that Luke 23:51 as recorded there agrees more with the Peshitta than it does with most Greek witnesses and against the Old Syriac Sinaiticus text in two places: It is “a city in Judea” rather than “a city of the Jews” and Joseph of Arimathea was waiting on “the Kingdom of God” (Peshitta and Greek) not Old Syriac Sinaiticus’ “Kingdom of Heaven.” Thank you for hearing me out.
Andrew Gabriel Roth
IN HIS ARTICLE, Brent Nongbri states “The radiocarbon analysis of the shroud has thus proven to the satisfaction of sober observers that it is a product of the 13th or 14th century—and not the first century.” I’m curious to know Mr. Nongbi’s views about the work of Susan Benford and Joseph Marino, supposedly confirmed by original Shroud of Turin Research Team member Ray Rodgers that the samples taken for the carbon-14 tests in 1988 did not contain just ancient linen fibers, but were also interwoven with more modern cotton fiber, thought to have been used to repair the original shroud linen in the sixteenth century, thus polluting the samples.
I have periodically seen reaffirmations of the 1988 C-14 results confidently stated in the media—most recently in Mr. Nongbri’s interesting BAR article—but I have yet to hear anyone state with the same degree of scholarly certainty that the Benford and Marino challenge to those dates has been disproven. Since Mr. Nongbri cites this example, I thought perhaps he might know the answer to my question. Has the Benford and Marino challenge been put to rest or is the shroud not quite done surprising us?
La Plata, Maryland
BRENT NONGBRI RESPONDS: The 1988 sample was divided and sent to testing facilities in Oxford, Zürich, and the University of Arizona. All three labs concluded that the Shroud of Turin is an artifact of the 13th or 14th century. Once published, these results were immediately challenged by some, including Raymond Rogers (1927–2005), a chemist who in the 1970s was part of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (unrelated to the 1988 testing). Along with husband-and-wife Shroud enthusiasts Joseph Marino and Susan Bedford, Rogers argued that the 1988 sample was contaminated by a later repair. On its face, this claim is somewhat surprising because the original publication of the radiocarbon results stated that the sample, which was cut in the presence of two textile experts, “came from a single site on the main body of the shroud away from any patches or charred areas” (P.E. Damon et al., “Radiocarbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin,” Nature 337 [16 February 1989]).
Rogers pushed his argument further in a 2005 article published in the journal Thermochimica acta, making the remarkable claim that in 2003 he had been given “threads that Prof. Luigi Gonella [the scientific advisor to the Archbishop of Turin in 1988] had taken from the radiocarbon sample before it was distributed for dating,” and that he carried out chemical analyses on these threads at his home and concluded that they were indeed contaminated by a colored dye.
A similar objection had appeared already in the late 1980s. Here is how it was addressed at that time by Harry Gove, one of the pioneers of AMS technology: “Another argument has been made…that the part of the shroud from which the sample was cut had possibly become worn and threadbare from countless handlings and had been subjected to medieval textile restoration. If so, the restoration would have to have been done with such incredible virtuosity as to render it microscopically indistinguishable from the real thing. Even modern so-called invisible weaving can readily be detected under a microscope, so this possibility seems unlikely. It seems very convincing that what was measured in the laboratories was genuine cloth from the shroud after it had been subjected to rigorous cleaning procedures” (H. E. Gove, “Dating the Turin Shroud—An Assessment,” Radiocarbon 32 , 87–92).
To be sure, this is not a direct rebuttal of the specific arguments put forward by Rogers in 2005. For that, one can turn to two more recent studies. In one of these, Rachel A. Freer-Waters (a textile conservator) and A.J. Timothy Jull (one of the analysts involved in the original 1988 testing), reexamined leftover material from the University of Arizona sample of the Shroud and concluded that it contained no dyes, and that the stray cotton fiber and other debris present would have been removed by standard pretreatments and cleaning procedures (“Investigating a Dated Piece of the Shroud of Turin,” Radiocarbon 52 , 1521–1527). A more recent article casts doubts on the methods and procedures used by Rogers (“There is no mass spectrometry evidence that the C14 sample from the Shroud of Turin comes from a ‘medieval invisible mending’” (Thermochimica acta 617 , 169–171).
In addition to these points, I think provenance is an important issue here. The origin of the Arizona sample is more secure than that of the threads examined by Rogers. It’s not clear to me that Rogers could be certain that the threads he allegedly received from Gonella and examined in his home were from the samples taken for AMS testing.
In short, at present I see no compelling reason to doubt either the soundness of the procedures or the results of the 1988 analysis. Nevertheless, I would welcome additional AMS testing of the Shroud with samples taken from multiple areas. I suspect such analyses would confirm the 1988 results. For an authoritative overview of Shroud research, see Andrea Nicolotti, The Shroud of Turin: The History and Legends of the World’s Most Famous Relic (Baylor University Press, 2020).
Humanity’s Progressive Decay
“THE SONS OF GOD AND THE DAUGHTERS OF MEN” ARTICLE, by Jaap Doedens, makes me wonder: Why is this a puzzle at all?
In all the surrounding cultures — Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian — the gods and goddesses are forever having sex with each other and with humans.
When both parties are gods, the offspring are gods. When one party is human, the offspring, if male, is a hero, a mighty man, a ruler, a towering figure, large and strapping, a powerful fighter, almost immortal — the kind of person you want on your right during hand-to-hand combat.
This kind of person is exactly what the passage from Genesis describes.
Scholars through the ages seem reluctant to admit that this passage means exactly what it says: The sons of God had sex with the daughters of men, who conceived mighty heroes. Many cultures preserve that memory, but many scholars think the book of Genesis is unable to preserve it.
In other cultures, these heroes were the stuff of legend. We recite their stories to this day — the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In contrast with these other cultures, the compiler of Genesis is documenting the advance of evil across the earth. He arranges a series of heroic stories — Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Lamech and his wives, sons of God and daughters of men, Noah and the flood — to show humanity’s progressive decay.
To the compiler of Genesis, these so-called heroes were an embarrassment. He dismisses them in a few verses. They are merely one more sign of our inevitable decline into worthlessness. For God, they were the last straw.
Wordplay in Genesis
REGARDING THE NAME “ABRAM” that God changed to Abraham “for a father of many nations have I made thee” (Genesis 17:5), one should consider that the name “Abraham” has been altered from its original. In Isaiah 41:8 and 2 Chronicles 20:7, Abraham is referred to as a “friend” of God. In the Quran, Abraham’s name is “Ibrahim.” All Muslims and Arab Christians refer to him as Ibrahim. In Old Assyrian texts in the Old Babylonian period, “ebru(m)” or “ibrutu” meant “friend, colleague.” “Ibru” referred to an “alliance of friends.” In Old Akkadian, the word “rahum” (root: r-h-m), meant “Creator.” In Arabic, “rahim” means “the Merciful,” one of the names or attributes of God, confirming the connection between Old Akkadian and its Semitic cousin Arabic. According to the Quran, Ibrahim is the Prophet’s original name, and most likely originated as two words “Ibr” and “rahim.” Put them together, and you get a Prophet who became the ancestor or forefather of an “alliance of friends of God,” perhaps the original meaning of “many nations.”
Note: A closer look at the Arabic in the Quran places the real Prophet Ibrahim living among Akkadians in the Sumerian world of the early third millennium BCE.
The Woodlands, Texas
THANK YOU FOR THE REPORT on a study of the DNA of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, at best the DNA only sources the leather used to make the scrolls and cannot, in itself, tell us anything about where the scrolls were penned. Thus, the leather may have originated elsewhere and then been used at Qumran for penning the scrolls. Or both the leather and their penning may have originated outside Qumran before arriving at Qumran. The DNA cannot tell us which it is. Furthermore, if the leather’s DNA can be determined, why can’t its C-14 age be determined, not just the linen wrappings? Again, it is assumed that the wrapping is of the same age as the scrolls, when it is just as possible that the scrolls date earlier and were later wrapped up.
Ph.D.Santa Ana, California
I WRITE CONCERNING THE ARTICLE “Can Scholars Take the Virgin Birth Seriously?” by J. Edward Barrett, which
appeared in Bible Review October 1988. At one point, the author states, “For example, when the Scottish poet Robert Bums wrote that his love was ‘like a red, red rose,’ he did not mean that she had thorns growing out of her neck.” How this gaffe escaped the watchful eye of your proofreader is beyond me. The Scottish poet cited in Barrett’s article is Robert Burns, not Robert Bums. Please correct this egregious error! Burns is a Scottish icon.
Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, Canada
“I was 15 years old in 1988, and Bible Review hasn’t been published since 2005, but still, this aggression will not stand! I love that you caught this error, which is clearly an OCR scanning error, in which the computer read an “rn” as an “m.” We are making the correction in the BAS Library and will perform a recitation of Burns’s “Holy Willie’s Prayer” in our next staff meeting.”—B.C.
WHILE I CONTINUE TO ENJOY THE MAGAZINE, and still read it cover to cover, I join the chorus of voices complaining that the reduced print size is difficult to read. I wish you would “fine tune” it back to the way it was.
“Thanks for the feedback. We are always looking to make BAR better. The downside to increasing the font size is that there would be fewer stories in each issue. After much consideration, we have made some font changes that you will be able to judge in the following, Spring 2021 issue.”—B.C.
Just a Compliment
JUST A NOTE TO COMMEND your Summer 2020 issue. Not only the features regarding resettlement and immigration at Tel Hadid or the early Christian manuscripts, but also the short columns and notes were interesting and enlightening.
Thus, “What Is It” clarified, among other matters, that the expression “tabula rasa” translates as “scraped tablet,” not as “blank slate,” as has been the custom since English philosopher John Locke employed the term in his writings of the seventeenth century. “WorldWide” had an insightful note—and accompanying picture—of a mug from the bronze age Minoan culture, one of the ancient world’s most enigmatic and refined societies. “What’s In A Name” had a fine analysis of the meaning of the name of the fearsome Assyrian warrior king Sennacherib, and “Clip Art” had a concise summary of Donatello’s groundbreaking statue of David.
When even the small pieces are interesting and insightful, you know the issue is top notch. Keep up the stellar work, and I will keep reading your publication as long as I can.
We’re so glad you like the new design. Our goal was to make the smaller stories as interesting and educational as the articles.—B.C.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR ARTICLE on the tragic Turkish flooding of ancient Hasankeyf by the giant Ilisu Dam. It’s a good reminder of these ongoing human-caused disasters: we know where our earth’s continuing destruction is happening.
One quietly overlooked factor in the construction of these huge dams is that they have limited lives. The silting up of dams all over the United States is a problem that is being met now by the expensive removal of now-useless dams. Fish love it.
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