God’s Library and Variant Readings

Brent Nongbri’s work will be familiar to many followers of this website, principally his terrific book Before Religion, a wonderful critique of the usage of the category ‘religion’ in the ancient Mediterranean context. He has been working for years on a project concerning, well, everything there is to know about early Christian manuscripts. When you get into the nitty-gritty details, a lot of conventional wisdom turns out not to be so conventional or wise; things we thought we know become things we are not so sure about; and many, many datings of texts on palaeographical grounds alone begin to look more suspect.

The fruits of Nongbri’s labors on this project are finally to appear in monograph form next month: God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

The abstract: Brent Nongbri provides an up-to-date introduction to the major collections of early Christian manuscripts and demonstrates that much of what we thought we knew about these books and fragments is mistaken. While biblical scholars have expended much effort in their study of the texts contained within our earliest Christian manuscripts, there has been a surprising lack of interest in thinking about these books as material objects with individual, unique histories. We have too often ignored the ways that the antiquities market obscures our knowledge of the origins of these manuscripts. Through painstaking archival research and detailed studies of our most important collections of early Christian manuscripts, Nongbri vividly shows how the earliest Christian books are more than just carriers of texts or samples of handwriting. They are three-dimensional archaeological artifacts with fascinating stories to tell, if we’re willing to listen.

For more, see the book’s official website here. It promises to be a must-read.

If you can’t quite stand the anticipation, you can read teasers from the research project (things which, I understand, did not quite fit for the monograph) in addition to Nongbri’s own musings at his blog, Variant Readings. This website alone is a valuable resource for up-do-date information on  early Christian manuscripts and papyrology in general.