Merrimack biblical scholar Paul Compton and others met to study ancient papyri

Merrimack’s Paul Compton, associate pastor of Riverside Christian Church at 27 Depot St., returned recently from a Texas gathering of some 200 biblical scholars and leaders who had the rare opportunity to examine, preserve and identify some ancient manuscripts and fragments.

The meeting, held in early December, was hosted by the Josh McDowell Ministry, a nonprofit based in Plano, Texas, a city near Dallas. The investigators gathered to work on the papyri at Prestonwood Baptist Church, also in Plano. The men and women assembled were mostly Christian, Catholic or Jewish. Many attended because of their role in the apologetics community. Compton said that Christian apologists – a word traced to the Greek word, “apologia,” meaning “to defend” – are people devoted to providing answers to questions about the veracity of the Bible.

Compton said the writings were inscribed on papyrus, a writing material made from the pith of the papyrus plant. The plant grows around the Nile delta and is known for its ability to survive for centuries in the dry Egyptian climate. Some papyri held only a couple of letters or a few lines of text. Others contained up to 40 lines. The writings have rested undisturbed, a part of some ancient artifacts, for 1,500-1,800 years.

“It is circular reasoning to ask someone to believe that the Bible is true simply because the Bible claims to be true,” Compton said. “We need to show that the Bible is historically reliable and has been transmitted accurately over the centuries.”

Compton said that 16 years of pursuing an interest in such mysteries have given him considerable knowledge about early biblical evidence of a vigorous church, a Christian enclave he said has never been disbanded. The discovery of more biblical manuscripts, he said, has only strengthened his confidence in the reliability of the New Testament.

“While some are looking for lost books to add to the Bible, we continue finding the same books of the Bible,” Compton said. “It shows us that nothing is missing.”

Findings from the meeting have not yet been released to the public but Compton said the group has received written permission to release the following statement: “We discovered some of the earliest manuscripts in Coptic, which are biblical texts from the New Testament and classical texts, including one by Homer, which is among the oldest known texts to date.”

The investigators found many things as they sorted through the papyri. They came across ancient receipts, personal letters and government documents, many with little direct Biblical significance. Those items related to the overall culture in which the early church matured. Among the valuable classical texts was one by Homer, a renowned Greek poet.

Compton said the scribes of ancient times were mostly professional writers known for their meticulous attention to detail.

“In the ancient world, there were no printers or copy machines,” Compton said. “Every book was hand written. Today’s technology has rapidly advanced the study of papyri. Now, the images of the papyri are digitized, a process that makes them easily accessible for study while the originals are kept off site.”

Compton credited the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts as an invaluable asset to preserving such rare materials. The CSNTM, a nonprofit based in Plano, Texas, thus far has published more than 100 digital papyri manuscripts online. The digital technology also enables clarifying some of the writings previously deemed unreadable due to fading, water damage or other causes.

Compton said that in spite of the persecution of the early church and government edicts to destroy the New Testament, he finds it impressive that 5,838 Greek New Testament manuscripts and 18,524 early translations of the New Testament have survived.

“Whether or not one agrees with the teachings of the New Testament, I encourage everyone to read about what so many were quite literally dying to tell you,” Compton concluded.

For a look at some of the ancient papyri texts under stewardship of various museums, university libraries, the Vatican and elsewhere, visit www.csntm.org/manuscript. An additional example is accessible elsewhere, in an online encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_1. The image there is from an early copy of the New Testament, written in Greek. It is a papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew that dates to Egypt of the third century. It is preserved at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, a world renowned museum of archeology and anthropology.

For more information on the biblical scholars’ meeting in Texas or on other activities at Riverside Christian Church, visit www.riversidechristian.com or call 424-1711.