Review: Encountering the Manuscripts

1167940Philip W. Comfort is senior editor of Bible reference at Tyndale House Publishers and a noted scholar in the field of biblical studies and textual criticism. Comfort has a Ph.D. in Theology from Fairfax University and a second doctorate degree earned under noted textual critic Jacobus H. Petzer from the University of South Africa. Comfort has taught at several academic institutions, including Wheaton College, Trinity Episcopal Seminary, Columbia International University, and Coastal Carolina University. He is author or co-author of numerous books, including The Origins of the Bible, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (Tyndale, 2008), and the subject of the current review, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism.

Encountering the Manuscripts is the effort of several years of detailed examination of every early New Testament manuscript prior to AD 300 (viii). For Comfort, the result of this work has led to the publication of The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (with David Barrett), New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, and Encountering the Manuscripts. The first volume represents a joint effort to reconstruct the earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. The second volume represents Comfort’s longstanding desire to aid the overall conversation around the relationship between textual criticism and English translations of the Bible. This third volume focuses more narrowly on the most significant New Testament manuscripts from the vantage point of paleography and textual criticism.

According to Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts attempts: (1) to explore scribal participation in the production of the earliest New Testament writings; (2) to provide an annotated list of all significant Greek manuscripts and early versions; (3) to assign dates for the earliest New Testament manuscripts; (4) to examine the use of the nomina sacra in the early New Testament manuscripts; (5) to present the history of textual variation in the early centuries of the Christian church; (6) to explore various methods of recovering the original wording of the Greek New Testament and assess the New Testament manuscripts as to their textual groupings and their influence on New Testament textual criticism; and (7) to offer concrete examples for the praxis of textual criticism, and in so doing to identify how the papyri influenced the text of the Greek New Testament (viii).

The field of New Testament textual criticism is full of complexities and technical nuances. This is evident by the sheer number of introductory material being produced and even more evident when the bulk of that introductory material reads more like a dissertation than an introduction. While Encountering the Manuscripts isn’t going to diverge very far from that current trend, Comfort does an excellent job guiding the reader through the complex issues in such a way to bring about an understanding of the material. In fact, I would say with confidence that he does this much better than most introductions that  I have encountered. Still, the reader should be prepared to undergo and partake in a journey through a fairly complex conversation. The journey may be difficult, but the destination is more than desirable.

There are a number of excellent sections in this book that I found to be particularly helpful. First, the sections that address the topic of paleography (or the dating) of the New Testament Manuscripts are sure to be received as a highpoint for many readers. Comfort does an excellent job explaining the process and procedure that accompanies the task of paleography. Some readers may find his ascribed dates contestable, but Comfort provides ample explanation to support his conclusions. Second, the discussion that surrounds the nomina sacra (sacred name) in the New Testament manuscripts is indispensable and worth the price of the book alone. Lastly, the inclusion of a chapter devoted entirely to the praxis of New Testament textual criticism accommodates a much-needed sense of practical application. This allows the reader to experience some practical benefit from the long journey in which they just embarked on.

Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism by Philip W. Comfort will inspire readers to engage the New Testament text through cultivating a closer sense of interaction and familiarity with the manuscripts themselves. It is from this realization that the reader is able to better understand and utilize the tools of textual criticism. From the careful and comprehensive explanations provided throughout the book, to the visible firsthand familiarity with the manuscripts themselves, Comfort has provided an excellent introduction to the field. I think readers of all backgrounds and interests will find great benefit in this book. It is technical but readable, intricate but informative. If you are a student of the New Testament, a pastor, or a teacher, then I would recommend that you prepare room for this book to find a new home on your bookshelf—sooner rather than later.

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for and honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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