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    February 25, 1930

    The Spade Confirms the New Testament


    W. W. Prescott

    [Signs of the Times, February 25, 1930, The Story of Our Bible, Part 10, pp. 13-15]

    A wide field of information bearing upon the trustworthiness and the interpretation of the New Testament documents has been laid open to us by the spade of the archæologist. The discoveries made during the last century have been many in number and remarkable in value. A large number of volumes have been published in which the results of the extended labors of the archæologists have been made available to us. It is manifestly impossible for me, in the limited space at my command, to do more than to make some general observations concerning this comparatively modern contribution to the story of the Bible, and to cite some of the testimony that tends to establish the reliability of the text of the New Testament which conservative scholarship has accepted as authoritative.SITI February 25, 1930, page 13.1


    In a general way, it may be said that the researches of the archæologists have restored to a large extent the historical setting of the New Testament. The homes of the peoples who dwelt in the Roman Empire in the time of our Lord and His disciples have been uncovered. Their manners and customs have been disclosed. The language of the common People is now well known, and the meaning of a large number of words that had either been obscure or misunderstood, has now Become clear. It has now been demonstrated that the language of the New Testament, which was formerly studied as a literary language to be interpreted according to the usage of the classics of that period and of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, is really in the main the language of the common people. As the inevitable result of this very significant discovery, the grammars of the New Testament that have been the standard for a long time, are now largely discarded, and entirely new grammars based upon the contemporary writings and usage have been prepared by leading scholars. It should of course be understood that such changes have not in the least degree disturbed the great doctrines of Christianity, but, on the contrary, have set them in a clearer light, and have confirmed the trustworthiness of the texts that have been edited for us by such scholars as Tischendorf and Westcott and Hort. The following extract will be of interest in this connection:SITI February 25, 1930, page 13.2

    “No man had ever seen a page from any pre-Constantine New Testament previous to these discoveries [of some ancient manuscripts in Egypt]. Many supposed that if ever such Bibles came to light they would be very different from ours. Some skeptics frankly expressed their opinion that the present New Testament was either originated by Constantine or much changed by him. But now these New Testaments are in our hands. We now know the kind of New Testament which the poor Christians of the martyr period were using and reverencing. It was the same as ours. It is now certain that there was nothing of importance left out by Constantine. There was nothing put in.... The results confirm surprisingly the ancient text as worked out by the scholarship of the last century. It must not be forgotten that these very ancient new MSS. just discovered constitute but a very small proportion of the text material which scholars have before them in determining the Bible text. In addition to the versions to be mentioned later it may be said—speaking only of Greek MSS.—that Von Soden in 1902 catalogued 2,328 New Testament manuscripts. Of these about forty contain in whole or in part all the books of the New Testament. Some 1,716 MSS. contain portions of the Gospels, 581 of the Acts, 628 of the Pauline epistles, and 219 of the Apocalypse. The text of no other ancient book is so certain as that of the New Testament.”—“The New Archæological Discoveries,” Camden M. Cobern, Ninth Edition, pp. 173,174.SITI February 25, 1930, page 13.3


    In order that we may be able to deal more understandingly with the sources of the information upon which such assuring conclusions are based, I shall classify them thus: First, there are the inscriptions that were engraved upon stone, metal, etc.; next, are the documents of various kinds written upon leaves made from the papyrus plant; then, there are the writings, consisting usually of only a few sentences, which have been found upon pottery, more frequently upon broken pieces that had been thrown away. A comparatively small portion of this matter consists of actual texts of the New Testament, and yet it has all contributed to a greater certainty concerning the inspired writings and their meaning.SITI February 25, 1930, page 13.4

    I shall first direct attention to the inscriptions, and their value in relation to textual criticism, by presenting some information furnished by a competent authority:SITI February 25, 1930, page 13.5

    “The bulk of the inscriptions are on stone, but to these must be added inscriptions engraved in bronze or scratched on tablets of lead or gold, a few wax tablets, the scribblings (graffiti), found on walls, and the texts on coins and medals. These inscriptions of which there are hundreds of thousands, are discovered on the site of the ancient civilized settlements of the Græco-Roman world, in its fullest extent from the Rhine to the upper course of the Nile, and from the Euphrates to Britain.... The great collection of Greek inscriptions has long ceased to be up to date, and is gradually being replaced by newer publications, but it was this first great attempt to collect all the material that alone enabled Greek epigraphy to develop so brilliantly as it has done. Great societies as well as independent archæologists have added to the total number of inscriptions known by carrying on systematic excavations, typical examples being the work of the Germans at Olympia and of the French at Delphi. New Testament scholars will follow with interested eyes the discoveries made in recent years by the English and Austrians on the site of ancient Ephesus, by British investigations in Asia Minor in general, by the Germans at Pergamum, Magnesia on the Mænander, Priene, Miletus, and other places in Asia Minor, in Thera, Cos, and other islands, and in Syria and Arabia, by the French at Didyma, and in Delos, by the Americans in Asia Minor and at Corinth. There are moreover plenty of native Greek archæologists whose excellent work vies with that of their foreign visitors....SITI February 25, 1930, page 13.6

    “Of the Christian inscriptions and their direct value to the scientific study of early Christianity I have not to speak; but I wish at least to say that in one direction they promise a greater harvest than many people might expect, viz., with respect to the history of the text of Scripture and its use. Already with the materials at present known to us quite a large work could be written on the text of Scripture as illustrated by Biblical quotations in ancient Christian (and Jewish) inscriptions.”-“Light From the Ancient East,” Adolph Deissmann, pp. 10-19.SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.1


    If I were asked, To what cause can you attribute the expenditure of so much money and effort within the memory of the average man in making these extensive explorations and in deciphering these sometimes very imperfect and obscure inscriptions? I could only say that in my opinion there is back of all this, as its inspiring cause, the definite purpose of God to reveal the foolishness of some of the so-called wisdom of this world as displayed by the higher critics, and to leave every one without excuse concerning the reliability of the revelation of the gospel of the grace of God. Surely God has not left Himself without witness, and that witness is now being borne in a very definite way.SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.2

    It may be advisable to state briefly just what is meant when we speak of the papyri. These are documents written upon sheets made from the papyrus plant. “The papyrus has been used as a writing material from very ancient times.” The method of making this material into sheets has been described as follows: “The pith of the stem of the papyrus plant was cut into thin strips, which were laid vertically side by side in the form of a sheet for writing. Above this was laid a horizontal cross layer of the same strips. The two layers were glued together with a preparation in which the Nile water played a certain part. The sheets thus obtained were pressed, dried in the sun, and polished to remove any inequalities of the surface. Then they were ready for use.”-Kenyon.SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.3


    The conclusion might be readily drawn that these sheets would quickly perish, and it may be a surprise to some to learn that documents written upon this material more than 2000 years b. c. have been discovered. These writings have been known for a long time, but their value was not recognized until within recent years. Their preservation for such a long period is due to the dry climate of Egypt, where the greater part of them have been found, and to the fact that they were buried in great heaps of dry sand. It would appear that in those early days they were regarded merely as so much waste paper that the people did not know how to utilize, and they were dumped out in some convenient place and later covered with the dry sand blown by the wind. Such were the simple, and some might say fortuitous, methods that divine Providence employed in preserving important testimony concerning the language in which the New Testament was written. As to the value of these papyri in the attempt to understand correctly the language of the New Testament, the following quotation will be of interest and value:SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.4


    “At first the chief value of the papyri seemed to lie in the new light which they threw upon the first century, and in the multitude of ancient classics they had revealed, and in the Christian fragments of the first four centuries preserved.... Deissmann was the first to recognize that these papyri were written exactly in the language of the New Testament, and to draw the conclusive inference that Biblical Greek could not any longer be regarded as an esoteric, sacred language, or as a language to any considerable degree Hebraized by its Jewish authors.... It was Deissmann who caught the revolutionary truth that the Gospels were a ‘people’s book’ written in the dialect of the middle classes in the vernacular of the home and the shop; written in a style which no literary man of that day would have permitted himself to use, but which did appeal to the masses. An examination of the papyri written contemporaneously with the New Testament proved, according to Deissmann, that the New Testament books, with perhaps the exception of two or three, were written to workingmen in the tongue of the workingman, the Bible authors freely using the colloquialisms and even the solecisms of the market place. This was a theory which at first seemed too good to be true. It meant that Wycliffe only did for England what Matthew and Mark did for the Roman world. Christianity from its beginning spoke the tongue of the peasant. Its crooked grammar and mixed orthography and peculiar syntax, upon which have been built so many theological castles in the air, are all found paralleled exactly in the letters and other familiar documents of that first century. This common Greek (the Koine) was spoken everywhere throughout the entire Roman Empire, and even our early church titles, such as ‘bishop,’ ‘presbyter,’ ‘deacon,’ etc., were well-known official names used in the trade-unions and other corporations, religious and civil, of that era. This contention, which seemed at first utterly unbelievable, has now inside of twenty years gained the adhesion of almost every living Greek scholar and has caused the rewriting of the New Testament lexicon and grammar.”—“The New Archæological Discoveries,” Camden M. Cobern, Ninth Edition, pp. 30, 31.SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.5

    While it is true that the language of the New Testament was the language of the common people, and that it employed words heard in the home, the shop, and the street, it is also true that many of these words were filled with a new content and lifted to a higher plane of meaning. It was the Christian element thus introduced that transformed the language, so that the words which Jesus spoke were spirit and life. (John 6:63.) Among the words which thus became Christianized are the Greek words translated faith, righteous, to justify, holy, to sanctify, love, hope, grace, the gospel, apostle, elder, bishop, deacon, to baptize, fellowship, flesh, soul, spirit, world, salvation, to redeem, and to reconcile.SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.6

    It has been well said that “in the history of these and such like words lies the history of Christianity.”-Westcott. When “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” there was a full revelation of saving grace that demanded expression in human speech and thus the common words of men became surcharged with a heavenly significance, and the changes in the meaning of words testified to the reality of the change in the experience of men and women who surrendered their lives to the control of the living Word.SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.7


    Before I develop to any fuller extent the practical value of the inscriptions and of the papyri in relation to the New Testament revelation, I ought to give some attention to the writing that has been found upon pieces of broken pottery, technically designated as ostraca. In attempting this in a very limited space I think I cannot do better than to quote briefly from the statements of a recognized authority:SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.8

    “To theologians the ostraca are of no small value. They add many new touches to our knowledge of the life of ancient times. They throw light on large tracts of the civilization upon which the Greek Old Testament, many of the books of the Apocrypha, the works of Philo and of the Egyptian Christians were based. They show us the men of the age of fulfillment in their workaday clothes, and they afford reliable evidence concerning the language spoken in the Hellenized Mediterranean world at the time when the apostolic mission became to ‘the Greeks’ a Greek. In these facts lies the great value of the ostraca (as of the nonliterary papyri) to the student of Greek Judaism and of the first centuries of Christianity.... Even more decidedly than the papyri, the ostraca are documents belonging to the lower orders of the people.... The ostracon was beneath the dignity of the well-to-do. As a proof of the poverty of Cleanthes the Stoic it is related that he could not afford papyrus and therefore wrote on ostraca or on leather. In the same way we find the writers of Coptic potsherd letters even in Christian times apologizing now and then to their correspondents for having made use of an ostracon in temporary lack of papyrus. We, however, have cause to “rejoice at the breach of etiquette. The ostraca” take us right to the heart of the class to which the primitive Christians were most nearly related, and in which the new faith struck root in the great world.”-“Light front the Ancient East” Adolph Deissmann.SITI February 25, 1930, page 14.9

    I fully appreciate that this subject may seem lacking in interest to those who have never explored this field of Biblical knowledge, and that my necessarily brief presentation of so large a theme may contribute to this lack of interest, and yet it seemed advisable in dealing with the story of the Bible to make some reference to the modern discoveries that have borne such emphatic testimony to the authenticity and the historicity of the Holy Scriptures. In my next article I shall try to present some specific information concerning the bearing of these discoveries upon the intelligent interpretation of the New Testament writings.SITI February 25, 1930, page 15.1

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