The New Facsimiles of the Beatty Biblical Papyri

My first post of 2021 was a notice that new facsimiles of some of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri had appeared. At the time, I had not seen the books in person, and all I could do was note their existence and lament the price tag. But with the benefit of a sizable conference discount and the opportunity to examine the volumes in person, I decided to buy a copy. So, for my first post of 2022, I’ll offer a brief review of these volumes.

Stratton L. Ladewig, Robert D. Marcello, Daniel B. Wallace (eds.). New Testament Papyri Facsimiles: P45, P46, P47. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts / Hendrickson Academic, 2020. 2 volumes. ISBN 9781619708440. $399 USD.

This facsimile presents new photographs of three of the eleven “Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri,” the codex of the gospels and Acts (P45), the codex of the Pauline epistles (P46), and the codex containing Revelation (P47). The photographs were made as a part of the ongoing work of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). The set of two volumes comes in in a sturdy cardboard slipcase. The books are nicely bound and consist of 312 pages each. The two volumes are identical except for the fact that in one volume the photographs of the manuscripts have a white background and in the other the photographs are on a black background. The 30 pages of introductory matter are the same in both volumes.

The introduction is concise and informative. It gives a brief history of the discovery of the papyri and lays out the need for improved images. The editors briskly and sensibly discuss the estimated dates of the manuscripts, provide charts coordinating the folios with shelf numbers, and offer a short description of the digitization process. The introduction concludes with a new edition of folio 8 of the gospels-Acts codex based on repositioned and newly discovered fragments.

The facsimile images themselves are attractively produced. The pages are laid out with the manuscript folio number provided in the outer upper margin (along with an arrow indicating fiber direction), with scriptural references in the inner upper margin for ease of navigation. The page number of the facsimile edition itself is in the lower outer margin. The images of the papyri stand alone on the background (there are no scales or color palettes). The quality of the photos is usually excellent, as a comparison with Kenyon’s plates indicates. Kenyon’s plates were very good by 1930s standards, but they tended to highlight the contrast between the ink and the writing surface at the expense of washing out the texture of the papyrus.

CSNTM / Hendrickson Academic facsimile page (left) compared to Kenyon / Emery Walker facsimile page (right)
CSNTM / Hendrickson Academic facsimile detail (top) compared to Kenyon / Emery Walker facsimile detail (bottom)

In the cases when bifolia have survived intact, these are reproduced at a reduced size at the conclusion of each set of plates. This is a very nice touch and something that sets this new facsimile apart from the plates that accompanied Kenyon’s editions.

I don’t really have many critical comments, just a bit of curiosity about some of the decisions that went into the production.

First, the decision to produce two volumes with different background colors. I generally find a white background preferable when looking at photos of papyri, as a black background can sometimes lead to confusion between ink marks and holes in the papyrus. Aesthetically, some of the more damaged papyrus leaves of the Beatty papyri do look better against a black background (this is especially true of the badly damaged leaves of the Gospels-Acts codex, which can sometimes be difficult to read against a bright white background). But for the majority of the leaves, photos on the white background are more than adequate, especially in light of the fact that the CSNTM has provided good digital images of the codices online (against both a white background and a black background). Those who need to study particular readings in detail can do so with the high resolution images online. I’m not sure if a cost-benefit calculation would justify producing a second volume with the images on a black background. If you’re prepared for the extra expense of making more than one volume, I think I would have preferred just one copy of the images, but a copy that was physically divided in a way that reflects the actual ancient manuscripts.

This brings me to a second decision: Why bind photos of the three distinct manuscripts as one physical volume? This decision renders the volumes a little less useful in the classroom. When I talk with students about the Beatty Biblical Papyri (and the Bodmer Papyri), one of the things I point out is that the earliest Christian books seem to have circulated in single units (for instance, Revelation) or smaller groups (for instance, the Pauline letters). Showing Kenyon’s three separate volumes in class reinforces this point. Binding the books together as a single unit (in fact a “New Testament,” as the title of the new facsimile indicates) has a certain familiarizing effect.

This effect is amplified by a third decision regarding the presentation of the images of the Gospels-Acts codex. The editors describe the decision and the reasoning behind it:

“Although the original order of the Gospels in P45 was likely the Western order (Matthew, John, Luke, Mark), the order in this presentation is traditional, following the lead of Kenyon. Since the folio numbers have been standardized, deviation from that in this publication would not have been prudent.”

The evidence for the order of the gospels in this codex is not absolutely conclusive, but it is reasonably strong and worth examining. The facsimile editors cite Kenyon’s edition and Theodore Skeat’s codicological discussion. Kenyon wrote only the following:

“With regard to the order of the books, the only evidence lies in the fact that Mark and Acts were closely associated in the papyrus as brought to England. This makes it probable that Mark stood last among the Gospels, as in the Freer MS. at Washington (W), where the order of the books is Matthew, John, Luke, Mark, the so-called Western order, which is found in the Codex Bezae and several MSS. of the Old Latin version” (Kenyon, The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, Fasc. II: The Gospels and Acts, p. viii).

In 1993, Theodore Skeat gave a much more detailed codicological reconstruction confirming Kenyon’s view, though Skeat’s reconstruction is not without anomalies. One of the key observations that Skeat made was that the pattern of preservation in the surviving leaves clearly suggests that Mark and Acts stood next to one another in the bound codex.

So, as the editors of the facsimile state, the gospels in this codex were most likely in the “Western” order. The decision to print the images in the order Matthew-Mark-Luke-John feels like a missed opportunity to be more true than Kenyon was to the probable appearance of the ancient book. The editors voice a concern for potential confusion in shuffling the numbers of the folia, but in this case I think the benefits of a more plausible codicological reconstruction probably outweigh the costs of a reassignment of numbers that could be relatively easily explained with a chart of equivalencies.

And finally, what about the decision to make a physical facsimile at all? Do we need a print facsimile when the CSNTM’s quality digital images are available online? Here I think the answer is yes. Even if physical copies of Kenyon’s plates were more widely available (digital copies of Kenyon’s plates are online), the improved quality of the CSNTM photos justifies the production of a new facsimile. It is always good to be reminded of the materiality and three dimensionality of these ancient manuscripts. Dan Wallace signed off his preface to the volume on “22 May 2020, Feast Day of Saint Rita of Cascia, Patroness of Impossible Causes.” And with a project like this, it is indeed impossible to please everyone completely. It is clear that a lot of hard work went into the production of these volumes, and we (that is, those who can afford a copy or have access to a good library) can be grateful for the results.

This entry was posted in Chester Beatty Papyri, Codices, Codicology, Frederic Kenyon. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The New Facsimiles of the Beatty Biblical Papyri

  1. Ralph Cox says:

    There are some pages of P46 that separated from the ms when it first appeared on the market, and were not part the Chester Betty collection. Are they included in the this new edition?
    Thanks for the news – Ralph

  2. B Todd says:

    Great points! The volumes are still a little expensive, but I will purchase them for my personal library this year.

  3. S Walch says:

    I bought the facsimiles back in March 2021 (shipped from US to UK – thankfully P&P wasn’t too expensive), and I very much agree with your assessments of the volumes. I was expecting the P45 images to come in the more-than-likely “Western” order, so was a bit disappointed this hadn’t happened. I do however prefer the black-background as opposed to white, which just appears a bit too bright for my liking. Since the publication, at least two more fragments of the P45 manuscript have been placed within the manuscript (of which Stratton Ladewig has been notified), which I’m guessing once this current print-fun of facsimiles has been printed, will be incorporated in the next printing.

    For those with the facsimiles, from pages 97-98 Fragment 10 is from the bottom-side of folio 16 (John 10:7-25, 30-11:10); Fragment 9 is from folio 14 (fragment 9 is in fact upside down!), and is placed in the hole near the bottom of the leaf. Finally though I can’t prove it, I believe Fragment 12 (which has several easy to see letters on the verso) contains text from John 2:17-25.

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