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Monday, October 5, 2015

"A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament" (Philip Wesley Comfort)

TITLE: A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament
AUTHOR: Philip Wesley Comfort
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2015, (416 pages).

We have commentaries available for every book of the Old and New Testament. From the verse-by-verse commentaries to the exegetical commentaries, most of these resources focus on the meaning of the texts, and how these speak to the modern day person. They are helpful in showing us the background and the ancient contexts. This commentary takes a different approach. It describes the manuscripts and how we can make sense of the sources and the original writings. All of these (if not most) are based on an "eclectic method" where various manuscripts are selected based on compilation of a main text with contributions form other collections. This particular volume sticks with the "actual manuscripts" which were all second and third century manuscripts, which is as ancient as anyone could get. According to Philip Wesley Comfort, a lifelong student of the Ancient Near East with special interest in the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, his commentary is based on "The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts."

What makes this even more unique is the way it recognizes how the ancient manuscripts treat sacred names, called the nomina sacra. On the originals, sacred names have a different font and "special calligraphy." Words such as "Theos" for God; "Kurios" for Lord; "Christos" for Christ; "Pater" for father; and "Iesous" for Jesus; all come with a special writing style. I can imagine the original readers and scribes of these manuscripts literally slowing down and carefully inscribing the word(s) with deep reverence and care. Even the words for "Son of God" or "Son of Man" are carefully written in a unique format. This contrasts with the way many modern readers casually treat each sacred name like any other word. With the main manuscripts chosen, Comfort guides the readers and places extensive footnotes on scribal additions and missing portions of the texts. Like most good commentaries, Comfort does his own direct translations. For each New Testament book, Comfort lists down all the manuscripts used. He considers the earliest manuscripts (second to fourth centuries) as "most important" manuscripts of the New Testament. This is indeed a treasure chest of information which is brief and to the point. Dating each manuscript can be a challenging task in itself which is why Comfort uses a rule of thumb to date the documents to within 25-50 years. Combing 127 papyrus, 300 uncial (manuscripts beginning with a '0' prefix), 2800 minuscule (numbered from 2 to 2818), and using the Nestle Aland text, Novum Testamentum Graece (NA27), readers can be overwhelmed by the large amount of manuscripts. At the same time, readers will be more appreciative of the hard work put in by these researchers in order to bring to us the best texts available. The accompanying commentary brings to life the meaning and purpose of the individual manuscripts, making it a primer for anyone interested in studying the original NT scripts further.

On the synoptic gospels, we begin to see how significant the various manuscripts are in deciphering the Greek language, and how the variations affect modern day translations and understanding.What I appreciate most is how the author treats the manuscripts as a way to discover nuances and explore richer meanings of the text. This is in contrast to some scholars who basically adopts a binary approach of marking a True/False statement on everything they see. Such black/white methodologies will cause one to miss out on the various shades of gray and the colours of the creation. Having said that, we come across portions of scripture where there are verses or passages omitted. Here, Comfort brings in the best explanations available and where necessary, introduce other more modern discoveries to make a reasonable case for what the texts are trying to tell us. Of interest is the missing texts after Mark 16:8. With at least five possible endings, how do readers make of them? Comfort maintains that the most accurate copy of Mark does not go beyond verse 8. We should not lose sleep over these because the missing parts can be picked up in the other gospels. He gives us four reasons to put our concerns to rest. The Gospel according to John has many references to nomen sacrum, which gives the reading a whole new level of reverence. Even words referencing to Christ like the "cross" are written in the original manuscripts in a sacred manner. With careful reading of how the originals give special care to the writings of the sacred names and words referencing the divine, Comfort helps us look at Scriptures with a whole new lens. Working through the Pauline Epistles, the letter to the Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation, we get a sense of respect for how the early scribes take time to emphasize the writing of the biblical texts.

In contrast to modern ways of recording, we tend to emphasize on mere words and letters without paying sufficient attention to reading the texts in a respectful manner. With digital media, the problem gets worse as electronic bibles can be so easily downloaded into our computing devices and forgotten. With a printed Bible, we can highlight words, underline portions of Scriptures, and to write notes on the sides. Considering the expensive writing resources in the ancient times, it is no wonder scribes are particularly careful in how they use the papyrus and the kinds of ink to be used. Preservation and clarity seem to be their chief concerns. Spiritually, they have a profound respect and reverence for the divine Word, something that is relatively lacking in our modern age of convenience and commercialization. Thankfully, with this book, readers are given a chance to revisit Scriptures and to go beyond mere red-letter editions toward respecting the sacred names in Scripture. The spirit of how the Jews and the Old Testament writers treat the Name of the LORD (Tetragrammaton) is freshly introduced in how we treat the Name of the Divine in the New Testament manuscripts. Maybe, in future, some new English translations may do the original texts more justice. One example is the Names of God Bible which I have reviewed here.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Academic in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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