BreakPoint: The Book of Acts Gets a CT Scan

Taking the Trouble to Understand the Bible

How much trouble would you take to understand the Bible just a little bit better?

Pierpont Morgan was perhaps the most influential financier in American history. During the latter part of the 19th century, Morgan began using some of his extraordinary wealth to become a collector—of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, prints, and ancient artifacts—for his personal library.

In 1924, his son, J.P. Morgan, donated his late father’s library and all its treasures to the public. It became known as the Morgan Library and Museum, or “the Morgan,” for short. And it’s right here in New York where I live.

Back in 1962, the Morgan added to its collection of rare manuscripts by purchasing a clump of charred parchment leaves. The artifact is a codex, or ancient book, written in the Coptic language, that dates between A.D. 400 and 600 from Egypt, before the Muslim invaders arrived. The codex contains a copy of the New Testament’s Book of Acts, as well as another work yet to be determined.

But the condition of this codex, known as M.910, is so fragile—a journalist said it “looks as delicate as a long dead flower”—that no one has dared to open it, for fear of causing further damage. Until now.

In December, W. Brent Seales, a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, began using a CT scanner and his own software to, according to The New York Times, “model the surface of a contorted piece of papyrus or parchment from X-ray data and then derive a legible text by assigning letters to their proper surface.”

In other words, Seales has the technology to read a crumbling book that has been closed for a millennium and a half—even while it remains closed—Amazing! The technique, Seales says, “can turn things thought to be of no value into precious objects.”

We should begin to receive the results for M.910 very soon. The findings are expected to shed light on the formation of the New Testament canon, as well as the original Greek text of the book of Acts—no small matters to Christians! And who knows what we might learn from the other work that may be concealed along with Acts in this ancient codex?

Uncovering the secrets of ancient artifacts such as M.910 is fabulous. As the Proverbs 25:2 tells us, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” And the fact that a secular organization, the Morgan Library and Museum, would devote so many of its resources to this task demonstrates just how valuable to human civilization biblical texts really are. As Samuel Chadwick stated, “No man is uneducated who knows the Bible, and no one is wise who is ignorant of its teachings.”

This brings up a very natural follow-up question: How valuable is God’s Word to you? And a second is like unto it: What pains are you willing to take to understand that Word?

If a museum will buy a crumbling, basically unreadable biblical text and hold it for over five decades in the hope that somehow, some day a technology will be invented so that its pages can be opened and its history understood, what are we doing with our perfectly good Bibles?

It’s almost funny—we sometimes treat our Bibles as if they are museum pieces, and only infrequently do we dust them off and look for the precious treasures hidden inside their pages. A real museum, however, spares no expense and works diligently, knowing that what it finds could change how we understand the world.

And by the way, what we find in the Bible today could change our world. Of course, you have to read it.

 

The Book of Acts Gets a CT Scan: Taking the Trouble to Understand the Bible

Eric has provided a great reminder that we have a treasure in the written Word of God. And as the words that Augustine heard encouraged him, let them encourage us to “Take up and read.”

 

 

Resources

Scanning an Ancient Biblical Text That Humans Fear to Open
  • Nicholas Wade | New York Times | January 5, 2018
UK Professor Uses Technology to Read Scrolls of Herculaneum
  • University of Kentucky | Youtube video | January 20, 2015
Here’s One Benedict(ine) Option
  • John Stonestreet | BreakPoint.org | March 10, 2017

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