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Wall Street Journal: Digitizing Ancient Manuscripts

An article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled, “The Next Age of Discovery,” appeared in the May 8, 2009 issue. Written by WSJ’s reporter, Alexandra Alter, the article discusses several organizations that are digitizing ancient documents. Among them, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts is mentioned. It’s an interesting piece, with some remarkable images (most of which are only available on-line). You can see the article here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124173896716198603.html

I was in Athens when I got the email from Ms. Alter. I gave her my phone number and she called the next day. We spoke for 30–40 minutes. I haven’t looked at my cell phone bill yet, and I’m not sure I want to!

CSNTM is mentioned in one sentence, followed later in the article by a full paragraph. My only concern about the piece, and this is really a minor quibble, is that it juxtaposes what CSNTM’s costs for expeditions are (about $10,000 a week) with those of another institute. The other institute, a very fine organization, can get manuscripts scanned at a site for $20,000 a year. The way they do it is to train locals to do the work, then leave them alone (presumably for a year). That’s a remarkably efficient model, but I don’t think it’s the best one for what CSNTM does. The equipment we use requires a technician on-site. Things break down, especially the cameras—sometimes on a daily basis. And they need to be refurbished after about 30,000 pictures. If we had 23 sites where our equipment was being used (as this other organization does), the cost just for the equipment alone would exceed $400,000. This does not include the ongoing costs of paying locals to do the work. Also, CSNTM goes through multiple check-points to ensure the highest quality of images. We do all this on-site. We realize that we have only one shot at shooting (pardon the pun!) the manuscripts, and we must get it right. See our “Showroom” for the evolving standards that CSNTM uses on our site www.csntm.org.

The next paragraph indicates that Google can scan books for about ten cents a page, but up to a dollar a page for some books. And for rare works, it costs as much as $1000 a book. CSNTM’s costs are, on average, $3300 per manuscript (the average New Testament manuscript is more than 500 pages long). Such documents need to be handled with special care. Rare books are not in the same category as unique manuscripts, some of which are more than a millennium older than the rarest books. Our primary objective is to protect and preserve the manuscripts. There are no short-cuts to this process.

We believe that the Word of God is worth the extra care required. Each manuscript is a unique handwritten testimony to God’s providential care of scripture.

Later in the article is a paragraph on the work of CSNTM. It notes, among other things, that we have discovered 75 manuscripts (all of which are Greek New Testament manuscripts; we’ve also discovered quite a few others that we don’t count), and that our goal is to photograph 2.6 million pages of text.

Overall, the article is very well researched and well written. Kudos to Ms. Alter and the Wall Street Journal for a fine piece that lets the public know about this ‘new renaissance’ that has become possible because of technology.

By the way, tens of thousands of images are already posted at our site. Come take a look.

4 Responses to “Wall Street Journal: Digitizing Ancient Manuscripts”

  1. Thanks, Dr. Wallace!

  2. Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal! What a testament to God’s providential preservation of His Word…. that which He has intended for us to have until the return of our Lord and Savior. As the manuscripts crumble He gives man the ingenuity to develop means to capture these images, and stirs the hearts and imaginations of scholars, like our own DR Daniel B. Wallace, to take on such an ambitious project! (unfortunate that Ms. Alter referred to you as “Mr. Wallace”). Oops.

    I just returned last night from Washington DC (my son’s class trip), and saw a graphic reminder of how easily a manuscript can slip into oblivion. Our own Declaration of Independence has faded to the point where barely any words remain visible! I heard that it may be completely invisible within a year or two. I recall seeing it when I was a teen, and it was clearly visible at that time. It is of course housed in a dark, climate-controlled case, but still it is slipping away. I was afraid to photograph it, as we listened to a frightening and thunderous lecture by a guard warning us that if a flash (or pre-flash) went off we were done-for!

    We also visited the Library of Congress, and saw two Bibles on display:
    the first machine printed Bible— The Gutenberg Bible, and the Mainz Bible (the big one!). The gentleman at the desk informed me that a scholar card would be necessary if to view the the rest of their Biblical manuscript collection. And, he told me that it is rare for them to allow someone to photograph those manuscripts. I dropped your name of course, and said if you hadn’t done so yet, you might one day photograph their collection. Have you? I should have given him the CSNTM web address!

  3. Daniel B. Wallace May 10, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Hey thanks, Susan, for being our advocate in DC! No, we haven’t shot the MSS in DC yet. But we’ve got a long way to go to accomplish our goals.

  4. Many thanks Dr Wallace for the updates. I greatly enjoy reading your posts.

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