I’m sure we have all seen pictures of the papyri New Testament fragments. However, I have a question. How do they read these fragments and put them into the bible if there is only small bits of text left on the fragments? Please forgive me if this is a stupid question.
Well, it isn’t a stupid question. It is an interesting question. You might want to visit one of your archeology professors or a theology instructor and ask. They spend countless hours, toil and sweat putting such fragments together so that they make sense with the OT that we do know. Even so, there are missing fragments here and there. It is like an educated art form in a way. It is like getting a letter in the mail that has been damaged by rain, weather or general mishandling, and you need to try to discipher it to make sense with the rest of the content. Peace.
Not stupid at all.
First off, the Bible you have in your hands today are translated from what is called critical texts. What happens is that a committee of scholars compare the different surviving manuscripts of the OT or the NT in order to determine which reading is most likely to be closest to the original, using a number of factors to help determine probable readings (for example, the date of the manuscripts, the likelihood of accidental or intentional corruptions, etc.)
For the New Testament, two critical texts are the Novum Testamentum Graece, aka Nestle-Aland (NA; now in its 28th edition) and the United Bible Societies’ (UBS) Greek New Testament. There’s no big difference between the two editions; the UBS text is geared for translators and so gives only the more meaningful or important variants, while the Nestle-Aland is more for scholars and students who wish to study the Greek itself, and thus gives a more comprehensive list of alternative readings.
There are a lot of manuscripts of biblical books, many of which contain a complete or mostly-complete text (the bits of pieces of papyri are just a fraction of them). They don’t so reconstruct the biblical text just from the papyrus fragments as they compare them to manuscripts which preserve a more complete reading.
One way to do it AFAIK (I’m simplifying the process here) is that scholars would first choose a “base text” which they would use as a foundation, compare it to different manuscripts, weigh the evidence, and then adopt the chosen reading - which might not be necessarily the one that’s in the base text.
…someone once said to me that “you can never ask a stupid question.”
…clearly this applies to honest seekers not to the jackets that have permeated social mediums!
I recall a program from one of those informative channels (maybe the NG network) where a bunch of scholars were allowed to study fragments held by the Vatican… it reminded me of working on jigsaw puzzles. They used all sorts of tools at their disposal and attempted to identify the fragments’ origins (period, language, the book/place they were most likely to represent…)
One particular channel once promoted the debunking of Catholicism/Christianity by the findings of "scholars/experts that were given access to the dreaded “Dead Sea Scrolls.” Well… the world still revolves around the sun!
I’m pretty sure that you could search for the actual documentaries–perhaps EWTN or the Vatican archives might have them.
There is a set of books from the Jewish Publication Society by the title of “Outside the Bible” and the publication of some of the texts suffers from just this problem of fragmented manuscripts.
A simplified example of such a text might be:
Our Father [who art in heaven] hallowed be Thy Name
Thy King[dom come Thy will] be done
On E[arth as it is in heaven]
…where the bracketed text is the best guess as to the original text.
Thanks for the replies! I’ve always been confused about this topic. Thanks for clearing it up.