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Dr. Daniel B. Wallace has spent the summer in Athens, Greece, leading a team of researchers digitizing ancient New Testament manuscripts. Here, his team reports on their progress amid the country's political instability.

Negotiations for an unbelievable project had been going on for months. Finally, on January 7 of this year, the National Library of Greece (NLG) in Athens signed a contract with the non-profit Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). Along with a team of researchers, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, Executive Director of CSNTM and Senior Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, would be responsible for digitizing the entire collection of the NLG’s Greek New Testament manuscripts. The NLG has one of the five largest repositories of Greek New Testament manuscripts in the world; altogether, there are more than 300 such manuscripts, comprising 150,000 pages of text. This unique opportunity would demand careful planning, training of personnel, and flexibility at the research site.

Preparing the Way

Wallace spent his 2014-15 sabbatical year preparing for this massive expedition with the assistance of Rob Marcello, CSNTM’s Research Manager and PhD student in New Testament at DTS, who handled all of the budget and logistics. The project would require seven or eight people to work in Athens full-time for three months in 2015 and three months in 2016.

Many people have participated in CSNTM’s research trips since its founding in 2002, but the Athens project required advanced training. CSNTM’s standards are exacting; each image goes through a three-step post-production quality inspection. In order to qualify, each team of two people had to digitize 300 pages of rare books in four hours without mistakes. After months of training, 30 people were ready to go. Each would stay in Athens for a few weeks, then rotate out and be replaced by the next person.

“Through CSNTM's experience of shooting manuscripts at forty different sites around the globe, we know the limits a person has when he or she is away from home, working and living with others 24/7,” one team leader noted. “Three-to-four-week stays is normally the limit to retain sanity.”

The CSNTM team at the National Library.

Daily Work at the National Library

Step 1: Perform the “Autopsy”

Work at the National Library began in January with Wallace preparing the manuscripts for photography, essentially performing a two- to three-hour autopsy on each document. This process includes: counting leaves; measuring the manuscript’s dimensions; counting lines per page; documenting its material (papyrus, parchment, or paper), icons, and ornamentation; creating a table of contents for the New Testament books in the manuscript; dating the manuscript; and noting any special material. Twenty weeks were budgeted for Wallace to do this work—most in 2015, some in 2016. More than 7,000 pages of manuscripts needed to be prepared each week, on average. 

Step 2: Copy the Manuscript

In May, seven team members arrived with CSNTM's state-of-the-art equipment, which includes, for example, Graz Travellers Conservation Copy Stands. These are specially designed copy stands—created by a professor of medieval manuscripts in Graz, Austria—for digitizing codices.1 The copy stands hold each manuscript at a 105-degree angle, which both protects the binding and allows just enough opening to photograph one page at a time. While a number of research organizations use the stands, CSNTM is one of only two institutions worldwide that own four of these important tools.

CSNTM also uses 50-megapixel cameras, producing individual TIFF files of over 300 megabytes. Several large-capacity hard drives and even a RAID system were brought to Greece to get the work done. 

Step 3: Repeat Hundreds of Times Daily

Every day, the teams digitize as many as 1,600 pages of manuscripts, and every night, each image needs to be proofed by the trip supervisor with the photographers. Images that do not meet the high standards set by CSNTM are noted, and the next day, the teams reshoot the sub-par pages, then continue on with new manuscripts. Workdays of twelve to fourteen hours are not uncommon. As the team members report, “The work is exhausting and exhilarating, all at the same time.”

The exhilaration comes from knowing that this work will substantially impact our understanding of the Scriptures. Many of the NLG's manuscripts are badly deteriorated, and preserving them digitally will make them available for generations to come. All the images will be posted both on the NLG and CSNTM websites and will be accessible for free. Ultimately, having such images will assist scholars in determining the original wording of the New Testament.

Working Through Political Unrest

CSNTM's progress has continued in spite of Greece's political turmoil and challenging working conditions. Vandals cut off the NLG's air conditioning early in the summer, leaving the manuscript room (where the teams were working) with just a fan to cool them in the 90-degree days. The cameras frequently overheated and needed to be shut down several times a day.  Later, the teams went to a small basement room that had air conditioning, while Wallace remained in the manuscript room.

Still, while Greece is certainly in trouble economically, Wallace’s team found that the media tend to hype the despair and outrage seen in select pockets of Athens. “Mostly, people are just depressed,” commented one team member. “We're grateful that the NLG has remained open for us to do our job. In fact, the NLG has extended its hours so that we can shoot longer each day.”

First Research Findings

A number of fascinating discoveries have been made, too. The NLG has five New Testament manuscripts that have not been catalogued by the official clearing house in Münster, Germany, and CSNTM has discovered another five manuscripts not previously documented. A documentary team videoed the CSNTM workers for several days, and a three-part documentary on CSNTM’s work at the NLG is expected to be released next year. 

To read more about CSNTM’s work in Athens, visit www.danielbwallace.com. Some of the new discoveries are discussed there.  

1 A codex (singular of  codices) is our modern book: two covers with cut pages, bound on one side. This book-form was invented in the late first century AD; although Christians did not invent it, they were the first to popularize it. By AD 500, the codex finally replaced the scroll as the standard book-form throughout the western world.