In the Autumn of 1989, I gave a lecture to my Synoptic Gospels class at Trinity that got suddenly out of hand. I never intended it to, and because it did get out of hand, I never gave it again. I prepared longer over this one than most, and had nearly forgotten about it until I was speaking recently in Ann Arbor. A pastor there was in that class at TEDS, heard the lecture, remembered that one student broke into tears about it all, and then told me he had a copy of it. (His name is Ken White, the pastor that is. He didn’t cry, he laughed — like Sarah.) He sent it to me, and I will begin typing it anew into this blog.
The point of the lecture was to teach about the “genre” of the Synoptic Gospels. “Genre” is the term for classifying a piece of literature according to the kind of literature it is: thus, we have comedies, and tragedies, and novels. Well, I asked, what is a gospel?
To make the lecture more interesting, I “invented” a story about getting to go to Alexandria’s library and finding on a shelf the librarians’ notes about how to classify a “gospel.” I thought my students were sharp enough to know that the great library at Alexandria was destroyed — for millennia. But, no, not one of them seemed to know and this led many to think the following story occurred. One student began to cry in joy of what I had found, and I suddenly found myself muddled as to what to do. What I decided to do was tell them then and there and never to do this again.
Here it is:
I want to read a paper to you that will be submitting for publication. It records an experience I had last summer in Egypt, and in itself is quite interesting. I was there as a result of a scholarship from Tyndale House for the investigation of a new manuscript discovered at the great library of Alexandria. The only persons who know my results are my NT colleagues and Tyndale House. The publication is scheduled to come out next summer in Tyndale Bulletin.
Last summer, on a trip to the Near East and especially Egypt, I was privileged to obtain permission to utilize the great classics library in Alexandria. It was difficult to obtain permission to use the library, so I went out of my way to acquire all the appropriate recommendations (from Dean Kaiser, BW Winter, my doctoral supervisor, JDG Dunn, and an added recommendation from a publisher). So, with my briefcase jammed with my Synopsis, my Greek New Testament, BAGD, and these recommendations, I approached the head librarian who sat at a marble desk, flanked by two armed guards.
I presented my papers, permission slips and recommendations to the librarian, a certain Constantine Napoli. He found my name on his list and so I was welcomed. He asked me which part of the library I’d like to sit in, and I said, “Ancient Alexandrian.” He said, “Which century?” and I responded, “First.” So, he gave me a map, showed me where I stood and then told me how to get to that section of the library called “Ancient Alexandria.” At the end of that library, he pointed out, was a large collection of mss called “1st Century Alexandria.”
It took me about 10 minutes to walk through the maze of scholars and separate divisions of this library, but I finally found the ward called “Ancient Alexandria.” A friendly graduate student met me, recognized my name on her list, and escorted me to the end of this large, sun-drenched, marble-collonaded room. A small door, only about 5-ft high, separated me from the desired collection of mss. I ducked a bit, bumped the top of my balding head, and emerged in the Ancient World that I desired to encounter. I was alone.
The room was distinguished, if empty and dusty. It had the aroma of a basement that had been unattended to for a decade or more. I found a corner to set up camp, gladly relieved my arm of the briefcase, wiped off the scriptorium’s desk, took out my Synopsis and Greek NT, and then scanned the room. Where, I asked, are the notes of the 1st Century librarians? The shelves were marked well, each marking in Greek except two sections, one in Latin (containing official correspondence with Domitian) and the other in Ethiopic (containing, as best as I could tell, nothing but ordinary letters from one person to another). One long shelf was labeled “Small Scrolls of the Librarian” (bibliaridion tou bibliophulakes). At the end of this long shelf, in the far and lower corner, I foudn what I was looking for, first century librarian notes. The outside of the scroll read biblia ton Ioudaion kata ton theophilon, domitian (“books of the Jews, according to Theophilus, Domitian”). Apparently the librarian, named Theophilus, served during the reign of Domitian.
Tomorrow, part 2.