A manuscript so old and valuable that most scholars can only dream of ever seeing it is at the fingertips of a select group of UMHB students and faculty. Literally.
When the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby and other chain stores, decided to fund the Green Scholars Initiative, collect biblical artifacts and establish the world’s largest Bible museum, they chose Dr. Renate Hood, UMHB associate professor of Christian studies, to be a part of the project.
Hood serves as a Scholar-Mentor, working on the research with four undergraduates and is excited about the department’s involvement with the project and the impact it will have in many different areas of study.
“I was very grateful to see how it was received with open arms by the administration,” Hood said.
Having a university that supports the research is essential to this initiative, partly because a small group of students are the ones examining the document.
Undergraduates doing this caliber of research is unheard of in the areas of theological and biblical studies.
“The vision is let’s get the undergraduate students involved and let’s get the smaller schools involved who normally do not get these opportunities,” Hood said. “Let’s get them excited about the word of God and the world of the Bible. I love that vision.”
In her career in New Testament studies and teaching she has previously collated ancient Greek manuscripts for the International Greek New Testament project, and has taught a variety of Greek language and ancient manuscript courses.
Hood said, “Students love a hands-on approach that teaches them in a real-life way the nuances of linguistics and the world of the text. It is that element of connecting the ancient world with contemporary relevance that can grab hold of a student and never let go.”
Though few undergrads and even many Ph.D. scholars have ever had the opportunity to do research on such documents like this, Hood has no doubts the team will succeed.
“I think that undergraduate students are capable of so much more than we think. If they can do it in the sciences, if they can do it in literature, they certainly can do it in the theological and biblical studies fields. It has just been kept from them,” she said.
The Green Scholars Initiative project began less than a year ago and is already flourishing, continuing to add to the Green Collection’s already large number of documents.
Hood said, “For the last 11 months they have bought up a tremendous collection. It now owns the second or third largest Dead Sea Scroll collection outside of Israel.”
The UMHB team is part of one of three focused study groups launched in the first wave — the papyri group.
Found in an ancient waste dump in the Egyptian desert, now known as the famed Oxyrhynchus library, the document contains a wealth of information beneath its delicate and damaged exterior.
Known among scholars as P39, the papyrus leaf fragment is the second or third oldest existing New Testament fragment in the world. Though parts of sentences are missing, the text has been identified as John 8:14-22 in which Jesus is teaching in the temple.
In addition to studying the Greek writing on the document, the team will also take a look at the material itself, the history behind it and hopes to reevaluate the dating of the manuscript fragment.
Estimates vary from the early third century to the late second century. This would be within generations of those who walked with Christ and Christ himself.
“We want to work on ink analysis, which includes specific types of photography. For that we might have to travel with the document … and with this specific manuscript we want to work on re-dating it,” Hood said.
The document will be at UMHB until the research project will be completed. At that time a new papyrus project will follow with fresh challenges.
Dr. Tim Crawford, dean of the College of Christian Studies, has also studied ancient manuscripts and understands how remarkable it is that students get to do hands-on research of this document.
“The kind of pieces that our students are going to have access to here are really very limited access museum pieces. These are things that don’t usually see the light of day. They are stored away in special access places where the public wouldn’t even get to see them,” he said. “We may do very intense language study … but to think that you’d ever actually see this document is sort of beyond your wildest dreams. And then to actually have it on the table in front of you is just amazing.”
Four undergraduates were chosen to take part in the Green Scholars Initiative research at UMHB.
Junior Christian ministry major Hannah Eaton, Tyler Potts, Curtis Landrum and Evan Duncan are working on different projects regarding the document.
All four are biblical language students. Eaton, Potts and Duncan are in their second year of Greek and Landrum is studying Hebrew.
“I am researching comparisons between our document and other documents similar to it as far as scribal writing styles and its structure,” junior theology/philosophy major Potts said. “Just elements of the document, natural elements of the document, like the material it’s written on and what the ink is composed of and anything you can do with that.”
Potts has high expectations as part of the research team.
He said, “I think it would be really cool if we discovered something about the text or the document itself that no one has ever figured out before and if we brought to light some new ways of studying material like this.”
Junior history and theology/philosophy major Landrum has great interest in the origins of the document.
“I would like to know a lot more about the people who wrote it, why they wrote it and if at one time it was important to them, because obviously it was discarded,” he said.
He realizes that he is part of a select group and is appreciative of the opportunity to be on the research team.
“I feel extremely honored to be selected to be part of a program that less than 300 students across America are honored with the chance to participate,” Landrum said. “And just the idea that I will have my name on a published document that hasn’t been touched since the 1930s, that’s just phenomenal.”
Junior theology/philosophy and mass communication/journalism major Evan Duncan is focused on the ink and the unseen details of the manuscript.
“Because I have some photo and video background I’m looking into having visual imaging and what we can see with high speed cameras, different kinds of lights that will show different things that maybe no one’s ever seen before,” he said.
Duncan thinks the experience is one that will have great impact on his future and the school’s future as well.
“It’s bigger than anything I’ve done before,” he said. “I think it’s really exciting for the university. I didn’t expect to be able to do anything like this at UMHB. Obviously no one would.”
The ground-breaking research project may be influential in more schools than just Christian studies.
Although it is only focused in that discipline now, there is a possibility for the project to broaden to other areas.
“I’m looking at doing some things with the people in education with the whole mentor idea there. We are pursuing something with the biology department. It’s a plant product, papyrus, so because of the nature of the product … we are pursuing something interdisciplinary … and possibly working with the biology students as well,” Hood said.
She plans to stop by Oxford University this summer to spend several days with Dr. Dirk Obbink, the world’s leading papyrologist and Senior Scholar for the Papyri project with GSI.
While at Oxford, Hood hopes to further explore research options for UMHB and the undergraduate students.
Crawford believes the research will be a positive draw for non-religion majors.
“The way we are going to do this, it can also involve folks who have very little background. It might be a good way to attract some people into the program who might be interested but might be in another major,” he said.
Hood fully supports the vision of the Green Scholars Initiative to include undergraduate students and hopes it will invigorate the students’ excitement about the text and the world of the Bible.
“Maybe they will continue, go to divinity school or get a Ph.D. Or if they eventually go into church ministry, they will carry it with them forever and have an interest in the Bible not only because of its stories but because of the research that goes into it,” she said.
The research hasn’t gone into full swing yet, but even the work that the students have done shows they are capable.
Hood said, “They can do it just fine themselves and that’s what I like. I’m so proud of them. I’m really proud of them already.”
She hopes that as the project expands, the impact on students’ lives and the academic world will spread as well.
“I’m also eager to prove what undergraduate students are capable of. I think that needs to be done. It’s time to show that,” she said. “Let’s show the world…. The sky’s the limit.”