Illuminated Discoveries

Pepperdine professors and students get a never-before-seen look at ancient religious artifacts using an innovative imaging technology.

August 2, 2013  | 5 min read

For the past six months the Seaver College Religion Division has been studying a significant piece of religious history that could impact the way scholars and theologians translate and understand a part of the Bible.

The document, a small piece of vellum containing a partial copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in Greek, dates to the third century and is the oldest copy of Romans chapters 4 and 5 known to exist. However, the decisive letter in the crucial word that would favor one or the other of two competing interpretations of Romans 5:1 is missing.

For the past six months, professors Randall Chesnutt and Ron Cox, along with three student researchers, have been called upon by the Green Scholars Initiative, an international project dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and publishing ancient artifacts, to reconstruct this New Testament verse from the available manuscript—called the Wyman Fragment, Manuscript 0220, or the εχομεν(“echomen”) document—then analyze and publish their findings.

“The significance is huge by virtue of the fact that this is the earliest known copy of Romans, but hasn’t been appreciated because it’s so difficult to read,” comments Cox. “We are able to provide a much more substantive argument—not just what we can reconstruct, but that our reading is the proper reading.”

Previous attempts have been made by scholars to decipher the text, but without sophisticated imaging and restoration techniques, those efforts have proven inadequate. Through state-of-the-art tools and techniques developed by Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project at USC, Chesnutt, Cox, and their team have been able to study a three-dimensional rendering of the fragment’s previously illegible reverse side.

The group, including undergraduate students Natalie Lewis (’13) and Vincent Quach and master of divinity student Matthew McCay, has relied on the recently developed Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to give them high-quality views of previously unseen data, such as ink residue and quill impressions.

Lewis, a Seaver English major, focused on trying to decide whether the manuscript had the subjunctive “let us have peace” or the indicative “we have peace.” The issue hinges on whether the crucial word had a long-o vowel or a short-o vowel in the defective spot in the manuscript. Using the RTI technology and careful analysis of handwriting, she pulled samples of the scribe’s handwriting from elsewhere in the manuscript and superimposed different letters to test which characters could fit.

“I ultimately determined it was one reading over another, ‘We have [εχομεν] peace with God, our Lord Jesus Christ,’” she explains. “Since it’s the oldest manuscript we have, solidifying this certain word would be the best attestation to this reading we have on file.”

Cox confirms, “Since this document was discovered, it was decided that this is how it was meant to be read. There’s still, however, being able to prove that’s exactly what the Greek text says.”

Handwriting analysis also helped the group come to an enlightening discovery. McCay worked on capturing every letter written on the document and cataloging their exact size and dimension, shape, darkness, and even the depth of each quill stroke. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle: what would fit there?” he explains. Because there is no evidence of the manuscript’s scribe writing a particular letter so small, McCay deduced that another particular letter “is the only one that would fit the spot.”

Quach, a biology student, reconstructed the damaged backside of the document and deciphered the reading not previously legible to scholars. “The ink that is visible on the front is bleeding through the back, but I was able to separate what text was coming through the vellum to the other side using the RTI. It was extremely gratifying,” he says.

The team, through careful research and observation, has been able to deduce and extract more information from the Wyman Fragment than anyone else has previously.

“Our students are making these discoveries that are not going on anywhere else in the world,” enthuses Chesnutt. “Seeing the students involved in cutting-edge research unique to this place ... they realize the contributions they’re making to the study of these priceless religious texts. With these unprecedented images, it is now possible to decipher most or all of the text on the reverse and publish a reliable edition of this part of the New Testament as it existed in the third century.”

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For more than 20 years John Wilson, former dean of Seaver College, Dean Emeritus, and Professor Emeritus of Religion, traveled to the Middle East as a field archaeologist to study the relationship between archaeology and Christianity, specifically looking at the New Testament. One of the things he consistently came across was coins—while visiting with the Bedouin tribes in Israel, in off-the-path, hole-in-the-wall shops in Syria, and even some on the side of the road that were minted by ancient Greeks.

“They last a long time—sometimes they deteriorate, but they tend to hang on, so you just get interested in them, because you keep finding them and realize they were used by people who lived in ancient times,” says Wilson, of the over 1,000 coins he has collected over the years. “Often, you’re holding a coin that the last person who held it lived 2,000 years ago or even earlier than that, so there’s a sort of natural curiosity that comes out of these things.”

While archaeological sites do not travel well, coins do. Consequently, Wilson has often used them to provide “hands-on experience” of the ancient world, like one particular coin minted under Pontius Pilate’s rule, which was used as a teaching tool in his religious studies classes.

“I would ask students, ‘What can we learn about Pontius Pilate from this coin?’ which was etched with symbols that were offensive to Jews,” he explains. “It’s so typical of how Pilate operated, that he could put anything on the coins that he wanted, but he chose imagery—like crooks that pagan priests would hold while performing a sacrifice—that he knew would offend the peoples he was ruling over, as if to rub their noses in paganism.”

When approached by Zuckerman to compile a representative sample of his collection to photograph with the RTI technology, Wilson started with Alexander the Great and ended with the Crusaders. “I tried to put together a group of coins for students to study that represents the whole history of the Middle East, especially the biblical period.”

What immediately came to Wilson’s mind when Zuckerman introduced the idea was to connect students with this endeavor. “I thought, ‘This is a coin that’s never been seen or studied in a scientific or scholarly way, so why not let a student have the opportunity to be the first person in the world to take this coin and learn everything they can from it?’ Nobody else has done that before.”

Wilson’s role in the unique endeavor is to provide his extensive background and knowledge of ancient coins to the participating students—undergraduate Eric Kim and graduate student Virginia Weldon—who will then work with Cox to help guide them through existing literature and help them ask the right questions about the materials. “These ancient coins have the power to better illuminate a world far away from us, but close in interest,” muses Kim. “As a religion major, you run into a plethora of information about the social and cultural context of the New Testament and wonder how anyone could gain such information with certainty. This process has shown me firsthand one of the ways by which scholars obtain such information and the work it takes to validate with enough certainty the information from such artifacts.”

“Every single one is a tiny work of art and a tiny piece of history,” says Wilson, “so the student can really feel like they’re doing something that’s fairly significant, something we thought only students in the hard sciences could do. Now, Pepperdine humanities students are doing primary research with primary material.”

John Wilson talks about some of the ancient coins he has collected over the last two decades: