How was the New Testament understood and interpreted in the past?

St Paul depicted on a twelfth-century Byzantine plaque made of gold and enamel, The Met

A newly-found commentary on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Georgi Parpulov, University of Birmingham
ORCID ID icon 0000-0003-3152-200

Before the printing press was invented in the mid-fifteenth century, all books were written and reproduced by hand. In Christian Europe, no text was copied in this manner more often than the New Testament. Over the past two hundred years, many a scholar has pored over New Testament manuscripts, which need to be carefully compared with each other: their contents are almost never exactly the same, and consequently it is not always clear what words, precisely, an evangelist or apostle wrote. Besides providing evidence of the biblical text itself, manuscripts also show how people interpreted it at various points in the past.

Even after a manuscript has been registered and described in a library catalogue, it may not immediately attract the attention of scholars. This is especially true of small fragments, which are easy to overlook. It was only in 2020 that a pair of parchment leaves kept since 1920 at the National Library of Ukraine finally made it into the official list (census) of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts. To judge from the type of handwriting, the text on these two leaves was copied somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean just over a thousand years ago. They evidently come from a large volume, the rest of which does not survive.

The fragment is interesting, strange as this may sound, not because it contains part of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the original Greek: that letter is itself a thousand years older than the two leaves, and its text is known from hundreds of other manuscripts, the earliest of which date from the third century. Our leaves, however, combine the apostolic epistle with a commentary, also in Greek, pieced together from the works of several Christian theologians. This particular commentary is preserved in no other manuscript and was previously unknown. It must be of venerable age, since the most recent author cited in it is Gennadius, archbishop of Constantinople in the 450s-470s. Its newly-found text can now be compared to other biblical commentaries from late Antiquity, throwing light on the history of biblical exegesis.

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Image: St Paul depicted on a twelfth-century Byzantine plaque made of gold and enamel, The Met