“Texts are our oldest and most valuable artifacts”

04.13.2015 | Guest

Hugh W. Nibley’s legacy continues to inspire Latter-day Saints who value religious scholarship. As the Chair of the Maxwell Institute’s Nibley Fellowship Program, it has been my pleasure to become familiar with many young, promising scholars who trace their intellectual yearnings in part back to Dr. Nibley. I’ve invited some of them to reflect on their experiences studying religion in the academy. In this post, Philip Abbott discusses his interest in textual criticism. See other “Nibley Fellow Reflections” here. —Kristian Heal

Philip Abbott

Being a Nibley Fellow is truly an honor for me. In addition to inspiring teaching from BYU Religion professors, the works of Hugh Nibley were the impetus that motivated me to pursue the study of religion at the graduate level. Specifically, reading Nibley’s works on early Christianity brought ancient Christian texts to life for me and opened a window into the early Church that forever changed my understanding.

In fall 2013, I began the master’s program of Religion at Pepperdine University. In my first semester, I took a class entitled “Women in the Early Church.” It sparked my interest in the lives of women in early Christianity. For this class, I began researching Paul’s relationship with Christian women as evidenced in his epistles and wrote a paper dealing with the textual variants of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, a passage of scripture with disputed origins due to its differing location in some New Testament manuscripts. After intense study of the manuscripts which contain the transplanted passage, I concluded that these verses were originally included in Paul’s letter to Corinth in their traditional location, but that they were not a universal mandate to female silence in worship. The passage was dislocated in the late second century when Western Church fathers, in attempts to combat prominent Montanist prophetesses, moved the passage out of context to highlight its potentially misogynistic tone. I have since expanded this paper into my master’s thesis.

My research on the textual situation of 1 Cor 14:34-35 has given me a strong desire to study textual criticism in the future. I am particularly interested in the development of the New Testament text-types and the doctrinal and social issues that could have influenced their readings. Additionally, I would like to investigate ancient non-Christian textual-critical methods, like those of the Greek philosopher Galen, and their effect on early Christian texts and interpretation.

As a student at Pepperdine, I have also had an opportunity to study papyrology. Last Spring, I received permission from the Dean of Seaver College to create a one-on-one course with Dr. Ronald Cox dedicated to studying a third-century Greek fragment of Romans in Pepperdine’s possession. With new Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI) technology, we were able to decipher previously unseen writing on the verso side of the fragment, as well as in the margins. Our work has been valuable because we have corrected several erroneous assumptions about the manuscript, including its original dimensions and its likely provenance.

My study of the ancient Romans fragment at Pepperdine has helped me realize that texts are our oldest and most valuable artifacts. As I have studied the works about ancient manuscripts by E.G. Turner, Larry Hurtado and others, I have begun to see how manuscript analysis can illuminate nascent Christian culture. Not only the literary content, but the physical aspects of manuscripts have untapped potential to reveal the early Christian world. In future doctoral studies, I hope to further analyze ancient manuscripts and bring to light aspects of the early Church.

In addition to manuscript analysis, I have recently been investigating ancient reading practices and their effects on Christianity. As public reading became increasingly prominent in late first-century Christian worship, what were the social implications? What role did literacy play in shaping church leadership or hierarchy? What were the possible impacts of liturgical reading on women’s roles in ancient Christian communities? The study of ancient public reading has substantial potential to illuminate social aspects and developments in early Christian communities. I hope to further explore these avenues as a doctoral student of the New Testament.

The money I was awarded as a Nibley scholar has been a great blessing for my wife and me. In addition to buying much needed language textbooks and supplies to help prepare me for Ph.D. studies, we have used the funds to pay for my doctoral application fees. The gift from the Maxwell Institute has allowed us to stay financially afloat while we are both in school.

Philip Abbott is a master’s student at Pepperdine University studying the New Testament. His current focus is on textual criticism and papyrology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in cello performance from Brigham Young University where he also minored in Classics. As an undergraduate student, he was inspired to study religion at the graduate level by the BYU religion faculty. Philip lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Rachel Ostler Abbott.