Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reading the Gospel of Judas II: Fragmentary Texts

Imagine that you receive a document. Unfortunately, this document has been chewed by a dog leaving various holes in the paper. Some of the holes are larger than others. Some pages are torn. All of them are damaged. You would be able to read much of the text, but there would be portions where you would find it difficult to fill in the blanks in the paper. This is the situation that scholars find themselves in when dealing with a fragmentary text.

Reading fragmentary manuscripts presents a challenge for scholars. Some lacunae are small and obliterate only a part of a letter. Most lacunae that only cover part of a letter create no problems for the reader. Sometimes, the lacuna will remove enough of a letter that more than one letter could be represented by the traces. Usually, though not always, in those cases one can determine the letter from the remaining letters of the word. Lacunae, however, might be extensive and leave whole lines or pages missing.

The manuscript of the Gospel of Judas has suffered greatly through the years. Years of neglect, handling, and storage in less than ideal conditions have made the manuscript deteriorate. Thus there are holes in the manuscript. Scholars use the Latin term for a hole in manuscripts and call them lacuna (plural lacunae).

Sometimes a scholar can use his knowledge to reconstruct the text. The more extensive the text, the less likely that a scholar will be able to supply a possible text.

The Gospel of Judas is a fragmentary text. Not a single page of it is without lacunae. In some cases an entire half page is missing. Missing such significant portions of the text obviously affects what we can understand of it. We thus cannot have a perfect knowledge of the text even if the language posed no barriers.