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How Early are Lists of NT Writings?

Michael J. Kruger (former PhD student) contributes a significant study on the question of how early we have lists of NT writings treated as scripture: “Origin’s List of New Testament Books in Homilliae in Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, ed. Chris Keith & Dieter Roth (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 99-117.

There are two sides of opinion on the question of when we find our earliest lists of NT writings. The one view (championed by Sundberg and Hahneman) is that these appear initially in the fourth century CE. The other view (defended by others, including Kruger) is that we have evidence of such lists from the early third century (and these may have had earlier precedents).

The debate has focused much on when to date the so-called “Muratorian Fragment,” a portion of what was apparently a list of Christian writings that were coming to be recognized as scripture, as well as some that remained under dispute. Kruger’s focus here, however, is on a list of writings in a text by the early third-century Christian scholar, Origen, which has a number of similarities to the Muratorian Fragment list.

Origen’s writings (Greek) come to us via a Latin translation by a later figure, Rufinus, and so the first step in Kruger’s discussion is to determine how faithfully Rufinus may have rendered Origen. Essentially, Kruger contends that, whatever changes Rufinus may have made, the substance of Origen’s thought was faithfully conveyed.

Then, Kruger turns to the list of writings in Origen’s work, Homiliae in Josuam 7.1. In this list, Origen accepts the four Gospels, Acts, fourteen epistles of Paul (Hebrews included here), 1 Peter, 1 John, Jude, and Revelation. Origen acknowledges here that 2 John & 3 John and 2 Peter are doubted by some, but Kruger contends that Origen showed himself content to treat them as scripture. We have a similar stance on the epistle of James.

Interestingly, Origen’s list has three categories: writings commonly/widely accepted as scripture, writings not accepted, and a “mixed” category (writings that seemed to have both what he regarded as apostolic teaching and other content). Kruger then points another place where Origen lists authors of NT writings (Homilies on Genesis 13.2), which matches fully the list of book in the other Origen text.  This three-fold classification is, to my mind, another earmark of its early date.

Then Kruger analyses a canon-list by Rufinus himself (Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed), noting that it seems more fixed and advanced than the two lists in Origen. This would suggest that Rufinus didn’t impose his own list on Origen, but faithfully rendered what Origen had written.

Kruger’s conclusion, thus, is that the list of NT writings in Hom.Jos 7.1 is authentically Origen’s, which takes us back to the early third century CE, showing that already at that point Christians were forming views on what writings should be treated as part of the NT canon.  Together with the Muratorian Fragment (which Kruger with many others assigns to the early third century CE), Origen gives us indication that the formation of a NT canon was a process that began surprisingly early, even if it was not completed until much later.

Manuscripts as Artefacts: Kraus on Hurtado

In my continuing series of postings on contributions to the recent Festschrift for me, I turn to Thomas Kraus’s essay:  “From ‘Text-Critical Methodology’ to ‘Manuscripts as Artefacts'”:  A Tribute to Larry W. Hurtado,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 79-98.

I should explain that the original version of Kraus’s paper was presented at a small conference held here in New College, sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, upon the occasion of my retirement.  That’s why you have the (slightly embarrassing for me) title of the essay. Kraus engages thoughtfully some questions to which I’ve devoted attention over the years, offering his own independent judgements (and Kraus, for those who don’t know his work, is fully up to the task of making independent judgements).

First, he considers the early Christian preference for the codex (early leaf-book) over the bookroll.  I’ve tended to side with those who think that this preference was intentional, and likely signalled something, in particular a desire to distinguish early Christian books (and especially those texts treated as scripture) from other books.  Others, of course, have offered various putative practical “advantages”  of the codex as reasons.  One thing that hasn’t to my mind been taken into account often enough in these discussions is that the preference for the codex was apparently significantly stronger for texts treated as scripture than for other texts.  By my counts, ca. 95+% of identifiably Christian copies of “Old Testament” texts are codices, and for those that came to form the New Testament, there is no copy of any on an unused bookroll (only a very few instances of “opisthographs”).  Whereas for other texts (theological treatises, homilies, so-called “apocryphal” writings, etc.), about 65% are codices, the remaining one-third bookrolls.  ( I highlight this in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 53-82).  Kraus gingerly agrees, it seems, that, on balance, the preference for the codex represented more than mere perceptions of some practical advantage.

He then addresses questions about the “nomina sacra,” generously referring to my own published work on this topic “essential for every future discussion of origin, meaning, and purpose of this phenomenon” (88).  Kraus agrees that the motivation for this scribal convention was not to save time or space.  But he’s hesitant to endorse the proposal that I’ve supported, that the convention may have begun with writing Jesus’ name in the two-letter suspended form, IH, and that this may have held also a numerical significance (IH = 18), although he grants that the idea is “by no means groundless” (94).  For my argument, see:  Larry W. Hurtado, “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117, no. 4 (1998): 655-73.

Then, Kraus considers another interesting feature in some early Christian manuscripts, the “staurogram” (the Greek capital letter “rho” superimposed on the Greek letter “tau” as part of the abbreviated forms of the Greek words “stauros” (“cross”) and “stauroo” (“crucify”).  (One error in Kraus’s discussion is his statement that there is no pre-Christian evidence for this ligature; actually, there is, the tau-rho used sometimes to = “three” or “thirty”.  What’s distinctive about the early Christian use of the tau-rho is the new meaning they assigned to it, the device functioning in these early manuscripts as a kind of pictographic reference to the crucified Jesus).  After considering some other suggestions, he endorses this view, which I’ve argued for, drawing upon earlier work by Aland and Dinkler.

I’m honoured and touched by Kraus’s essay, and grateful for his readiness to contribute to the volume.  Readers will find a wealth of bibliographical references as well as Kraus’s own careful expertise on display.

Sense-Unit Divisions in Ancient NT Manuscripts: Artifacts of Ancient Readers

Just as in modern texts, sense-unit division and punctuation in ancient manuscripts evidence the organization of a text to aid understanding of it.  In his contribution to the multi-author volume in my honour, Sean Adams studies the sense-unit divisions (something like our paragraphs) in the text of the Gospel of Mark in three important manuscripts:  Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Alexandrinus:  “Mark, Manuscripts, and Paragraphs:  Sense-Unit Divisions in Mark 14–16,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 61-78.

Ancient Greek & Latin manuscripts were written in “scripta continuo” (that is, no spacing between words), and with little punctuation (especially in high-quality literary manuscripts).  But in many we do have sense-unit divisions.  Adams (a former PhD student) first introduces how sense-units are marked in ancient manuscripts:  often by an enlarged space of varying sizes, often a “paragraphos” added (a horizontal line in the left-side margin between lines of text), often “ekthesis” (the first letter of the new sense-unit beginning slightly to the left of the other lines of the text and protruding into the left margin).  There was a variety of measures used, with nothing like the standardization that we practice in modern texts.

Then Adams turns to the three manuscripts to note how the copyists indicated sense-units.  I’ll highlight a few of his observations.  One noteworthy datum is that Codex Sinaiticus has no indicator of any sense-unit at the start of what we commonly take as the beginning of the “passion narrative” (at Mark 14:1).  Instead, there is a paragraph-type break at 14:9, and another at 14:30.  These and other examples lead Adams to judge that the copyist (or the “exemplar” manuscript that he copied) tended to break the text at “speaking units,” although breaks occur at other points (and likely for other reasons) as well, such as temporal and geographical shifts.

In Codex Vaticanus we see both major sense-units marked (enlarged space + parapraphos mark) and minor sense-units (paragraphos without enlarged space).  Adams judges that in Vaticanus sense-units aren’t so regularly linked with shifts in speakers as in Sinaiticus, but, instead, seem linked with shifts in location, time or persons.  Sense-units are less numerous in Vaticanus as well.

Finally, in Codex Alexandrinus, sense-unit breaks are indicated by enlarged spaces and “ekthesis” in the first line of the new sense-unit, typically this letter also enlarged.  Again, he thinks that we see in Alexandrinus both larger and smaller sense-units indicated.  In Mark 14–16, Alexandrinus has 86 sense-units, “over twice as many as Vaticanus [33 units] and over a third more than Sinaiticus [61 units]” (p. 70).  And, in Alexandrinus Mark’s crucifixion narrative in particular has” a disproportionate number of sense-unit divisions” compared with the rest of the material in Mark 14–16.  So, it appears that these manuscripts reflect the application of different criteria for dividing the text.  Yet, in a number of cases, they agree:  14:43, 55, 57, 66; 15:2, 16, 24, 33, 38, 42; 16:1.

Then, Adams compares the sense-units in the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (28th ed.), finding closest similarity to the scheme of Vaticanus.  Generally, the Nestle-Aland text has some manuscript support for its sense-unit divisions, but in a few cases there is no parallel in any of these three major codices.  The general point Adams underscores is that any decisions about sense-unit divisions involve judgements about how to read the text.  That is, exegetical decisions.  So, modern interpreters should know that a printed text of some ancient writing, such as the Nestle-Aland Greek NT, reflects such decisions by its editors.  And the sense-units in ancient manuscripts give us a window on these decisions being taken by ancient readers (and perhaps copyists).

Mark’s Christology–Plausibility Factors

Further to my posting on Paul Owen’s essay on Mark’s Christology yesterday, a few comments here about plausibility in understanding and making inferences from ancient texts, Mark in particular.  As the scholarly literature indicates, there continues to be a division of opinion about Mark’s Christology, especially whether the anonymous author (we’ll call him “Mark” hereafter for convenience) held Jesus to simply a human figure especially blessed by God with certain powers who was adopted by God as “Son” (or exalted to that status), or whether  the author held the earthly Jesus to have had some greater, “transcendent” significance from the start.  Of course, it’s careful exegesis of the text of Mark that must be centre of the debate, but I suggest that there are also wider plausibility-factors that need to be addressed.  Such factors can dispose us toward one or another exegetical presupposition, and/or can make one or another judgement seem more or less likely.  I’ll illustrate in the following paragraphs.

But let’s start with a couple of textual data, to illustrate the sort of judgements necessary.  On the one hand, Mark has no Johannine-like prologue explicitly positing “pre-existence” and “incarnation.”  So, does this mean that the author didn’t hold such a view, or was ignorant of the idea?  On the other hand, among the numerous Markan textual curiosities, the heavenly voice in 1:11 acclaims Jesus as “my beloved son, in you I am pleased.”  The echo of Psalm 2:7 is obvious, but the wording is quite different.  Psalm 2:7 depicts the coronation of the king as his “adoption” by God, but Mark’s wording instead simply has the voice affirm that Jesus is “my son.”  So, has the author deliberately deployed this wording because he holds Jesus to have been God’s Son already, his baptism and the heavenly voice simply serving as the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry and the divine affirmation of his status?  Let’s explore now some plausibility-factors.

Most NT scholars agree that texts in Paul indicate that he knew and presupposed the belief in Jesus’ “pre-existence” (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Cor. 8:4-6, and others).  If so, then the idea was out there widely in Christian circles by the 50s easily.  So, how plausible is it to assume that, writing some 20 yrs or so later (per most dating of Mark), the author was somehow unaware of this idea?  Given the almost manic networking in early Christian groups, how did this author (who, as a grapho-literate person would be more likely to be informed of things) remain ignorant that a whole lot of other Christians believed Jesus was “pre-existent”?  Is that plausible?

After all, the Gospel of Mark doesn’t seem to reflect some isolated, sectarian Christian stance or group in some backwater or Swiss valley cut off from the outer world.  The text, instead, seems very much reflective of a very trans-local and trans-ethnic religious movement and message (e.g., 13:10, and other texts).  So, how might this author have remained sufficiently uninformed of the beliefs of other Christians to make it plausible that he has no knowledge of the idea of Jesus as “pre-existent”?

Or let’s suppose that the author knew of the idea but rejected it, preferring instead a kind of “adoption” view, Jesus adopted or installed as “Son” in his baptism.  Well, there are reports of ancient Christians who held such a view, though these are much later (late 2nd century and thereafter), the so-called “Ebionites” mentioned initially by Irenaeus.  But, aside from it being practically certain that this wasn’t actually the name of any Christian sect, the more relevant datum is that those to whom Irenaeus ascribes “Ebionite” Christology he says were Jews, who operated as a sect, holding themselves apart from other Christian circles.  (On this topic, see esp. Oskar Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, eds. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 419-62.)

But, as we’ve noted, “Mark” seems to have been fairly involved and affirming of a more inclusive Christianity, with no indication of either sectarian tendencies or a polemical, anti-Pauline stance.  Moreover,  the early influence of Mark (serving as the model and inspiration for the authors of Matthew and Luke, and perhaps also John), the wholesale incorporation of Mark into Matthew and the substantial incorporation of Mark into Luke, all suggest that Mark wasn’t seen as heretical or espousing some Christological stance that went against the grain of others or that was so very odd and out of step.

Also, if Mark were so out of step, so unsatisfactory christologically (as compared with the growing dominance of a “high” Christology in the early churches), how and why was Mark successful in making it into the charmed circle, the four-fold Gospel (the original “fab four”!)?  Despite Irenaeus’ efforts to argue that there had to be four Gospels (arguments that seem quaint and strained), there is no reason that there could not have been, say, three (you know, like the “trinity”), or only two (perhaps only those ascribed to apostles, Matthew & John).  In short, were there any suspicion about Mark’s Christology, why is there no reference to this, no indication of it?  Instead, Mark seems to have been valued sufficiently (for whatever reason) to “make it” among the emerging list of Christian texts widely treated as scripture in the first two centuries or so.

Granted, the authors of the other Gospels obviously felt that theirs were needed, that they had something to add, that they had emphases needing to be published.  But that’s a long way short of them thinking that Mark was somehow out of step or dissenting from the Christological beliefs becoming dominant in the emerging Christianity.

We could consider additional factors, but these will illustrate my point:  That we need to consider the plausibility of claims.  As I often said in my classes, in doing history remember that many things are possible, but the historical task is to judge which things are more plausible, more likely.  So, is it more plausible that “Mark” was either ignorant of, or opposed to, the idea of Jesus as perhaps “pre-existent” and bearing “transcendent” significance, or more plausible that this author didn’t think it germane to his purpose to address the question of “pre-existence”?   Is it more plausible that the author intended this narrative as his full theological manifesto (his silences being indicative of the limits of his beliefs), or that it was occasioned by a desire to relate “the beginning/foundation [Greek:  arche] of the gospel” (1:1) in the person and ministry of Jesus, with Jesus serving as the model as well as the foundation for believers?  If the latter, then it’s a bit dodgy to make sweeping conclusions based on what the author happened not to include in this very “occasional” text.

Jesus as God’s Chief Agent in Mark

Paul Owen’s essay,  “Jesus as God’s Chief Agent in Mark’s Christology,” is a stimulating contribution to the newly-published multi-author volume, Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter Roth (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 40-57.  In this posting I continue my review of the essays in this book.

One of the continuing debates among scholars is what to make of Mark’s view of Jesus, some scholars continuing to posit a “low” view of Jesus, perhaps as Messiah but little more, and other scholars insisting that Mark reflects the view that the Galilean Jesus also bears a transcendent significance that links him with God in some special way.  Owen clearly comes down on the side of the latter view and in this essay reviews some key reasons for doing so.

He defines what he means by “God’s Chief Agent,” as a figure who is “associated with God in a unique capacity in the manifestation of his sovereignty” (citing my phrasing from my book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, p. 20).  So Owen (rightly in my view) avoids as anachronistic the categories that later came to govern Christological debates in the early churches (“ontological” categories), and focuses simply on how Mark’s narrative portrays Jesus in relation to God.

Owen commences with analysis of the opening of Mark (esp. 1:1-3).  With some other scholars (e.g., Joel Marcus), Owen judges that the peculiar form of the (conflated) biblical quotation here reflects Mark’s view that Jesus is identified as the mysterious figures of the biblical texts in question, amounting to a figure “who acts in the place of YHWH” (45).  Then, drawing attention to Mark’s references to the significance of Jesus’ name, Owen contends that these suggest that “Jesus stands in the place of the one who sent him (God)” (48).

Next, focusing on Mark 5 and the reference to Jesus as “Son of the Most High God” (5:7), Owen suggests that Psalm 82 may lie in the background of Mark’s narrative here, Jesus taken as the figure of that Psalm who acts powerfully on God’s behalf (similarly, in the Qumran text, 11 QMelchizedek, a mysterious figure called “Melchizedek” is so identified).  Then, Owen probes the narrative of the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:35-44), finding allusions in it to OT passages such as Ezekiel 34:11-31, where God “in the person of a new David” (55) will “shepherd” God’s people.

Owen concludes that “Mark’s Christology is much ‘higher’ than many modern scholars are inclined to grant” (56).  For, if, for example, John the Baptist “prepares the way” of a figure who is apparently referred to “Kyrios” (YHWH) in Mark 1:3, then the author must have intended that the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) should be taken as “identifying Jesus as God’s Son, not elevating him to that status” (56).  In a footnote, Owen makes explicit that he proposes that Mark identified Jesus with “the theophanic ‘angel of the Lord,'” but that this doesn’t mean “equating Jesus  . . . with a created angel, however exalted . . .” (57 n. 55).

Owen was one of my first PhD students, and, in addition to this stimulating essay, he has produced other important work, especially his joint-authored essay on the Aramaic phrases involved in “the son of man” debate:  Paul Owen and David Shepherd, “Speaking Up for Qumran, Dalman and the Son of Man: Was Bar Enasha a Common Term for ‘Man’ in the Time of Jesus?” JSNT  81 (2001): 81-122.  We also co-edited a multi-author volume on this topic:  Larry W. Hurtado and Paul L. Owen (eds.), ‘Who Is This Son of Man?’ The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 2011).

I’m pleased to have Paul’s essay included in the Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism volume, and I hope it will contribute to a more profound engagement with Mark’s Christology.

Mark and the Emergence of Early Christian “Book Culture”

Chris Keith’s contribution in the volume of essays given to me recently is an informative and stimulating discussion focusing on the Gospel of Mark, particularly as (probably) the first manuscript-form of Jesus-tradition.  He writes, “Mark’s textualization of the narrativized gospel tradition remains an unprecendented event in early Christian book culture” (38).  He also postulates, “Mark’s textualization of the oral Jesus tradition gave birth to a distinctive and powerul reception-history for the gospel tradition wherein manuscripts nurtured, shaped, and maintained various (often competing) Christian identies in ever-new expressions” (38).  Chris Keith, “Early Christian Book Culture and the Emergence of the First Written Gospel,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 22-39.

In other words, Keith emphasizes the physicality of the Gospel of Mark, as a written text, a manuscript, and the significance of this for the Jesus-tradition.  Among the subsequent effects, he argues, was the practice of reading Gospel-texts “liturgically in the manner that non-Christian Jews read the Hebrew sacred texts in synagogue and elite Romans read their classics in the context of meals” (8).  So, he concludes that we are dealing with “Mark’s creation of a Gospel-reading culture in early Christianity” (39).

As a context for his own essay, Keith refers to Werner Kelber’s oft-cited book, The Oral and the Written Gospel (1983) and two essays of mine in which I engaged Kelber’s theses critically:  “The Gospel of Mark:  Evolutionary or Revolutionary Document?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 40 (1990), 15-32; “Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark:  A Critical Assessment of Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel,Bulletin of Biblical Research 7 (1997), 91-106.  Essentially, he judges that Kelber’s 1983 book raised important questions (esp. why did Mark write this pioneering narrative of Jesus?) but offered dubious answers, and that I’ve made valid critiques of Kelber’s early work (and I should note here that Kelber has moved his views since that 1983 book) but have failed to address Kelber’s “foundational question.”

In slight self-defence, I should point out that my criticism of Kelber’s 1983 book was directed mainly against two of his claims (and these were his major ones):  (1) that the composition of the Gospel of Mark represented some major theological development, and (2) that as a written text the Jesus-tradition was thereafter frozen and no longer had the flexibility it supposedly had in its “pre-Mark” form.  I reiterated my own judgement of these matters briefly in my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ (272), describing Mark there as “a significant new development in literary genre,” adding, however, “But, as with nearly all innovations, so with this pioneering effort, the author drew upon, and made his own contribution to, a prior and larger body of tradition and Christian activity, including previous writings about Jesus.  The canonical Gospels [Mark the pioneering one] are thus not really revolutionary, but instead constitute a significant evolutionary development, innovative more as landmarks in the literary history of early Christianity than as revolutionary theological statements.”  They were “a new kind of Christian writing, a literary genre of considerable historical significance and subsequent influence” (274).  (Though examples of a Roman-era “biographical” genre, their specifics derive from early Christian proclamation and teaching.)

Keith’s essay poses the question of whether this goes far enough, whether Mark’s influence/impact (whatever the author’s intention) may have been more than “a significant evolutionary development.”  That will bear further pondering, at least for me.  In any case, I’m pleased that some of my work has been stimulating for Chris, and also proud that he is free and able to develop his own views and offer some critique of mine.

Not a “Film Noir”: The Gospel of Mark

In her contribution to the essay collection recently presented to me by former students and some colleagues, Holly Carey (former PhD student) presents a cogent case that the Gospel of Mark is much more “upbeat” than some scholars assume.  I share her view, and I commend her essay:  “‘Is it as Bad as All That?’  The Misconception of Mark as a Film Noir,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 3-21.

She effectively points out the selective reading of Mark that leads some scholars to portray the text as a dark, mysterious, brooding narrative, focusing on Jesus’ abject death, and leaving readers puzzled and unsure of what to make of it all, what Holly (and I) refer to as the “film noir” view of Mark.  As she notes, from the outset, however (1:1), “Mark” announces that this narrative is “evangelion“, “gospel”, “good news”.  Moreover, the Jesus of Mark seems to be the vehicle of remarkable divine power, as exercised in healings, exorcisms, “nature” miracles (e.g., storm-stilling), etc.  But Carey’s still more effective point is the Markan emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection, showing how scholars have often overlooked this, with a monocular focus on references to his crucifixion.

For example, scholars typically refer to the three “passion predictions” in Mark (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34), when, in fact, all of these texts should more correctly be described as “passion-resurrection predictions,” for along with predicting his sufferings Jesus also predicts as the outcome his resurrection.  In further support of the importance of Jesus’ resurrection in Mark, note how it features so prominently in the transfiguration account (9:2-13; which all scholars formally recognize as something crucial in Mark).  After the heavenly voice declares the resplendent Jesus to be “my Son, the Beloved” (v. 7), Jesus orders his disciples to say nothing of this “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (v. 9).  Now, obviously, this alludes to Jesus’ death; but the focus seems to lie on his resurrection as the event that triggers a new proclamation time.  Moreover, again in 14:27-28, Jesus predicts that his disciples will desert him but that when he has been “raised up” (from death) he will rejoin them in Galilee.  And, finally, it is pretty significant that the narrative proceeds then on through Jesus’ crucifixion and burial (15:33-47) to a climactic scene of an empty tomb and the bold announcement “He has been raised; he is not here” (16:6).  (Whatever you make of the women’s response, this confident note should be clear.  For my own “take” on the question of the women in Mark’s passion-resurrection narrative:  Larry W. Hurtado, “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark,” in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seàn Freyne, edited by Zuleika Rodgers, Margaret Daly-Denton and Anne Fitzpatrick McKinley [Leiden:  Brill, 2009], 427-50, the pre-publication version available under the “selected published essays” tab on this blog site.)

As Carey judges, “Mark has no interest in leaving his audience wallowing in the depths of despair,” and, instead, “repetitively highlights the importance of Jesus’ resurrection alongside his suffering and death” (p. 20), Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection presented as “mutually interpretive and inherently linked” (p. 21).  “For Mark, the gospel story is primarily about life, even if it comes by way of suffering and death,” and, contra some fashionable opinions, “It really is not ‘as bad as all that'” (21).

Readers interested in this issue will also find her published PhD thesis valuable: Holly Carey, Jesus’ Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the Intertextual Relationship Between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark’s Gospel. LNTS, no. 398 (London: T&T Clark, 2009).

(In coming weeks, I plan to blog on the other contributions in the Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism volume.)

The Theodotus Inscription

In connection with an earlier posting about the “Hellenists” mentioned in the book of Acts, I mention the “Theodotus Inscription,” a Greek dedicatory inscription (lst century CE) from Jerusalem, which clearly reflects the movement of Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora to Jerusalem.  These are likely the sort of people designated the “Hellenists” in Acts 6–7.  For more information on the inscription go to online sites here and/or here.

Of course, this doesn’t settle by any means questions about the historicity of details about “Hellenists” in Acts.  But it does show that there were Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem in the time in view.  Note also the reference to the “synagogue of the freedmen” in Acts 6:9, who are portrayed as tackling Stephen, likely Jews manumitted from slavery in Diaspora locations who had relocated in Jerusalem.

P.S.  For more detailed information on this inscription (and virtually all the other literary references to, and archaeological evidence on, ancient synagogues), this publication:

Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder and Birger Olsson, The Ancient Synagogue From Its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Source Book. AJEC, 72 (Leiden: Brill, 2008), pp. 52-54 on the Theodotus inscription (with further bibliographical references).

Earliest Depictions of the Crucified Jesus

A recent article helpfully discusses what historians of Christian art recognize as earliest depictions of the crucified Jesus, particularly a few gem-stones, a couple of them dated to the early-mid-4th century, and another that likely pre-dates them: Felicity Harley-McGowan, “The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity,” in Gems of Heaven: Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, edited by Chris Entwhistle and Noël Adams (London: British Museum, 2011), 214-20.

One of these gem-stones, the “Constanza gem” (held in the British Museum) depicts Jesus on the cross flanked by the 12 apostles, reflecting the emergence of specifically Christian gem-stones likely sometime in the late 3rd or early 4th century. In addition, there is the plaster cast of another gem-stone (the current location of the gem itself not known) with a somewhat similar (though slightly cruder) depiction, and likely from the same rough period as the Constanza gem.

A third gem that Harley-McGowan sees as pre-dating these two is a large Bloodstone intaglio (30 x 25 x 8 mm; British Museum) that she places in the “late 2nd-3rd century.”  It depicts and names Jesus on a cross and is “covered with a densely carved and largely incomprehensible inscription.”  On the front side, however, a 9-line inscription commences with an invocation of “Son, Father, Jesus Christ,” followed by what appear to be indecipherable magical names and vowels, with an similarly strange 9-line inscription on the reverse side.  The best guess is that this is a magical gem, the likely purpose being to invoke the power of Jesus, making it unclear “whether the owner would have been a Christian or not.”

She draws attention to a certain similarity between the image on this gem stone and the well-known “Alexamenos” graffito, found scratched on the plastered wall in part of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and commonly dated to the 2nd century.  This appears to mock Christian devotion to the crucified Jesus.  This graffito (and likely the Bloodstone intaglio as well) suggests “a ‘pagan’, or non-Christian’s awareness of two things:  firstly, the significance of Jesus Crucifixion (at least in terms of it being a powerful and efficacious symbol); and secondly, a consciousness of the existence of Christian representations of the Crucifixion by the early 3rd century AD” (p. 218).

The larger point is that these items comprise “one step in directly challenging that persistent belief that persecuted Christians were too scared or too ashamed to name and depict the subject [the crucified Jesus] explicitly” (220).

She seems unaware of confirming evidence in the form of the “staurogram,” the monogram-like device comprising a combination of the Greek majuscule letters tau and rho, which appears in several Christian manuscripts commonly dated to the third century (Gregory-Aland P45, P66, P75).  I’ve written about this device in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (135-54) and in an essay (the pre-publication version available here, and in an earlier blog-post here), contending (with some earlier scholars) that in these early uses it is a simple pictographic depiction of the crucified Jesus.  This would confirm Harley-McGowan’s judgements about implications of the items she discusses.

It’s too bad, but not at all exceptional, that she seems unaware of the “staurogram.”  It’s indicative of the unhelpful walls sometimes created by the unavoidable necessity of scholarly specialization.  Art historians don’t think of manuscripts as offering useful data, and textual scholars don’t take account of iconographic data or questions.  I guess it helps to be somewhat eclectic (or so I like to think)!

P.S.  Subsequently to the above posting, email exchanges with Dr. Harley corrected my inference that she was unaware of the staurogram.  I should merely have indicated that she made no reference to the matter.  She is writing a book on the subject of pre-Constantinian Christian references to the crucified Jesus, to which I’ll look forward.

“Inside Roman Libraries”: Houston’s New Book

Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity, by George W. Houston, brings together almost everything you could want to ask about Roman-era book collections and book collectors.  Analyzing data from the Herculaneum papyri and the several identified book collections from Oxyrhynchus, Houston discusses a raft of interesting matters, adding much to our understanding of the place and functions of books in the Roman world.

In “Assembling a Collection” (chap. 1), he briefly surveys evidence of how copies of literary works were made and/or acquired, the presentation of books as gifts, borrowing copies from friends, public libraries, buying part or all of a collection, bequeathing and giving collections, book collections as war-booty, and other matters.

In Chap. 2, he reviews various lists of books from ancient collections, the titles and authors included in these lists, probing what they tell us about the popularity of various authors/texts, and the nature and likely uses of the collections listed.

In Chap. 3, he focuses on the collection from the “Villa of the Papyri” at Herculaneum.  This collection of hundreds of bookrolls (somewhere between ca. 6-7 hundred and 1-2 thousand) was carbonized in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, and additional rolls may still lie buried in the unexplored portions of the villa.  Recent technological developments enable scholars to identify the contents of the carbonized rolls more readily.  Judged by the works identified thus far (copies of nearly 70 different Greek & Latin works), the collection was heavily works of rhetoric and oratory.  In the main, also, the manuscripts seem to have been of good quality.  Houston discusses the texts identified, the physical properties of the manuscripts, “paratextual material” in the papyri (e.g., annotations; “subscriptions” giving author, title, book number, etc.; stichometric counts), and, a very particularly interesting matter:  the evidence of the “useful lifetimes” of the manuscripts.  Houston notes that most of the rolls in the Herculaneum collection were “some 120 to 160 years old when Vesuvius erupted,” “a small but significant number” some 180-280 years old, and “a very few” 300-350 years old.  Analysis of the other collections in this study yield a similar picture. This should help to dispel any notion that papyri manuscripts were fragile and easily worn out!

In the Herculaneum collection and the others studied in the book, the manuscripts seem to have been copied by numerous copyists:  e.g., some 34 different “hands” identified in the Herculaneum papyri (and there are hundreds of rolls yet to be analysed, so the total number of copyists could be “many dozen”).  So, “a significant percentage” of the collection was likely produced “commercially” (i.e., by professional copyists), not in-house (e.g., by household slaves).  A number of copies were likely commissioned by the owner(s) of the collection.

Chap. 4 is given to the book collections of Oxyrhynchus.  Houston observes the differences among them, again noting the authors and texts included in each collection, the approximate age of manuscripts, and the number/proportion of re-used rolls (“opisthographs”). These differences hint at the nature of the person(s) who collected the books and the use to which the books were likely put.

In these first few chapters alone, there is a massive amount of data and cogent analysis that anyone interested in the place of books in the Roman world simply must read and note carefully.  Having written recently myself on a related matter here, I acknowledge gratefully the rich bounty of further information Houston has now provided.

In subsequent chapters, he discusses “Space, Storage, Equipment, and Art” in ancient libraries, helping us to visualize more accurately how books were stored, accessed, transported, and read/consulted (Chap. 5), and the “Personnel and Their Activities,” i.e., the staffing and their various tasks (Chap. 6).  Several appendices provide handy summaries of various data, and there is also a book bibliography of scholarly works.

There are simply too many valuable observations to try to list them all here.  It’s simply now the “go-to” book on its subject, required reading for all of us who are interested on books and/in the Roman era, in the light of which, studies of early Christianity and its books must now proceed.  One observation relating to my own work:  All these collections are made up of bookrolls, no codices, which further reflects how curious was the early Christian preference for the codex for their literary texts.

Houston, George W. Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here)



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