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NT in the Second Century

October 21, 2010

In the “Essays etc” page of this site, I’ve uploaded the manuscript (PDF) of an essay in which I discuss some key dynamics and developments that shaped the transmission/copying of the NT writings in the second century.  I’m interested in pushing our limited evidence to try to engage questions about this crucial early period.  I also identify some future research projects that might be of interest to PhD students!

My main point, I guess, is that the second century was a period of varying copyist tendencies, some tending toward a somewhat freer approach involving various “improvements” (as they saw them) such as harmonizations of Gospel accounts, stylistic changes, sometimes narrative embroiderments, and even the occasional doctrinal-oriented variant.  But the evidence also indicates that other copyists seem to have followed a much stricter approach.

I also argue that (contra my late sparring partner, Bill Petersen) it’s simplistic to take the use of NT texts in early church writers as privileged evidence of the state of the NT texts at the time.  Citation practices & conventions clearly differed from copying conventions.  Our best evidence remains actual copies of texts, and it’s exciting that in the last 100 yrs or so we’ve continued to accumulate manuscript evidence that takes us back to the second century (though the amount remains frustratingly small).

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6 Comments
  1. Professor Hurtado,

    What in your mind are the most significant ancient texts and contemporary works for getting a good grasp of what was going on in second century scriptural transmission? Apostolic Fathers?

    How important are Eusebius’ writings for the second century?

    Is there a critical edition of Eusebius that you would recommend? I would prefer a Greek text with an English translation if possible.

    • The earliest NT papyri are our most direct access to the copying/transmission of NT writings in the first centuries. Can I recommend that you read my essay (in the Essays, etc. page of this site) on the NT in the Second Century for some pointers?
      Eusebius is an important figure, but from the 4th century (though he proffers information on the earlier centuries, he has to be read critically). The Loeb edition is a handy access, giving Greek & English on facing pages.

  2. Howard Mazzaferro permalink

    1. Of the second century mss, how many different locations have been established for their origin? Or are they mostly from a single area, e.g. Egypt?

    2. In your expert opinion, what is the probability that the nomina sacra, at least the earliest forms Jesus, Christ, God, and Lord were established by the original NT authors?

    3. Again, in relation to the four names/titles mentioned above, three of them are pretty much unambiguous, but what do you and other NT scholars think about the ambiguous nature of the word Lord being used for two different individuals (God and Jesus), and not always knowing which one is meant? Did the NT authors create this seemingly ambiguity because they saw no need to make a distinction between them, or do you believe at some point prior to 150 C.E. that there was some sort of distinction?

    • Our earliest NT papyri (i.e., dated prior to fourth century CE) come from Egypt (but may or may not have been copied there). Eldon Epp has probed this matter cogently in a few of his essays, esp. “New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times,” in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, ed. B. A Pearson et alia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 35-56. Epp shows that texts circulated rapidly and widely around the Mediterranean basin, so the kinds of texts found in Egypt may well be representative of the situation more widely.
      As for the “nomina sacra,” see my discussion in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 95-134. I’ve offered a proposal for the setting of the origin of this practice there.
      As for “kyrios” as applied to Jesus, see, e.g., my article on “Lord” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, ed. G.F. Hawthorne (InterVarsity Press). In some cases (esp. Philippians 2:9-11), the term seems to function as roughly equivalent to the divine name/status. In other cases, it functions mainly to reflect Jesus’ authoritative status over believers.

  3. Howard Mazzaferro permalink

    The New Testament is in fact a collection of Jewish writings from Jewish men who practiced Judaism. The events of the first century were to direct the Jewish religion into a new direction. . . . this new direction relied heavily upon the traditional Jewish Scriptures.

    If we look at it this way, in the first century, Christianity was actually a form of Judaism, but by the third century it became a strictly gentile religion, with the transformation occurring during the second century. So my question would be, how much did this transformation influence the text of the New Testament?

    • There isn’t space here to engage adequately your comment, but a few brief comments in response. First, I agree that what we call “Christianity” emerged first as a new religious movement in 2nd-temple Jewish tradition (as I’ve argued for a couple of decades now). So, the remarkable devotion to Jesus already taken for granted in our earliest texts (Paul’s letters) was initially an innovation in Jewish tradition of the time.
      It’s also true that in/after the second century CE, this religious movement became dominantly (not “srictly”) made of of non-Jews (“gentiles”), that some forms of early Christianity disassociated themselves entirely from the OT/Jewish background (esp. Marcion, but also gnosticizing circles), and that both Jewish and Christian circles of the time more firmly were drawing lines of distinction between the two.
      Were there effects on the text of the NT? Hmm. Nothing immediately comes to mind. Bear in mind that the emerging NT represents those Christian texts and circles that affirmed strongly their connection to the OT and Jewish tradition (even while engaging Jewish tradition in a critical manner for refusing to accept the Christian claims about Jesus).

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