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Studying Earliest Christian Manuscripts

January 10, 2011

Having uploaded the updated list of copies of texts in earliest Christian manuscripts leads me to underscore a couple of points that I tried to make in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts

First, we NT scholars (especially textual critics) have tended to focus on the NT manuscripts, often with insufficient attention to the wider body of texts and manuscripts of early Christian provenance.  But even if the transmission of the NT is one’s prime concern, there is much to be gained in perspective and useful knowledge from acquaintance with this wider body of data.  E.g., the almost total preference for the codex bookform takes on added significance when one notes that Christians seem much more ready to use the bookroll for non-scriptural texts.

And that leads me to my second point, which is that the physical features of earliest Christian manuscripts comprise a body of important data too.  In addition to the text, the physical features (size of manuscript, quality of writing, presence/absence of any “readers’ aids”, etc.) all provide valuable data that apply to wider historical questions about the development of early Christianity.  We can’t (and needn’t) all become papyrologists, but those interested in the origins and early development of Christianity can harvest these data from those colleagues whose specialist knowledge has enabled them to make the data available to us.

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4 Comments
  1. Dr. Hurtado, thank you for your prompt and thoughtful response.

    Notwithstanding the poor wording of my question, my concern is not exclusively with non-Christian Jewish thought about this issue. To be more specific, I’m genuinely puzzled about why we do not see Paul, or any of the other apostles, having to give pastoral guidance on implications of this binitarian focus. For example, I would have expected something like the following question to have arisen in one or more of the churches: “Jesus taught us to pray to the Father – does this mean we should never pray to Jesus? If we are to pray to both, should we do so simultaneously…or go to one for some things and to the other for other things?” As you know, these kinds of questions arise even today in a pastoral context surrounded by a firmly established trinitarian enviroment. Thus I would all the more expect such questions in an enviroment where multiplicity of a divine focus initially arose.

    Another example is that I am amazed at the comfort which Paul seems to feel as he juxtaposes the two into expression like “one God and one Lord.” By comfort, I mean that he seems to expect the phrase to create no confusion. On the contrary, he seems to utter it when he wants to settle issues, as if these are notions that his readers can rally around and use as foundational to resolve misunderstandings. Yet I have not yet been able to find this foundation laid in the New Testament.

    Of course, another aspect of this issue is the name of God in the OT (God, Lord, YHWH, Adonai) and the seeming ease with which the NT writers seem to allocate these names to either Jesus or the Father. We don’t always know which they mean – but they seem to!

    In summary, has your research led you to any of these same questions about early Christian understanding, and, if so, can you point me to answers because it is an issue about which you are one of the few knowledgeable resources I have found on which a person could call.

    P.S. I have no doubts about the deity of Jesus Christ and I do not expect anything you say might throw that issue into doubt. Rather, my curiosity is all about trying to better understand the mindset of the writers and intial readers of the New Testament documents regarding Jesus so that I can better understand those documents and better obey the instruction that is in them.

    • Yours are good questions, actually, very much among the sort that I have tried to think about and research over the last 25 yrs or so. Can I, therefore, ask you to read some of what I’ve written on these matters? It takes a lot of time to research and ponder and then find ways of writing of them intelligently, and it takes a good deal of space to lay out the reasoning involved in one’s thoughts. A blog site isn’t the forum for doing this. So, can I ask that you perhaps go to my book, How on Earth did Jesus become a God?, and perhaps my book, At the Origins of Christian Worship? Here, I can give only a summary response, which will not be adequate by itself.
      The letters of Paul are not evangelistic tracts, apologetic treatises, or confirmation lessons. They presuppose a full conversion to the Gospel, and presuppose Paul’s own teaching activity in the churches to which he wrote. They simply address questions that came up in the churches. So, yes, indeed, they presuppose a lot of understanding of the christological statements that he makes. Nowhere does Paul lay out his christology–he simply gives condensed formulas that presuppose an understanding of them. So, the absence of such explanation only means that he believed that he had given teaching and explanation already. If questions didn’t come up about Jesus vis-a-vis God, then that means that he adequately explained things during his time with them.
      There are, however, passages that in condensed form address these matters, among them Philippians 2:6-11 is crucial. Here, Jesus’ exalted position as recipient of universal reverence is stated as so because God has exalted him and given him the name and status involved. Also, the passage makes it clear that the reverence of Jesus is to the glory of God.
      Note also 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, where again Jesus’ place is the act of God, and is clearly posited as subordinate to God”the Father”. So, we must presume that Paul made clear these things, and so only needed to allude to them in his letters.

  2. Forgive me for posting this comment here, but I could not find a more appropriate place where the comment mechanism was present.

    I read in your Essays, etc. section “Early Devotion to Jesus;” that is, the manuscript of your article published in Expository Times 122/4 (2010): 167-76.

    In it you speak of the early binitarian focus of Christians. Though I am not a Bible scholar, even I am able to see this focus in the New Testament. My question is, in the absence of a developed doctrine of Trinity, why do we not see the apostles encountering objections to the binitarian exaltation of Jesus on the grounds of historic Hebrew monotheism? We see the apostles experiencing objection to almost every other aspect of their exaltation of Jesus. Why then don’t we see someone accusing them of a movement to polytheism and a departure from Dt 6:4 or Is 45:22…or even James 2:19 or 4:12, for that matter?

    Most of those who hold a high view of Jesus today simply infer a trinitarian understanding on the part of Acts-Revelation participants, but your extensive research background in this field would enable you to see that such was not possible at this point in time.

    Does my question make sense to you and can you help me with it?

    • Thankx for your comment and query. Your question has come up a number of times, and I’ve given my response each time. See the exchanges between McGrath and me in earlier postings on this site. Essentially, the NT writings give us very limited reflection of what non-Christian Jews thought of Christian claims and practices. We have some indications in Acts, and also importantly in GJohn. But Paul’s letters, by contrast, are entirely pastoral guidance addressing internal issues in his churches. See in particular my essay on “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus Devotion” in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, in which I review all the relevant evidence. In fact, we do have indications that Jews saw Jewish believers as violoating God’s uniqueness and imputing two deities.

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