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Earliest Christian Artifacts: Tuckett’s Review

February 4, 2011

One of the commendable features of the Journal of Theological Studies is the space given to reviews, and the space given to reviewers.  In the October 2011 issue (vol 61, pp. 730-36) there’s a review of my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006) by Professor Christopher Tuckett (Oxford).  Contra misinformed claims  (often by self-proclaimed spokespersons for “free” inquiry) that scholars give one another an uncritical hearing, this review reflects just the sort of cordial but penetrating critique that we scholars should expect and appreciate.  (That the review appeared in October 2010, some four years after the book’s publication, does, however, raise some questions about the adequacy of the traditional print-publication medium.)

I’m grateful for Tuckett’s extended discussion, for his generally positive assessment of the book, and even for his noting of some errors in the data.  Among the errors in the book, none is more puzzling to me (or more embarrassing) than my inaccurate claim (p. 129) that in P46 we have several instances where the name “Jesus” is written in full (so not in nomina sacra form) in reference to figures other than Jesus of Nazareth (Col. 4:11; Heb. 4:8; 2 Cor 11:4).  I noticed this error some time ago, but unfortunately only after Artifacts was published!  I “goofed” and can’t really account for my mistake, other than to assume a failure to double-check my data here.  Likewise, I’m baffled at the typos in the Greek words in the “comments” box for P. Oxy. 4706 and 4707 (items 179 and 180 in the Appendix), and have to assume that I simply missed these in correcting the page-proofs.  (I’ve made corrections in these and a few other places in the updated list of early Christian texts recently uploaded to the “Comments, etc” page of this site.)  But I don’t think (nor does Tuckett contend) that these errors cripple the relevant arguments.

I’d like now to respond to a few other matters raised by Tuckett, where we simply disagree, and/or where I fear that he has mis-characterized my point.  Let’s begin with my observation (Artifacts, 35-38) that in the 2nd/3rd century manuscripts we don’t have an instance of so-called “apocryphal” texts combined with any of the familiar canonical ones, whereas we do have clear examples of codices containing more than one of the texts that came to form part of the NT.   Tuckett’s statement that we have only a few multi-text manuscripts from this early period, and his caution that we can’t make any “firm deductions” about the status of texts that are not included in these early multi-text manuscripts are both well taken.  But that’s why my own proposal is about “those Christians whose views are represented in the extant manuscripts” (Artifacts, 37, emphasis added here). I don’t intend any blanket statement about all Christian circles, but I do draw attention to the extant data, suggesting that we can make some inferences about those Christians from whom these data come.

Tuckett judges that we can’t really tell what was or wasn’t treated as “scriptural” in the time of our earliest papyri, but I fear that he confuses two phenomena.  To be sure, formal decisions about what was or wasn’t included in a closed canon came much later.  But it’s undeniable that from the first century onward Christians tended to treat certain texts as “scripture”, initially, Jewish texts that came to be included in the Christian “Old Testament”.  But thereafter Christian compositions too, initially, it appears, letters of Paul (as reflected in 2 Peter 3:15-16, which means by ca. 80-120 CE), came to be read in churches and even referred to as “scriptures”, well within (or even earlier than) the period of our earliest papyri.  “Scripture” = treating a text as fit for reading in church, and so corporately affirmed as having a special status and function.  That phenomenon is very early, and is not to be confused with the delimination of a “canon” (which comes in the late 4th century CE).

I’m also a bit puzzled at some of Tuckett’s statements about the nomina sacra in his review (esp. 734-35).  With a number of others (e.g., C. H. Roberts), I judge that we have four Greek words (Iesous, Theos, Kyrios, Christos) which from our earliest manuscripts onward are written as nomina sacra rather consistently, and some other words written in this manner far less consistently and/or later.  Tuckett curiously says that this “presumes an initial system of regularity that became less regular rather than vice versa” (Tuckett, 934).  But, instead, the view I support posits a Christian copying convention of amazingly early date and consistency involving Iesous, Theos, Kyrios, and Christos, which may be regarded as the core of the process (both historically and in regularity), with some other words (e.g, anthropos) never acquiring the same centrality in the practice, or added later to it.

Lastly, Tuckett chides me for not engaging Kim Haines-Eitzen’s book (Guardians of Letters [Oxford, 2000]) in my discussion of the import of corrections in early papyri (Artifacts, 185-89).  Yes, I should have done so, and I meant no disdain for her work.  But I don’t think my discussion is in any way invalidated.  Haines-Eitzen’s doubts about early scriptoria seem directed more against positing setups such as we have in Medieval monasteries, involving multiple copies made by dication (Guardians, 78-79), “carefully controlled and orchestrated environments for the reproduction of texts” (Guardians, 83).  In my discussion (Artifacts, 187-88), however, noting that a lot depends on what we mean by “scriptorium”, I simply propose that in the corrections in some of our early papyri we have indications of an “attitude toward the texts copied” and a concern for accuracy that may be regarded reflecting a copy-setting that is in this sense like a scriptorium.  Certainly, as Harry Gamble observed, a number of “larger Christian communities, such as Antioch or Rome” may have served as centres for copying Christian texts, these centres the predecessors of the later scriptoria (Books and Readers in the Early Church [Yale University Press, 1995], 121).

Well, enough for here/now.  I didn’t intend Artifacts to end discussion of these issues, but instead to draw the attention of scholars and interested others to the fascinating (and all too typically overlooked) body of earliest Christian manuscripts.  These ancient artifacts of Christianity provide a wealth of data relevant for various historical questions.

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  1. Robert Hull permalink

    FYI, James Royse also calls attention to your miscue about P46 using the plene form for Iesous at Col 4:11, Heb 4:8, 2 Cor 11:4 (see his Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, 260 n333).

    • Yes, as I’ve indicated, this is a serious error on my part, which I am unable to explain, except to assume some sort of insufficiently checked initial surmise. But it doesn’t invalidate the main argument about the general pattern of Nomina Sacra usage. Clearly, there was not uniformity (should we ever expect that in human actions?), but there is a dominant pattern, undeniably: The four terms “theos”, “kyrios”, “Iesous” and “Christos” treated rather consistently as nomina sacra, esp. with reference to God and/or Jesus.

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