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Early Christian “Testimonia” Texts

April 14, 2011

Another noteworthy manuscript recently published in the Oxyrhynchus volumes is P.Oxyrhynchus 73.4933, a papyrus leaf with remains of excerpts of several OT texts in Greek (Jer. 38:24-26 [LXX]; Amos 9:11-12; Psa. 17:1-11).   The editor dates the handwriting (“an upright semi-documentary hand”) to the late third or early fourth century CE.    For full introduction and transcription, see D. Colomo, “4933. Collection of Biblical Excerpts,” in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXXIII, ed. Peter Parsons et al. (London:  Egypt Exploration Society, 2009), 11-17.

This puts the item on a par with the fragmentary testimony-text from the fourth century held in the John Rylands Library (P.Rylands 3.460) and identified by C. H. Roberts in 1936 (another fragment of which is in Oslo University, P.Oslo 2.11).   These fragments comprising no. 299 in the van Haelst list, and 958 in the Rahlfs list of OT witnesses.  For a more recent study of the Rylands fragments, see Alessandro Falcetta, “A Testimony Collection in Manchester: Papyrus Rylands Greek 460,” BJRL 83 (2002): 3-19

In addition to giving us early copies of the biblical texts cited, these items are also valuable artefacts of early Christian use of the OT, providing hints of their interpretative moves, and certainly reflecting the efforts of Christians to articulate and support their beliefs with reference to the OT.

Along with similar texts from Qumran, these items also have caused some scholars to revisit favorably the “testimony hypothesis” put forth by J. Rendel Harris in the early 20th century.   This essentially involves the idea that earliest Christians collected proof-texts (“testimony texts”) from the OT, arranged them topically, and used them in conveying and defending their beliefs, especially about Jesus.  For a recent study, see Martin Christian Albl,  “And Scripture Cannot Be Broken”: The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections, NovTSup, 96 (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

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16 Comments
  1. Again, thanks for all your answer. the final question comes now :)
    Is it only the absolute form of kyrios that does not occur before the Christian LXX-copies, or does is kyrios (all forms) never used of God in the LXX before the Christian copies?

    Does, for instance, the Jewish copies of the LXX Joel 3:5 contain: kai estai pas hos an epikalêsetai to onoma kyriou sôthêsetai…?

    • I don’t recall that the Joel passage is preserved in the extant pre-Christian Greek OT manuscripts. If you’re seriously interested in the subject, here are some refs.:
      Patrick W. Skehan, “The Divine Name At Qumran, in the Masada Scroll, and in the Septuagint,” Bulletin of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, no. 13 (1980): 14-44.
      Emanuel Tov, The Greek Prophets Scroll From Nahal Hever (8HevXIIgr): (The Seiyâl Collection I), Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, no. 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
      Patrick W. Skehan et al. , Qumran Cave 4: IV, Palaeo-Hebrew and Greek Biblical Manuscripts, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, no. 9 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
      Eugene Ulrich, “The Septuagint Manuscripts From Qumran: A Reappraisal of Their Value,” in Septuagint, Scrolls, and Cognate Writings, ed. George J. Brooke and Barnabas Lindars (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 49-80.

  2. Thank you for your answer.

    When the early Christians appropriated OT references to YHWH and applied them to Jesus, what does it mean theologically, in your opinion?

    In Lord JC (p. 113) you write: “additional evidence that Paul’s references to Jesus as the Kyrios involve a direct association of him with God is found in several passages…”.

    What are the implications of applying of YHWH-texts to Jesus?
    Does “a direct association of him with God” mean that Jesus is identified as YHWH (Bauckham), or do you use it in a more loose sense? Based on the reading of your books I would assume the latter.

    In Acts 2, there seems to be a close connection between that God has made him [i.e. Christ] Lord and that he has now become the one whose name one should call upon. As Davis (The Name and Way of the Lord) points out: “God has given him the function of Lordship and as a result those who wanted to escape God’s wrath and be included in the people of God must invoke his name” (p. 126). So, at this point, the application of a YHWH-text to Jesus seems closely connected to that God has made him Lord. Thus, in this case, there does not seem to be a direct identification of him with God, as Bauckham claims. Do you agree with Dunn, that Jesus is not (in Rom 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:2; Acts 2) being identified as YHWH , but rather that “Yahweh had bestowed his own unique saving power on the Lord who sits at his right side” (Dunn, Did the first Christians worship Jesus, p. 105)?

    • For my part, I prefer to work closely with the terms, language and phenomena of the ancient texts, and try to be cautious about importing categories and questions from later times, including our own. It’s clear that the NT texts reflect a unique association of the exalted Jesus with God, such that OT texts can be extended/transferred to Jesus, and that Jesus was programmatically included in early Christian devotional practice in astonishing ways. Jesus is portrayed as sharing the divine name, glory and throne, which are key ways in which God is portrayed in OT/Jewish tradition of the time. I leave it there. To ask whether Jesus and God share the same “essence” or “identity” seems to me to bring to the texts categories that reflect intellectual contexts different from that reflected in the NT texts.
      Most recently, I’ve taken to referring to a strucutured “dyadic shape” to earliest Christian belief and practice, with God and Jesus both uniquely linked and also differentiated.

      • I agree, to use the label “identity” as a label for the material, is highly anachronistic.

        One last question about the LXX and the New Testament’s use of it: Kyrios is also used of God in the NT at several occasions. Do you think that the NT is the earliest evidence that scribes now actually began to write “Kyrios”of God instead of just using it as a rendering in oral usage?

      • At some point this certainly happened. All the early Christian LXX manuscripts have “kyrios” used in written form where the tetragram is in the Hebrew. How early this began, I can’t say, but it was early enough. And, yes, I rather suspect that the level of Jesus-devotion (which included associating Jesus with God in unusual ways) may have contributed to the scribal practice of writing “kyrios”. But it may well also have been simply that Christian copyists no longer felt interested in retaining YHWH in Hebrew characters, and so simply penned the standard oral-substitute.

  3. Dear Larry Hurtado. I have question, although it is not directly connected to your posting. It’s about the use of the LXX by Paul.

    Neil Richardson (in “Paul’s language about God”) concludes that the kyrios title in the NT did not derived from the LXX (p. 282). Rather, one may trace it back to the Hebrew word adon and the Aramaic words mareh and marya, as the “maranatha” in 1 Cor 16:22 supports. My question is this: If the LXX texts did not read “kyrios”, but kept the tetragrammaton, how could Paul transfer a kyrios text, originally used of God, to Jesus (kyrios)? Let’s take Rom 10:13 as an example. How could Paul transfer this text to Kyrios Jesus if his LXX text did not read kyrios (God)? If Paul quoted from a LXX manuscript that kept the tetragrammaton, there’s not much of an transference between kyrios-language from God to Jesus, is there?

    (it may be that I got it all wrong, and what is meant is that the absolute title ho kyrios did not derive from the LXX, but that the LXX could still use kyrios without the definite article, as in LXX Joel 3:5)

    • Our earliest Greek OT manuscripts (from Qumran and environs) handle the tetragrammaton by writing it in Hebrew, and our earliest Hebrew manuscripts handle it by writing it in archaic Hebrew characters, or sometimes by replacing it with a series of dots, or sometimes replacing it with “elohim”. But, when these manuscripts were read, it appears that readers used an oral substitute, e.g., “adonay” in Hebrew, and “kyrios” in Greek (the latter is based on evidence from the works of Jospehus and Philo plus other considerations).
      So, in *oral* usage, “Kyrios” (often without the article, but sometimes with it) was the way that one typically rendered the divine name. In Aramaic, “mareh” seems to have been used at least on occasion.
      Whatever kind of OT text Paul and other early Christians drew upon, it is clear that they appropriated some OT references to YHWH and applied them to Jesus. No matter whether “YHWH” or “Kyrios” stood in the OT texts that they cited or read, it was a major move. Rom. 10:13 (and other passages that reflect the same move) is particularly remarkable, for it shows not only the application of an OT passage/expression, but, still more remarkably, the application of the *ritual action* represented by “call upon” in the OT to the invocation of Jesus in Christian worship. This is unparalleled and unprecedented, and yet seems to have happened so early that it is already taken for granted among early Christian circles by the date of Paul’s letters.
      As Martin Hengel once wrote, “More happened christologically in the first fifteen years of christianity than in the succeeding eight hundred yeras.”

  4. Melissa Fitzpatrick permalink

    Just found them at a local-ish research library. It was initially confusing because all the volumes were included under one listing. Thanks for your blog! It is one of the rare gems to be found on these interwebs.

  5. Melissa Fitzpatrick permalink

    Just yesterday I was thinking about the use of Amos 9.11-12 (both the LXX and “MT”) by early Christians since it is also the text used by James in Acts 15.16-17 (LXX). Very interesting. Are these Oxyrhynchus Papyri volumes (with introductions and transcriptions) difficult to access?

    • The Oxyrhunchus volumes should be held by any proper research library serving classics and/or NT & patristics. They cost ca. $130 (USD) per volume new, so the individual purchaser has to be reasonably committed and provisioned!

    • Steven Carr permalink

      Why would James use the LXX?

      • Anyone writing to Greek-speaking Christians (or to diaspora Jews) would use the Greek OT. Why not?

      • Steven Carr permalink

        So James in Acts 15 was writing to Greek-speaking Christians?

      • Well Acts was obviously written for Greek-speaking Christians. So, what’s your question? Or your point?

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