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Early Christian Manuscripts and Their Readers

July 13, 2012

A few days ago I noted the publication of a multi-author volume: The Early Text of the New Testament, edited by Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford University Press). In this posting I give the gist of my own contribution to that volume: “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading” (pp. 49-62).

I take my cue from a fascinating article by William A. Johnson (an American papyrologist) in which he contends that the rather severe and demanding features of high-quality ancient Greek literary manuscripts reflect the elite social-settings in which these manuscripts were intended to be read. [William A. Johnson, "Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity," American Journal of Philology 121 (2000): 593–627.] These manuscripts often have elegant calligraphy, and seem more like works of art than practical texts. They make huge demands on readers, and only those with appropriate training in the ancient world would have been able to cope with them. Johnson argues that this was deliberate, to mark off these manuscripts by/for the elite circles in which they were used.

In my study, I consider the physical and visual features typical of earliest NT manuscripts, contending that they too likely reflect the circles in which they were to be read. These features are now increasingly well-known: esp. the preference for the codex format, the (often) generous size and spacing of the writing, the use of elementary punctuation, the use of other diacritical marks (e.g., diaeresis) to aid reading, and spaces and/or enlarged letters to signal sense-units. These features lead me to the following proposal:

“If Johnson is correct that the format of the pagan literary rolls was intended to reflect and affirm the exclusivity of the elite social circles in which they were to be read, then Christian manuscripts (especially those that appear to have been prepared for public reading) typically seem to reflect a very different social setting, perhaps deliberately so. I propose that they reflect a concern to make the texts accessible to a wider range of reader competence, with fewer demands made on readers to engage and deliver them. In turn, this probably reflects the more socially diverse and inclusive nature of typical early  Christian groups. That is, I submit that these early Christian manuscripts are direct evidence and confirmation of the greater social breadth and diversity represented in early Christian circles, in comparison to the elite social circles in which pagan literary texts were more typically read.” (p. 59)

In short, these early NT manuscripts can be taken as physical evidence of the social character of the circles of early Christian readers. This is one example of the point I tried to make in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), that the physical and visual characteristics of early Christian manuscripts comprise data of relevance for wider historical questions about early Christianity.

I’ve put the pre-publication version of my essay under the “Selected Published Essays” tab of this blog site. In addition to my essay, there are twenty other contributions by a galaxy of scholars, covering a wide array of topics. (See my earlier posting for the link to Kruger’s blog posting that includes the table of contents.) Unfortunately, it’s an expensive volume; but it offers a good deal of scholarly value for the price.

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7 Comments
  1. John Moles permalink

    I’m sure it’s right that early Christian MSS were more ‘democratic’ (to use a word). Whether it’s then right that ‘pagan’ elite MSS were ‘per se’ elitist seems to me more doubtful. Perhaps their ‘technology’ just hadn’t caught up? Some of these elitist pagans did on occasion address large audiences. (My ‘hero’ Dio certainly did.) The really interesting question seems to me whether the Gospels (some of them anyway) ALSO target the pagan elite, at least ideally. I certainly think ‘Luke-Acts’ does, and Richard Bauckham thinks ‘John’ INCLUDES pagans (admittedly not – or not necessarily – elite paganis) in its target audience/readership. These questions are extremely interesting, and affect the whole question of where, how far and when Christianity ‘impacted’ on the wider Greco-Roman world.

    • Yes, John, these are very good questions and observations. I’d like to distinguish, however, among several questions: (1) To whom were given Christian texts directed (intended readers)? (2) Who actually read these texts (likely a mixed lot)? (3) What do the extant manuscripts tell us about the reading-settings in which they were intended to be used, and about who made up these settings? It’s the last question that I focus on in my experimental essay recently published.
      The question for me isn’t whether some Roman-era intellectuals may also have addressed audiences wider than elite dining circles, but what the features of early manuscripts tell us about the ways and settings in which the texts they contain were read.

  2. Paul.J permalink

    I very much enjoyed that article. Thank you.
    I had no idea that all the effectivelly ALL the earliest manuscripts were codices.
    I wonder if this mightn’t tell us something about the proto-orthodox NT canon, perhaps it was only considered authorative if writings were in a codex rather than a roll.
    One could posit a comparison to Jewish Torah rolls, with how they were almost physically reverenced.

    • I’ve discussed the data and possible implications of early Christian preference for the codex (especially for their most highly regarded texts, e.g., “scriptures”) in my book: The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 43-93.

  3. Professor Hurtado,

    I have a couple questions on your article. I noticed that you did not mention if the Koine Greek which was used in Christian manuscripts was any different from that used in the elite texts. Were they both Koine Greek or did the elite texts use something more formal?

    As for the use of the codex, wouldn’t that have made better sense for Christians as they were a highly mobile religion? Certainly Paul and company were not the only ones who traveled and preached. Christian worship and meetings were held in different homes etc.

    Finally, I have a question about the nomina sacra. In light of you mentioning that the nomina sacra was a visual phenomenon, what is the scholarly opinion as to why the copyist of these manuscripts, or maybe even the original authors, would purposely introduce confusion as to the identity of kyrios in a number of verses with the use of an identical nomina sacra for Jesus and for God? Especially seeing that the specific subject here is how these manuscripts were specially prepared to help the reader understand.

    • Whether Christian or non-Christian, writers of the first few centuries CE wrote Koine Greek, but with varying levels of literary expertise, vocabulary, etc.
      Your suggestion about the preference for the codex for mobile usage was made earlier by E.J. Epp. I discuss this and other suggestions in my book: The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 43-93. My own judgement is that the preference for the codex reflects something more than practicality.
      The “ambiguity” of the use of “kyrios” in NT writings is well known and seems to reflect the exalted view of the resurrected Jesus as somehow sharing in the name and glory of God.

  4. Matthew G. Zatkalik permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, Thank you for providing access to a number of your contributions. I trust that others will follow your example and provide access to their works. Prices – mainly set for library purchase – make it next to impossible to obtain access. Again, thanks.

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