In comments on my posting about Andrew Lincoln’s new book (Born of a Virgin?), Richard Bauckham’s views on the relationships of the Gospels to “eyewitnesses” came up. I offered a brief response, inviting Bauckham to make his own comment. He has now done so, and, given his prominence and that it is an issue in its own right (distinguishable from questions about the Gospel nativity narratives and the “virgin birth” tradition), I have taken the liberty of including his comments here in a posting. That way, they’ll get the attention that they deserve. I simply paste in his comment in the remainder of this posting without any comment from me. So, what follows is Bauckham:
“I guess I ought to clarify my position on eyewitness testimony in the Gospels, since it has been raised and you, Larry, say: ‘As I understand him, he doesn’t mean that the Gospels are “eyewitness testimony” such as a court transcript would provide, but that the Gospels draw on “eyewitness testimony” as it circulated in early Christian circles.’ Well, no, certainly nothing like a court transcript, more like “oral history.” But my point was that the Gospels are CLOSE to the eyewitnesses’ own testimony, not removed from them by decades of oral tradition. I think there is a very good case for Papias’s claim that Mark got his much of his material directly from Peter (and I will substantiate this further with quite new evidence in the sequel to [my book] Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that I’m now writing). I think that the ‘Beloved Disciple’ himself wrote the Gospel of John as we have it, and that he was a disciple of Jesus and thus an eyewitness himself, as he claims, though not John the son of Zebedee. Of course, his Gospel is the product of his life-long reflection on what he had witnessed, the most interpretative of the Gospels, but still the only one actually written by an eyewitness, who, precisely because he was close to Jesus, felt entitled to interpret quite extensively. Luke, as well as incorporating written material (Mark’s Gospel, which he knew as substantially Peter’s version of the Gospel story, and probably some of the “Q” material was in written form), also, I think, did what ancient historians did: he took every opportunity to meet eyewitnesses and interviewed them. He has probably collected material from a number of minor eyewitnesses from whom he got individual stories or sayings. Matthew is the Gospel I understand least! But whatever accounts for Matthew it is not the form-critical picture of anonymous community traditions, which we really must now abandon!”
In comments on another posting, Geoff Hudson inquired about some of the physical features of ancient letters of the Roman period. This calls for a renewed recommendation of David Aune’s book, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (1987), esp. chapt 5 (“Letters in the Ancient World”), and chap 6 (“Early Christian Letters and Homilies”).
One of Geoff’s questions was about length of letters. One analysis of many surviving Greek letters yielded these data: Papyri letters average 87 words, and hardly ever exceed 200 words. The 796 letters by Cicero range from 22 to 2530 words, with an average of 295 words. The 124 extant letters of Seneca range from 149 to 4134 words, averaging 955 words. By comparison, e.g., Romans (Paul’s longest) has 7101 words, and Philemon is Paul’s shortest with 355 words. (Martin R. P. McGuire, “Letters and Letter Carriers in Christian Antiquity,” The Classical World 53 : 148-53, 184-85, 199-200, citing p. 148.)
As Aune shows, though the overwhelming mass of extant ancient letters served rather simple communication purposes and were very brief, we also have letters used for much more ambitious purposes (literary, diplomatic, philosophical, etc.), and so much longer. Paul’s letters are definitely tending in the direction of much more serious and so extended purposes!
Last year, from September onward, newspapers and the blogosphere were rippling with references to an putative fragment of an ancient Christian text in Coptic in which there appeared to be a reference to a wife of Jesus. All through last Autumn scholarly queries about it were fast and thick, with a growing chorus expressing either suspicions about its authenticity or outright declaring it to be a fake.
It was to be the focus of an article reported to be forthcoming in the prestigious journal, Harvard Theological Review, but by this time last year this had been put on hold to allow physical tests of the fragment. To date, no such article has appeared, and from a trawl through web sites this afternoon, I find nothing further of any substance.
So, honest question: What happened to the fragment, the article, and the claims involved? Surely, it doesn’t take 11 months to do the testing in question. Were the tests conducted? If so, results? Where do we stand. It’s not acceptable for something like this to go into silence without explanation. Can we hear from Prof. Karen King? Anyone (who actually knows something)?
Further to my posting about Andrew Lincoln’s new book on the “virgin birth” of Jesus, I will mention briefly an earlier and still-valuable study that all serious students of the Gospel birth-narratives should know and consult: Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1977). This is a massive (594 pp.) study of the two birth-narratives in Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke. Brown was a highly respected NT scholar and a Roman Catholic priest, and much of his career was devoted to the promotion of a scholarly, critical engagement with the NT among fellow Catholics (an emphasis for which he took a good deal of flak from “right-wing” Catholics).
Anyway, as with practically any book, there are places where one would judge differently, but it’s hard to find a matter that Brown ignores or buries. And the engagement with other scholars is impressive too (many and copious bibliographies).
Andrew Lincoln, a respected NT scholar (former President of the British NT Society), most recently serving as Portland Professor of New Testament in the University of Gloucestershire, has written an important book on the early Christian tradition that Jesus was conceived without the aid of a human father: the “virginal conception” tradition (often popularly referred to as “virgin birth”): Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition and Theology (SPCK, 2013). Having reviewed the book for a journal, I want to bring it to the attention of other readers.
Emphasizing his own Christian faith-stance, and writing particularly for fellow Christians, Lincoln offers some serious and impressive reasons for what will be for many/most a major re-thinking of the matter. Of course, others (often from critics outside the circle of Christian faith) have urged that a virginal conception is incompatible with “modern” thinking. But Lincoln repeatedly aligns himself as a practicing Christian, and offers observations that involve both a careful, historical approach to the NT writings and some serious theological reasons that a virginal conception (if taken literally) could actually pose a serious problem for Christian beliefs about Jesus’ role in salvation.
One of Lincoln’s major emphases is that the idea of a virginal conception is actually reflected explicitly in only two NT writings: the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. So far as we can tell, he urges, Paul did not know the idea, nor did the writers of Hebrews or Gospel of John, for example. So, Lincoln’s first point is that we appear to have a certain variety of views or assumptions about Jesus’ birth, these latter texts suggesting a view that he was conceived in the normal manner, and emphasizing his Davidic lineage.
As a hermeneutical argument, this carries some weight, especially for Christians who make the biblical texts particularly important for faith. If there is, as Lincoln urges, a diversity of views of Jesus’ conception in NT writings, then it may be debatable that any one view can be asserted at the expense of the others.
Second, Lincoln observes that the two birth-narratives in the NT seem to be almost entirely independent of each other. There is little shared by them other than the key characters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. So, e.g., Joseph’s dreams, magi and star, King Herod’s massacre of infants, and flight to Egypt are all in Matthew, but none in Luke. The angelic annunciation to Mary, shepherds and angel choir, and census-trip are all in Luke, but none of these in Matthew. Traditional suggestions that Matthew relates Joseph’s recollections whereas Luke relates Mary’s seem, under careful scrutiny, less persuasive than the suggestion that these narratives have been composed, essentially to present Jesus’ birth as auspicious and a fulfilment of ancient hopes.
Moreover, Lincoln notes that it was often a trope in Roman-era biography to posit a birth of important figures as characterized by special/wondrous phenomena, and even to assert involvement of a deity. So, the addition of birth-narratives by the authors of Matthew and Luke could be taken as a major example of a “literaturization” of the Mark-type narrative of Jesus’ ministry, giving the Mark-type narrative more of a biographical shape. In the original setting, moreover, people would have read accounts of miraculous birth primarily as expressive of the high significance of the individual in question, and perhaps would not have focused so much on the gynaecological issues.
Lincoln also surveys how the idea of the “virgin birth” came to occupy such a prominent place in Christian faith (which really seems to have begun in the second century and/or thereafter), and how the idea came to represent different emphases across these early centuries. Initially (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch), Jesus’ virgin birth was underscored to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ human nature (against those early Christians who tended to deny or minimize his human nature). But a couple of centuries later, Jesus’ virgin birth was coming to be used to affirm emerging emphases on virginity, celibacy, and then on how Jesus’ virgin birth meant that he was free of the taint of sexually-transmitted “original sin” (e.g., Augustine).
In his final chapters, Lincoln offers some thoughtful observations about why taking the idea of a virgin birth literally may actually raise serious theological problems. Ancients seem to have thought that the “stuff” of the embryo came basically from the mother, the male essentially providing the animating power to generate life. But if, as we now know, one half of the chromosomes of each person comes from each of the two people normally involved in procreation, what does it mean theologically to take Jesus as having only one parent? If, as traditional Christian faith emphasizes (and already in such NT texts as Hebrews), it was necessary for Jesus to be genuinely and fully human to secure “salvation”, is this imperilled by a literal “virgin birth”?
Some portions of Lincoln’s argument are (in my view) not as persuasive as others. For example, I didn’t find compelling his argument that Matthew may incorporate conflicting views of Jesus’ conception. But the larger lines of his discussion are a model of irenic, respectful, patient and cogent analysis, and I think he has provided thoughtful Christians with a work that deserves consideration and with the same attitudes.
Lincoln proposes that the idea of Jesus’ “virgin birth” should be seen as originating as a historically-conditioned trope that was intended simply to express in a literary conventions of the time his high significance, and specifically the serious theological point that his origins really lie in divine purposes. As the Christmas season approaches, Lincoln’s book is a timely work, both for Christians and non-Christians who value good scholarship, careful argumentation, and thoughtful reflections on this topic.
I’ve posted recently (and previously) about the early Christian preference for the codex. I’m currently working toward a commissioned article about earliest Christian reading (where, how, etc.), and was reminded of the wonderful study of the early bookroll (or “scroll) by William A. Johnson: Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
Based on his PhD thesis, this work is certainly the most detailed, best informed, and most reliable analysis of pretty much everything you can think to ask about ancient bookrolls. And Johnson, thereby, corrects a number of common assumptions (and, unfortunately, assertions by insufficiently informed scholars). E.g., as to typical length of bookrolls, Johnson shows the range was mainly 3-15 meters (a good bit longer than some have asserted), but with some running considerably longer still.
As a related matter, he even shows how big an item a papyrus bookroll of varying length would be. As examples, he notes (p. 150), “a 7.5-metre roll is, then, roughly the same diameter as a can of soda pop; a 10-metre roll roughly the same as a wine bottle; a 20-metre roll slightly smaller than a 2-litre container of Coca-Cola.” So, contrary to some assertions, a goodly-sized bookroll wouldn’t at all have been “cumbersome” to carry.
Likewise, he observes that “mixed” rolls, i.e., containing more than one text, were common enough, containing, e.g., multiple books of Homer or various individual works (p. 151). So, as I wrote in an earlier posting, it is an error to think that the codex was preferred by Christians because of some supposed superiority in containing multiple texts.
There are lots of other fascinating observations (well, fascinating to geeks like me), and I hope that anyone interested in texts, transmission of them, reading, and the “manuscript culture” of the Roman era will work through Johnson’s book.
Just occasionally, there have been blog comments reflecting the old assumption that early Christianity was a movement made up simply of “illiterate proletariat”. That was a view often touted (even among scholars) until several decades ago. But, as the work of scholars seems to take a loooong time to filter out to “popular/general” circles, the sort of comments that I mention still arise. (Indeed, a few times a particular person, who appears to be stupid as a fence-post, has referred to “ignorant goat-herders” as his/her sobriquet for early Christians. I’ve never posted these latter comments. I know of no goat-herder among early Christians!)
So, although this will hardly be news to anyone familiar with scholarly work of the last several decades, I thought it perhaps helpful to point to this work for others. Essentially, a continuing line of studies has shown from various types of evidence that early Christian circles were comprised of people of a variety of social levels. To be sure, we have indications that some were very poor and some were slaves. So, the old stereotype was not totally wrong, just a stereotype, and so wrong.
Indeed, early Christian writings give us what may seem a surprising amount of “prosopographical” information about early believers (i.e., information about particular believers, as to ethnicity, gender, age, social status, wealth, etc.). Commonly cited as the pioneering (and later influential) study is Edwin A. Judge’s little book, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (1960). Also worth noting is his later article, “St. Paul and Classical Society,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 15 (1972): 19-36. Judge showed both the macro-structures of Roman-era society (vertical lines of relationship of higher/wealthier people connected with various lower levels of people dependent on them for employment, etc.), and also then evidence that early Christian circles seem to have a similar shape.
So, we see references to individual with property, houses, and financial means, these folk acting as hosts for early circles of believers, who met in their homes. It also seems that in at least some cases these higher-status/better-off individuals took on certain leadership roles (essentially, because their prior experience in directing households, business ventures, etc., gave them the aptitude for this).
The prominence of texts in early Christianity, from the letters of Paul onward (which comprise fairly substantial literary works in some cases) further shows that there were also people of some ability in composing them, and others capable of reading them (both for themselves and reading them out/aloud for other believers).
Just to confine ourselves to studies of first-century Christianity, subsequent works include these, which have obtained wide scholarly affirmation: Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (1982); A. J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (2nd ed, 1983); Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (1983). And, to take things on into the second and third centuries CE, e.g., D. J. Kyrtatis, The Social Structure of the Early Christian Communities (1987).
Here’s a sample from Meeks’s now-classic work, The First Urban Christians (pp. 72-73): “the most active and prominent members of Paul’s circle are people of high status inconsistency . . . They are upwardly mobile, their achieved status is higher than their attributed status.” That is, e.g., people involved in trade, business, etc., whose energy and abilities enabled them to acquire a social status that they didn’t inherit or have by way of being born into a traditional elite class.
There’s much, much more to note. But this will do, hopefully, to steer interested readers toward a more accurate, less simplistic, view of the social makeup of the earliest circles of Christian believers.
Sometime in the last 24 hrs the 1000th subscriber signed onto this blog site. Congratulations, whoever you are! Sorry, but no “door prize” available. 1000 subscribers is, of course, “small beer” in comparison to some other blog-sites, and I don’t want to make more of it than reasonable. But, for this fairly conventional scholar, and for this blog site that essentially serves to provide a “window on my workshop”, it’s an encouraging milestone. I won’t prolong this soliloquy as it would get embarrassing for all to do so. But the continued upward movement in subscriber numbers encourages me to think that this site provides something of interest (and perhaps even of use/value). It’s at least better than a downward trend!
(And, wouldn’t you guess it? Within a couple of minutes of posting the above comments, someone withdrew his/her subscription, bringing the total to 999! That will teach me!)
Reading a book for review recently on another topic altogether, I came across a casually proffered claim that is frequently asserted/assumed but flatly incorrect: That a major reason early Christians initially turned to the codex as their preferred book-form was that the codex could accommodate a larger body of text than a roll. Wrong on all counts.
First, let’s be clear about chronology. Sure, by the fourth century CE Christians had developed codex-technology such that they could build a codex able to contain the entirety of Christian scriptures (OT & NT) in one book, Codex Sinaiticus being a prime example. (Nevertheless, even then and for centuries thereafter, this sort of “pan-dex” was highly unusual.) But the early Christian preference for the codex is apparent already in our very earliest manuscript artefacts, some of which take us back to the second century CE (and these extant artefacts are not likely the first Christian codices, so the preference must extend earlier still). We have to consider these early codices, therefore, and what they were capable of containing.
And the evidence indicates that the typical earliest Christian codex was a single-text book: e.g., a codex containing solely a given Gospel. (All you have to do is look at the extant papyri manuscripts and what they originally contained.) So, contrary to some claims the codex wasn’t initially adopted to accommodate the four canonical Gospels in one book. And the codex didn’t enable these four Gospels to acquire scriptural status either. They acquired this status first, and then Christians worked to figure out how to construct codices that could accommodate all of them.
Well into the third century CE, Christians were still experimenting with different ways to construct codices to serve their more ambitious aims, which included the desire to include multiple texts in one book. The Chester Beatty biblical papyri show this. So, again, preference for the codex came first, and then across succeeding decades, Christians worked at means of building codices capable of serving their distinctive interests.
Finally, the bookroll as well was quite capable of containing a large text or multiple texts. Consider, e.g., the famous St. Mark’s Isaiah scroll from Qumran: ca. 25 feet length. Jews as well as Christians, after all, had a developing body of scriptures to copy and transmit, cite and consult, and by all indications continued to prefer the bookroll for their scriptures for several centuries after early Christians had gone for the codex.
For lots of data and further discussion, see my book: The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2005).
A couple of weeks ago I agreed to review for a journal N.T. Wright’s new book on Paul . . . sight unseen. Thereafter, it arrived in the post: a two-volume publication comprising nearly 1700 pages! I had expected a big book, but not quite this big! I’ve had to re-schedule delivery of the review (as I’m one of those peculiar fellows who actually reads the books that they agree to review).
I’ve only dipped into it at some places out of curiosity about this or that matter, and I’m not yet ready to comment in public about anything . . . other than its size! In an earlier posting I mentioned Craig Keener’s huge commentary-project on Acts, judging that it was probably the world’s biggest commentary on a single biblical writing by a single author. Well, I’d guess that Wright’s two-volume opus is the world’s biggest single-author work on Paul. I’ll have more than that to say when I’ve had the time to engage its contents more adequately.