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The NT Virtual Manuscript Room

I had occasion today to check on a particular variant that does not appear in the Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek NT (nor in the SBL or the new Tyndale editions either), and was very glad to have to hand the online “New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room” based in the University of Muenster here.

The site provides photos and transcriptions of all the NT manuscripts cataloged and used in the Institute for New Testament Text-Critical Research, the facility that edits the Nestle-Aland text and is working on the massive NT project titled the Editio Critica Maior.

NT students who can handle NT Greek should know about this site, and learn to use it.  For example, from the home page, if you click on “Manuscript Workspace” on the left sidebar, you get a form that allows you to enter the Gregory-Aland number of any given manuscript.  If you then click on the little blue search button,  and then on the next screen the number that appears below “Results”, the manuscript will be loaded for viewing.  In the centre frame you have photos and in the right-hand frame the transcription, which you can search by entering book, chapter and verse.

In effect, you have manuscripts at your fingertips for direct verification of readings, etc.  PhD students in particular should learn to use this facility (and, I say with some embarrassment, all too many of their teachers need to learn to do so as well).

House Rules . . . again

It’s been a while since I last reminded readers of the “house rules” on this blog site.  And also there are many new readers who may not have known to read them here.  The first rule is that we identify ourselves with our real names.  You know who I am, and common social courtesy requires you to operate openly too.  So, you may have an alias of some sort, but not here.

I also require comments to be on the subject of the posting, not winging off into something else.  And questions and comments should be concise.  This isn’t a soapbox for people to ride their “hobby horses” or inflict lengthy treatises upon us.  It isn’t a bulletin board.  It’s a site where I comment on matters in my own area of competence, giving “leaves from my workshop”.  Questions and comments welcome, but be concise.

And no ad hominem attacks, please.  Remove all venom from your fingers before typing your comment!

Now back to regular programming.

Translations, Translations

I’ve recently been asked again about “the best” translation of the Greek NT.  The answer isn’t simple.  All translations of all texts involve multiple factors and decisions to be made.  There is the aim of conveying the source text in a different language, and a different culture.

Do you translate “woodenly”, repeating the sentence structure of the source text, which may sound strange to the target readers?  Or do you adjust the syntax to reflect the way that sentences are constructed in the target language?  Greek word-order, for example operates on different rules from English.  Because Greek is a more “inflected” language, word-order can serve for emphasis, whereas in English word-order often conveys the syntax of the sentence, and so meaning.

Do you translate literally the idioms and figures of speech of the source text, or try to give equivalents in the target language?  Here’s a vivid example:  In several OT texts, the Hebrew refers to “every one who pisses against a wall” (1 Sam 25:22, 24; 1 Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8).  The King James translators boldly rendered this expression woodenly in all these texts.  But most more recent translations have chosen to render the expression as “every male” or something such (which, of course, is what the Hebrew expression means).

Or take the question of how to handle the NT references to “brothers,” e.g., in various epistles where the entire church is addressed.  The NRSV translators chose to render the term in these instances as “brothers and sisters”.  On the one hand, that’s not a “literal” translation.  On the other hand, in the Greek texts in question, the “brothers” addressed included many females as well as males.  In very recent English, we’ve begun to try to avoid the “androcentric” terminology of referring to the human race as “all men.”  The Greek NT reflects the androcentric linguistic practice of Koine Greek.  So, if we translate adelphoi “literally” as “brothers”, the erroneous impression might be taken by modern readers/hearers that the early churches were made up exclusively by males, or that only males were addressed.

I recall a “lay” person expressing dismay that a particular translation had rendered the reference to Jesus’ “precious blood” in 1 Peter 1:19 as Jesus’ “costly sacrifice.”  But, of course, in speaking of Jesus’ “precious blood,” the author didn’t mean the liquid coursing through Jesus’ veins, but his death.  So, “costly sacrifice” wasn’t an altogether bad translation.

I could give other examples, but these will serve to illustrate the main point.  Translation is never simple, and is all the more complex and demanding when translating a text from a very different time and culture.  And there are particular difficulties in translating a text that has been in translation for a long time and is familiar to at least some of the target readership.  Do you echo the traditional wording with which, e.g., regular church-goers will be familiar but may be a bit dated in terms of current language usage, or do you adjust the wording to reflect current idiomatic usage?

But, to give a brief answer to the question about particular Bible translations, overall, the NRSV is pretty good.  But there are some others that are also “pretty good.”   None of them completely without criticism, but none of them seriously misleading.

“Texts and Artefacts” Now Published

I’ve just taken delivery of author’s copies of the newly-published volume of selected essays of mine:  Texts and Artefacts:  Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017).  I posted on the book earlier when it was first available for pre-order (here), giving the titles of the essays included.

The essays included reflect my long-standing interest in textual criticism and the study of the physical and visual features of earliest Christian manuscripts.  This interest began with my PhD thesis, published as Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text:  Codex W in the Gospel of Mark (Studies and Documents 43; Eerdmans, 1981).  That work (I am pleased to note) was widely received as settling the question of the relationship of the text of Mark in Codex W and P45 to the so-called “Caesarean text,” my study showing rather clearly that there is no significant textual relationship connecting them.

In doing my PhD thesis, I enjoyed the supervision of Prof. Eldon J. Epp, about whom I’ve posted appreciatively earlier here.  My newly-published volume is dedicated to him, and so I take this occasion to reiterate my gratitude to him for his supervision and encouragement during my PhD work, his recommendations for my early academic posts, and his continuing friendship and kind interest over the many years since my studies with him.


P.S.  Sorry about the price!  Out of my control.  And I’m assured that 18 months from now there will be a paperback edition that will be cheaper.

An amusing Rumour

Here’s an amusing story from last week.  For several years I’ve been on the steering committee of the Mark Group, a programme unit in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).  Our programme unit came up for renewal this Autumn, and so was set to approach the Program Committee of the SBL for approval.  And here the story begins to be amusing.

Someone (unidentified) apparently alleged to the SBL Program Committee that the steering committee of our Mark Group was packed and dominated by former PhD students of mine.  The SBL Program Committee conveyed their concern about this to the convener of the Mark Group steering committee, who promptly was able to correct this silly claim.  Whereupon the SBL Program Committee withdrew its expression of concern.

Now, to establish the facts, there isn’t a single student of mine on the Mark Group steering committee!  The members of the steering committee are all seasoned and experienced NT scholars in their own right, and hold various views.  So, it’s rather puzzling how this anonymous accusation arose, who formulated it, and why.  Obviously, it must have come from someone who isn’t in the Mark Group!  And yet that person felt secure enough in their ignorance to make the accusation to the SBL Program Committee.

But, in my mind, all that also makes it amusing.  It’s amusing that someone thought I exercised sufficient influence to pack the steering committee of a SBL program unit with my own students.  I don’t do power-politics, and wouldn’t have the clout to do so if I wished.  Anyone who has been at meetings of the Mark Group will know that my colleagues in the discussions are impressively uncowed by whatever I think!  So, I find it very amusing that someone thought otherwise.  You just never know what bizarre thoughts go through people’s heads, do you?  Ah well, it’s all been clarified now, and both the Mark Group and the SBL Program Committee can get on with other things.


Early Christian Use of “Messianic” Psalms

The paper that I mentioned in a previous posting (here) and prepared for a conference in Salamanca (held in 2016) is now one of the 32 essays published in my recent volume:  Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion (Baylor University Press, 2017, the publisher’s online entry here).  The essay title:  “Early Christological Interpretation of the Messianic Psalms” (pp. 559-82).

I had occasion to recall that essay as I have been reading a study that (along with a number of others) echoes the assumption that Psalm 110:1 (LXX 109:1) was a well-known and used “messianic” text in second-temple Jewish tradition.  In fact, it is not ever cited in extant second-temple Jewish texts, and it is difficult even to establish any clear allusion to Psalm 110.  And yet it is one of the most frequently cited and alluded to OT texts in the NT.  I made this observation in my earlier posting about the essay, but it bears repeating, precisely because of the widespread assumption/claim that the NT usage reflects a prior usage of the text in early Jewish tradition.

In short, the interpretative innovations that we see in the NT extend beyond a creative reading of texts already given attention.  In some cases, the NT writings reflect what appears to be also a distinctive identification of certain OT texts as prophetic of Jesus.  This in turn suggests that there were strong internal dynamics/forces in circles of earliest Jesus-believers that led to the interesting selection and interpretation of these texts.

Greek New Testaments: Spoiled for Choice!

Those who want to read the New Testament writings in Greek are now spoiled for choice, with several recent editions published.  Most recently, there is the edition just published mentioned earlier this week here, a project based in Tyndale House (Cambridge), edited by Dirk Jongkind.  A few years back now, there appeared the edition prepared under the auspices of the Society of Biblical Literature (edited by Michael Holmes, my posting on that edition here).  And, of course, there is also the most recent (28th) edition of what has become the standard hand-edition, the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (my posting here, and the edition’s home page here).

As indicated briefly in my earlier postings, each edition has its own character, layout, editorial policies, and intended uses.  The SBL edition and the brand-new Tyndale House edition both offer free digital forms.  The Nestle-Aland 28th edition can be read online here.  For those of us keen on taking account of text-critical questions, Nestle-Aland offers the fullest apparatus.  Also, it’s actually available for your tablet or smartphone from (and it includes the apparatus).

They sometimes reflect different textual judgments.  For example, at Mark 1:1, the SBL edition judges “son of God” secondary, whereas the Tyndale edition treats the variant as part of the assured text, and the Nestle-Aland 28th edition includes the words but puts them in square brackets, indicating that the editors accept the variant but acknowledge serious uncertainty.

But these different features and different judgments make these editions all the more valuable to serious students of the NT writings.  We can only be grateful to all involved in producing them.

A New Greek New Testament

There is a newly-published edition of The Greek New Testament prepared by scholars associated with Tyndale House (Cambridge, UK).   For more information, and for continuing commentary on its features, see the dedicated blog site here.  It is published in the USA by Crossway (online entry here), and by Cambridge University Press.  A free sample is available for download from the Crossway site.

The editorial work was headed by Dirk Jongkind, who is based in Tyndale House.  It is the fruit of a decade of work, but there is more to come, including a textual commentary that will address the editorial choices made at the many variation-units, and will give additional evidence for the variants considered beyond the witnesses cited in the apparatus.

I’m pleased to have a copy of the work, and thus far have been able to peruse the Introduction and to spot check a few major variation-units to see how they were handled.  (I should note that my pre-publication endorsement of the work was based on an earlier perusal of the Introduction and plan for the work, plus a sample of it, and was limited to features that I could safely commend on that basis.)

The work originated using the edition of the Greek New Testament produced by the remarkable Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (19th century), but, as the editors note, the project became more demanding than they initially expected.  One of the reasons is that we now have much more early textual evidence to consider than was available to scholars of Tregelles’ time.

The evidence-base used in this project is comprised of Greek manuscripts dated to the 5th century or earlier.  The editors, thus, have not cited variants attested only in Patristic quotations or in early translations of the New Testament writings.  The basic principle in choosing a variant for the main text was that it should have the support of at least two Greek manuscripts of this early period (exceptions, however, in Revelation, where the evidence base is slimmer).

This edition is an interesting combination of decisions about the format.  On the one hand, it follows the pattern of practically all modern editions of ancient Greek texts in using lower-case Greek letters (whereas early manuscripts used all “majuscule”/capital letters).  As well, they incorporate the familiar chapter and verse numbering (which appeared only in the middle ages).  On the other hand, the editors chose to convey also several visual features of early witnesses.  These include, notably, adopting paragraph divisions attested in early manuscripts, and also beginning new paragraphs by the first word extending into the left-hand margin (“ekthesis”).  Likewise, as well as giving the titles of NT writings at the beginning of each, the editors have followed the ancient practice of supplying the title at the end of each.

Modern readers will also find ancient spellings of a number of words preferred in this edition, particularly many instances of epsilon-iota where modern editions typically have a iota, and the editors, also chose to remove many iota subscripts (again, not a feature of early manuscripts).  The editors chose not to represent any nomina sacra, however.

Perhaps the largest layout difference is in the ordering of NT writings.  This edition follows the ancient practice of connecting Acts with the “Catholic Epistles” (Acts apparently read as a kind of narrative framework for these epistles), and so the sequence is Gospels, Acts, Catholic Epistles, Pauline Epistles, Revelation.

The apparatus is deliberately selective in the variants included and the witnesses cited.  The forthcoming textual commentary is to provide a much fuller body of variants and evidence.  Unlike the Nestle-Aland editions, this one doesn’t have any marks in the body of the text to signal that there is a variation-unit.  You have to scan the apparatus for yourself to see if there are any.

My initial, quick check of a few major variation-units included the endings of Mark.  Here, after 16:8 the editors supply a note found in the minuscule manuscript 1, indicating that in some copies Mark ends here, but that in others vv. 9-20 are found.  The apparatus also indicates that the verses are absent from Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, but are present in a body of later manuscripts.  As well, the editors include the variant reading found between v. 8 and v. 9 in manuscripts L and (with small variations) Ψ (which date respectively to the 8th and 9th/10th centuries).  Curiously, however, there is no reference here to the famous “Freer Logion” (the unique Greek witness being Codex W), perhaps because it appears only in this one manuscript.

The still more famous pericope of the adulterous woman, which appears in the mass of later manuscripts (marked as John 7:53–8:11), is rightly consigned to the apparatus, as it, too, has no Greek manuscript support from the early period.  At 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, the apparatus indicates that these verses appear after 14:40 in Codex D.

At a few places, where the editors are somewhat less sure of their preference for a given variant, this is signaled in the apparatus with a small black diamond.  For example, at John 7:39, there is this mark to indicate that, although they adopted the reading πνευμα αγιον (“holy Spirit”), they acknowledge the reading without αγιον in some very early witnesses (P75, P66c, Sinaiticus) as a viable alternative.

Free digital editions are said to be available from the publishers, which will be a boon to students and others of limited financial means.  Finally, although the scholarly analysis of the text should continue, this edition is commendably well laid out and so easy to read.  As I indicated in my pre-publication endorsement, this edition should be welcomed as an additional resource for students of the Greek NT that has some distinguishing features that reflect the layout of early manuscripts.

“Books and Readers in the Early Church”: Gamble’s Book is a Good Bet!

In preparation for a class on Thursday this week, I’ve been re-reading (3rd time, I think) Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (Yale University Press, 1995; the UK online entry for the paperback reprint edition here).  I’ve mentioned this book several times in previous postings, repeatedly urging it as required reading for anyone seriously interested in Christian origins.

It’s just jam-packed with important data, cogent discussion, and copious references to primary texts and scholarly works.  He begins with a wide-ranging discussion of “Literacy and Literary Culture in Early Christianity” (Chap 1), engaging questions of the extent of literacy generally in the Roman world, and offering cogent reasons for thinking that early Christianity may well have promoted literacy more than the general culture of the time.  He also considers the notion that early Christianity began in “orality” (to the near exclusion of texts), rightly rejecting this as a romantic notion, and emphasizing the major place that the composition, copying, distribution and usage of texts had in early Christian circles.  I’ve reiterated this latter point in a recent journal article and in my book, Destroyer of the gods.[1]

Gamble then gives a chapter to “the Early Christian Book,” focusing on the physical and visual features of early Christian manuscripts in the context of the book-culture of the time.  This emphasis on the material/visual phenomena of early Christian manuscripts (“the material turn,” to use Kim Haines-Eitzen’s phrase) is also something I’ve supported in several publications.[2]  There are a few places where I’d quibble (or where Gamble may not have expressed himself carefully enough), such as his statement that “Almost without exception, the earliest Christian books known have the form  . . . of the papyrus codex . . .” (49).  By my count, this is true for those writings that came to form part of the Christian canon (OT and NT writings).  But for copies of other early Christian writings (e.g., so-called “apocryphal” writings, theological treatises, etc.), about one-third are bookrolls.  That’s still a hefty majority in codex-form, but there wasn’t apparently the same strenuous commitment to the codex for these texts.[3]

This chapter also features Gamble’s proposal that the initial step toward the early Christian preference for the codex was an early collection of Paul’s letters.  I won’t attempt to lay out the case here, but it remains in my view a very plausible option.  As well, Gamble reviews the nomina sacra, the distinctive early Christian way that certain key titles and other words were written in a curious, abbreviated manner.  I’ve pointed to this practice a number of times in previous postings (which you can see by clicking on the term in the “word cloud” on the home page).[4]

Gamble’s third chapter is given to “the Publication and Circulation of Early Christian Literature,” and is worth particular attention as it gives analysis not readily available elsewhere.  Among the matters discussed:  Did pagans read early Christian writings?  How did writings get “published” and circulated in the larger Roman world? How did early Christians circulate their texts, given that they were small and widely-dispersed geographically?  Were the Gospels originally intended to local/particular circles or to be circulated more widely?  What kind of resources were there for the copying of early Christian writings, and when might “copying centers” (or “scriptoria”) have emerged?  Gamble takes his survey all the way into the fifth century CE.

In Chapter Four, he discusses early Christian libraries (again, with a survey of the formation of book-collections and libraries in the wider Roman world).[5]  Gamble explores references to book-collections held in/by early churches, and the formation of larger libraries, such as the one in early third-century Caesarea, and early monastic libraries in the Byzantine period.

In his final chapter, Gamble considers “the Uses of Early Christian Books.”  After noting the reading of scriptures in synagogues, he turns to the reading of scripture in early Christian worship circles, the emergence of the church-office of “readers” and their particular role in worship and in the custodianship of scriptures.  As well, Gamble explores how scriptures were read in worship, proposing that it may have typically been a “cantillated” reading influenced by Jewish synagogue practice.

But these are only some of the many matters informatively probed in Gamble’s book, which should now be regarded as a modern scholarly classic.

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies?  ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” NTS 60.3 (2014): 321-40; Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), esp. 105-41.

[2] Particularly, Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[3] Compare Gamble, p. 80, where he more carefully notes “not all early Christian texts were inscribed in codices.”  See also my discussion in The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 43-93.

[4] As well, see my full discussion in The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 95-134.

[5] On the latter topic, see now George W. Houston, Inside Roman Libraries:  Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

A Historical-Critical Introduction to the Qur’an

I’ve just been exploring the newly published book by Nicolai Sinai, The Qur’an:  A Historical-Critical Introduction (Edinburgh University Press, 2017; the online listing here).  Of course, the Qur’an and Islam are far too late to be included in a blog site on the origins of Christianity.  But I couldn’t resist mentioning this new book.  Drawing on the growing body of scholarly work on the Qur’an, its formation, textual history, and relationships to the cultural settings in which it was formed, Sinai’s book makes all this available to students and general readers in a clear, balanced, and richly documented discussion.

A historical-critical approach to biblical texts has been in play for a couple of centuries, and students in courses in universities and theological seminaries have been introduced to it for a long, long time.  So it’s good now to have a student-oriented textbook that illustrates such an approach to the Qur’an also.

It’s not my own field, but the book comes with glowing endorsements from scholars who are themselves eminent in the study of the Qur’an and the history of Islam, such as Fred Donner (University of Chicago).

No doubt, the book will receive objections from Muslims who imagine the Qur’an to be a miracle, not a historical phenomenon, just as fundamentalist Christians demur from a critical approach to biblical texts.  But, as Sinai notes, an awareness of the historically-conditioned nature of a sacred text doesn’t mean that it’s no longer sacred or meaningful for faith.

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