I post notice of another interview over my recent book, Destroyer of the gods, on another blog site here.
Early Christian manuscripts, especially copies of texts that served as scripture, exhibit both plain, functional qualities, and also distinctive features that are purely visual and that reflect a desire to mark the manuscripts and their texts with a Christian identity.
I’ve posted on some of these matters before (simply click on “codex” and/or “manuscripts” in the word-cloud on the right-hand side of the home page). But I want to underscore two interesting things that reflect two different aims, which are combined in early Christian manuscripts.
For anyone who has viewed high-quality literary manuscripts of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the Christian literary manuscripts of the same period will seem somewhat plain in comparison. Typically, the “hand” of these Christian manuscripts is not as elegant or “calligraphic” as in the pagan manuscripts reflecting elite circles of readers. The impression given is of functionality as being the important factor. These Christian manuscripts are readable, to be sure, with individual letters separated and quite legibly formed, and generous spacing between the lines.
Moreover, there are devices such as extra spacing to mark off sense-units (roughly the size of modern-day sentences). There is also often elementary punctuation. These we may think of rightly as readers’ aids intended to facilitate the reading of these manuscripts (which was dominantly done in a group setting).
As I say, by comparison, pagan literary texts are often in a noticeably more elegant hand. The same is true also of early Jewish manuscripts, including those in Hebrew. So, to repeat for emphasis, functionality, the ready use of the texts in question seems to have been the main object reflected in earliest Christian manuscripts.
And yet, these same manuscripts also demonstrate the distinctive early Christian copyist practice known as the “nomina sacra,” the writing of certain words in an abbreviated form and with a curious horizontal stroke written over the abbreviated forms. (For more on the nomina sacra, again click on the term on the word-cloud, and see the fuller discussion in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2006.) The words most consistently treated in this way in our earliest manuscripts are Iesous, Christos, Kyrios, and Theos, with other words added quickly, that together form core words in early Christian discourse.
But the point I highlight here is that the nomina sacra are purely visual phenomena. The words so treated were read out as if written normally. In previous publications, I have referred to the nomina sacra as giving our earliest evidence of an emerging (and, granted, still elementary) early Christian “visual culture”. These devices show that the physical objects, the manuscripts, were themselves important, and so were marked to make them Christian. A Christian identity, we might say, was conferred thereby on these manuscripts. (Another noteworthy feature of early Christianity is the strong preference for the codex, particularly for texts treated as scripture.)
Further, these nomina sacra required readers to be familiar with them. In a sense, they were an obstacle to readers who weren’t familiar with them. This seems to go against the other features that functioned as readers’ aids. That shows us that the nomina sacra were a sufficiently important and sufficiently widespread Christian convention that they were not a problem for Christian readers.
So, on the one hand, earliest Christian manuscripts exhibit an intention to make the copies of key texts easily readable (and probably for a certain spectrum of reading ability), giving the manuscripts a somewhat plain and functional appearance. And yet, on the other hand, these manuscripts also reflect a convention of bestowing a visual distinctiveness and Christian identity to the copies of the texts that they contain. This means that these manuscripts themselves already held a certain importance as physical artifacts of Christian faith. They were not simply crib sheets for some supposed “oral performance” from memory. The nomina sacra represent a desire to express Christian faith in the way certain words were written, giving a distinctive visual and physical registering of faith.
In my recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), I devote a chapter to what I refer to as the “bookish” quality of early Christianity. By that term I refer to the significant place that reading texts had in their gatherings, and the energies devoted to composing, copying, and distributing texts in early Christian circles.
Passing by the Hard Rock Café in Edinburgh today, I noticed again their slogan: “Love all, serve all,” and noted that it reflects the (likely unconscious) influence of the NT upon western culture. For the motto self-evidently owes to the sentiments first expressed in NT passages such as Matthew 5:43-48, with its distinctive injunction to “love your enemies” as well as your “neighbour”, and Matthew 20:26 (and Mark 10:43-44), with the striking demand that “whoever would be great among you must be servant of all.”
I suspect, however, that neither the founders (nor the Seminole Indians of Florida who now own the restaurant chain) are aware of this. It just shows how the values and themes of the NT have now become part of the conceptual “ground water” of western culture.
My recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) makes the points that early Christianity (in the first three centuries) had distinctive features, and that these once-distinctive features have now become cultural commonplaces for us. I don’t refer to the Hard Rock Café or its slogan, but there’s lots of other (and, hopefully, more interesting) stuff that I hope will address our “cultural amnesia.”
Pillars in the History of Biblical Interpretation, a two-volume work edited by Stanley Porter & Sean Adams, is a useful multi-author resource on major figures and developments in the history of biblical studies. The publisher’s online information here and here.
Volume 1 is devoted to key figures and developments prior to 1980. The fourteen contributions will be especially helpful to students wishing to enter the field and needing to obtain some historical perspective on how it has developed. But the span covered is entirely modern, beginning with figures in the 19th century, including Griesbach and Lachmann, Schleiermacher, F. C. Baur, B. F. Westcott, F.J.A. Hort, J. B. Lightfoot, Zahn, Harnack, Schlatter, Wrede, Welhausen, and on into 20th-century figures, Schweitzer, Deissmann, Dibelius, Bultmann, Streeter (and the Synoptic problem), Ramsay, Haenchen, Bornkamm (and redaction criticism), Dodd and Eichrodt.
The prevalence of German scholars seems to me to reflect the fact that German scholars of this period basically set the agenda of scholarship. But the volume is a bit lop-sided in the few OT scholars included. But for that matter, there are some important figures in the history of NT studies missing too, such as Bousset, Lagrange, and, indeed, a rather good host of others. But, to avoid being churlish, better to recognize what is included than to complain about what could have been included.
Volume 2: Prevailing Methods after 1980, includes contributions on Bonhoeffer, Heidegger/Gadamer/Ricoeur, Leach and Structuralism, Hengel and “the New Tuebingen school” of Christian origins, Stuhlmacher, Edwin Judge/Wayne Meeks and Social-scientific criticism, Mary Douglas, Philip Esler, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza/Phyllis Trible and feminist interpretation, H.D. Betz/Kennedy and rhetorical criticism, Nida/Louw and the linguistic emphasis, James Barr and lexicography, Patte and structural semiotics, Childs and “the canonical approach”, J. A. Sanders, Thiselton (on speech-act theory), Richard Hays (narrative approach to Paul’s letters), Loveday Alexander/David Rhoads and literary criticism of the NT, and Francis Watson & Stephen [NB: not “Steven”] Fowl as “theological interpreters”.
Again, I confess to being a bit puzzled at some of those included and left out. Among the latter, NT scholars such as R. E. Brown, Ed Sanders, James Dunn (and the “new perspective” on Paul), and Gerd Theissen come readily to mind, and others would follow readily, to say nothing of OT scholars as well. And, of course, nothing on textual criticism (you’d expect me to complain about that!).
I rather suspect that these two volumes emerged from Porter assigning essay projects to his students. This would account for the less-than-systematic coverage. But the contributions I’ve sampled are basically informed and will be helpful as a point of entry for students. So, again, thanks for what is given, rather than complaining over-much about what isn’t.
P.S. For those wishing additional resources on the history of NT scholarship, William Baird’s three-volume work, A History of New Testament Research (Fortress Press) remains important, bringing the coverage up to major 20th-century figures C.H. Dodd and H. D. Betz.
Markus Bockmuehl’s new book, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), is a very good introduction to the subject. The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.
After an introductory chapter setting out the scope, intention and approach taken in the book, Bockmuehl then has chapters on “Infancy Gospels” (Infancy Gospel of James, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, other related texts), with a sympathetic discussion of why Christians wrote such texts.
Chapter 3 is on what he calls “Ministry Gospels,” writings about Jesus set during his lifetime. These include “Q”, about which Bockmuehl expresses a slightly agnostic view, and also “Jewish Christian” gospels, and fragmentary texts such as Papyrus Egerton 2 and others. As well, he discusses briefly the “Secret Gospel of Mark” (judging it dubious), and the Abgar Legend (fictive correspondence between Jesus and king Abgar).
Chapter 4 deals with “Passion Gospels”: the Gospel of Peter, the “Unknown Berlin Gospel” or “Gospel of the Savior”, the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus, the Discourse on the Cross, and various gospels linked with Pilate, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimatthea, plus Gospels of Gamaliel.
Chapter 5 introduces “Post-Resurrection Discourse Gospels” (often referred to as “Revelation” gospels). Among these (indeed, among all the apocryphal gospels), the Gospel of Thomas is the most well known. But these also include the Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Judas, Gospels of the Egyptians, Gospel of Bartholomew, Epistle of the Apostles, and some other “dialogue gospels” from the Nag Hammadi cache.
Bockmuehl’s book appears in a series addressed to “the community of faith,” but I can’t find anything smacking of special pleading or cheap apologetics. I’d say that this book is a fine guide to these apocryphal texts for anyone who wants a clear-headed introduction with no hype or exaggeration, just sober and cogent discussion, and with lots of bibliographical tips for further reading/study.
I’m pleased to report that my recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press), has just won the 2017 PROSE Award in the category of Archaeology & Ancient History. These awards are made by the American Publishers Association. Here is the description from their web site (here):
“The PROSE Awards annually recognize the very best in professional and scholarly publishing by bringing attention to distinguished books, journals, and electronic content in 53 categories. Each year, publishers and authors are recognized at the PSP Annual Conference in Washington, DC, for their commitment to pioneering works of research and for contributing to the conception, production, and design of landmark works in their fields. Judged by peer publishers, librarians, and medical professionals since 1976, the PROSE Awards are extraordinary for their breadth and depth.”
The publisher’s online catalogue entry on my book is here.
At the request of Bloomsbury T&T Clark, I’ve written an extended Foreword for their planned re-edition of Martin Hengel’s valuable collection of essays: Studies in Early Christology (originally published 1995 by T&T Clark when the firm was in Edinburgh).
The essays in this book are some of Hengel’s most important studies pertaining to the origins and early expressions of Christology. They are vintage Hengel: amazingly well researched, vigorously argued, and indicative of his ability to combine meticulous attention to detail with a larger purpose and line of investigation.
It was difficult to avoid “gilding the lily” in my Foreword. At a very few points, I was able to note this or that development or more recent relevant publication, and in one or two matters express disagreement. But, overall, these studies stand up very well, and I am pleased that the publisher intends to bring out a fresh edition. I’ll let readers know when it appears.
I pass on notice of the large project, “Judaism and Rome: Rethinking Judaism’s Encounter with the Roman Empire,” funded by the European Research Council. The project web site here. The team and the scope of the project are impressive and will be of interest to anyone working in Roman history, early Judaism, and early Christianity.
I really must appeal to readers to do a bit of reading and checking of data before “winging it” with proposals that are baseless. This exhortation comes on the heels of some responses to my latest posting on the NT references to Jesus “at/in God’s right hand” (here). I’m not simply being peevish. It’s a waste of everyone’s time for ill-informed and baseless notions to be expressed, everyone’s time, including those who proffer them.
That posting about the two Greek expressions used in the NT, and the predecessor posting as well (here), arose from quite a lot of detailed work issuing in two published essays focused on the Christological use of certain Psalms in the NT. In that earlier posting (here), for example, I cite briefly some of the crucial linguistic data. These data arise from (1) checking every instance of NT references to Jesus and God’s “right hand”, and (2) every instance of either of the two Greek prepositional phrases in question in the LXX, checking for each instance the Hebrew constructions translated, and (3) using the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae to survey usage of the two Greek expressions in several “pagan” authors roughly contemporary with the NT writings.
So, my proposals don’t arise from some sudden flash of a “what if” sort, or some free-wheeling notion. They arise instead from an attempt to grasp and make sense of the clear patterns involved. Crucially, the two Greek expressions aren’t used interchangeably in the LXX, but instead translate a different set of Hebrew expressions. And that is the case across the various LXX writings, which means that the several translators followed this pattern. So, this seems to me to make it less likely that the two Greek expressions under investigation appeared in early Christian discourse as variant translations of the same Hebrew phrase (in Psalm 110:1). I know that Hengel, Hay, Bauckham, et alia favour this view, but it seems less likely to me, for the various translators of the LXX didn’t operate this way.
Second, the preference for εν δεξιᾳ in NT confessional expressions is exhibited across various authors in the NT, and is not simply a personal preference of this or that author. So we have to account for this widescale/shared preference, despite concurrent evidence that the same authors knew very well, and could quote exactly, what the wording of Greek Psalm 110:1 was.
Third, the focus on the LXX data arises from the evidence that the NT writings reflect a strong influence of the Greek OT upon their discourse. After all, there is the direct citation of Psalm 110:1 in a number of writings, and many other OT texts as well. Moreover, all the references to Jesus vis-a-vis God’s “right hand” arguably reflect OT influence.
Finally, the TLG data eliminates the suggestion that εκ δεξιων was being superseded by εν δεξιᾳ in Koine Greek. For, as I indicated in my postings, both expressions are used by the various “pagan” authors surveyed.
I welcome questions for clarification or such from anyone, and any observation relevant to the issue. And I welcome proposals from others as well, so long as any proposal arises from an equivalent investment of effort in surveying the relevant data.
I’ve got another possible factor for the curious preference of NT authors in the way they refer to the exalted Jesus as “at God’s right hand.” I’ve noted this matter in previous postings (e.g., here), and in a forthcoming essay I return to the question. In a recent seminar in Oxford where I presented the paper, this topic generated some encouraging discussion.
To recoup: When NT authors cite Psalm 110:1, they preserve the Greek phrasing of the LXX here: εκ δεξιων. But in a number of other instances, across various NT writings, when the authors simply make a statement about Jesus’ exalted status (e.g., Romans 8:34), they seem to prefer the construction εν δεξιᾳ. English translations of the NT typically don’t distinguish between the two expressions, but they are different. (Apologies to readers without Greek, but the question is about the use of two different Greek phrases.)
So, why this pattern? And the basis for the question is that there is this pattern. It’s not willy-nilly, and it’s not confined to one author. Note, for example, that the author of Hebrews prefers the latter expression when making his own statements about Jesus’ exalted status (1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), but gives the correct wording of Psalm 110:1 (LXX 109:1) when he cites the text in Heb 1:13. He knows the wording of the Psalm, but seems to prefer the phrasing εν δεξιᾳ when he has the freedom to do so.
In an earlier discussion, I wondered if this phrasing connoted a more intimate relation, and so was preferred. In the LXX, for example, the phrase typically refers to something or someone “in the right hand” of someone, whereas εκ δεξιων refers to something/someone positioned “on the right” of someone. (The pre-publication version of that essay, in which I give details of references is on this blog site here).
Continuing to ponder the matter, I now wonder if there is another factor that could lend further support, another OT text that may have contributed to the preference for referring to Jesus as εν δεξιᾳ in relation to God. Specifically, I point to Psalm 16 (LXX Psalm 15). We know that it was read early on in light of Jesus’ resurrection (as, e.g., Acts 2:23-36). Is it relevant that the final statement of this Psalm refers to the manifold benefits “in your [God’s] right hand for ever” (εν τη δεξιᾳ σου εις τελος), these words taken as predictive and reflective of Jesus’ exaltation?
Specifically, did this statement in the Psalm help to generate the use of εν δεξιᾳ in early Christian confessional statements? Note the contrast in this Psalm between the phrasing used to describe God as “at the right hand” of the human speaker (v. 8), εκ δεξιων μου, and the phrase in v. 11, εν δεξιᾳ σου. So, did the phrasing of Psalm 16:11 help to express better the early Christian conviction that the exalted Jesus was very intimately connected with God, “in God’s right hand”?
The evidence of contemporary Greek writers shows that both expressions were in use in Koine Greek. So, it’s not a case of one becoming obsolete. So, I repeat, why the apparent pattern of preference across various NT authors?
The other typical explanation is that these two Greek expressions were simply the remnants of early and varying translations of Psalm 110:1. Maybe. But why, then, is the phrasing εκ δεξιων consistently found in any citation of that text, whereas NT authors seem to prefer the other expression in making confessional statements?
Also worth noting, the LXX translators didn’t render the various Hebrew prepositional phrases willy-nilly. They preferred εκ δεξιων for certain Hebrew prepositional constructions, and εν δεξιᾳ for others. (For details, see my earlier posting here.)
(For a somewhat similar/supporting view on the possible influence of LXX Psalm 15:11, see now Michael Cover, Lifting the Veil: 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 in Light of Jewish Homiletic and Commentary Traditions (BZAW 210; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 170-74, whose discussion of ἐν δεξιᾷ is confined to its use in Peter’s speech in Acts 2. On early Christian reading of the Psalms as the voice of Jesus, see Richard B. Hays, “Christ Prays the Psalms: Paul’s Use of an Early Christian Exegetical Convention,” in The Future of Christology: Essays in Honor of Leander E. Keck, ed. A. J. Malherbe and W. A. Meeks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 122-36, re-published as “Christ Prays the Psalms: Israel’s Psalter as Matrix of Early Christology,” in R. B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 101-18.)