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On “Spitballing” and Informed Inferences

Having spent a few decades investigating early Christian usage of the codex and what all was entailed, including reading everything I could find written by other scholars about ancient books, and examining examples of rolls and codices for myself, I find it by turns amusing and a bit annoying when individuals obviously totally new to the issues confidently offer “simple” answers to the questions about why early Christians preferred the codex.  Their proposals are what is popularly referred to as “spitballing”, which in the Urban Dictionary is defined as “to shoot ideas out in the open, that may cause yourself to seem like a complete dunce.”

That’s a bit harsh, but, really, is there any other field of academic work in which rank amateurs with none of the skills involved, none of the relevant training, and no proven competence in publishing in the subject so readily and so confidently launch their opinions?  This also often involves disdain for the work of those scholars who actually have the necessary attributes to be taken seriously.

So, for example, on the matter of the early Christian preference for the codex,  it is not too much to ask those who haven’t already done so to at least read some of the key scholarly studies of the matter before launching their own speculations.  You might begin with my discussion of the matter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 43-93, and then follow up on other studies cited in my notes.  Then, feel free to ask questions, or even to ask for further clarification of issues.  But, please, it is rather tiresome to have spitball efforts to solve a complex and demanding issue.

The “Investment” of Early Christians in Texts

In previous posts I’ve emphasized the importance of early Christian manuscripts as material artifacts, not only copies of texts (e.g., here).  An associated matter is the effort and expense involved in the production, copying, and dissemination and usage of these texts as manuscript copies.  This is hardly explored, and it’s therefore difficult to find scholarly works that help us to do so.

But one scholar who has focused on this matter in a couple of books now is E. Randolph Richards, perhaps more accessibly in his book, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing:  Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).  Although it involves a good deal of careful estimation and inferences, Richards attempts to gauge the efforts and expense involved in the composition of Paul’s letters, and the preparation of them for dispatch to the churches that he addressed.  (The publisher’s online catalog entry is here.)

Richards rightly notes that Paul was leader of a “team”, at least some of whom served as his assistants in the preparation of his epistles, and occasionally as couriers as well.  Richards also surveys the material of ancient writing, and particularly the role of secretaries.

The matter that is most directly relevant to this blog post, however, is his effort to estimate the time and effort involved in preparation of Paul’s epistles for dispatch.  The composition of a sizable text such as the epistle to the Romans may have involved weeks, and several sessions of composition.  Based on the practices reported by other Roman-era authors, Richards proposes that each epistle likely went through a four-stage process:  an initial draft prepared from notes, a revision-draft, a polished draft prepared for dispatch, and a fair copy kept by Paul (p. 164).  Richards estimates that the copying of a draft of Romans would likely have required nearly 12 hours, perhaps spread over 2-3 days.

Then, there was the necessity of sending an epistle, which required specific arrangements, as there was no public postal system.  It is likely that Christians themselves served as couriers, some of them from Paul’s entourage.  Given the distances involved, they would have required food, lodging, and transportation.

All of this indicates an impressive commitment to the production and dissemination of texts in earliest Christian circles.  It illustrates my reasons for referring to early Christianity as a particularly “bookish religion” in my recent book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), pp. 105-41.  This tells us something about the internal “culture” of early Christianity, not only Paul.  And, though needing more scholarly exploration, we see in this the profound commitment of resources to the use of texts.  On this matter, I refer again to the landmark study by Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church:  A History of Early Christian Texts (Yale University Press, 1995).

Galen and His Codices

In response my query to Jan Bremmer (a bibliographical phenomenon!) about a matter, he referred me to an article published some years ago now that discusses evidence of Galen’s attitude toward and use of the codex bookform:  Matthew Nicholls, “Parchment Codices in a New Text of Galen,” Greece & Rome 57, no. 2 (2010): 378-86.

The article draws upon a text of Galen’s that was discovered and then published initially in 2007:  “Περὶ Ἀλυπίας” (“On Consolation from Grief”).  In this treatise, Galen reflects on how to handle or recover from loss and grief, and he refers to his own great loss of much of his library in a fire that ravaged the Palatine Hill in Rome in 192 CE.

Among his books lost in this fire were a number of precious parchment codices.  This adds to our limited knowledge of the use of the codex bookform in this early period.  But it also largely confirms what previous evidence that we had.  First, these are parchment codices, which Galen refers to as διφθέρας πυκτάς (“parchment codices”), or in some cases simply διφθέραι (“parchments”).  These terms seem to have replaced the earlier term for parchment codices, μεμβράνας (“parchments”), which appears in 2 Timothy 4:13.

Second, the codices that Galen prized so much were books of medical recipes, not literary works.  That is, they were utilitarian products that one consulted, not texts designed for continued reading.  As I say, these things confirm what we knew before.  The additional factor, however, is that Galen refers to these codices as expensively bound books, valuable therefore.

The contrast with the early Christian evidence remains.  First, the extant early Christian codices (from the earliest period accessible to us) are, with only one or two exceptions, all papyrus books.  Second, early Christians preferred the codex for their literary texts, especially those texts that functioned as scripture in their gathered worship circles.  So, it appears that the early Christian usage of the codex remains distinctive, and the question remains how and why early Christians so quickly and fully embraced and preferred this bookform.

“Justification” in Second-Century Christian Texts

It was long thought (especially in some Protestant circles) that second-century Christianity lost track of the Pauline emphasis on “justification” by God through faith.  One of the most influential studies that established this view was by the famous Edinburgh scholar, Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (Eerdmans, 1959).  Several subsequent studies have challenged this view from various angles, and the most recent challenge is by Brian J. Arnold, Justification in the Second Century (De Gruyter, 2017; now available in a more economical paperback from Baylor University Press, 2018).  The Baylor online entry is here.

After a review of previous scholarship, Arnold examines several major second-century texts:  1 Clement, Ignatius of Antioch (epistles), Epistle to Diognetus, the Odes of Solomon, and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.

Granting that these texts don’t necessarily use Pauline language, Arnold makes his case that, nevertheless, they do reflect a similar “Pauline” view that “justification” (a right standing with God) is a gift received through trust in God through Christ.  Based on his PhD dissertation, the book is necessarily a technical study that will require some knowledge of Greek and German, for example.  But for those able to handle this depth of discussion, it is a helpful contribution to what appears to be a growing interest in second-century Christianity.

There is also a generous-sized bibliography, helpfully arranged for each of the texts examined.

Books and Authors

In my PhD studies (many years ago now), I was privileged to be supervised by Eldon J. Epp.  And one of the advantages was his meticulous concern for correct grammar.  So, e.g., I was made to note that “data” is a plural noun, requiring, thus, a plural verb.

I recall also that Epp corrected my early statements about an essay or my thesis “arguing” this or that.  He rightly noted (in his many notes) that authors argue things, not texts; authors seek or show things, not texts.  Texts are inanimate things, the expressions of their authors.  I have been reminded of these corrections over the years as it seems to me that it has become now more common to run across sentences, even in academic works, such as “This book seeks to show/answer/question, etc.”  A book can’t “seek” anything.  It just sits there to be taken up and read.  Its author sought to do this or that, and the book is the result of that effort.  So, as Epp corrected me, such a sentence would sound better as “In this book I seek to show/answer/correct, etc.”

Yeah, I know it may well be regarded by some as a pedantic point.  And, yes, I’m an old fart and there is the danger of the elderly complaining.  But I learned some things from Epp, and I’m reluctant to surrender them.

Book Recommendations?

I’m sometimes asked by “lay” readers for recommendations of books to introduce them reliably to this or that question or topic in the study of Christian Origins.  As I no longer teach undergrads, and have enough trouble trying to keep up with the specialist publications in the field, I often am at a loss as to what to recommend.  But one thing I can say:  The place to start on most questions/topics is a good reference work.

Reference works such as dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias (the label varies) are typically the place where recognized experts in the various topics addressed are commissioned to write entries that survey a given topic.  These entries typically require the contributor to include major issues, points of view, key evidence, and other matters.  Having contributed to a number of these projects of the decades myself, I can attest that they are not taken lightly and can be distinctively demanding.  You’re typically given a word-limit, which, for one thing, forces you to prioritize what is most important, especially for those whose first acquaintance with the topic will be the entry that you write.  Of course, reference works are larger than monographs and cost more.  But a good reference work is worth shelves of monographs for introductory purposes.  If you’re building a collection in a subject, the first principle of purchase should be:  Go for reputable reference works first.

So, here are a few recommendations of reference works relating specifically to the NT and Christian Origins.

  • Dictionary of Jesus and the GospelsSecond Edition. ed., Joel B. Green, et alia.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2013.
  • Dictionary of Paul and His Letters..  ed. G. F. Hawthorne, et alia.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1993.
  • Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. ed. R. P. Martin & P. H. Davids.  Downers Grove, IL;  InterVarsity Press, 1997.
  • Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. ed. John J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2010.
  • The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. ed. Susan Ashbrook Harvey & David G. Hunter.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies:  A Guide to the Background Literature. ed. C. A. Evans.  Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.
  • Early Christianity in Contexts:  An Exploration across Cultures and Continents. ed. William Tabbernee.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2014.
  • Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature:  A Literary History. ed. Claudio Moreschini & Enrico Norelli.  2 vols. Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.  Vol. 1:  From Paul to the Age of Constantine, is especially relevant.  Introductions to the many texts produced in early Christian circles.

There are now, of course, a growing number of online reference projects.  Here are a few that I know of:

  • Oxford Online Bibliographies. here.   These are annotated bibliographies (with strict limits on the number of items to be included) on various subjects.  Click on “Biblical Studies” and follow your interests.  You have to subscribe.  It’s not free.
  • Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity Online.  here.  This too requires a payment to read the full articles.

For those who can handle some Koine Greek, the following are highly recommended:

  • Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. ed. Horst Balz & Gerhard Schneider. 3 vols.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1990-1993.  Modest-length entries on the Greek words used in the NT, with select bibliographies.
  • A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. 3rd edition. G. Abbott-Smith.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937.  Numerous reprints of the 3rd edition.  An amazing multi-purpose tool, giving word definitions, the Hebrew of words used in the LXX, and the many references to texts make it a complete concordance of NT uses of 95% of the NT vocabulary.  The second edition is available free as a PDF here.

Magdala: A Galilean Town

For anyone seriously interested in Galilee in the time of Jesus, the recently published multi-author volume edited by Richard Bauckham is a must-read:  Magdala of Galilee: A Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018; the publisher’s online description here.)

Magdala is of particular interest for students of the Gospels on account of Mary (the) Magdalene, whose sobriquet indicates that she came from Magdala.  It was a town on the western shore of Lake Genessaret/Galilee, whose main industry during the early first century CE was fishing and the related preparation of fish for export.

In recent decades there have been some intensive archaeological projects conducted on the site of ancient Magdala, and this book harvests the results.  The lead essay is a 67 pp. summary of matters by Bauckham:  “Magdala as We Now Know It:  An Overview.”  There follow detailed studies of the particular discoveries:  “The Harbor” (Anna Lena), “Domestic and Mercantile Areas” (Marcela Zapata-Meza), “The Domestic Miqva’ot” (Ronny Reich and Marcela Zapata-Meza), “The Synagogue” (Mordechai Aviam), “The Synagogue Stone” (Mordechai Aviam and Richard Bauckham), “Magdala and Trade” (Santiago Guijarro), “Magdala and the Fishing Industry” (Richard Bauckham), “Magdala/Taricheae and the Jewish Revolt” *(Morten Hørning Jensen), “Magdala in the List of the Twenty-Four Priestly Settlements” (Richard Bauckham), “Magdala in Rabbinic Literature” (Richard Bauckham), and “The Prosopography of Magdala” (Richard Bauckham).  There are also maps of sites around Lake Genessaret, plus 49 illustrations.

Magdala now offers us some remarkable new data.  For instance, the synagogue, which has been dated to the pre-70 CE period, and has interesting wall decorations, the curious “synagogue stone” and its symbols that show a strong Jerusalem-temple orientation, the miqva’ot (stepped pools used for ritual purification) which further show the Jewishness of inhabitants of the town, the housing that indicates both well-off and less well-off inhabitants, the hippodrome and baths which show the Jewish acceptance of aspects of Hellenistic culture (alongside the miqva’ot and other indications of distinctive Jewishness), and still other matters.

This is a remarkably detailed study of various aspects of life in a Galilean town in the first century CE.

On “Extant Evidence” and Inferences

In my previous postings on the subject, I’ve referred to what we can infer from “extant” manuscript evidence.  One reader expressed doubts about being able to make any valid inferences, given that only a small amount of manuscript evidence remains extant.  So, I’ll explain my reasoning.

First, although only a small amount of what was originally produced, the extant remains of early Christian manuscripts do amount to a body of evidence.  That’s where we start.  That we have only a small amount of the original body of evidence still means that we have some evidence.  That shouldn’t be devalued.

Secondly, the extant manuscript evidence is random, not pre-selected for preservation.  So, if anything, this actually enhances the heuristic value of the evidence.   That is, the random nature of the evidence means that it wasn’t filtered to achieve a particular result.

Thirdly, all our information about early Christianity in the first three centuries shows a remarkably lively “networking” and interchange of texts, manuscripts, beliefs, practices, etc.  I’ve documented this in previous publications such as this one: Larry W. Hurtado, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013):  445-62.  (The pre-publication text of this essay is available on this blog site here.)  This means that, although nearly all of our early Christian papyri come from sites in Egypt, they are likely to be representative of how manuscripts looked in the wider Christian network.

Finally, as with any historical matter, conclusions are susceptible to revision in the light of new evidence or corrections to our approach to what we have.  So, when I write that in light of extant evidence the dominant approach to the copying of the Gospels in the first observable centuries was basically careful and stable, that is a conclusion subject to correction . . . but only by the introduction of new evidence or demonstration of evidence overlooked.  Abstract references to what might or might not have been there are hardly of any use.  At the very least, it is totally fair to say that the extant manuscript evidence doesn’t support the widespread assumption that in the early centuries the copying of the Gospels was “wild” and “chaotic” etc.  So, we have to ask why that assumption seems so attractive, despite it having so little basis in the extant evidence.

The Copying “Environment” of Early Christian Papyri

In reflecting further on Wasserman’s essay that I mentioned earlier here, I turned once again to Eric Turner’s discussion of the varying types of copyist practices evident in the early papyri of classical texts: E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (1968; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), esp. 100-112.  Turner (one of the foremost papyrologists of modern times) described two copying practices or “cultures”, so to speak.

In a posting last year, I drew attention to Turner’s discussion, and I thought it worthwhile to point to that posting again here.  I underscore both the diversity of copying practices in the larger textual “environment” of the ancient world, and also Turner’s claim of a growing respect for more careful copying in the Roman period, which he attributed (at least in part) to the influence of Alexandrian scholars, disseminated via school teachers, etc.

And, as in my previous posting, I ask whether early Christians (especially those literate ones who made copies of texts) were somehow immune to this concern or respect for the wording of the texts that they copied.  Or, given the growing sense that early Christians were in many respects fully part of their wider culture, isn’t it more likely that they (or at least some of them) shared in this more careful/respectful attitude toward texts, especially those that they used as scripture (i.e,, read out in the gathered worship setting)?  This would help us account for the accumulating evidence that from our earliest extant manuscript evidence for these Christian texts we have what appears to be a careful copying practice as dominant.

Wasserman on an “Alexandrian Recension” of the Gospels

Included in a set of papers given at a NT textual criticism conference held in Birmingham (UK) is an essay by Tommy Wasserman that merits attention of all interested in the question of what the earliest manuscript evidence tells us about the textual transmission of the Gospels in the second century:  “Was There an Alexandrian Recension of the Living Text?,” in Liturgy and the Living Text of the New Testament, ed. Hugh Houghton (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2018), 1-22.

Noting recent challenges by Brent Nongbri to the previously-accepted dates for P66 and P75 (two more substantially preserved papyri of the Gospels), Wasserman focuses on the data of P4, P64, P67, whose dates (ca. 175-250) remain commonly accepted.[1]  These papyri show a very carefully copied text, with very few harmonizations or other indications of a “loose” handling.[2]  Moreover, there is an impressive agreement with the text of Codex Vaticanus (the primary witness to the “Alexandrian” or “strict” text).

Wasserman’s conclusions include the judgement that irrespective of the dates of P66 or P75, the kind of text that we have in Vaticanus is not the product of a 4th century recension, but much more likely the continuation of an attitude toward copying that we see already in P4, P64, and P67–a “strict” or careful copying.  As these early papyri likely aren’t the initiating instances of the copying practice, but likely a continuation of still earlier copying, this means that this copyist practice must be pushed back well into the second century if not earlier.

He grants, as have others (including me), that we also see evidence of a somewhat freer or less careful copying that could produce more frequent copyist errors and also other kinds of variants (such as harmonization of the text of one Gospel to a parallel account in another).[3]  The mistake is to think that there was one monolithic approach to copying the Gospels.  Instead, there appears to have been a certain diversity of copyist practices, as we would expect in an early setting in which there was no ecclesiastical control over the process.  But the key point is that among this early diversity there was a careful or “strict” copying of NT texts that we see represented later in Vaticanus.  There was no fourth-century recension, and it is even less plausible to posit one in the second century.

[1] Brent Nongbri, “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri:  Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35; id., “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135.2 (2016):  405-37.  For my earlier postings on Nongbri’s challenges see here, and the ensuing dialogue over the issues here, and also here.

[2] This essay draws upon Wasserman’s earlier studies of these papyri and related issues:  “A Comparative Textual Analysis of P4 and P64+67,” TC 15 (2010): 1-26; “The Implications of Textual Criticism for Understanding the ‘Original Text’,” in Mark and Matthew I, Comparative Readings:  Understanding the Earliest Gospels in Their First-Century Settings, ed. Eve-Marie Becker and Anders Runesson (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 77-96.

[3] E.g., Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception:  New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.  The pre-publication version is here.

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