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The Investment of Early Christians in Texts: Further Thoughts

In an earlier posting (here) I noted the indications of a remarkable investment of time, effort, and expenses in the composition, copying and distribution of texts in early Christian circles, especially (but not exclusively) Christian texts such as became part of the NT.  I offer here a few further thoughts on the subject, exploring what was involved in some settings.

As I pointed out in that previous posting, Randolph Richards has attempted to calculate the time and effort involved in preparing and copying Paul’s various epistles.  So, e.g., he calculates that it would have taken a copyist over 11 hours to make a fair copy of Romans.  That in itself is an impressive effort.  But in the case of Romans, and also Galatians, we have epistles addressed to more than one early Christian assembly (e.g., Gal 1:2, “the assemblies of Galatia”).  So, did Paul send out individual copies to these respective assemblies?  Or did he send one copy to one of them in each case, and then expect that assembly to make a copy for another?

Personally, I’d guess that he may have had individual copies made for the churches in question.  That would ensure that each assembly actually got a copy of the respective epistle, and also would ensure that the copy each assembly got was approved by Paul.  But this means that Paul and his “team” who traveled and worked alongside him would have to help shoulder the burden of making multiple copies of these epistles.  That in turn suggests that they sometimes  operated as an early kind of publication group.  In the case of Galatians, did Paul personally add the postscript (6:11-18) to each of several copies?  If not, the effect of its claim that it is written in Paul’s own “hand” would have been diminished quite early.

Or let’s consider Revelation, which, likewise, is addressed to multiple assemblies (in this case, seven).  Were there seven copies prepared and sent out to the individual assemblies?  If so, who was involved in making these copies?  Or did the author send one initial copy (e.g., to Ephesus), and each church in succession was expected to make a copy to send to the next assembly in the series?

Either way, a goodly amount of time and effort was required of someone (or some group or groups) to make multiple copies of these texts.  Then, there was also the necessity of arranging for the copies to get to the various assemblies.  In the case of Romans, at least they were all in one city.  But in the case of Galatians, we’re likely dealing with assemblies in various cities of Galatia.  That means couriering the copies trans-locally across some distances.  This, of course, is also the case with Revelation.

(I should also mention the statement in Colossians 4:16, where the readers of this epistle are directed to have it read also in Laodicea, and in turn to read the letter from Laodicea.  Whether Colossians is from Paul or written in his name, either way this statement reflects what is likely an early practice of sharing Paul’s letters among various assemblies.)

All of this reinforces my emphasis on early Christianity as a “bookish” type of religion (in my book, Destroyer of the gods, 105-41).  So, even though the great majority of earliest believers may have been illiterate, thanks to the efforts of those who could write and read and copy texts, Christian assemblies were shaped heavily by texts, and they invested considerable efforts in making texts available and influential in their circles.

“Pagan” Knowledge of Early Christian Texts

Scholars continue to probe whether and how early Christian texts such as those that make up the NT show knowledge and influence of “pagan” literary texts.  But far less frequently is the question asked whether literate pagans gave any attention to early Christian texts.  I confess that I’ve only recently come across an invaluable tool for addressing that question:  Giancarlo Rinaldi, Biblia Gentium: A First Contribution towards an Index of Biblical Quotations, References and Allusions Made by Greek and Latin Heathen Writers of the Roman Imperial Times (Rome:  Libreria Sacre Scritture, 1989).

After an extensive Introduction (in both Italian and English), Rinaldi lists identifiable references to, and/or uses of, biblical texts in pagan authors, 715 citations/allusions in all.  The references are listed in the canonical order of the biblical writings, starting with Genesis and extending on through Revelation, and even one reference to the Apocalypse of Peter.

Some 417 of the total are references to NT writings.  Of those that can be ascribed to a particular NT writing, 105 are to the Gospel according to Matthew, 16 to Mark, 41 to Luke, 64 to John.  There are another 60 references that are difficult to assign to any one Gospel, but definitely show an acquaintance with one or more.  There are, then, 110 other references to other NT writings.

So, the identifiable uses of Matthew are almost as many as the total number of identifiable references to the other NT Gospels.  This accords with the prominence of Matthew in other indexes of comparative popularity of the Gospels in early Christian circles too.

Each text in the book gives the reference to the classical author and the biblical writing, the Greek or Latin of the classical author, and a translation in Italian and English.  Indeed the bulk of the book (690 pages plus several indexes) arises from the helpful decision to give the Introduction and all other material both in Italian and English.

Building on Rinaldi’s catalog of references, John Granger Cook produced subsequently an analysis of the pagan references to NT writings:  The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Mohr Siebeck, 2000; reprint Hendrickson Publishers, 2002).  Granger discusses the use of NT writings in Celsus, Porphyry, Macarius Magnes, Hierocles, and the emperor Julian (often called “the Apostate”).

Various questions arise.  How did the pagan authors obtain access to early Christian texts?  Did Christians place copies in the various public libraries of the day?  Or?  Clearly, the pagan critics such as Celsus and Porphyry believed that a key part of their effort to refute Christians involved a critique of their scriptural texts, and these many references to NT writings are entirely for the purpose of pointing out alleged contradictions, or other intellectual problems.  (Obviously, one sees something similar today in some writers, in which critical issues are raised for the purpose of scoring points in religious polemics.)

But the larger matter is that, already by sometime in the second century (at the latest), various writings that came to form part of the NT were not only being read in Christian assemblies but were also being read by some pagan intellectuals of the day.  And the results may not have been only refutations of Christian claims.  Some scholars have mooted the possibility that Christian texts and idea had an influence in the wider religious and literary world of the time.  For example, some have suggested that Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana may have been shaped in part in imitation of the Gospels accounts of Jesus.

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.

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