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Jesus-devotion: Underscoring key Matters

In the last few days I’ve been contacted by a colleague asking for my responses to several scholars who have posited critiques of my work on the origins of Jesus-devotion.  In my response, I pointed to some blog postings in which I discussed relevant publications.  I take the liberty here of pointing the wider readership of the blog site to these postings as well.  They are among the sort of material that might be overlooked by readers not familiar with how to search the archives.

One publication that made a critique of my work was Michael Peppard’s book, The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context (Oxford University Press, 2011).  Along with admiring its positive features, I also lodged some complaints about its unfair representation of my views, and some other problems in Peppard’s case here.

Another recent work that includes several pages of critique of my work is M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus As a Mediterranean God (Fortress Press, 2014), esp. pp. 6-12.  I posted on this book here.  Litwa makes two crucial mistakes:

(1) He confuses the evident “Hellenization” of Roman-era Judaism, reflected in the appropriation of Greek terms, concepts, dining practices, etc., with the question of whether this included the cultic worship of figures other than the biblical God.  He tries to make me out as treating an insular “Judaism” free from Hellenistic influences, but anyone who reads my work carefully will readily see that he misrepresents me.

(2)  He confuses the verbal/discoursive treatment of figures as in some sense “divinized” with the real question for ancient Jews, which was whether any figure other than the one God should be given cultic worship.  Of course, at the verbal level we have figures such as Moses or Enoch, and angelic figures such as Michael or Melchizedek, described verbally in terms that look like “divinization”.  That’s not under dispute.  Indeed, well before Litwa, I made this point emphatically in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.

The crucial “red line” issue for Roman-era Jewish tradition wasn’t the verbal depiction of this or that figure in glorious, divine-like language, but whether any such figure was to be given cultic worship.  I’ve made this point quite clearly, repeatedly, most recently in my article: Larry W. Hurtado, “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 379-400.

It is precisely in the remarkable pattern of devotional practices reflected in our earliest Christian texts that we see an apparently novel development:  Jesus is included as a co-recipient of cultic practices.  I’ve repeatedly itemized the cultic practices in question, and have waited for other scholars to prove me wrong.  Still waiting.  Litwa rightly notes that what I have called the “christological rhetoric” of the NT is similar to the kind of “divinization” discourse used in pagan and Jewish circles in the Roman era.  But the further step of treating Jesus as rightful recipient of cultic devotion in a programmatic manner is unparalleled in Jewish tradition of the time.

On the question, see also this previous posting here.




“The Fate of Rome”: Kyle Harper’s New Book

The book focuses on a period later than my own competence, and so later than the stated focus of this blog site, but Kyle Harper’s most recent tome is just so good that I have to mention it:  The Fate of Rome:  Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017).  The publisher’s online catalog entry here.

Many scholars have opined about how and why the Roman Empire finally collapsed, but Harper’s book offers some additional reasons that comprise a significantly creative view of matters.  Essentially, he argues that changes in the climate in “late antiquity,” and also the effects of disease, climaxing in the pandemic of plague in the reign of Justinian, tipped the balance toward collapse of the Empire.

A Roman historian, in this book Harper has broadened the usual data covered to include masses of information on climate-history across the entire Roman period, recent archaeological analysis that includes DNA analysis of the human remains in various grave sites, detailed description of the various pathogens that afflicted the Roman world, with particularly detailed information on the bacterium that drove the Justinian pandemic.

Climate historians characterize the period ca. 250 BC – AD 150 as the “Roman Climate Optimum,” a time when the climate permitted agricultural and human flourishing on a grand scale.  The period ca. AD 150- 450 is the “Late Roman Transitional Period,” a time of greater fluctuation in the climate.  Then, AD 450- 700 is the time of the “Late Antique Little Ice Age,” caused by lower solar activity, greater volcanic activity, and consequent shifts in winds aloft and so rainfall, and also much cooler temperature (including at least one year of no summer, due to volcanic ash in the air worldwide).

There is simply too much in the book to do justice to it in a blog posting, and, as already indicated, I’m out of my comfort and expertise zone in assessing the case that Harper makes.  But, for what it’s worth, I found it fascinating, at points riveting or harrowing (in his description of the effects of plagues).

But, also, Harper writes so well!  In this quite serious study, he livens the narrative appropriately, as in his references to the bubonic plague germ as a heartless killer.  As well, he has a knack for the bon mot, as in his discussion of Justinian’s marriage to Theodora (a woman of a certain notoriety):  “It would be as though a sitting president married a Kardashian” (203)!

As to historical significance of the events that he discusses, note, for example, Harper’s statement:  “Materially and imaginatively, the ascent of Islam would have been inconceivable without the upheavals of nature” (249).

Highly recommended!

My List of Second/Third Century Manuscripts

Brent Nongbri has some valid observations about the limits of my listing of second/third century Christian manuscripts on his blog site here.  It’s true, that it’s a list of copies of texts, not a list of manuscripts as such.  It originated in an attempt on my part to tabulate what texts we have in earliest Christian manuscripts, and then also to count how many copies of each text we have.

I discuss the results of that investigation in the chapter entitled “The Texts,” in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).  I found some surprises in doing that work.  For example, what are we to make of the several early Christian copies of Leviticus, not a text you’d think terribly meaningful to early Christians?  But apparently it was!

Or how about there being only one copy of the Gospel of Mark from these earliest centuries?  So, if the comparative number of extant copies reflects basically the comparative number of copies of a given text circulating in that period, how did the Gospel of Mark “make it” into the canon?

But, as I also note, the “artifactual” data are also important.  For example, the copies of texts such as the Gospel of Mary or Gospel of Thomas seem to have been comparatively more common in roll format than the case for those texts that were more widely treated as “scripture” and then formed part of the developing NT canon.

As Nongbri notes, the dates of some manuscripts vary, and are subject to revision.  But I hope that my list of texts/manuscripts serves at least as illustrative of the sort of material that can be investigated.

The “Egerton” Fragment: Re-thinking its Date

Peter Malik and Lorne Zelyck have recently published an article examining the dating of an oft-cited fragment of a text, known as the “Egerton Fragment/Gospel.”  Originally, it was dated to the mid-second century CE, but in recent decades the date revised downward to the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE.  Malik and Zelyck seem to agree with this later dating, proposing 150-250 CE, with a slight preference for early 3rd century CE.

Malik gives a brief summary of their article here.  The full article appears in Zeitschrift fur Palaeografie und Epigraphik 204 (2017): 55-71.

Second/Third-Century Christian Manuscripts

Relating to my recent posting about the questions Brent Nongbri has raised about some widely-accepted datings of some early Christian manuscripts, I’ve uploaded to my list of various items (under the tab “selected published essays” on this blog site) the most recent updated and corrected version of the table of early Christian manuscripts dated to the second or third century CE here.  The original version of the list appeared as an appendix to my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

In the list, I’ve simply shown the date(s) of manuscripts assigned by their editors (or in subsequent academic discussion), such as reflected in the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (online here).  The list is intended to show all manuscripts of literary texts that are identified as Christian manuscripts.  Nongbri has raised questions about a few NT papyri, but (as he would readily agree) we really have to consider all texts in making palaeographical judgments.

The Limits and Difficulties of Palaeographical Dating of Literary Manuscripts

This afternoon (16 January) our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins hosted a very informative presentation by Dr. Brent Nongbri on how we go about attempting to date undated literary manuscripts, especially Greek papyri.  The thrust of his presentation was that palaeographical dating of Greek papyri cannot yield a sound date much more precise than roughly a century.  So, e.g., we might say that a given manuscript is probably third century CE.

He reflects the sort of cautious approach that was classically characterized by the great Eric Turner.  And Nongbri has now published several articles in which he shows the ramifications of this cautious approach with reference to several widely-cited NT papyri.  There is his critical analysis of some incautious datings of the Rylands John fragment (P52):   “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 98, no. 1 (2005): 23-48; and a similarly critical analysis of the dating of P.Bodmer II (P66):  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; and most recently a critical appraisal of the date for P.Bodmer XIV-XV (P75):  Brent Nongbri, “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135, no. 2 (2016): 405-37.

We all want the earliest evidence that we can get, an understandable desire for historical work on Christian origins and tracing the textual history of the NT.  Nongbri hasn’t so much proven that the commonly assigned dates of these papyri are wrong, as he has rightly underscored that any date assigned can only be approximate and the result of scholarly judgement.  And competent palaeographers can (and do) differ on dates.

(In an earlier posting, I responded to his article on P66 here.  And I gave a brief notice of his article on P75 here.)


The Site Word Cloud

I now and then get asked to comment on something that I’ve posted on already, sometimes a year or more earlier.  I wonder if some readers don’t grasp the function of the “word cloud” on this site (the words/phrases of various sizes on the right side of the home page).  I try to “tag” my posts appropriately, and so you can usually find any posting I’ve made on subjects in the word cloud by simply clicking on a given word.  Readers may find that it saves them time in finding things, and saves me from having to repeat myself!

Advice for New Scholars (from an older one)

The latest video in the series prepared by our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins is me offering some advice for new scholars:  here.  It’s all pretty basic, and will likely seem obvious.  But it’s what came to me for this brief video.  There are likely additional things to say, but not at the expense of the what I refer to in the video.

Editio Critica Maior: Acts Volumes

I am the happy and grateful recipient of the newly-published four-volume work on the text of Acts of the Apostles that forms part of the Editio Critica Maior (ECM) project based in the Institute for Text-Critical Research in the University of Muenster.  Published by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, the online catalog entry is here.  At 268 Euros, it will likely be affordable mainly to libraries, but any library serving NT exegesis must acquire it, and scholars working on Acts must have access to it.

The first two volumes follow the pattern established in the earlier volume on the Catholic Epistles.  The top of each page has the text that the editors regard as closest to the “original” text (the preferred Muenster Institute term is “initial text”), and below each line of text are the variants, and below this the supporting witnesses for each of the variants.  The first volume (“Part 1.1”) covers Acts 1–14, and the second (“Part 1.2”) covers Acts 15–28.

The third volume (“Supplementary Material”) is a series of lists:  the sigla used in the edition, the Greek manuscripts cited, lacunae in Greek manuscripts, errors in Greek manuscripts, Patristic citations, “versions” (early translations) cited, and a brief commentary on versional attestations.

Probably the largest (and perhaps the toughest) problem in NT textual criticism concerns the text of the Acts of the Apostles.  In particular, what has often been called the “Western text” of Acts, the principal Greek witness being Codex Bezae (D), represents a text of Acts some 14% larger than the familiar text preferred in most critical editions and that is reflected in translations of the NT.  But the various other witnesses often linked with the “Western text” don’t actually exhibit very close agreement with one another when assessed using quantitative analysis.

So, over many years now, various scholars have proposed various theories.  One is that the “Western text” is one of the earliest (or perhaps the earliest) forms of Acts, but its transmission produced the lack of coherence among extant witnesses.  Another view is that the “Western text” (in the form that we see in Codex Bezae) was formed by a “redaction” at some point.  Still another view is that the “Western text” is a mirage, or, more precisely, that it isn’t really a coherent text-form.  Instead, in this theory, the various witnesses all reflect a comparatively “free” transmission practice that generated a body of textual variants, the fullest body of them represented in Codex Bezae.

In dealing with the text of Acts, therefore, the Muenster scholars had to engage this  problem in particular.  The fourth volume in this set, “Part 3:  Studies,” includes several essays devoted  to the “Western text” problem.  But, before we get to them, Klaus Wachtel offers a “text-critical commentary” on passages where the editors of the ECM reconstructed the “initial text” differently than in the Nestle-Aland 28th edition (= UBS 5th edition), and a discussion of “new” variants in Patristic citations (Nikolai Kiel), an analysis of quotations of Acts in the Gospel commentary of Fortunatus of Aquileia and in Augustine’s early anti-Manichean writings (Georg Gäbel), a discussion of the use of Coptic versions (Siegfried Richter and Katharina Schröder), and a study of a 6th century witness to the Gothic text of Acts (Carla Falluomini).

Then, come major studies concerned with the “Western text.”  Georg Gäbel leads off with a wide-ranging discussion of various approaches and theories.  He affirms the view that the “Western text” (or “D-text cluster”) was not an early form of the text of Acts, but, instead, was what he calls a “Bezan trajectory” (alluding to Codex Bezae), that is, a loose textual tradition that reflects a somewhat more “free” handling of the text of Acts than we have in witnesses such as Vaticanus.  It is interesting that he acknowledges that he has now shifted from his earlier view that there was a “redaction” that generated the Bezan-type text.  (Anytime a scholar changes his/her mind under the impact of evidence, it should be noted and celebrated!)  This 53-page and highly detailed study now demands the attention of any scholar addressing the text of Acts, and particularly scholars who have expressed views on the “Western text.”

Next comes a study of the relationship of the “Western text” of Acts and the “Byzantine tradition” (i.e., the witnesses to the tradition that led to the “textus receptus” of the Medieval period) by Klaus Wachtel.  He contends in forceful language, “the quest for the ‘Western text’ has failed,” and “the notion of a second century ‘Western text’ should be abandoned once and for all” (p. 147).  Thereafter, we have a (German-language) discussion by Holger Strutwolf of the text of Acts reflected in citations by Irenaeus.  Strutwolf concludes that Irenaeus isn’t a witness to a “Western text,” but instead to a certain freedom in citing and transmitting the text of Acts.

Gunnar Büsch considers whether a “Western text” is reflected in the citations of Acts by Chrysostom (some 3,500 Acts citations across his body of work!).  He complains that the textual history of Chrysostom’s homilies must be resolved before any definitive judgement can be made.  Nevertheless, he expresses doubts that Chrysostom really is a witness to a “Western text” of Acts.

Shorter studies of the “middle-Egyptian” textual tradition (Siegfried G. Richter) and the so-called “Harklean apparatus” of variants in the ECM conclude the volume.

A LOT of work has gone into the production of these volumes, for which all NT scholars must express admiration and gratitude.  The judgments reflected in the preferred “initial text” should be studied by anyone doing exegesis of Acts.  And the provocative essays in the final volume that address the “Western text” issue should (and certainly will) receive the close attention of NT textual critics in particular.


Commentary on Luke: Wolter in English Translation

The second/final volume of the English translation of Michael Wolter’s massive commentary on the Gospel of Luke has just appeared:  The Gospel According to Luke: Volume II (Luke 9:51–24), in the Baylor-Mohr Siebeck Studies in Early Christianity series.  The German original was published in 2008, and the first volume of the English translation appeared in 2016.

With a combined page-count of 1,162 pp., it is one of the most substantial resources available on the Gospel of Luke. The endorsements from major scholars that adorn the book-jacket attest to the quality of the work.

Wolter is Professor of New Testament in the Faculty of Protestant Theology, University of Bonn, and is the author of a number of other books, including Paul:  An Outline of His Theology (also in English translation from Baylor University Press).

Hearty thanks to Wayne Coppins and Christoph Heilig, who translated this massive work.

The publisher’s information on the two volumes of the Luke commentary is here and here.

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