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New Book on Philosophers & Theologians Using Social Media

Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media:  Advice, Tips, and Testimonials, ed. Thomas Jay Oord (San Diego, CA:  SacraSage Press, 2017), has contributions from 91 scholars, who describe how they got into using various social media (e.g., blogging, or whatever), what they aim to do, and giving their tips and advice for those considering following their example.

Is a Paradigm Shift Now Called for?

Some comments in response to my previous posting on the textual transmission of early Christian writings (here) reflect the difficulty that some have in facing the need in a given field of study to undergo what Thomas Kuhn famously called a “paradigm shift,” i.e., a change in a fundamental approach or conception about a given subject.

In this case, the shift in question is from an older confident assumption that the early period of the copying of texts in Christian circles was “wild” and chaotic, followed then by a change to a stable and more fixed copying, typically linked to a “recension.”  As I noted in an earlier posting (here), by the end of the 19th century scholars often posited such a major recension of NT writings sometime in/after the 4th century CE.  This seemed intuitively cogent because in the 4th century we have monarchical bishops able to exercise to control over teaching and practices, the emergence of Christian scriptoria, and, by the end of the century, the emergence of a fixed/closed NT canon.

But the discovery of early NT papyri, initially the Chester Beatty papyri, but then still more remarkably P75 and also P66, put that theory in doubt (among those who followed the data).  For especially in P75 (codex containing large portions of Luke and John, dated ca. 175-250 CE) we have a text that is almost exactly that of Codex Vaticanus (the 4th century codex that had earlier been posited as the result of that supposed 4th century recension).[1]  So, clearly, the Vaticanus-type text of the NT writings wasn’t the result of a 4th century recension!

The early (2nd/3rd century CE) papyri do show the predictable types of variants that characterize the manual transmission of texts, and exhibit a certain variety in copyist skills and the influence also of readers.[2]  But we also have examples of fairly exact copying (again, e.g., P75), and scrupulous concern to correct copying errors (e.g., P66).

So, then the “recension paradigm” was adjusted to posit that it happened earlier, sometime in the second century CE.  This produced a picture in which supposedly from ca. 70-150 CE or so, copying was “wild” and chaotic, and the comparative stability in all our 2nd/3rd century NT papyri was the product of this re-dated recension.  (Note the apparent reluctance to abandon the old paradigm, and the effort to salvage it, as Kuhn observed in the sciences too.)

The “evidence” of the supposedly early “wild” copying of NT writings (prior to the late 2nd century) was the way that early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr sometimes use NT writings, appearing to cite them in wording that varies (sometimes markedly) from even our earliest copies.  But, for one thing, this kind of argument fails to take account of the very different practices followed in citing and using texts in the Roman era, compared with the practices followed in copying texts.  For ancient writers often (typically?) cited texts rather freely, often re-wording them for effect, which seems to have been regarded as both acceptable and even clever of them.[3]  Moreover, well after the supposed stabilization of NT writings and the formation of a NT canon, early Christian writers continued to use these texts with striking flexibility and freedom, which makes it a demanding task to use citations in these writers in NT textual criticism.[4]  So, the “free” citation of texts wasn’t confined to the early second century, and so isn’t evidence that the texts cited were handled loosely in copying them.

But if we focus on the only direct evidence of how texts were copied  ̶  ancient copies of them, surely  — we get the sense that copyists . . . copied.  Sometimes carefully, sometimes less so.  Sometimes skilfully, sometimes less so.  It wasn’t their job, however, to make major changes to texts.[5]

In my essay cited already on the NT in the second century I pointed to the social force upon those writings that were frequently read in churches.  This made these texts “corporate property” of circles of believers, and thus made major changes in them less likely.  In a forthcoming book that I’ve blogged on previously (here), Brian Wright shows how widespread the “communal” reading of texts was in the wider environment of the first and second centuries, and gives evidence that this practice also featured in early Christian circles.[6]  The effect of Wright’s study is to show that the social force of repeated corporate reading that curbed major changes in texts was likely active already in the first century and early second century (the time in which NT writings were supposedly handled in a “wild” manner).

In short, it is time for us to consider whether the notion (seemingly cherished by some) that there was an initial period of “wild” handling of writings that later became part of the NT, followed by a supposed fixing of texts sometime in the latter part of the 2nd century, now should be laid aside in favour of a “paradigm” that more adequately reflects the evidence.  Scholars yield long-held notions reluctantly, often striving to salvage them.  That’s not wrong, for new ideas should be critically examined.  But there come times when even cherished notions should be set aside, when, instead of repeating dubious mantras we should boldly consider a new “paradigm.”  That time has probably come with reference to the early transmission of Christian texts.

[1] Gordon D. Fee, “P75, P66, and Origen:  The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 19-45; Reprinted in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, E. J. Epp, G. D. Fee (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 247-73.

[2] James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), is now the major study of the matter.

[3] See, e.g., Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, SNTSMS 74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), on citation practices in the wider Roman world.

[4] Gordon D. Fee, “The Use of Greek Patristic Citations in New Testament Textual Criticism:  The State of the Question,” in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, SD 45 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 344-59.

[5] See, e.g., Barbara Aland, “Die Rezeption des neutestamentlichen Textes in den ersten Jahrhunderten,” in The New Testament in Early Christianty, ed. Jean-Marie Sevrin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1989), 1-38, who also notes the differences between citation/use of texts and copying them.  Also 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; Michael W. Holmes, “Text and Transmission in the Second Century,” in The Reliability of the New Testament:  Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 47-65; Kyoung Shik Min, Die früheste Überlieferung des Matthäusevangeliums (bis zum 3./4. Jh):  Edition und Untersuchung, ANTF, no. 34 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005); and more broadly, Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Lonnie Bell’s forthcoming study of early papyri of John (Leiden:  Brill).

[6] Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus:  A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

Early Textual Transmission of Christian Texts

Assumptions and claims about the transmission of the texts of early Christian writings continue to require correction.  Old assumptions and claims die slowly, advocates sometimes seeming so wedded to them that they exhibit some resistance to the data.

There is, for example, the persistent claim/assumption that there was some kind of “recension” of NT writings sometime in the (late?) second century CE (advocates include Helmut Koester and William Petersen).  I addressed this notion in an earlier posting here.  This sort of claim seems more and more to look like a kind of “rear guard” action against the accumulating manuscript evidence.  Moreover, it’s difficult to posit the ecclesiastical structure(s) that could have carried off such a recension at that early point, supposedly succeeding in erasing all evidence of the “pre-recensional” situation.  Historical work does involve imagination, but it really should be controlled by the evidence!

Likewise, there is the accompanying claim/notion that the second century, or that part of it (conveniently for this assumption) from which we have no extant manuscripts, was a time of “wild” copyist practices.  In this assumption, God knows what copyists got up to, perhaps including making substantial changes to texts, inserting blocks, deleting blocks, re-writing freely, conducting doctrinal purges, etc.  So, it is further asserted, we have no way of knowing what Paul or any of the Gospels writers may actually have penned.

But, again, this notion seems increasingly more dubious.  In an essay published some years ago I sketched several factors and lines of evidence that point to a comparatively more stable transmission of certain texts, especially those treated/read as scriptures in early Christian circles (the pre-publication version of this essay on this blog site here, and see also my review of early papyri, the pre-publication version here).

The second century may well have been a time of “uncontrolled” copying (i.e., no ecclesiastical structure controlling the process), but it does not appear to have been a time of particularly “wild” copying of the biblical texts.  (I borrow here a helpful distinction in terminology from my former PhD student, Lonnie Bell, whose PhD thesis on earliest papyri of the Gospel of John is forthcoming in the NTTSD series from Brill.)

There is variation, to be sure.  But the variation is relatively minor, and none of the supposedly major textual changes posited show up.  The major distinguishing large variants in Codex Bezae, for example, don’t appear.  There are, certainly, some variants that textual critics find “significant,” but they are small and not the sort of thing that some imagine.

By contrast, those writings that likely functioned more as “edifying” texts for personal usage appear to have been susceptible to more substantial changes, as reflected, e.g., in the extant portions of the Greek copies of the Gospel of Thomas or other such texts.  Michael Holmes has distinguished between what he calls “micro” variation, exhibited in the copies of biblical texts, and “macro” variation, exhibited more in some other early Christian texts.  In short, those texts that early became the “textual property” of Christian circles (i.e., read in churches) seem to have enjoyed a comparatively greater stability in transmission.

In sum, the general weight of manuscript evidence of biblical writings reflects a relatively conscientious copying of these texts.  That’s not an apologetic tactic, just a statement of the evidence.  Whatever you make of the contents of these writings, the early Christians seem, by and large, to have transmitted them with some impressive care.

Gemstone Crucifixion Image: A Recent Study

In a recent article, Roy Kotansky provides a fresh analysis of an ancient gemstone that that is regarded as giving one of the earliest visual depictions of the crucified Jesus:  Roy Kotansky, “The Magic ‘Crucifixion Gem’ in the British Museum,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 57.3 (2017): 631-59 (the article available here). (There is an online image of the gemstone in question here.)

Kotansky proposes a cogent fresh transcription and interpretation of the inscribed image and writing on the front (“obverse”) side and also the different inscription on the reverse side.  He proposes that the two sides were inscribed by two different people at two different times, and the two inscriptions reflect somewhat different mentalities.  I find this all very intriguing and plausible.

He accepts a date for the initial image and inscription sometime late 2nd to early 3rd century CE.  This is possible, but it has to be noted that the technique of dating gemstones is at least as approximate as the dating of ancient literary papyri.  A date a century later wouldn’t be out of the question.

But his handling of the visual data, the depiction of the crucified figure, seems to me to include some dubious proposals that are offered far too confidently.  He makes much of the image as showing the crucified figure appearing attached to the crossbar by ropes rather than nails.  He asserts that this likely shows that the gemstone image was carved before the Gospel passion narratives had circulated widely.

Well, for one thing, this claim appears to reflect an inadequate knowledge of the body of (multiple copies of) early Christian papyri that are commonly dated to the same period as Kotansky’s dating of the gemstone.  These papyri show that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John in particular circulated early and were apparently avidly read in early Christian circles. That is, by the putative date of the gemstone, the Gospels were in fact circulating and influential.  (Note also Justin Martyr’s reference to the Gospels read in churches that I cited in a previous posting here, which takes us back to ca. 150 CE or earlier.)

Also, it is worth noting that a similar gemstone in the British Museum also depicts the crucified Jesus without nails (here).  This gemstone is more typically dated 3rd/4th century CE, well past the time when the Gospels (including GJohn, the only account to mention Jesus nailed to his cross) were evidently in wide circulation.  So, it would seem more accurate simply to note that (for whatever reason) the depiction of the crucified Jesus without nails appears to have been used (preferred?) on such gemstones.  It tells us nothing about whether the Gospels were also circulating at the time of the production of these gemstone images.

Kotansky is an established and respected scholar in the study of amulets and such items.  But it seems that he is not sufficiently familiar with the papyrological data.   It’s not unique, however, for a scholar expert in one body of data to be insufficiently aware of other relevant data, and it shows how careful we all have to be in making large claims from something as small as one gemstone.


Anti-imperial Paul?

One of the issues in Pauline studies in recent years is whether Paul’s letters contain a “hidden” critique of Rome and imperial ideology.  Big names in NT studies have lined up on both sides of the question.  In a recent study, Christoph Heilig probes the warrants and approaches of the stances taken:  Hidden Criticism?: The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-imperial Subtext in Paul (Fortress Press, 2017; the publisher’s online catalog entry here).

For an overview of his own approach and assessment of the matter, have a look at his recent blog-post here.

It’s interesting that scholars on both sides of the issue have endorsed Heilig’s book as a helpful analysis.


Review/Critique of Ehrman, Bauckham and Bird on Memory and Jesus

A newly-published article gives an incisive discussion of recent publications by Bart Ehrman, Richard Bauckham, and Michael Bird on memory, tradition and the historical Jesus:  Alan Kirk, “Ehrman, Bauckham and Bird on Memory and the Jesus Tradition,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15.1 (2017): 88-114.

Given the wide readership acquired by all three authors and their works reviewed by Kirk, this is an article that also deserves a wide reading.  Kirk is both appreciative and critical of each of the scholars, his criticisms supported by what appears to me a fair citation of their works.  The thrust of Kirk’s critique is that, in varying ways and degrees, all three scholars could benefit from more attention to “social memory” theory and its effects in the framing and transmitting of traditions in groups.

Kirk’s critique of Ehrman (Jesus Before the Gospels:  How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior, HarperOne, 2016) is that his representation of the transmission of Jesus tradition by analogy to the familiar “telephone game” is seriously misjudged.  Kirk observes effectively that the process that Ehrman describes, one person passing a narrative to another who in turn passes it on in a continuing chain of transmission, is quite different from the historical process in which significant collective memories are shaped and transmitted in groups whose members are intentionally connected.

As well, Kirk faults Ehrman for what appears to be an insufficiently careful citation of some key scholarly works on which he builds his case.  Kirk’s allegations seem well supported,  the effect being to question cogently the bases for Ehrman’s argument.

As for Bauckham’s controversial book (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Eerdmans 2nd ed. 2017), Kirk’s complaint is that it also radically individualizes the transmission of the Jesus tradition, failing to take adequate account of the dynamics and effects of collective transmission of tradition.  The effect, Kirk alleges, is that Bauckham develops an implausible picture of how the Jesus-tradition circulated in the first century or so.

Kirk notes that Michael Bird’s book (The Gospel of the Lord:  How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, Eerdmans, 2014) is more a review of recent scholarly work with a view to assessing how it has an impact on questions in Gospels scholarship.  Along with commendations, including Bird’s reference to social-memory work, Kirk complains that Bird’s book reflects the widespread assumption that the primary importance of memory theory is its relevance for questions about the historical reliability of the Jesus tradition.

Kirk’s repeated refrain is that, properly understood, social/collective memory studies offer a more sophisticated (and so more complex) picture of how a group shaped by certain events and memories also shape and transmit those memories as their traditions.  Among the studies that Kirk commends as instructive are Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus:  Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Baylor University Press, 2009).

Jan Bremmer Essay Collection

Jan Bremmer is one of the most impressive scholars of the ancient world that I know, and a collection of his essays on early Christianity and its context has now appeared:  Jan N. Bremmer, Maidens, Magic and Martyrs in Early Christianity:  Collected Essays I (Tuebingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2017), the publisher’s online catalog entry here.

The 27 previously-published essays collected for this volume range widely (indicative of Bremmer’s wide interests and expertise), addressing in Part I “Aspects of Early Christianity” (essays on the label “Christian,” the “religious/social capital” of early Christians, the attraction of Christianity for upper-class women, the curious fellow Peregrinus, and “the domestication” of early Christian prophecy).

Part II comprises a number of Bremmer’s essays on the several apocryphal acts of the apostles and also the “Pseudo-Clementine” writings.

Part III is several essays on “apocalypses and tours of hell” (with several essays on the Apocalypse of Peter in particular).

Part IV takes in several more essays on The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, an early and influential martyrdom narrative.

The price (169 Euros) will make it largely confined to research library collections.  But it definitely deserves a place in such for serious students and scholars to access conveniently this body of valuable work by a highly esteemed scholar.

Spanish Language book on Early Christianity

During my visit to meeting of the Spanish Biblical Association, I was given a copy of a new multi-author book that I commend, especially to Spanish-speaking readers:  Así vivían los primeros cristianos:  Evolución de las practicas y de las creencias en el cristianismo de los orígenes, ed. Rafael Aguirre (Estella:  Editorial Verbo Divino, 2017).

The contributions address the religious experiences of early Christians, the impact of the death of Jesus, the rite of baptism in earliest Christianity, the place of the common Christian meal, the “way of life” of early Christianity, early Christian asceticism, and early Christian beliefs (with separate chapters on the first and second centuries).

Those teaching in Spanish-speaking settings will find this a good collateral reader for courses on early Christianity.

Justin Martyr and the Gospels

At a conference earlier this week in Málaga, one of the main sessions was on Justin Martyr, and the lecturer was asked about Justin’s knowledge and use of NT writings.  The lecturer responded by rather firmly urging that there is scant evidence that Justin knew the NT Gospels, emphasizing that Justin’s numerous references to the “memoirs [ἀπομνημονεύματα] of the apostles” might very well have designated other kinds of texts instead.  I’ll make several observations that lead me to differ.

First, in one crucial statement in Justin’s Apology (66:3), he refers explicitly to “the memoirs [same word] which are called gospels.”  So, this suggests that Justin’s “memoirs” are what he and fellow Christians of his time knew as “gospels,” not some other kind of text.  That is, this statement suggests that “memoirs of the apostles” was simply a particular term that Justin used to refer to what he and fellow believers called “gospels.”

Second, if we examine Justin’s references to these “memoirs of the apostles,” he often quotes from them, and what he quotes is recognizable, most often from the Gospel of Matthew, but also sometimes from Luke and (less obviously) the other familiar Gospels.  Indeed, these references include narrative material, including references to the narratives of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection (e.g., Dialogue with Trypho 101:3; 102:3; 103:6; 104:1; 105:1, 5-6; 106:1, 3, 4; 107:1).  So, we’re not dealing with something like a sayings-collection, but narratives of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion and resurrection.  Looks like Gospels to me!

Third, Justin refers to these writings as read in churches along with the “writings of the prophets,” which is his reference to the OT (which Justin viewed as primarily prophetic of Jesus).  So, again, these “memoirs” aren’t some sort of rough collection of this and that, or an informal crib sheet, but texts suitable to be read as part of corporate worship and on a par with the OT writings, which he unquestionably regarded as scripture.

Fourth, studies of Justin’s citations of these “memoirs” confirm that he knew and used at least the Synoptic Gospels, and quite likely the Gospel of John as well.[1]

Moreover, a number of recent scholars have found converging evidence that a “fourfold” Gospel comprised of the four familiar NT Gospels was operative by/in the early decades of the  second century, decades earlier than Justin’s major writings.[2]

So, why did Justin refer to these writings as “memoirs of the apostles”?  Well, the key term in question, apomnemoneumata, had a long usage, especially in philosophical circles of his time, to designate memories of the sayings and deeds of great teachers or leaders.  Given that the texts in which Justin uses the term were written to communicate with non-Christians (or were written to present Justin doing so), it’s understandable that he chose this term over the “in house” term “gospel” (which wasn’t used as a designation for a genre of writing in the ancient context).  In using the term, “memoirs,” Justin was also making a claim that the writings in question deserved to be treated seriously as evidence about Jesus.

All in all, thus, the most reasonable conclusion is that Justin did, indeed, know and use the familiar NT Gospels, Matthew with particular frequency.

[1] Oskar Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds, ed. Sara Parvis and Paul Foster (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 53-76; and arguing for Justin’s use of GJohn in particular, C. E. Hill’s essay in the same volume, “Was John’s Gospel Among Justin’s Apostolic Memoirs?” (88-94); and C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels:  Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 132-43.

[2] Martin Hengel, “The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ,” in The Earliest Gospels, ed. Charles Horton (London: T&T Clark International, 2004); Charles E. Hill, “A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century?  Artifact and Arti-Fiction,” Early Christianity 4 (2013): 310-33; G. N. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 317-46; James A. Kelhoffer, , Miracle and Mission:  The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark, WUNT 2/112 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).


A Thoughtful Review of “Destroyer of the gods”

I’m pleased to note the thoughtful review of my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) that just appeared in Marginalia (a Los Angeles Review of Books channel) here.

Actually, this review-essay addresses both Destroyer of the gods and my other (and smaller) 2016 book, Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press).  The reviewer, Jonathan Lookadoo, is himself a scholar in early Christianity of the same period as my books, and so his very positive endorsement of the books is very encouraging.

Along with the affirmations, he rightly notes that my two books don’t (and can’t) fully treat all the historical questions raised in them.  And he also poses for further thought some questions of his own.  It’s just the sort of engaged reading of a book that every author appreciates.  It’s also very nice to have the review in a publication directed to the wider general readership to which the two books are intended.

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