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Notable Markan Variants in Codex W

In earlier postings I’ve noted that major variants continue to appear, and in some cases “succeed” in gaining widespread acceptance in the subsequent manuscript tradition as late as the fifth century and thereafter.  There are also examples of interesting variants that first appear in the extant Greek manuscripts that late, but didn’t “succeed”.  Having done my PhD thesis on the text of the Gospel of Mark in Coldex W (the Freer Gospel codex), I’ll cite a few interesting variants in this manuscript as examples.[1]

I’ll begin with a variant that is more well known, the so-called “Freer Logion.”  This variant appears only in Codex W among extant Greek manuscripts after what we know as Mark 16:14 (in the “long ending” variant).  Here is an English translation:

And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or, does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God.] Therefore reveal your justice now”— thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of justice which is in heaven.”[2]

A version of this variant is attested as known to Jerome in some Greek manuscripts in the fourth century.[3]  But Codex W is the only extant example.  Metzger opined that the logion was probably first added to the text of the “long ending” of Mark by a “scribe” sometime in the second or third century “to soften the severe condemnation of the Eleven in 16.14.”[4]  The ascription of the motive for the variant seems cogent, but, as with other “intentional” variants, we should more plausibly ascribe the Freer Logion to some unknown reader/user of a copy of the Gospel of Mark.[5]  But my main point is that, whatever its point of origin, this variant didn’t “succeed” in being accepted into the manuscript tradition of Mark beyond Codex W.

A far less well-known variant in the text of Mark in Codex W appears at Mark 1:3.  Whereas the best-attested text in vv. 2-3 is a slightly variant quotation of Exodus 23:20 and Isaiah 40:3, in Codex W the quotation of Isaiah includes the whole of 40:3-8.  Again, Codex W is the only witness in the Greek manuscript tradition for this variant.  And again I think it likely that the variant arose in the course of someone reading the text and adding the words of Isaiah 40:4-8, perhaps originally as a marginal note.  In any case, this is another variant of significant size that just didn’t “succeed”.

I cite now a third instance of a variant apparently unique to Codex W.  This one is much smaller, but I judge it clearly intentional.  I’ll have to set the scene in Mark where the variant appears.  In Mark 3:21, the best attested text refers to Jesus’ “associates/friends” or (more likely here) his “relatives” (Greek:  οι παρ’ αυτου) setting out to take Jesus in hand for they (or others?) judged him to have lost his senses (Greek:  ελεγον γαρ οτι εξεστη).[6]  In Codex W (and also Codex Bezae), however, those who sought to take Jesus in hand in v. 21 are “those around him, the scribes and the others” (Greek:  ακουσαντες [οτε ακουσαν Codex D] περι αυτου οι γραμματεις και οι λοιποι).  Note that this shared variant involved “correcting” the preposition, changing παρα to περι, and disambiguating the text further by specifying “those around him” as “scribes and the others.”  The effect (and the purpose) of this variant was clearly to avoid (“correct”) the idea that Jesus’ family could have regarded him as needing to be seized.

But in Codex W there is a further, and apparently distinctive, variant.[7]  In place of the report that some were saying Jesus had lost his senses (εξεστη), Codex W has “they were saying ‘he has made them his adherents’.”[8]  This actually involved another minor change of two words.  Instead of εξεστη (“he is beside himself”), Codex W has εξηρτηνται αυτου, which means something like “they have become his adherents.”  The effect (and the purpose) was to avoid the suggestion that Jesus was thought by some to have become somewhat unhinged.  It seems to me likely that an early reader of the passage, troubled by what the more familiar wording says, and thinking that it must be some mistake, sought to put things right.  Note that this involved replacing εξεστη (exestē) with a word that has a slight phonetic similarity, εξηρτηνται (exērtēntai).

It’s pretty obvious that both of the variants in Codex W (the one shared with Codex Bezae and the one unique to Codex W) were motivated by a pious desire to avoid what seemed to some readers an embarrassing passage that could reflect badly either on Jesus’ family or Jesus himself.[9]  So it’s all the more interesting that neither one “succeeded” in getting adopted into the subsequent textual tradition.  Instead, the potentially “embarrassing” text was preferred!  In short, if the variants in Codex Bezae and Codex W are examples of an attempt at what Ehrman colourfully termed “orthodox corruption” of Mark, the attempts failed, and what is likely the originating, and more “difficult,” form of the text was preferred and preserved.

These interesting variants in Codex W illustrate both the creation of variants, likely by devout readers seeking to amplify (as in the variant in Mark 1:3) and/or to correct the text (as in the “Freer Logion” and the variants in Mark 3:21), and also that such attempts didn’t by any means always “succeed” in the subsequent manuscript tradition.  As I’ve emphasized repeatedly, the forces that generated such variants and that made for either their subsequent adoption or rejection deserve more attention.

[1] A lightly revised version of my 1973 PhD thesis was published later:  Larry W. Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark (“Studies and Documents,” 43; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).

[2] Translation from Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart:  Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 104.  The Greek text (adapted slightly from the Nestle-Aland 28th edition apparatus):  κακεινοι απελογουντο λεγοντες οτι ο αιων ουτος της ανοµιας και της απιστιας  υπο τον σαταναν εστιν ο µη εων τα υπο των πνευµατων ακαθαρτα την αληθειαν του θεου καταλαβεσθαι δυναµιν. δια τουτο αποκαλυψον σου την δικαιοσυην ηδη εκεινοι ελεγον τω χριστω και ο χριστος εκεινοις προσελεγεν οτι πεπληρωται ο ορος των ετων της εξουσιας τον σατανα αλλα εγγιζει αλλα δεινα. και υπερ ων εγω αµαρτησαντων παρεδοθην εις θανατον ινα υποστρεψωσιν εις την αληθειαν και µηκετι αµαρτησωσιν ινα την εν τω ουρανω πνευµατικην και αφθαρτον της δικαιοσυνης δοξαν κληπονοµησωσιν.

[3] Jerome, Dialogues Against the Pelagians 2.15.

[4] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 104.

[5] In my own earlier work, such as my 1981 study, I unthinkingly echoed the ascription of such intentional changes to “scribes”.  I have come to see, however, that we should grasp and distinguish the processes of copying and reading/using texts more carefully.  Basically, copyists copied; and “intentional” changes tended to be produced by users/readers who took the time to study and puzzle over the text.  As Zachary Cole has shown in his study of how the copyist of Codex W handled the designation of numbers, he rather mechanically reproduced his exemplar:  Zachary J. Cole, “Evalutating Scribal Freedom and Fidelity:  Number-Writing Techniques in Codex Washingtonianus (W 032),” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 52 (2015):  225-38.

[6] Those mentioned here are likely the family members who re-appear slightly later in Mark 3:31-35, which explains Jesus’ response in vv. 33-35.

[7] I discussed this variant in Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology, 77, and I also make reference to a couple of earlier discussions.

[8] Codex Bezae has εξεσταται αυτους (“he has maddened them”) instead of εξεστη.

[9] There are actually a number of other variant readings in the manuscript tradition that show that various readers found Mark 3:21 a troubling text.

“God’s Library” (by Brent Nongbri): A Review

In an essay published nearly two decades ago, I drew attention to several features of early Christian manuscripts, identifying these features as likely our earliest expressions of an emergent Christian visual and material culture.[1]  A few years later, in a contribution to the Society of Biblical Literature Forum series, I wrote about early Christian manuscripts as artefacts.[2]  In the following years in several further publications I emphasized the relevance and importance of early Christian manuscripts for historical questions about the origins and early development of Christianity.[3]  In particular, I single out my 2006 book urging greater attention to the specific features of early Christian manuscripts.[4]

So it is encouraging to see this emphasis on manuscripts taken up in Brent Nongbri’s newly published book, God’s Library:  The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (Yale University Press, 2018).  Whereas my studies have focused on what we might call the para-textual features of earliest Christian manuscripts, Nongbri focuses on questions about their provenance, acquisition, and how we go about assigning manuscripts dates. The “archaeology” in the sub-title is mainly what he refers to as “museum archaeology,” the detailed “digging” into the archives of the institutions that hold these manuscripts, to address his questions.  And Nongbri has certainly done this sort of digging!  His book is chock-full of discoveries of answers to these matters, or, in other cases, fresh questions about them.

In a number of essays of his own over recent years, Nongbri has surfaced questions about the acquisition of manuscripts and, more provocatively, querying the heretofore widely-accepted dates of some key manuscripts of the Gospels.[5]  In the book reviewed here, in his own words, “issues of dating have recurred throughout this study” (269).  But his argument about dating isn’t so much a firm defence of the later dates that he prefers, so much as it is a (properly in my view) critical querying of the unwarranted specificity of dates assigned to some NT manuscripts by some scholars.

Nongbri repeatedly notes that dates have often been assigned solely (and, in many cases, unavoidably so) on the basis of palaeography; and, as anyone can verify by examining the relevant publications, even recognized experts in Greek palaeography can differ over the likely date of a given manuscript by as much as a century or more.  His main complaint is that scholars have too often preferred the earlier dates of some experts over the later dates assigned by others, without noting that any date based on palaeography can only be approximate.  So our handling of the dates of early papyri, which forms the real focus in the book and in questions about the early texts of NT writings, should be more modest and careful than has sometimes been the case.

But, whatever your view of the dates of early papyri, Nongbri’s book is a rich harvest of his investigations, especially in the archives of some key collections and holding institutions.  I did some of this sort of work myself in the Freer Gallery of Art archives, in preparation for an edited volume on the Freer biblical manuscripts, and I share Nongbri’s enthusiasm for this “museum archaeology.”[6]

The first chapter, “The Early Christian Book,” is a review of writing material used and the techniques of codex construction.  There is excellent detail in this discussion, with helpful visual illustrations.  My one quibble is over Nongbri’s statement that, with “a few” exceptions, “‘the book’ in the early Christian centuries was almost always the codex” (22).  As I’ve shown, the early Christian preference for the codex appears to have been particularly consistent for those texts that were coming to be treated as scriptures, whereas there seems to have been a somewhat greater readiness to copy other texts on rolls (e.g., theological treatises and certain other texts).  By my count, about one-third of the extant manuscripts of the latter types of texts are rolls.[7]  Indeed, Nongbri’s table of the forms of Christian books at Oxyrhynchus (Table 6.1, p. 237) rather clearly supports my point.  This still obviously represents a Christian preference for the codex overall, but I think that the marked distinction in degrees of preference for various kinds of texts is noteworthy.

Chapter two, “The Dating Game,” reviews the methods used to try to establish the likely date of an undated literary manuscript.  These involve noting their contents, their re-use (“opisthographs,” the writing of a text on the outer surface of a roll that was initially used for some earlier, sometimes dated, text), palaeography, radiocarbon analysis, and analysis of the ink of a manuscript.  Readers will find this a very informative chapter.  For example, Nongbri explains the different handwriting styles referred to by palaeographers, and the somewhat different approaches advocated by them.

As noted earlier, Nongbri offers an extended critical appraisal of the limits of palaeographical dating, observing, for example, that a given type of handwriting may well have been practiced over a century or more.  In this chapter he rightly urges that palaeographical dating must proceed on the basis of securely dated comparisons, whenever possible.  He is equally helpful and candid in noting the limits of radiocarbon analysis, and the importance of conducting this sort of analysis with great care to avoid contamination.  And, as for ink analysis, he notes that this can only tell us the chemical contents of the ink, not its age.

In the following chapters, Nongbri lays out the results of his impressively detailed investigation of questions about the provenance and acquisition of some collections of early Christian books.  Chapter four is devoted to the Chester Beatty biblical papyri (eleven codices, the largest single collection of early biblical papyri).  He discusses both the collection and how it was acquired, and also reviews the individual books in the collection.  The “jewels in the crown” among the Chester Beatty papyri, so far as NT scholars are concerned, are obviously P45 (P.Chester Beatty I, a codex that originally contained the four Gospels and the book of Acts) and P46 (P.Chester Beatty II, a collection of Pauline epistles in one codex), both of them typically assigned to sometime in the third century.

Nongbri expresses some hesitation about the dates of these two codices, however, because “our corpus of datable samples in taken almost entirely from rolls,” a format that was “largely supplanted [in general usage for Christian and non-Christian manuscripts] by the codex by the end of the fourth century” (138).  True, but whether roll or codex “documentary” texts tended to have dates written by the copyist, and so they can still be used to help us make comparisons with undated literary texts such as the NT writings.  Perhaps I’m missing something, therefore, but I don’t find his argument persuasive.  His review of dates for the other Chester Beatty codices (e.g., the Numbers-Deuteronomy codex), however, is informative and corrective (more likely third century than second).

Chapter five is devoted to the Bodmer Papyri, a much more diverse body of early Christian writings, and reflecting a much wider timeframe.  Here, too, Nongbri combines a critical discussion of the various stories about the finding and acquisition of these items with the contents of the books.  In several helpful tables, he lays out the details of the various Bodmer codices, drawing upon the Leuven Database of Ancient Books.  The diversity of the Bodmer collection includes the writing material (both papyrus and parchment), the languages (Greek, Coptic, and Latin), and the construction (both single and multiple quire codices). Nongbri classifies the manuscripts into three groups, based on their format, drawing particular attention to the “considerable group” of “basically square codices” (195).  Contra the judgements of some earlier scholars, Nongbri opines that much of the Bodmer collection can be dated in the fourth century.

This includes both P66 and P75 (the latter was purchased from the Bodmer foundation privately and then donated to the Vatican Library).  Nongbri’s arguments here and in his earlier essays on dates of these items deserve careful consideration, to be sure, but I think that he is more effective in his critique of some overly specific dates than in establishing his own preferred ones.

Chapter six is a highly informative discussion of the excavations conducted at Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt and subsequent archaeologists.  This is the site from which comes the largest number of manuscripts of early Christian writings.  In an appendix (273-80), Nongbri lists Christian books from Oxyrhynchus as of 2016, classified by types of literature.[8]  Noting that the Oxyrhynchus papyri were unearthed in trash heaps of the ancient city, and Nongbri poses, but doesn’t try to answer, what that might signify.  The story of the excavations by Grenfell and Hunt will make fascinating reading for those unfamiliar with it.  They employed as many as a couple of hundred local men and boys for the digging, and unearthed many thousands of manuscripts (albeit, many of them only fragments), shipping then back to the UK in metal boxes.  To date well over 5,000 have been published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, but this amounts to only a small percentage of the total, much of which is currently housed in the Sackler Library (an extension of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK).

Chapter seven gives a particularly interesting piece of detective work by Nongbri on a small set of papyrus fragments of the Gospel of Matthew (P64, P67) and the Gospel of Luke (P4).  Nongbri deftly shows that the oft-repeated story of the fragments coming from the binding of a copy of works by Philo of Alexandria arose from a misunderstanding of the original account.  He further shows that the subsequent proposals that these fragments derive from a four-Gospel codex of the second century CE are highly dubious, and seem to rest more on speculation than secure evidence.  Granting that a second-century date is “not impossible,” Nongbri makes it as “equally possible” that they derive from the third or even fourth century (267).

In his epilogue, Nonbri judges that “although a few Christian books may be as old as the second century, none of them must be that old” (269, emphasis his).  Complaining that there remains a “drive to have older and older Christian manuscripts,” he cites the ill-judged rumors of a first-century fragment of a manuscript of Mark as another example of this.[9]  Nongbri concludes by urging the greater use of radiocarbon analysis, greater interest in “museum archaeology,” and the greater digitization of manuscripts held in various institutions.[10]  All of these suggestions are cogent and to be embraced.

Nongbri has produced a “must read” for all those interested in early Christian manuscripts, and will likely persuade some of those who haven’t shown such interest that they should!  His proposals for revisions of dating of some key manuscripts carry varying force, but deserve a careful and considerate evaluation.  But it has to be said that the dates assigned to early Christian manuscripts have tended to be reached by papyrologists and palaeographers, practicing the same methods by which they date non-Christian manuscripts.  So, for example, if too many Christian manuscripts have been assigned too early, then is the same the case for the many more non-Christian manuscripts dated by the same people and by the same methods?  But, to repeat myself for emphasis, we can all be grateful for Nongbri’s impressively researched book, which I am sure will deservedly generate still greater interest in the study of early Christian manuscripts as artefacts.

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “The Earliest Evidence of an Emerging Christian Material and Visual Culture:  The Codex, the Nomina Sacra, and the Staurogram,” in Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity:  Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson, edited by Stephen G. Wilson and Michel Desjardins (“Studies in Christianity and Judaism 9; Waterloo:  Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), 271-88.  (American and British spellings of the word differ slightly, “artifact” and “artefact” respectively, hence the variation in the titles of publications, depending on their provenance.)

[2] “The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins,” SBL Forum.  ( 2004.

[3] Hurtado, “The ‘Meta-Data’ of Earliest Christian Manuscripts,” in Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean.  Jews, Christians and Others:  Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson, eds. Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland (Sheffield:  Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 149-63; “Early Christian Manuscripts as Artifacts,” in Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, ed. Craig A. Evans and Daniel Zacharias (Library of Second Temple Studies,70; Leiden:  Brill, 2009), 66-80; “What do Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church:  Identity and Interpretation in Early Communities of Faith, ed. C. A. Evans (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 179-92; “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading,” in The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill, Michael J. Kruger (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2012), 49-62; “P45 as an Early Christian Artefact:  What it Reflects about Early Christianity.” Teologisk Tidsskrift 4 (2016): 291-307.  Some of these essays (along with some others) are republished now in Hurtado, Texts and Artefacts: Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts LNTS 584 (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018).

[4] Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006).

[5] There are sixteen publications by Nongbri listed in the bibliography to his recent book (including several postings from his blog-site).  With particular reference to the dates of certain manuscripts, Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52:  Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 98.1 (2005): 23-48; “Grenfell and Hunt on the Dates of Early Christian Codices:  Setting the Record Straight,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 48 (2011): 149-62; “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; “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.

[6] Larry W. Hurtado (ed.), The Freer Biblical Manuscripts:  Fresh Studies of an American Treasure Trove (Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).  See esp. the detailed discussion by Kent D. Clarke, “Paleography and Philanthropy:  Charles Lang Freer and His Acquisition of the ‘Freer Biblical Manuscripts’,” 17-73.

[7] Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 53-61.

[8] See now Lincoln H. Blumell and Thomas A. Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus:  Texts, Documents, and Sources (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015), for the texts of 175 items.

[9] The item in question has now been published in the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series.  See my blog posting on the publication here.

[10] I’m pleased to have had a hand in arranging for the digital photography of the Chester Beatty biblical papyri several years ago, which are now available online at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (here).

Nongbri on John 21 in P66

Brent Nongbri has recently blogged about his newly-published article in which he explores the possibility that P.Bodmer 2 (P66) may give us a hint of an earlier copy of the Gospel of John without chapter 21.  See here.  The full article appears in the latest issue of the journal Early Christianity 9.3 (2018): 345-60.

An intriguing suggestion.  It has been held for some time now that John 21 is a secondary epilogue to an earlier edition of John that ended at 20:31.  But, heretofore, there has been no manuscript evidence for this.  P66 isn’t necessarily direct evidence, but Nongbri proposes that it may give us indirect evidence.

It will bear further thought.  The key datum in Nongbri’s proposal is that in P66 the page that ends with John 20:31 seems to have had a larger-than-usual lower margin/blank space, and John 21:1 then commences at the top of the following page.  There could be other reasons for this, although Nongbri’s suggestion should not be dismissed too quickly.  John 21 is obviously a new major “sense-unit”, and copyists often signaled sense-units with enlarged spaces between them.  So one option to consider is that the copyist may have intended only to signal that, already in his time, chap 21 was read as a new sense-unit.  One would have to see if there are any other examples of indicating new sense-units by commencing one on a new page.

More on Rethinking the Textual Transmission of the Gospels

In earlier postings, I’ve questioned the paradigm/model of an early “wild” period of textual transmission of the Gospels and a subsequent/later period of textual stability (here, here, and here). The model may seem intuitively credible, but the manuscript evidence doesn’t seem to support it.  To cite one thing, the manuscript evidence suggests that significant textual variants continued to appear, or at least first became widely accepted, well into the Byzantine and early Medieval periods.  Here are some examples.

Take the sizeable variant known as the pericope of the adulteress.[1]  The passage first appears in the extant manuscripts in the fifth century (e.g., Codex Bezae), and not in earlier manuscripts (e.g., P66, P75, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, as well as a number of somewhat later manuscripts).  But thereafter the passage became a regular part of the Gospel of John at 7:53-8:11.  So, the “success” of this passage, in terms of widescale incorporation into the Gospel of John, came, not in some early “wild” period, but later, in the period of supposed textual stability.  The variant may well have first appeared early in some now-lost early manuscripts, but obviously did not enjoy that “success” till later.

Or consider the “long ending” of the Gospel of Mark (which became 16:9-20 in the Medieval text).  Due to the comparatively less frequent usage and copying of Mark in the earliest centuries, the first Greek manuscripts that allow us to check the matter are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, which don’t have these verses.  Again, to find the variant in the manuscript tradition we have to go later, to the fifth/sixth century, in Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Bezae and others.  And once more, this sizeable variant became thereafter solidly a part of the Medieval text of Mark.  So, another sizeable variant that may have featured in some early manuscripts but only became a “success” later.

Still more striking, consider the variant at 1 John 5:7-8.  The earliest Greek manuscripts with these words (or variations on them) are a small number from the Medieval period.  Yet the variant became part of the “Textus receptus” (and so part of the KJV) thereafter.[2]

Now if we combine these facts with studies of the textual character of our earliest Greek manuscripts (papyri commonly dated to the third century or earlier), there is further reason to question the model of early/wild and later/stable textual transmission.  Studies by Barbara Aland and Min on the papyri for the Gospel of Matthew, and the more recent and more sophisticated study of early papyri of the Gospel of John by Lonnie Bell, all show that these texts were transmitted basically with care—no “wild” variants in evidence.[3]

The major points to make are these:  (1) The process of producing and incorporating significant and intentional textual variants continued well into the supposed period of textual stability.  Indeed, it appears that factors (yet to be identified) may have made for the “success” of such variants in the later period, in contrast with the earlier centuries.  (2) The earliest extant Greek evidence does not support the notion that in the first centuries the text of the Gospels was transmitted in some free-wheeling “wild” manner in which variants were introduced freely, producing some highly fluid state of affairs.  The earliest witnesses do show variants, to be sure, although almost entirely those relatively small ones incurred in the process of copying, not the larger and intentional variants, and clearly some copyists were more skilfull than others, and followed somewhat distinguishable practices.[4]

The larger point is that there is much to be explored about the textual transmission of the Gospels all across the first several centuries down through the Byzantine and early Medieval periods.  What factors made for the “success” of major variants only in these later times?  What factors made for a relatively cohesive transmission of Gospel texts reflected in our earliest Greek evidence?  Time for a more data-based model/paradigm!

[1] Chris Keith, “Recent and Previous Research on the Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53–8.11),” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2008): 377-404; David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone, eds., The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

[2] On this and the other variants mentioned in this blog, see, e.g., Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies, 1994), and the references cited at the respective places.

[3] Barbara Aland, “Das Zeugnis der frühen Papyri für den Text der Evangelien:  Diskutiert am Matthäusevangelium,,” in The Four Gospels 1992, ed. F. Van Segbroeck et al. (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1992), 325-35; Kyoung Shik Min, Die früheste Überlieferung des Matthäusevangeliums (bis zum 3./4. Jh):  Edition und Untersuchung, ANTF 34 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005); Lonnie D. Bell, The Early Textual Transmission of John:  Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[4] E.g., James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

Terminology and Its Effects: E.g, “Scribes” vs. “Copyists

In a number of blog postings and publications I’ve referred to “copyists” and distinguished their work (copying a text by hand) from “readers/users” of texts (individuals who invested time in studying a text, and who might well make changes to it, believing that thereby they were correcting some error in their copy or were removing ambiguities,  or who might add marginal notes, etc.).  In earlier studies, scholars often referred to “scribes”, and one still sees this term used to refer to the copying of Greek texts.  But it’s not helpful.  It blurs the distinction between the task and conventions of copying Greek texts and the role of readers/users of texts.

The first thing to note is that “scribes” in Jewish tradition were individuals who studied Torah and were deemed authoritative interpreters of it.  These are the guys mentioned in the Gospels often as critics of Jesus.  They didn’t make their living copying texts.

So, to avoid confusion, the term “copyist” is a better label for individuals who  . . . copied out texts.  Some of them in the Roman period were professionals, who got paid for their work on the basis of the length of text copied.  In some other cases, wealthy individuals had texts copied for them by household slaves trained to do so.  In still other cases, it appears that individuals made their own personal copies of texts.

My preference for “copyist” isn’t idiosyncratic.  I point to the comments by the distinguished papyrologist Peter Parsons:  “Copyists of Oxyrhynchus,” in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts, ed. A. K. Bowman et al. (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007), 262-70.  Note especially this one, where he makes the distinction between “scribes” (“a professional member of a sacred calling”) and “copyists”, and wrote, “We owe our literary papyri not to scribes, but to copyists” (262-63).

As others have noted also, copyists didn’t take the time to make intentional changes.  E.g., Ulrich Schmid, “Scribes and Variants: Sociology and Typology,” in Textual Variation: Theological and Social Tendencies?, ed. H. A. G. Houghton and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2008), 1-23.  The job of copyists was to copy the texts put before them.  They might be good at it, or not so good.  They might accidentally omit words or even larger amounts of text through a slip of their eye.  The might repeat a word or phrase.  They might produce an altered word-order (often correcting an overlooked word).  These sorts of variants come by the bushel in ancient texts.

But the larger and intentional variants (e.g., the various endings of Mark beyond 16:8, or 1 John 5:7, or the insertion of the pericope of the adultress, et alia) were the product of serious readers and students of the texts, who took the time to try to “improve” them in various ways.  The readiness to do this wasn’t indicative of whether a text was considered “canon” or “scripture.” I’ve noted, for example, how various readers of Acts seem to have produced what were intended as “disambiguating” variants at a number of places where the original reading was likely “kyrios” and it’s not immediately clear whether the referent is God or Jesus:  Larry W. Hurtado, “God or Jesus? Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts of the Apostles,” in Texts and Traditions: Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott, ed. Peter Doble and Jeffrey Kloha (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 239-54 , republished in Larry W. Hurtado, Texts and Artefacts: Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts (London: BloomsburyT&T Clark, 2017), 64-80.

So, let’s follow Parsons in using “copying/copyists” to designate the transmission of a text by hand, and “readers/users” to refer to those individuals who used the texts copied, and who were responsible for making any intentional changes in them.

Literacies in the Roman World

A few decades ago, it became fashionable in some scholarly circles, including NT/Christian Origins, to hold the view that in the Roman period there was an extremely low level of literacy, and that only elite levels of society had that skill.  One still sees this view touted today (typically by those echoing what they believe to be authoritative pronouncements on the matter by others).  But a number of studies show that such generalizations are simplistic, and that “literacy” was both more diverse and much more widely distributed than some earlier estimates.  The earlier claims of an extremely low level of literacy resurfaced in some comments, so I take the time to draw attention to some previous postings on the subject.

In a previous posting (here) I complained about the frequent failure to take account of relevant material evidence for reading and writing in the Roman world.  In other postings, I drew particular attention to the data provided in a study of graffiti from Pompeii (here), and also the really interesting study of graffiti by Roger Bagnall, in his book Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) (here).

The particular importance of graffiti is that they don’t likely reflect the activities of “elites,” but more likely people of lower/various social levels.  One can’t imagine Cicero stopping to write graffiti!  But also graffiti seem to have been addressed to similarly diverse social levels, with the expectation that various/many passersby would be able to stop and read them.  As the cited studies observe, this all means that, at least in urban settings, some meaningful levels of literacy were much more common that some have previously asserted.

To bring this around to the focus of this blog site, the NT and origins of Christianity, these studies reinforce the view that early Christian circles were rather “bookish,” as I’ve described them in my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor Univ Press, 2016), 105-41.  Right from the first decades onward, Christians read, composed, copied and circulated texts on an impressive scale, given the small number of Christians at the time.  So, with all due regard for “orality” and the ancient appreciation of the spoken word, in early Christian circles (as, actually, in the larger Roman-era world of the time), texts were central as well.  For an excellent introduction to the matter, I recommend (as I have frequently) Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Likewise, the older (early 20th century) notion that early Christian circles were composed of slaves and unlearned nobodies has rightly been corrected by various studies.  The pioneering study by Edwin Judge, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (1960), was followed by a number of works focused on the social description of early Christian groups.  I’ve listed some of them here.

(I remind readers again that to search for earlier postings that may be of interest use the “word cloud” and the search box on this site.  You may well find that your query has been addressed already.)

Carbon-14 Dating: A Reminder

Some commenters have asked if early papyri of NT writings have been submitted to carbon-14 dating.  I am moved to remind readers of an earlier blog-posting about a set of tests run on papyri here.  Essentially, these tests, run in three different laboratories, all roughly reached similar date conclusions.  Moreover, the most likely dates they arrived at were pretty close to those that had been reached previously by palaeographical method.  So, this should offer some encouragement to the dates arrived at by competent palaeographical experts.

The additional point to make, however, is that carbon-14 dating only speaks to the likely date of the writing material (papyri or parchment), not, actually, the date of the writing on the material.  Recall, as a warning example, the so-called “Jesus’ wife” fragment.  Carbon-14 tests suggested that the papyrus material in question came from the Byzantine period.  But subsequent close analysis of the text confirmed that it was a hoax.  That is, the hoaxer obtained some old papyrus and used it to perpetrate his hoax.  In short, we’ll still need competent palaeographers to analyse the texts, their likely date, authenticity, and other matters.

The Early Text of the New Testament

In some comments on a previous posting, the question of how the writings that came to form the NT were transmitted in the earliest centuries has arisen.   This prompted me to point again to what is probably the best single-volume treatment of the question:  Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

I gave a summary description of the contents of this excellent multi-author work several years ago, shortly after it appeared, here.  In another previous posting, I referred to my own contribution to this volume (here).  The volume is expensive to buy, but some things just can’t be handled adequately in a short YouTube video!  So, if you’re really interested in the relevant questions, you’ll just have to try to get access to this sort of serious work.

It is a particular value of the work that it is made up of contributions by individual scholars expert in the particular text or topic that they address.  It’s not simply the opinions of one scholar or school of thought.  So, you get a good idea of the “state of the question” in scholarly circles on each of the topics covered.

More recently still, I point again to the publication of the detailed study of earliest evidence for the transmission of the Gospel of John (for which we happen to have the most data among NT writings):  Lonnie D. Bell, The Early Textual Transmission of John: Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD, 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).  Bell demonstrates that the extant manuscript evidence shows a remarkable stability, even at this early date, not a “wild” state of affairs.  This is noteworthy, given that at that point there was no effective authority structure (in churches or in state authorities) to control the copying of these writings.

I point finally to another previous posting in which I ask whether it is now time to consider a different paradigm or theory of the early (and later) textual transmission of NT writings (here).  Things were likely more complex than the model of “early wild” and “later controlled/stable” copying allows for.  To mention one thing, it’s clear that major textual variants (such as the “long ending” of Mark and the pericope of the adulterous woman) continued to make their way into the commonly-accepted text of NT writings well into the late Byzantine or early Medieval period.

Saul/Paul the “Persecutor” and Jewish Tolerance of Diversity

On Monday of this week (22nd) the esteemed scholar of ancient Judaism in the Roman world, Professor Martin Goodman, delivered the 2018 Kennedy-Wright Lecture, sponsored by our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins: “The Jewish Paul and the History of Judaism.”

Goodman first noted several Jewish texts from the first century CE that emphasize both the diversity of ancient Judaism and also the readiness of most Jews to live with that diversity.  That is, Jewish differences, such as those between Pharisees and Sadducees, appear to have led sometimes to vigorous disagreement, but did not lead to physical conflict (so far as we know).

He then moved to Paul’s references to his initial opposition to the young Jesus-movement (Gal 1:13-14; Philip 3:4-6; 1 Cor 15:9), noting that they appear to offer an exception to the general picture Goodman had painted.  He suggested that Saul/Paul must have been an unusually vigilant person, and this accounts for his self-described efforts to “persecute” and “destroy” the Jesus-movement.

Goodman’s proposal may find some support from Paul himself, as I pointed out in the discussion following the lecture.  For in Gal 1:14 Paul describes himself as surpassing many contemporaries in his zealous commitment to “the traditions of my fathers” (which I take to include Pharisaic traditions/interpretations of Torah).  That is, Paul seems to say here that his “progress” in living out Jewishness (my preferred shorthand translation of Ioudaismos) was noteworthy.  Note also Philip. 3:6, where he simply states that he was “as to righteousness of the law [Torah], blameless.”

But the point made by Goodman earlier in his lecture continues to demand the question why the Pharisee Saul/Paul felt obliged to take the sort of determined actions against the Jesus-movement that he repeatedly refers to.  That is, if the more typical posture of devout Jews toward religious diversity was to express disagreement, but not to engage in physical coercion, perhaps there was also something about the early Jesus-movement (comprised then of Jews) that seemed to require its “destruction” (the word Paul himself uses in Gal. 1:13-14 to describe his intent).

In a previous posting here I reviewed this matter briefly, taking particular notice of Paula Fredriksen’s proposal that the issue generating Paul’s initial response to the Jesus-movement was that it was making gentile adherents abstain from worshiping the many gods (a proposal repeated now in her newly-released book, When Christians were Jews:  The First Generation, Yale, 2018).  She surmises that this would have led to Jewish fears that this could produce a backlash against the Jewish community among the wider gentile populace of cities such as Damascus, and so Paul (in her proposal with the Damascus synagogues) took disciplinary action against the Jewish Jesus-followers in question.  I also laid out briefly the reasons and data that make me think that her proposal is flawed.

She refers to unnamed “apostles” as the Jesus-believers who were disciplined in Damascus, and who were the likely objects of Saul/Paul’s ire.  But what corroborative evidence is there that “apostles” were working in Damascus within the first year or so after Jesus’ execution, conducting what would amount to a gentile-mission conducted along what we know a bit later as Pauline lines?

Moreover, as I pointed out in that earlier posting (and in the publications cited there), Paul’s description of the import of the experience that he calls a “revelation” is entirely “christological”.  That is, the experience is portrayed as a radically new estimate of Jesus.  Paul says that God revealed “his Son” to him.  This suggests to me that the crucial issue for Saul the Pharisee before that experience was how to regard Jesus.  Was he a blasphemer or false prophet as judged by the Jerusalem Jewish authorities, and so handed over to Pilate for execution, making the claims of the Jesus-movement about his divine vindication an outrage?  Were the devotional practices (such as invoking the resurrected Jesus) thus further outrages, nigh to impinging on the devotion that Jews offered to the biblical deity exclusively?

If so (or something like this), then the “revelation” of Jesus’ divinely-affirmed status that Paul refers to in Gal. 1:15-16 could well have had the effect of turning Saul/Paul from opponent to advocate of “the faith that he previously sought to destroy” (Gal. 1:23).  At least in this proposal we have Paul’s statement of the cognitive content that he came to embrace in his “revelation.”

In any case, to return to Goodman’s lecture, accepting his general thesis that Roman-era Jews were able to accommodate most religious diversity, the vigorous initial efforts of Saul/Paul against the Jesus-movement suggest that something made it seem to him an exceptional danger.

Personal Update

I have been reluctant to use this space for personal matters, but because so many readers sent kind words of encouragement during my chemo therapy and hospital confinement, I feel obliged to give some update.  I underwent a two-stage chemo treatment for a type of leukemia (AML) that ran most of July through September.  I was released from hospital on 21 Sept, and my haematologist has now judged me to be in remission (no cancerous cells found in my blood tests or bone marrow tests).

So, for the foreseeable future, I simply have monthly checkups with him.  I also take a daily medicine designed to help prevent the reactivation of cancerous blood cells.

My thanks to all of you who expressed your concerns and encouragement.  The “intensive” chemo therapy was a real trial and battering of my body (I lost 14 kilos weight, all my head hair, and a lot of strength).  It will take about 6 months, I’m told, to regain strength more fully. But I’m feeling better almost daily.   (Now back to our regular programmes!)

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