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More Text-Critical Commentary

For those able to handle Koine Greek, there is an additional resource dealing with text-critical matters, Wieland Wilker’s “Online Textual Commentary on the Greek Gospels,” here.  Like the Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (edited by Metzger) mentioned in an earlier posting, Wilker provides details and analysis.  But “online” means that Wilker didn’t have to deal with space/page limitations, and so he provides a much fuller presentation of the data, such as full quotations from early Christian writers (“Church Fathers”).

And his judgements broadly reflect those of the great majority of scholars who have worked with the relevant data.  I think that James Snapp was unkind and inaccurate to describe the Metzger textual commentary as “terrible” in a recent comment.  But it is limited, mainly by the purpose of the commentary, which was essentially to give the basic data and the rationale of the committee in judging which variants to print as primary and which as secondary.


Codex & Bookroll: New Videos

I announce two newly-produced, short videos in which I explain the basics of the ancient bookroll and the codex, and the curious early Christian preference for the latter bookform:  here.  These videos were produced by/for the University of Edinburgh Centre for the History of the Book, as part of a series of videos about various history-of-book matters.

For a more extended discussion of questions about the early Christian preference for the codex, see the chapter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 43-93.

A Textual Commentary on the NT

Those interested in text-critical questions about the Greek NT will find very helpful as a first resource to consult:  A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, Bruce M. Metzger (on behalf of and in cooperation with the Editorial Committee of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament).  Stuttgart:  United Bible Societies, 1994.

NT scholars will know the work, but I mention it for the benefit of the many “lay/general” readers of this blog-site, as well as those who may be scholars in other fields, who are keen to know more about text-critical matters.

This work gives data and analysis on the places of textual variation noted in the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, but these include pretty much all the really major ones.  At each point the commentary lays out the evidence and then gives the rationale for the decision made by the committee that produced the UBS Greek New Testament as to which variant to prefer.

So, for  example, to refer to a couple of points of textual variation mentioned in an earlier posting, the data on the “Pericope of the Adulteress” are discussed in pp. 187-89, and the thorny issue of the endings of Mark in pp. 102-7.

Deleted Comments

I often delete (and don’t publish) comments that are off the topic, or just plain silly or malicious, or from someone trying to hijack my blog site for his/her own pontifications, or that address a posting but obviously without having read the relevant material.  No apologies.  This is my house.

So, I repeat:  If you comment, address the topic of the blog-posting.  Don’t try to segue off into some “hobby horse” of your own (like a certain commenter who has pet theories about Josephus and raises them at every unlikely opportunity).  And don’t try to hijack the “comment” feature to present your own extended pontifications about this or that.  Get your own blog site.  “Comments” = pertinent questions, concise observations and/or critique.

And before you try to present a counter-position to something, how about reading the relevant material first?  So, for example, in the last couple of days I’ve had a string of lengthy “comments” from a person in response to my notice of publication of my Marquette Lecture, who, obviously without having read it, feels entirely confident to answer the question I pose (and the answers he so confidently proffers are dubious as well).

To repeat exhortations I’ve given earlier:  This isn’t some public forum for self-appointed exponents of this or that topic to inflict their pet views on my readers.  This blog site is where I relate and engage matters arising from my own research, as a public service to a wider readership.  (Unlike some bloggers, I don’t blog because I can’t get published otherwise!)  So, as in a public lecture or university seminar, if you have an appropriate question or informed observation, you’re most welcome to “speak up.”  Not only other scholars but the wider public are welcome to do so.  But don’t expect to get your “comments” published if you want simply to parade your prejudices or trot out pet theories that rest on a lack of expertise in the field.

The Adulteress Narrative: New Book

A new book is now the “go-to” resource on the text-critical question about the account  of the adulteress brought to Jesus (in traditional texts, John 7:53–8:11):  The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, eds. David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

Ironically, though one of the most well-known narratives in the New Testament, the account is widely judged by scholars as an addition to the text of the Gospel of John.  But that is not a universal view, and this volume features treatments of the question by five scholars, two of them (John David Punch and Maurice A. Robinson) proposing that the story is an authentic part of Gospel of John and omitted in the course of its transmission, and three other scholars (Tommy Wasserman, Jennifer Knust, and Chris Keith) arguing that the account originated elsewhere and was added to Gospel of John.

The essays originated in a symposium held in Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, North Carolina), 25-26 April 2014.  I was contacted sometime later and asked to write a response to the essays, which forms the final essay in this volume:  “The Pericope Adulterae:  Where from Here?” (pp. 147-58).

I judge superior the arguments (by Wasserman, Knust and Keith) that the text is an addition to copies of the Gospel of John, and I state my bases for this judgement in the essay.  In particular, I focus on the lack of the account in our earliest manuscripts that preserve the relevant portion of John (P66, P75, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus).  In the manuscript tradition, the account first appears in Codex Bezae (5th century).  But, curiously, not long thereafter the account won acceptance and so appears as a standard part of John in the mass of Medieval manuscripts.

Focusing on the repeated references in the story to Jesus writing on the ground, Chris Keith’s award-winning book (based on his PhD thesis completed here in Edinburgh) presents his case that the text was initially inserted in some copies of John to present Jesus as fully literate:  The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 2009).  Some early Christian writers reflect a knowledge of the story, and 4th century writers indicate that it appeared in some copies of John.  So, was it likely inserted initially perhaps in the 3rd-4th century??

As a very modest contribution of my own, in my concluding essay I focus on the chronology and the manuscripts.  Whenever the account first became a part of John, it clearly didn’t win widescale acceptance until sometime in/after the 5th century.  Now, according to a widely held view in NT text-critical circles, the first two or three centuries were a time of “wild” transmission and various major textual changes, and then the 4th century and later was a time of much greater fixity and control of the text.  But the manuscript evidence for the story of the adulteress woman, and also for the “long ending” of Mark, seems to call this view into question.

For example, the impression one takes from the manuscript evidence is that neither of these major textual variants (in fact, the two largest textual variants in the NT) won much acceptance in the earliest period of supposed “wild” attitudes and freely made changes.  Instead, both variants actually won acceptance later, in the period when supposedly such major changes were not so likely to gain acceptance.

So, the question I pose very briefly in my essay is this:  Is it possible that the common view of the transmission-history of NT writings (however intuitively it appeals) is wrong, or at least seriously defective?  More specifically, were there factors and dynamics in the later period that facilitated the inclusion and wide acceptance of these sizeable variants?

To ask such a question is, I recognize, a “heretical” move, in terms of widely-held scholarly views.  And, to be sure, to ask the question is not to presume the answer.  But I think that we (NT textual critics) should perhaps consider my question more closely than has been done to this point.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the early history of the transmission of NT writings is a bit more complex than the standard model allows . . . and perhaps a good bit more interesting!

Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?


Just returned from my trip to Milwaukee to give the 2016 Pere Marquette Lecture in Marquette University.   A good turnout (my local host estimated a crowd approaching 300), and very hospitable colleagues, who made my brief stay very comfortable.

The 50 minute lecture was based on the larger written discussion of the same question that I was asked to produce, and which is now published as a small book:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries (Milwaukee:  Marquette University Press, 2016), ISBN 13: 978-1-62600-504-4.  (The book was published in such a rush to make copies available for the lecture that as of this a.m. it’s not yet listed on the press web-site!  But it’s been pointed out that it’s listed on Amazon here.)

I give a brief overview of the growth of Christianity across those early centuries, which makes the question appropriate.  But the question I frame is a bit different from the one usually put:  not why did Christianity as a movement grow, but why did individuals commit to Christian faith?

Scholars have tended to focus on putative features that may have attracted individuals, such as social bonding in Christian circles, or their charity toward fellow believers, etc.  But such discussions often leave out an equally important feature:  There were also strong reasons not to become a Christian then.  I discuss what I term “judicial/political” consequences, and also “social” consequences of becoming a Christian that we know served as disincentives for identifying yourself as a Christian then.

So the more pointed question that I try to underscore is why, in light of these negative costs/consequences did people continue to align themselves with the early Christian movement.  Assuming that they weren’t stupid or insane, they must have judged there to be positive factors that outweighed the negative consequences.

I don’t claim to provide a full answer in my small Marquette volume.  My purpose instead is to draw attention to this way of putting the question, exploring the growth of adherents to early Christianity specifically in the context of those costs/consequences.

I think it helps us to put a human face on the phenomenon.  Whereas most scholars have focused on the growth of Christianity as a social movement (a subject that I don’t in any way disparage), my question is intended to get down to the level of individuals and the consequences of their religious choices.

The consequences of becoming a Christian in that period also set apart that move from any other religious affiliation.  You could become a Mithraist or Isiac or whatever, and it made no difference to your previous religious activities and loyalties.  You continued to take part in the worship of your inherited deities of household, city, nation.  But if you became a Christian you were expected to desist from worship of all other deities.

And the ubiquitous place of the gods in all spheres of social and political activity made that difficult, and made for potentially serious consequences if you did desist.  Indeed, it made it difficult to know how you could function socially and politically (to use our terminology).

So, I hope that the lecture and the little book on which it was based will contribute to our continued investigation of what must surely be one of the most intriguing phenomena of history:  that all across this early period people became adherents of Christianity in the face of the costs and consequences of doing so.

The Retreating Claim of an Early NT Textual Recension

The continued claim that there was a datable “recension” of NT writings sometimes resembles the stubborn rear-guard action of a retreating force that’s been beaten in battle but won’t surrender.   When driven from one position, claimants simply retreat to another.

A century and more ago, some scholars posited a major “recension” of the text of the NT supposedly carried out in the fourth century and sometimes ascribed to Hesychius of Alexandria (3rd-4th century) as the source of the text that we have in the great codices such as Vaticanus.  But the bases for this ascription are not secure.  More importantly, when 3rd-century NT papyri were discovered and published, it became clear that the NT text attested in the great 4th-century codices was substantially attested in these papyri from a century or more earlier.

So then the claim of a major NT textual recension moved backward in time to the late 2nd or early 3rd century and Alexandria.  The late William Petersen, for example, posited 180 CE as “the date when the ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Neutral’ recension was created, probably by the generation of Leonidas [sic], the father of Origen.”[1] From this supposed recension, he further posited, all our extant 3rd-century papyri derive. This claim quite handily allowed him, thus, to disregard these early witnesses to the NT text, and to preserve the cherished notion of a recension.

Indeed, Petersen insisted that the only relevant data for describing the state of the text of the NT in the second century (prior to his alleged recension) are the apparent uses of NT writings in the writings of 2nd-century church figures such as Justin Martyr. But, as I urged some years ago now, this is a major methodological error, confusing the conventions pertaining to ancient citation/use of text with the conventions pertaining to the copying of texts.[2] We know that Roman-era writers typically drew upon other writings loosely, and often deliberately did so.[3] That was a feature of rhetorical and writing practices of that time. But it is not indicative of how copyists treated the task of transmitting texts in manuscripts.

So, in fact, the primary data pertaining to the transmission of ancient writings such as the NT are the early manuscripts. In the case of the NT writings, we have some that take us back to ca. 200 CE and perhaps even a bit earlier. In particular, we have such early manuscript data for the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John in the papyri known as P75 and P66, as well as P46 for the letters of Paul. And these manuscripts, together with collateral data, suggest that, instead of some phantom recension relocated into the late 2nd century CE, we should posit a relatively conscientious copying of NT writings as what lies behind the extant manuscripts (or at least behind the majority of the early ones). There were, to be sure, variations in the abilities of early copyists, resulting in a number of copying errors (which are usually readily identifiable). And some ancient readers clearly made changes here and there, most often reflecting stylistic preferences but also for what they meant as clarification and removal of ambiguities in meaning (and these also most often readily identifiable). But, in the main, ancient copyists just copied their exemplars.

As for “the generation of Leonidas” (properly, Leonides) and subsequent figures such as Origen, here too the data don’t justify much confidence in the assertion that the sort of text that we have in P75 and Vaticanus, for example, derives from some recension dated to ca. 180. Consider, for example, Gordon Fee’s data-rich critique of “The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in which, among other things, he pointed to studies of Origen’s text-critical practices.[4] In short, there is scant basis for ascribing to Origen and others of his (or the preceding) generation the sort of project that Petersen and some others have asserted.

But the rear-guard action continues in some quarters, and one still encounters claims of a major recension of NT writings from which all extant manuscripts derive. Only now it’s often put well back into the second century, and increasingly earlier as the counter-evidence accumulates. With no desire to over-simplify things, however, such a notion seems increasingly to be an apparition that, however, cherished and linked with respected scholars of the past, should probably be laid aside as we continue to probe the transmission of NT writings in the second century.[5]  There were likely various efforts to collect and transmit these writings, but the notion of a recension carried out at some particular point is, as Fee labelled it, a myth.


[1] William L. Petersen, “What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?” in New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis, and Early Church History: A Discussion of Methods, ed. Barbara Aland and Joël Delobel (Kampen: Kok-Pharos, 1994), 150 (136-52).  I knew and liked Petersen, and his work on Tatian’s Diatessaron is the “go-to” resource on that subject, but I found his claim about this supposed recension of the NT text bizarre.

[2] 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.

[3] Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[4] 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; republished in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 247-73.

[5] For earlier postings on a similar subject, see here and here.

First Published Greek New Testament: 500th Anniversary

March 1st, 2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the first publication of a printed Greek New Testament edited by Desiderius Erasmus (born 1466), the work published in Basle, Switzerland.  Erasmus is widely cited as one of the greatest scholars of his time.  For an ad hoc photo of a copy of this edition click here.

Erasmus prepared his edition mainly from two rather late Greek manuscripts (14th-15th century), one of the Gospels and another of the Acts and Epistles, which are preserved in the University library in Basle.  For the book of Revelation, Erasmus had to hand only one manuscript, which was missing its final leaf containing the last six verses.  So, he retro-translated these verses from the Latin Vulgate!

Thereafter, Erasmus prepared five successive editions of the work, each with improvements, and each a Greek-Latin edition (1519, 1522, 1527, 1535).  The 1519 edition served as the basis for Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.

It was also a pioneering step in the development of New Testament textual criticism, although the apparatus to Erasmus’ successive editions never made reference to more than eight manuscripts, all of them actually comparatively late in the light of the manuscripts used today.

But pioneering efforts are typically afflicted with mistakes or things that can be improved on, so in this 500th anniversary year, let’s simply celebrate this pioneering work by one of history’s great scholars.  All users of the Greek New Testament today (and all who use translations based on modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament as well) are, in some way, in his debt.

(For a history of the printed text of the Greek New Testament, see, e.g., Philip Schaff, A Companion to the Greek New Testament and the English Version [4th ed. rev.; New York/London:  Harper & Brothers, 1911], 225-98.  Appendix I [pp. 497-524], prepared by Isaac H. Hall, is a list of printed editions of the Greek New Testament down to 1887.)


Forthcoming Book

I’ve just had word that my forthcoming book, Destroyer of the Gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, Sept 2016) is available for pre-order here.

More on it later, but there’s a decent “blurb” on the publisher’s web site.

Recent Questions about the Nag Hammadi Codices

In commencing work toward a future project, I’ve come across a couple of noteworthy articles that question the widely-repeated stories (and there are several versions) of how the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered.  In addition to cautioning us (especially scholars) about passing on to our students and the general public stories of the find that have dubious bases, there are also some wider lessons to be learned.

First, this one:  Mark Goodacre, “How Reliable Is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35, no. 4 (2013):  303-22.  Goodacre documents the variant-forms of the story of the discovery of the codices, and shows that they seem to have become more elaborate as time went on, becoming more elaborate decades later than the date of the discovery.  He shows also how Western prejudices about supposedly ignorant and uncivilized Egyptian peasants seem to have shaped and promoted certain versions of the story.  And he finally draws a few intriguing similarities with the variant forms of stories that we find in the Gospels (e.g., resurrection narratives), noting that we scholars are highly suspicious of the latter, but have curiously ignored and repeated uncritically the legendary features of the accounts of the Nag Hammadi codices.

Also, Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices,” Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 2 (2014): 399-419, address the matter, offering a similar critique.  But their argument involves proposing a different likely account of where the codices were found, the likely reason the codices were buried, and the circumstances of the find.  And their argument involves also a proposal about who the ancient readers of these codices and texts were.  Their article I found especially intriguing.

For they seem to me to provide a further basis for the sort of view that I came to several years ago (influenced by proposals originally from Fred Wisse), that these texts weren’t the “scriptures” of this or that supposed version or sect of early Christianity, but, instead, probably circulated among loose networks of like-minded individuals who had a particular penchant for things esoteric.  I think that Denzey Lewis and Blount have now provided a strong basis for this sort of view of the 4th-century people among whom the Nag Hammadi codices likely circulated.  They also contend (and quite cogently, to my mind) that the codices weren’t actually found where the traditional reports put them, but, instead, were likely found by would-be grave-robbers among burials of individuals, these texts buried with them as a kind of “books of the dead” (in keeping with ancient Egyptian practice for centuries).

The implications are considerable.  If, for example, the Nag Hammadi codices weren’t composed by and for Pachomian monks, and weren’t hidden in the 4th century from “orthodox” bishops, and don’t, thus, reflect some variant-version of early Christianity, that’s quite a lot to take on board.  If, as Denzey Lewis and Blount contend, instead, these texts (at least in the 4th century) circulated among somewhat elitist individuals of esoteric tastes and rather eclectic reading habits, then these codices can’t really be used as they often have been to “re-write” 4th century history of Egyptian Christianity.  So, it will now be interesting to see how the scholarly discussion moves forward.  But, to my mind, these articles, particularly the Denzey Lewis and Blount study, can’t rightly be ignored.



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