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A Substantial Study of Early Christian Manuscripts

February 7, 2013

A few years ago I served as an examiner on a noteworthy PhD thesis produced by Alan Mugridge, working in the University of New England (Australia) under supervision of Professor Greg Horsley:  “Stages of Development in Scribal Professionalism in Early Christian Circles” (submitted 2009).  This is a massive, 2 vol. study, comprising 350 pp. of analysis/discussion plus a 2nd volume of appendices comprising another 211 pp.  I have been hoping and waiting for Mugridge to publish the study, and he is at work on this.  But I understand that his progress is slowed by other heavy demands on his time.  Because I find his study so valuable, and with his permission, I want to give some advance reference to it.

Essentially, Mugridge’s aim in the thesis was to provide a well-founded answer to some key questions about how earliest Christian Greek manuscripts were copied.  More specifically, his question was how much these manuscripts were copied ad hoc (so to speak) and “in house” informally, by amateur/inexperienced copyists, and how much by trained/experienced copyists.  The larger issues involve the culture and setting of earliest Christian book-production, how they regarded, handled, and transmitted their scriptural texts.  To answer these questions, Mugridge examined with impressive care the physical and visual features of 516 manuscripts , which amount to every published copy of a Christian literary text from the first four centuries CE.

In the heart of his thesis (“Part B”), Mugridge analyses the 516 manuscripts according to a very wide list of features, showing that the great majority exhibit features that reflect trained, experienced and skilled copyists.  For each manuscript he examined the copyist’s “hand”, the size/dimensions of the manuscript, page layout, any “reader’s aids” (e.g., titles/headings, paragraph markers, sense-lines, stichometric counts, punctuation, diaeresis, apostrophe, breathing marks), letter-height, interlinear spacing, letters per line, lines per column, and other textual featurs such as line-fillers, critical signs and corrections, marginal notes, decorations, and abbreviations (especially the distinctive Christian abbreviated forms called “nomina sacra”).

His key conclusion is that the great majority of early Christian literary texts were copied by experienced, trained copyists, although often not those of highest calligraphic abilities.  This is not really a new view, but Mugridge provides by far the most thorough-going accumulation of data in defence of it.  The matter has been disputed, with some claiming that early Christian manuscripts exhibit a lack of regard for the texts in question, and/or that the copyists were untrained amateurs.  Mugrdige seems to me, however, to have established securely the fundamental point that the copyists of early Christian literary texts were, in the main, trained and skilled individuals.

I want to encourage Mugridge to persevere with the arduous task of revising his thesis for publication, as I judge that it represents a significant contribution to knowledge about earliest Christianity, especially questions about the treatment of texts.  It will be the sort of work that only “geeks” like me will enjoy.  But, hey, there are some signs that being such a “geek” is becoming cool!

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  1. Derek Dodson permalink

    For clarification, does Mugridge include non-canonical texts in his anaylsis? The phrase “early Christian literary texts” seems to suggests so.

    • Yes, Mugridge reviews all identifiably Christian copies of literary texts, those that became canonical and also all extra-canonical ones.

  2. Does Mugridge deal with the issue of where the manuscripts were copied, i.e., whether the use of trained scribes says something about the setting in which the manuscripts were copied? I’ve noticed some recent attempts to revive the idea of early scriptoria–most notably in the aforementioned Hill and Kruger volume–and I’d be curious to see if he weighs in.

    • I don’t recall whether Mugridge engages the scriptorium question. He does use the term “professional” to describe the dominant types of hands in early Christian MSS, but I found that potentially misleading, suggesting perhaps paid copyists. I’m inclined to think that the copying was done “gratis” by Christians. I suggested terms such as “experienced” or “competent” instead. But he’ll have the choice in the published version of his work.

      • I think the distinction (i.e., between “professional” and “competent”) is valid. Remember Philo’s statement—that scripture should not be copied by scribes working for money but by students of the Law (De. spec. leg. 4.163). It is reasonable that early Christian scribes took over this practice.

      • Brice: Thanks for this reference!

  3. The new volume just published by Oxford U. Press entitled The Early Text of the New Testament (eds. C.E. Hill and M.J. Krueger, 2012) is in BWIII blog today. Thanks again for placing your contribution up on your blog. And, will you or BWIII provide blog space to entering into dialogue with the other contributors of the volume? The Earliest Christian Artifacts (2006) continues to be very informative.

    • I’d be happy to devote space to dialogue with other contributors to the volume, The Early Text of the New Testament, if there is interest from them.

      • Matthew G. Zatkalik permalink

        How would that be initiated? Who would be able to get that started? Is there anything that I could do to facilitate that?

      • I guess that one or more of the other contributors would need to feel that there was something to discuss, and be willing to engage matters in the blogosphere.

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