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On Dating NT Manuscripts and the Codex

March 13, 2013

Further to my posting on the recent article on the dating of NT manuscripts:  Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88, no. 4 (2012):  443-74, a few more comments on various recent discussions of the dating of early NT manuscripts and also on the early Christian preference for the codex.

Neil Godfrey recently posted on the dating of the famous Rylands fragment “P52” here.  In that posting, he comments: “Larry Hurtado does not appear to be particularly interested in P52 since he makes no mention of it in his post, though he does mention around 15 other manuscripts.”  The reason I didn’t mention P52 is that Orsini & Clarysse date the manuscript to the 2nd century (which is where it has been dated for some time), only proposing (with a number of us recently) that it should probably be dated sometime in the later part of the 2nd century.  Given that I’ve written an article on P52, I certainly am not disinterested in it:  L. W. Hurtado, “P52 (P. Rylands Gk. 457) and the Nomina Sacra: Method and Probability,” Tyndale Bulletin 54, no. 1 (2003): 1-14.

That article was focused on the question of whethe P52 featured the “nomina sacra” forms of key words such as “Jesus”.  But I do mention there (n. 2 and n. 20) that the date of P52 should probably be adjusted somewhat later, because of the re-dating of P.Egerton 2 later “downward to ca. 200 CE” (in light of the evidence from an additional fragement of P.Egerton 2  identified over a couple of decades ago). My notice preceded the article by Nongbri that mounted a more sustained critique of the early dating of P52:  Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 23-48.  I mention this simply to illustrate my point that NT scholars themselves engage in quite critical analysis of one another and “established” views, and in the case of the early dating of some NT manuscripts (such as P52) as well.

To turn to another matter, in another posting, Godfrey quotes with approval a source claiming the following: “Scholars and interested laymen alike have traditionally held the assumption that the codex form was especially popular amongst Christians and that the eventual predominance of the Church was somehow linked with the eventual prevalence of the codex. Bagnall shows that this cannot really be demonstrated from a statistical analysis of the data.” (His full posting here.)    Actually, wrong on a couple of things.

First, scholars who have pored through the evidence (as I have) don’t “assume” that the codex was especially popular amongst Christians; we have concluded this from the evidence.  I’ve discussed the matter in a number of publications, perhaps most accessibly and fully in the following book:  Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), which includes a lengthy chapter on the codex, pp. 43-93.  The discussion there is based entirely on the public data available, e.g., from the Leuven Database of Ancient Books.

Moreover, Bagnall actually agrees with this.  In the first three centuries CE, literary texts were overwhelmingly copied on rolls, but early Christians preferred the codex.  Further, this preference was almost total for copies of texts that they regarded and used as scriptures.  Again, for details, see the discussion in my Artifacts book.

Bagnall’s own proposal to account for this Christian preference I find unpersuasive:  That some sort of Latin/Roman influence was at work.  In fact, he doesn’t show an early Roman preference for the codex for literary texts (and it can’t be shown).  I remain of the view that the Christian preference for the codex (along with the “nomina sacra”) represented a deliberate move to give Christian books (especially books of their scriptures) a distinctive, identiable form.  For a fuller discussion, see:  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, ed. Stephen G. Wilson and Michel Desjardins (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), 271-88.

The eventual “triumph” of the codex over the roll (which is evident from sometime in/after the 4th century CE) is another question.  Did it have something to do with the growing place of Christianity in the Roman Empire at that point?  Maybe.  But that’s beyond my interest and area of expertise.  What I can say is that the early Christian preference for the codex precedes considerably, by at least a couple of centuries, any indication of a wider shift toward the codex in the general population.  That’s not an assumption.  That the fact, and it requires a cogent explanation.

As for Bagnall’s questioning of the second-century dating of some Christian manuscripts, it’s almost entirely based on his guestimates of how many Christians there were in Egypt in the 2nd century as a percentage of the total Egyptian population, which he then uses as a putative basis for allowing what percentage of 2nd century manuscripts ought to be Christian ones.  It’s really a surprisingly facile argument.  He doesn’t attempt a palaeographical analysis.  For that, I recommend the article cited above by Orsini and Clarysse, who are palaeographers and focus on palaeographical method.  And it’s worth noting that they wind up positing seven NT manuscripts with dates as early as sometime in the second century CE.

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  1. Derek Dodson permalink

    Along with Steven Carr, I am unaware of any additional fragments of P52. In reading Nongbri’s and Hurtado’s articles, the only mention of additional fragment(s) was in relation to P. Egerton 2 (P. Köln VI 255). If additional fragments of P52 have indeed been discovered, could you provide bibliography that describes these fragments? Thanks!

    • Derek (& Steven): I do have to apologize and correct my hastily worded earlier comment. As I indicate in my own article on P52 (p. 7, n. 20), the additional fragment (P. Koeln VI 255) was of P.Egerton 2, not P52. Sorry, in my haste I slipped a mental cog. Roberts had dated P52 in connection with P.Egerton 2 (which Skeat had dated ca. 150 CE). But the newer fragment of P.Egerton 2 has been judged to require P.Egerton 2 to be moved down closer to 200 CE. And, as I indicated in that note in my article, if P52 is dated in comparison to P.Egerton 2, logically this would suggest that P52 should be moved “downstream” too. I hope I’ve cleared up the confusion I engendered earlier. (Shouldn’t try doing things in such haste.)

  2. Tommy Wasserman permalink

    I think in particular Marcion’s major publishing venture at a very early stage with wide dissemination (and attestation) is an example that does not fit Bagnall’s general picture of early Christianity, regardless of whether Egypt is the test case or not.

  3. HI Larry. . . . . I do hope you won’t count it against me that when I chose to write about the infamous P52 manuscript for my post I remarked that you had nothing to say about that particular manuscript in the recent discussion.

    As for your bolding half of my sentence and focusing on one word I used in that, I do hope you will grant that my general point — that is, the entire sentence and paragraph — was quite valid. I quite accept that you have evidential grounds for your conclusions. . . .
    You are surely aware that O and C insist that the Christian use of the codex was quite in accord with the general use of the codex in the wider world. And you surely cannot dispute that that was my only point in my own post about the codex. So am I to conclude that you, too, are predisposed to see anything I post must by definition be wrong or misleading or of the devil?

    Can you honestly say that my point that was a mere paraphrase of Orsini and Clarysse was wrong or misleading at any point?

    If so, kindly point to me where I misrepresented them or their words in any way.

    I do personally believe that your original post was indeed misleading in the way you over-emphasized the “fewness” of New Testament scholars they were supposedly critiquing. But I refrained from detailing that suspicion in my post because I thought it was more important to focus on the edifying thrust of their article and not score cheap points against a scholar like yourself. As I have told you in the past, I have enjoyed several of your publications and have posted favorably on them. But honestly, surely you admit that you did go to some pains to over-stress the “fewness” of the guilty parties on your side quite against the tone and specifics of Orsini’s and Clarysse’s original article. Yes?

    Come on, Be honest!

    • Neil: I’ve edited out a couple of your comments of a snide nature (indicated by the . . .) , as they do you no good and don’t speak to the issues. To which I turn briefly.
      The bit of your posting that I quoted (and the bolding was yours) is erroneous (as I indicated in my posting) in claiming that it was only an assumption that early Christians overwhelmingly preferred the codex. That’s not an assumption but a fact.
      As I indicated, the question of whether the “triumph” of Christianity after Constantine was a factor in the subseuquent preference of the codex more widely is something else. But, for whatever reasons, that wider preference came later than the Christian preference.
      So, also, you are incorrect to claim that Orsini & Clarysse (in the article I cited) “insist that the Christian use of the codex was quite in accord with the general use fo the codex in the wider world.” I cannot find any such statment in their article.
      Finally, I emphasized the fewness of those who have urged the unrealistically early dating of some NT manuscripts because, well, because there are only a few who have done this. One sees this in reading the complaints of Bagnall and Orsini & Clarysse: They pretty much cite Thiede (who wasn’t a NT scholar), and Comfort, and one or two others. That amounts to . . . a few. I haven’t overstressed anything. Now you be honest.

      • Just a point of clarification: Larry, you wrote, “. . . Godfrey writes about the codex:” and followed with a quote from Dr. Benjamin Garstad of Grant MacEwan University. Garstad’s full review of Bagnall’s book can be found here:

        Garstad’s uses the word “assumption” in his description of Bagnall’s analysis in Chapter 4 of Early Christian Books in Egypt.

        The careful and diligent reader will no doubt eventually discover these facts, but I’m afraid the few who do not click through to read Neil’s original post and Garstad’s review will be left with the false impression that the dreaded “assumption” quotation came from Godfrey’s pen.

        It is quite true that the bolding is his (Neil’s). We often do that over at Vridar when we find something interesting.

      • Tim: It wasn’t entirely clear that Neil was quoting Garstad at that point. So, thanks for this clarification. In any case, Neil seems to have used the statement with approval, which made it necessary for me to correct the statement.

      • [Neil: This is one of three large comments you’ve sent, all of them overlapping and repeating points. So, I’ve chosen this one as representative. To save time, I’ve inserted brief responses to the specific points, put in brackets and identified with “LWH”.]

        Larry, I have re-read my post and see I was wrong in attributing the bolding to you. I apologize. . . .
        [LWH: Accepted.]
        As for the side-question in the post on dating of manuscripts about the role of the codex in early Christianity, you surely do not disagree that a relatively wide audience has been exposed to views of New Testament scholars that the codex was adopted by Christians for reasons that went beyond the wider custom of the day. All my post was drawing attention to was that Christians were probably doing nothing more than following the wider trend in using the codex. I don’t see anything controversial here.
        [LWH: This is precisely one error on your part and I hoped I’d made that clear. The emphasis on the early Christian preference for the codex commenced with the great papyrologist Colin H. Roberts, in his Schweich Lectures, Manuscript and Belief in Christian Egypt (1979). It has since been echoed by nearly all papyrologists, including, e.g., the great Eric Turner. The dominant view of papyrologists is that early Christians were NOT following some larger trend, but were at the leading edge themselves of what later became a dominant preference for the codex, a dominance that appeared only in/after the 4th century CE. What you assert is both “controversial” and incorrect.]
        Finally, I do think it should be noted that the O-C article does address “biblical scholars” generally. Of course we can all accept there are exceptions. But they conclude with a caution that “biblical scholars” need to be better informed about what some of their peers write about dating manuscripts. That is clearly suggesting that the few who have published on early dates are not sidelined by their peers but do attract a wide regard.
        [LWH: As I indicated in my posting on the O&C article, they can be taken as implying that “biblical scholars” in general are guilty of aserting early dates, and that would be a misleading impression, as I have also demonstrated. The very early dating of some NT MSS by, e.g., Comfort, has NOT made its way into general acceptance among NT scholars or in textbooks. Wrong.]

        If I had read a similar article by another New Testament scholar I probably would have posted on that, too. I have no vendetta or general suspicion of the motives of New Testament scholars.
        [LWH: I’ll take your assurances as sincere. Now, let’s move on. I’m not interested in prolonged to-fro discussion of what you do or don’t mean. The issues are palaeography and papyrology matters, dating of MSS and early Christian preference for the codex. And I’ve addressed these matters in my postings, directing you and others to key publications. “Tolle, lege.”]

    • ‘But I do mention there (n. 2 and n. 20) that the date of P52 “may have to be adjusted downward to ca. 200 CE,” in light of the evidence from additional fragments of the manuscript identified over a couple of decades ago.’.

      200 AD for p52! Thanks for carefully summarising the scholarship on the date of this manuscript. It is appreciated.

      This date is very surprising. My web page on where I put it at 125 AD is badly out of date….

      I must confess that the news that additional fragments of that manuscript had been found had passed me by.

      Could we get further details?

      • Steven: I’ve provided these details in my article that I mentioned. For fuller discussion, see the article by Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” HTR 98, no. 1 (2005): 23-48. There are several factors involved, including the identification of additional fragments of P52 that have palaeographical features that are more indicative of late-2nd/early-3rd cent CE, and also the re-dating of key comparator manuscripts (e.g., the Egerton fragment).

  4. Jonathan Burke permalink

    Thanks Larry, it’s good to see a careful, honest, and scholarly assessment of the issue, based on the facts. This is highly informative.

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