On Dating NT Manuscripts and the Codex
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.