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A “Material Turn” in Study of Early Christianity?

January 3, 2014

In reading-for-review the huge multi-author work, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research:  Essays on the Status Quaestionis, 2nd edition (ed. B. D. Ehrman & M.W. Holmes), I noted with interest Kim Haines-Eitzen’s contribution, “The Social History of Early Christian Scribes,” in which she refers to “a ‘material turn’ in the study of early Christianity,” pointing particularly to “a renewed interest in the physical features of our earliest Christian literary papyri” (p. 486).

A “material turn” is a concise designation of this development.  She rightly points to C. H. Roberts’ contribution, “Books in the Graeco-Roman World and in the New Testament,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 1 (1970) as in retrospect the harbinger of a renewed interest in early Christian manuscripts as themselves important artifacts, and not simply copies of texts.  Roberts followed this essay up with his important book, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), in which he underscored the early Christian preference for the codex and also the “nomina sacra” as earmarks of early Christian manuscripts.  Then, in The Birth of the Codex (1983), Roberts made yet another contribution.

Often overlooked, but very much worth noting also is Bruce Metzger’s useful volume:  Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography (1981).

But probably the next and most wide-ranging contribution was Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church (1995), which I’ve often cited as required reading for anyone seriously interested in early Christianity.  Gamble surveys the place of texts in early Christianity, their production, copying, circulation and reading.  I should also mention  Loveday Alexander, “Ancient Book Production and the Circulation of the Gospels,” in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 71-111.

Haines-Eitzen’s first book, based on her PhD thesis, Guardians of Letters:  Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (OUP, 2000), focused on what we can learn about the copyists of early Christian manuscripts.

I will take the liberty of citing a few of my own contributions as well.  I begin with my article in which I engaged the question of how the curious abbreviations called “nomina sacra” may have originated:  “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998):  655-73.

In a subsequent essay, I pointed to the codex and nomina sacra as noteworthy physical expressions of early Christianity:  “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; and similarly in “The ‘Meta-Data’ of Earliest Christian Manuscripts,” in Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean. Jews, Christiand and Others: Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson, ed. Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 149-63.

But likely my own main publication in this area has been my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), in which I addressed broadly the features of early Christian manuscripts that make them highly important for a number of questions about early Christianity.  As the title indicates, I tried to emphasize early Christian manuscripts (focusing on those dated ca. 300 CE and earlier) as material and visual evidence that anyone concerned with Christian origins should take into account.

It’s encouraging to see younger scholars showing interest in these matters and exploring further lines of research.  Perhaps there is a “material turn” evident in the field.  But it is also a bit puzzling that so many NT scholars (and aspiring scholars) seem so unaware of the importance of early Christian manuscripts as our earliest extant physical expressions of early Christianity.


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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    On this topic I see Robert Kraft’s excellent page is still up. His contribution is to argue for much greater overlap between Jewish and Christian scribal practices than has generally been described by other scholars.

    • Yes, Bob and I have a running debate on the matter. Kraft follows the line taken earlier by Kurt Treu, that the nomina sacra practice was initiated among (“non-Christian) Jews and then taken over into early Christian practice. I find it highly inconvenient for this claim that there is no clear evidence for this, and in fact that none of the indisputably pre-Christian biblical manuscripts exhibit nomina sacra. See my discussion in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Talking about “turns” I noticed in a debate posted on YouTube that James Crossley talked about an “Evangelical turn” in recent biblical studies scholarship, of the last ten years or so. But I can’t find much other discussion of such a development, although it seems to make sense of what is going on. Incidentally James Crossley is surely another young scholar who breaks with claimed “emerging” early high Christology consensus. Combined with McGrath, Ehrman and others, one wonders whether it really deserves to be called a consensus at all, rather than a paradigm in crisis, propped up by the Evangelical wing of this so-called “Evangelical turn”.

    • Donald: I haven’t seen Crossley’s statement, and I don’t know what you mean by an “Evangelical” turn, or your phrase “what is going on”. Too mysterious for me. You’ll have to explicate things.
      As for the “emerging consensus” on “early high christology” (which I posted with a question mark, which = a question, which doesn’t = a claim), as I’ve indicated, this in fact has been quite a popular position over many years. Bousset’s position was a version of it, actually, and we can also name others, e.g., Deissmann, Weiss, Schweitzer, et al. The views of Dunn, Casey and McGrath (whom Crossley follows as his pupil) are actually not that popular among those who have invested time in the data. Moreover, as I’ve also indicated previously (and in previous exchanges with you, Donald, so why go over the same territory?), those in the “early high christology club” include people such as the late Alan Segal (Jewish), Jarl Fossum, April DeConick (neither of whom would consent to being labelled “Evangelical”!!), and numerous others. I’m afraid you’re misinformed and so making erroneous and simplistic claims. Clear now?

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        This is where James Crossley talks about a “huge evangelical turn” in NT scholarship over at least the past 10 years.

        See from 103:45, especially 104:55

        Christians dominate the study of early Christianity and it’s no surprise they generally come up with conclusions favourable to the current Christian world view.

      • Well, that’s your (skewed) view. And by the logic you follow, non-Christian scholars come up with views unfavourable to Christianity, right? So neither side does anything but propaganda, yes (your logic)? Oh, come off it!

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        In a earlier post you seemed to say that Crossley is McGrath’s pupil. But I assume you mean to say that Crossley is Casey’s pupil, and McGrath is Dunn’s pupil. Not that I’m sure what the point is: do they count as less if one follows the other? Don’t early high Christologists have pupils too?

        The bias that a Christian brings to the NT is altogether not the same as what a non-believer brings. If Jesus didn’t exist then it’s devastating for a Christian’s faith. Or if the first Christians did not believe that Jesus was God. For a non-believer they may be more inclined to be sceptical, but it has no implications for their eternal destiny one way or the other. So the level of bias is on a different scale, and it shows.

      • Donald: I think I stated that Crossley was Casey’s pupil, and, yes, McGrath is Dunn’s. It’s not that they don’t “count”, only that their agreement is not so strange or remarkable.
        As for your claims about Christian and non-Christian bias, you give no basis, only your own suspicion and bias. I think the scholarly record shows that Christian scholars have over the years been quite ready to explore sensitive historical issues, raise uncomfortable points that impinge upon some traditional Christian understandings of faith, and in some cases quite dramatically so. Indeed, the major developments in critical study of the biblical texts have come precisely through scholars who happen to be also practicing Christians or Jews. Most of them (including yours truly) distinguish between one’s formulation/understanding of faith, God, etc., and God. One’s understanding and expression of one’s faith must be subject to revision and change in the light of such things as scholarly work. Most of us also recognize that some findings might have quite a serious repercussion for one’s faith-outlook; but to claim that this somehow generates a distorted handling of the data (e.g., regarding the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth) will require a demonstration of it, not simply your style of “drive-by” accusations. Go write a serious book or journal article and try to substantiate your case. You accomplish nothing by these repeated ignorant claims. Let’s move on.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        It was five posts up, but I correctly understood what you meant:

        “The views of Dunn, Casey and McGrath (whom Crossley follows as his pupil) are actually not that popular among those who have invested time in the data.”

        How on earth can I write a journal article or monograph? I have to make a living, and I’ve got other interests. And I am not a NT scholar! Do non-scholars or amateurs ever get published anyway?

        Maybe that’s a major problem: many current non-believers with a significant interest in biblical studies nevertheless are not prepared to devote their productive lives to debunking the dominant evangelical current in biblical studies. They can make out many of the problems and indications of bias in the scholarship, but don’t have the time or inclination to work them out in sustained a way that would meet you standards.

      • Donald: If all you imagine you’d want to do is “debunk the dominant evangelical current in biblical studies” (and, by the way, it’s actually not clear that any such current is all that big in comparison to the many others), then perhaps you should do something more interesting with your life. The point of scholarship (in my view) ought to be not “debunking” but accomplishing something, making contributions to knowledge and understanding, clarifying, correcting, building up evidence, performing more exacting analyses, etc. That’s what we scholars try to do (or most of us). That’s what gives us the credibility to be taken seriously. I appreciate that you’ve got some “burr in your saddle”, but, honestly, you seem just a bit paranoid. And, also, so combative and rebarbative that you can’t seem to engage matters calmly and with patience. In any case, you’ve taken this thread (which has nothing to do with the posting) waaaay long enough. Find something more productive to do with your time.

  3. Jean permalink

    Larry, I have been following your posts on early Christian manuscripts as not much more than a curiosity, although I respect scholars who perform research in this area. Perhaps if you could elaborate on your statement that early Christian manuscripts are highly important for a number of questions about early Christianity, I might be tempted to dive into this subject in greater depth. Thanks.

    • Jean, I’ve posted on the matter before (search the site), and in several publications have laid out things, especially in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts. From extant manuscripts, we can surmise, e.g., what texts were read, what kinds of situations/readers, how the texts were regarded, and we also get indications of an emerging group-identity-formation in such things as the preference for the codex, and the nomina sacra.

  4. Charles Twombly permalink

    In response to an earlier blog on “early high Christology:”

    I have a deep appreciation for what Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham have done in underscoring the high view of Christ that early worship of him points to. I would love to get some help on a related matter though: Socinianism, which denies the pre-existence of the Son (either in an orthodox sense or an Arian) and claims that the person of Jesus came into being with his (virginal) conception (ie a “conception Christology”), nevertheless affirms in the Racovian Catechism that Jesus is indeed due worship. In other words, they recognize and affirm the very texts that Hurtado and Bauckham look to in making their claims. I hope LH and RB will address the Socinian issue someday.

    • “Socinianism” is a label given to certain theological views of early modern times, waaaay outside my own period of expertise. Bauckham may have something to say. I can only say that NT texts (as early as Paul) clearly presuppose Jesus’ “pre-existence”. So denying that comprises a theological choice, not an exegetical one or a historical one.

    • I think Socinianism may actually be more complicated than that. Maybe like pre-existence, divestion of deity to become mere man, and re-deification after the ascension.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Has the second edition of the Ehrman and Holmes volume got completely different essays from the first published in 1995? Brill!

    I remember eagerly reading C H Roberts’ Manuscripts, Society and Belief late at night down in the stacks of the uni library in Aberdeen a decade ago – very interesting book. And Metzger’s Manuscripts of the Greek Bible too. Ah the memories of a misspent youth.

    • The 2nd edition of the Ehrman/Holmes volume, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research is Xii+884 pp., and is comprised of 28 essays. The first edition had 22 essays, and was xiv+401 pp. length. The 2nd edition is quite clearly a seriously larger work.

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