A “Material Turn” in Study of Early Christianity?
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.