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More on Acts of the Apostles

September 25, 2014

Further to my posting yesterday on Acts of the Apostles, a few more notes about recent scholarly work, and also about the earliest manuscript evidence.

The uniqueness of Acts raises the question why/how someone conceived it and wrote it.  It’s a major literary product, and so would have required some considerable thought and effort.  The Gospels show that in the early period various people thought it worthwhile to write narratives of Jesus’ ministry, but apparently only the author of Acts thought it important to write that sort of consecutive account of Christian origins.

What role did Acts play, and how was it used in the earliest period after its release?  For a recent study of the early “reception” of Acts:  Andrew Gregory, The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period Before Irenaeus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003).  Note also his article:  Andrew Gregory, “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (2007): 459-72.

I’m not entirely confident in some of his judgements expressed in his book, however.  In particular, I think he buys too readily (pp. 27-28) William Petersen’s claim (similar to one made by Helmut Koester) that the early manuscripts extant are all the product of a late 2nd century “recension” and so give us scant insight into the state of the text of NT writings before that.  Gregory gives (therefore?) only the briefest treatment of the manuscript evidence (pp. 307-8), citing P45 (P.Chester Beatty I) as “the earliest extant manuscript of Acts which allows for firm textual evaluation” (308 n. 50), expressing uncertainty about P29, P38 (“P38 appears to be Western in character . . . as also does P48”).

But I rather suspect that the late 2nd-century CE recension posited by Petersen & Koester is a phantom.  What ecclesiastical structure in the 2nd century CE was there to carry out such a project and, more importantly, to secure its widescale success in supposedly suppressing the allegedly “wild” state of the NT text of the 2nd century?  Certainly, we should be consider all possibilities, but sound historical method surely requires us to chasten our hypotheses with the extant evidence.

And when we look at that evidence (i.e., particularly the earliest manuscript data) we don’t actually get the impression of either a “wild” state of textual transmission or a fixed recension.  Instead, in the case of practically any of the NT writings for which we have early manuscript evidence (i.e., from the 2nd/3rd centuries CE), what we seem to see is a certain spectrum of transmission practices (which argues against a recension), but a spectrum that doesn’t exhibit the alleged “wildness” either.

I described this in an essay published several years ago: Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century: Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, eds. J. W. Childers & D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.:  Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.  The pre-publication version of that essay is on this blog-site here.

One of the things I pointed out in that essay is the fallacy in arguments about the supposed state of the text of NT writings based on “citations” in early Christian writers.  There was a clear/demonstrable difference between the conventions followed in the Roman era for citing/using a text and the conventions followed in copying a text.  The fallacy is in ignoring this and assuming that the freedom exercised often in ancient citations of texts is direct evidence of a supposedly equal freedom exercised in copying that text.

To return to Acts, however, I list the manuscripts dated palaeographically to the period roughly pre-300 CE in the appendix to my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (esp. p. 220).  These include (to cite them using the Gregory-Aland system) 0189 (from a parchment codex), P91, P53, P38, and P48 and P29 (these last two dated 3rd/4th century CE, i.e., 300 CE +/- ca. 25 yrs).  But, so far as Acts is concerned (at least thus far), the “jewel in the crown” among early manuscripts is surely the Chester Beatty codex, P45 (mid-3rd century CE).

P45 is perhaps more often cited as the earliest clear instance of a 4-Gospel codex.  But it is also noteworthy for the inclusion of Acts with the four Gospels in one book.  For, in other (albeit later) manuscripts Acts was more typically connected with NT epistles, apparently read as a kind of narrative framework for them.  But in P45, apparently, Acts serves as the continuation-narrative of the Gospels, in a sense carrying the ministry of Jesus forward in the establishment of the early church.  This means that P45 is not only an important witness to the text of Acts, but is also a noteworthy witness to one early reading/usage of Acts.  (For a set of studies on P45 and some issues to which it relates, see:  The Earliest Gospels:  The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels–The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45, ed. Charles Horton (London:  T&T Clark, 2004).


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