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An Early Emergent “Canonical Consciousness”?

June 10, 2016

In researching for my current project (an analysis of NT papyrus P45 as an early Christian artefact), I’ve come across Charles Hill’s doughty case that the artefactual data reflects “the presence of a ‘canonical consciousness’ among Christian scribes from at least the late second century”:  “A Four-Gospel Canon the Second Century?  Artifact and Arti-fiction,” Early Christianity 4 (2013):  310-334.

The three claims that Hill sets out to challenge are these: (1) that extra-canonical gospels were as popular (or even more so) than the four that became canonical, at least till the early 3rd century; (2) that in the pre-Constantinian period we cannot distinguish NT manuscripts from “apocryphal” ones; and (3) that, therefore, categories such as “apocryphal” and “NT” or “canonical” and “non-canonical” are anachronistic, prejudicial and inappropriate for this early period.

In response, Hill first notes that the term “apocrypha/apocryphal” actually derives from a term used by the authors of certain writings, such as the “the secret [apocryphal] revelatory discourse which Jesus spoke to Judas” (Gospel of Judas), and several other such writings.  That is, these texts quite openly affirm that they are “apocryphal” or secret, esoteric writings.  There is no indication that they were composed to form part of some early Christian canon.

Then Hill counts the numbers of extant copies of various texts from the first three centuries.  Granting that there are noteworthy variations among these texts (e.g., only one sure copy of GMark), he cites some 36 manuscripts of one or another of the four canonical Gospels, whereas he finds only 10 extant copies of other gospel writings.

Hill also notes the physical features of the copies of the various texts, citing the early Christian preference for the codex, especially for copies of texts used as scriptures.  It is noteworthy that a number of copies of non-canonical texts (“apocryphal” and others) are bookrolls (scrolls), which suggests that these texts weren’t regarded as scripture.  There is no copy of any of the canonical Gospels in a bookroll format (noting, however, the one copy of GJohn on a re-used roll).

And when we look at other physical features, such as codex size, use of “nomina sacra,” the nature of the handwriting, and use of “readers’ aids,” we also seem some interesting distinctions.  For example, some of our copies of apocryphal writings are miniatures, private copies not intended to be read in corporate settings.

As a final feature, Hill cites the curious use of marks that he calls “diplae sacrae.”  These are arrow-shaped marks in the margins of some manuscripts (>>) that seem to flag quotations of other texts cited as scripture.  Hill cites examples of pre-Constantinian manuscripts that use these marks, and it is interesting that we have examples of citations of NT texts that are marked this way, suggesting that the copyist regarded the NT text as scripture.

For those seriously interested in the question, I heartily recommend Hill’s data-rich and tightly argued article.


From → canon, Uncategorized

  1. Peter Malik permalink

    Is your project on P45 a book-length type of thing?

    • No, Peter. It’s an essay-length project for a symposium at end of summer.

      • Peter Malik permalink

        OK. I’m very interested in reading it, once it’s published/made available as a pre-publication copy! P45 definitely needs more attention than what it’s received.

  2. Griffin permalink

    How well were apocryphal texts, manuscripts, treated after say 300 AD? Is it possible that later Christians, after the canon was more firmly formed, did not value as much, the older, apocryphal texts?

    In that case, they might not preserve them as carefully. Or copy them as much. They might even have thrown them away. Or even burned them?

    Is there evidence of such things?

    • Griffin: The earliest manuscripts of what became canonical and uncanonical texts pre-date 300, and derive from the situations of that earlier period. It’s those that I focus on in estimating their respective popularity and roles.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Nomina sacra mark out canonical texts in the second century already. Isn’t that what David Trobisch already argued?

    • No. Nomina sacra mark Christian texts, whether “canonical” or “non-canonical” in the early centuries. E.g., the “Egerton” fragment is replete with nomina sacra, and yet seems to be some otherwise unknown gospel-like text.
      True, nomina sacra are somewhat less frequent/consistent in Christian documentary texts (e.g., letters), and such. But by themselves, nomina sacra don’t mark off emergent “canonical texts”. Hill’s case is a cumulative one. And his argument isn’t that we have a NT canon complete in the 2nd century; but rather that we have a “consciousness” or attitude toward some texts that comprises the embryo of what became a full NT canon.

  4. thesmilingpilgrim permalink

    Very interesting, you do some great posts!

    -The Smiling Pilgrim

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