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“Copying Early Christian Texts”: New Book

November 7, 2016

An important new book presents a case that early Christian texts were typically copied by trained, skilled scribes, and that “there is no firm evidence that the copyists were generally Christians”:  Alan Mugridge, Copying Early Christian Texts:  A Study of Scribal Practice (Tuebingen:  Mohr-Siebeck, 2016), the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

Mugridge mounts this case against previous scholarly views that in the earliest centuries Christian texts were copied “in house,” informally by Christians themselves.

The labor that went into this book is prodigious.  Mugridge examined over 500 papyri, noting the characteristics of the copyist of each, these data given in the valuable “Catalogue of Papyri” that comprises pp. 155-410 of the book.  These papyri include copies of Old Testament texts, New Testament texts, “Apocryphal” texts, Patristic writings, Hagiographic texts, Liturgical prayers, hymns, etc., Gnostic and Manichaean texts, and “Unidentified” texts.  Tables at the end of the book present the manuscripts in these categories, each item described as to contents, writing material (papyrus or parchment) and whether it derives from a bookroll, codex, sheet, or wooden tablet.

The analysis of these data take up the first 154 pages.  After laying out the scope and approach of the book, the papyri included for study, and an introduction to writers and writing in the Roman imperial period, the following chapters focus on particular scribal features.  Chapter 2 deals with “Content, Material, Form and Size”;  Chapter 3:  Page Layout; Chapter 4:  Reading Aids; Chapter 5:  “Writing the Text” (which covers a wide variety of matters including letter height, interlinear spacing, letters per line, lines per column, critical signs, marginal notes, decorations, abbreviations (with a special section on the nomina sacra), stichometric counts, and a few other matters.

A full engagement with this book will obviously require readers seriously interested in the details of how early Christian texts were copied.  But the issues addressed are larger than simply papyrological minutiae.  As I emphasize in my own recent book, Destroyer of the gods, early Christianity was a distinctively “bookish” movement among the new religious movements of the Roman imperial period.  Texts were central, and Christians devoted impressive resources to composing, copying, and circulating them.  So, this major and detailed study of the material evidence of these activities is “solid gold” for anyone seriously interested in historical knowledge of early Christianity.

I judge Mugridge to have made a major contribution in this book, and I also think that his analysis of the several hundred manuscripts studied is (so far as I am able to test it) fair and accurate:  most early Christian texts were copied by individuals with some skill and dedication to their task.  I have hesitations about a few matters, however.

First, I think that Mugridge too readily makes evidence of a competent/skilled copyist as indicating a “professional” scribe, i.e., a copyist who was paid for his work.  Only a very few early Christian manuscripts have the stichometric counts that we usually judge to be evidence of a professional copyist.  The features of early Christian manuscripts reflect generally skilled and experienced copyists, but it is another question as to whether they did the work for hire.

I also don’t share Mudridge’s confidence that many early Christian texts were copied by non-Christians.  He argues that non-Christian scribes could have been instructed in the distinctive early Christian scribal practice known as the “nomina sacra.”  Yes, but why should we favour that over what still seems to me a simpler notion, that early Christian texts were typically copied by Christian copyists acquainted with this scribal convention.

Another matter that doesn’t receive adequate treatment by Mugridge is the remarkable early Christian preference for the codex.  This was certainly not a typical bookform for literary texts, and so not likely a form with which most “professional” copyists would have been accustomed to use.  Moreover, constructing a codex required decisions and skills in addition to those usually required in copying a bookroll.  So, again, it seems to me a more reasonable supposition that the copyists of most early Christian texts were themselves Christians, who knew and accepted the early Christian preference for the codex.

But, despite these hesitations over some specifics, I commend this study heartily, which should be received with gratitude to Mugridge for the massive amount of work reflected in it.

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