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Is a Paradigm Shift Now Called for?

September 20, 2017

Some comments in response to my previous posting on the textual transmission of early Christian writings (here) reflect the difficulty that some have in facing the need in a given field of study to undergo what Thomas Kuhn famously called a “paradigm shift,” i.e., a change in a fundamental approach or conception about a given subject.

In this case, the shift in question is from an older confident assumption that the early period of the copying of texts in Christian circles was “wild” and chaotic, followed then by a change to a stable and more fixed copying, typically linked to a “recension.”  As I noted in an earlier posting (here), by the end of the 19th century scholars often posited such a major recension of NT writings sometime in/after the 4th century CE.  This seemed intuitively cogent because in the 4th century we have monarchical bishops able to exercise to control over teaching and practices, the emergence of Christian scriptoria, and, by the end of the century, the emergence of a fixed/closed NT canon.

But the discovery of early NT papyri, initially the Chester Beatty papyri, but then still more remarkably P75 and also P66, put that theory in doubt (among those who followed the data).  For especially in P75 (codex containing large portions of Luke and John, dated ca. 175-250 CE) we have a text that is almost exactly that of Codex Vaticanus (the 4th century codex that had earlier been posited as the result of that supposed 4th century recension).[1]  So, clearly, the Vaticanus-type text of the NT writings wasn’t the result of a 4th century recension!

The early (2nd/3rd century CE) papyri do show the predictable types of variants that characterize the manual transmission of texts, and exhibit a certain variety in copyist skills and the influence also of readers.[2]  But we also have examples of fairly exact copying (again, e.g., P75), and scrupulous concern to correct copying errors (e.g., P66).

So, then the “recension paradigm” was adjusted to posit that it happened earlier, sometime in the second century CE.  This produced a picture in which supposedly from ca. 70-150 CE or so, copying was “wild” and chaotic, and the comparative stability in all our 2nd/3rd century NT papyri was the product of this re-dated recension.  (Note the apparent reluctance to abandon the old paradigm, and the effort to salvage it, as Kuhn observed in the sciences too.)

The “evidence” of the supposedly early “wild” copying of NT writings (prior to the late 2nd century) was the way that early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr sometimes use NT writings, appearing to cite them in wording that varies (sometimes markedly) from even our earliest copies.  But, for one thing, this kind of argument fails to take account of the very different practices followed in citing and using texts in the Roman era, compared with the practices followed in copying texts.  For ancient writers often (typically?) cited texts rather freely, often re-wording them for effect, which seems to have been regarded as both acceptable and even clever of them.[3]  Moreover, well after the supposed stabilization of NT writings and the formation of a NT canon, early Christian writers continued to use these texts with striking flexibility and freedom, which makes it a demanding task to use citations in these writers in NT textual criticism.[4]  So, the “free” citation of texts wasn’t confined to the early second century, and so isn’t evidence that the texts cited were handled loosely in copying them.

But if we focus on the only direct evidence of how texts were copied  ̶  ancient copies of them, surely  — we get the sense that copyists . . . copied.  Sometimes carefully, sometimes less so.  Sometimes skilfully, sometimes less so.  It wasn’t their job, however, to make major changes to texts.[5]

In my essay cited already on the NT in the second century I pointed to the social force upon those writings that were frequently read in churches.  This made these texts “corporate property” of circles of believers, and thus made major changes in them less likely.  In a forthcoming book that I’ve blogged on previously (here), Brian Wright shows how widespread the “communal” reading of texts was in the wider environment of the first and second centuries, and gives evidence that this practice also featured in early Christian circles.[6]  The effect of Wright’s study is to show that the social force of repeated corporate reading that curbed major changes in texts was likely active already in the first century and early second century (the time in which NT writings were supposedly handled in a “wild” manner).

In short, it is time for us to consider whether the notion (seemingly cherished by some) that there was an initial period of “wild” handling of writings that later became part of the NT, followed by a supposed fixing of texts sometime in the latter part of the 2nd century, now should be laid aside in favour of a “paradigm” that more adequately reflects the evidence.  Scholars yield long-held notions reluctantly, often striving to salvage them.  That’s not wrong, for new ideas should be critically examined.  But there come times when even cherished notions should be set aside, when, instead of repeating dubious mantras we should boldly consider a new “paradigm.”  That time has probably come with reference to the early transmission of Christian texts.

[1] Gordon D. Fee, “P75, P66, and Origen:  The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 19-45; Reprinted in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, E. J. Epp, G. D. Fee (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 247-73.

[2] James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), is now the major study of the matter.

[3] See, e.g., Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, SNTSMS 74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), on citation practices in the wider Roman world.

[4] Gordon D. Fee, “The Use of Greek Patristic Citations in New Testament Textual Criticism:  The State of the Question,” in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, SD 45 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 344-59.

[5] See, e.g., Barbara Aland, “Die Rezeption des neutestamentlichen Textes in den ersten Jahrhunderten,” in The New Testament in Early Christianty, ed. Jean-Marie Sevrin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1989), 1-38, who also notes the differences between citation/use of texts and copying them.  Also 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, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27; Michael W. Holmes, “Text and Transmission in the Second Century,” in The Reliability of the New Testament:  Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 47-65; Kyoung Shik Min, Die früheste Überlieferung des Matthäusevangeliums (bis zum 3./4. Jh):  Edition und Untersuchung, ANTF, no. 34 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005); and more broadly, Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Lonnie Bell’s forthcoming study of early papyri of John (Leiden:  Brill).

[6] Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus:  A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

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  1. Jack Dalby permalink

    Larry – Thanks, as always for the informative post. Perhaps the belief that copyists went “wild” in the early days is a bit overstated. That said, I am struck by two glaring examples of some scribe’s creative editing with the tacked on addition at the end of Mark and the late inclusion of the story of the woman taken in adultery in John. We also have Origen’s complaint that, “The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.” – Origen (184-253 CE), Comments on Matt. 15.14. If not wild, perhaps we can say that early copyist’s adherence to accuracy was often times uneven.

    • Jack: No question that copyists exhibited varying levels of skill and attention to their work. No question also that readers made notes and changes, and these then got inserted into subsequent copies. But (1) the number of major changes is actually limited, and (2) fortunately, the number and age of NT manuscripts enables us to identify variants quite readily and so to assess them for “originality”.

  2. Larry, may be we should look to Josephus’s Ant.18 for the earliest basic Christian text. The date is right. Coverage is given to Jesus and John the Baptist, but not in the order of the NT, and there is a large amount of text related to Pontius Pilate.

    • Ah, Geoff, Josephus wrote well after the Jewish war of 66-72 CE. Decades later than the uncontested letters of Paul (ca. 50-60 CE). And you should know that the Josephus text on Jesus remains contested as to its integrity.

  3. István Pásztori-Kupán permalink

    Dear Larry, dear All! This posting is really “spot on” for at least two reasons. First, the methods of citing biblical texts by ancient (and moreover, entirely “orthodox” by all “official” standards) are truly diverse. We have authors from the 4th and 5th centuries who on the one hand are very keen on insisting that there are only four recognized Gospels and the rest should be considered as “spurious”, undeserving our attention, or even damaging the true faith of the believers, yet when the very same author(s) quote from the canonized Gospels, their excerpts often differ e.g. from the Nestle-Aland text as we know it. Furthermore, the very same author can quote the very same biblical text in two different works of his, and the two quotations simply do not have the same wording. Theodoret of Cyrus (393-460), for example, who, by his own admission, gathered several hundred copies of Tatian’s Diatessaron throughout his diocese in the Cyrrhestica and “introduced the four Gospels in their stead” can be considered as someone being very keen on doctrinal and implicitly textual “orthodoxy”: if you do not read the correct/authentic text, you may divert from the right path. Yet when he is quoting from the canonised Gospels or from Paul’s letters, he often diverts from the wording, giving a paraphrase, or simply (mis)quoting the text from his memory. And we are talking sometimes about (mis)quotes, which could be construed as being doctrinally motivated. I give only one example: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of THE FATHER (instead of “God”) and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit etc.” To be continued…

    • István Pásztori-Kupán permalink

      Second, the (repeated) public reading and/or reciting of a text somehow becomes “publicly owned”, i.e. the people begin to cling to its wording. So a deliberate alteration of such “publicly owned” texts is not an easy (if not impossible) task. We have e.g. Jerome complaining about the fact that his adventure to translate the Bible into Latin is difficult because he could not retranslate or change, i.e. alter the Latin wording of those verses in the Bible, which were already in liturgical use, albeit they did not reflect the exact meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek. The force of communal use of such texts should not be underestimated. To give a modern example: I am one of those weirdos, who possessed a T-shirt with the inscription “Han shot first'”, alluding to George Lucas’s attempt to alter the sequence of the shots fired by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the bounty hunter respectively in their confrontation in the episode “A New Hope” of Star Wars. Lucas perhaps thought that since the movies was his creation, he could alter some scenes in a new edition a few decades later: he was surprised that the public (his very fans) reminded him that during these twenty-thirty years, they have “appropriated” it, so he, the author, was no longer in full possession (and control) of his own creation, which entered in the “public realm”. Imagine how you would feel hearing Schwarzenegger say “get the hell outta here” instead of “Hasta la vista, baby” in the Terminator… 🙂 To quote another bestseller: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8) 🙂

  4. Torrance, Iain permalink

    A very interesting post, Larry.
    All the best,

    From an iPhone

  5. This is really valuable stuff, Larry. Thanks. It is not coincidentally related to the larger theses (e.g., Walter Bauer) that orthodox doctrine also emerges out of a “wildness” of competing options, sorted out by “the strongest party” under imperial fiat in, yes, the fourth and fifth centuries. If, however, there is a pretty faithfully copied proto-canon right back to the second century, as I understand you to be averring, then the likelihood of a doctrinal free-for-all is lessened considerably, no?

    • John: First, I want to distinguish the issues. I’m focusing on the evidence for how texts were manually transmitted in the first two centuries. It’s another issue as to how much doctrinal variety there was, and yet another as to whether this or that type of Christianity was initially dominant in this or that location. On the last question (which was really the “sharp end” of Bauer’s work), see esp. Michel Desjardins, “Bauer and Beyond: On Recent Scholarly Discussions of Hairesis in the Early Christian Era,” The Second Century 8 (1991): 65-82; and Thomas A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988). Robinson did a pretty effective demolition. About all that is left of Bauer’s claims is that early Christianity was a diversity. But we knew that!

      • GPG permalink

        Aside from specifically Bauer, suppose we consider the surely relevant overall picture, our own master list, of the many varying, different texts that were read, and considered to be Godly, by the many various elements of the Israeli, Palistinian, Jewish and Christian communities, c. 100 BC to 200 ACE.

        There we suddenly see a startling variability.

      • Diversity in early Christianity isn’t the issue. The issue is how certain texts were copied/transmitted in early Christianity. Focus!!

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