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Patristic Citations . . . Encore

September 25, 2017

In a previous posting I complained that some scholars point to the use of biblical texts in early figures such as Justin Martyr as evidence that these biblical texts were circulating in a very “loose” way, with “wild” variations in the copies at that time.  My complaint against this argument is that the way ancients used/cited texts is not to be confused (or taken as evidence of) the ways that texts were copied.  There were different protocols and practices.

In looking again today at the classic little book by Eric G. Turner, Greek Papyri:  An Introduction (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1980), I came across again his discussion of ancient anthologies and their import for textual criticism (pp. 91-92).  We know that ancient writers tended to make excerpts of texts that they intended to use as sources for their own works.  We also know that people of the Greek and Roman eras made collections of passages from writings, anthologies, sometimes from various writings and topics, and sometimes passages assembled on a given topic.

Turner urges that this kind of writing is important for textual critics.  As he notes, “in anthologies, in which a passage detached from its context is copied and recopied without being checked against the original, the chances of deviation from that original are high and are generally acknowledged to be so . . .” (p. 91).

It is worth noting that Justin was a teacher and claims to have had his own school in Rome.  Further, analysis of his biblical citations suggest that he likely made use of harmonized texts created by merging passages from the various Gospels.  That means, that Justin isn’t necessarily (or at least not always) a direct witness to the text of a given Gospel, as his actual source-item is itself a secondary composition, not a copy of that Gospel.

Turner’s remarks, in short, seem to me to reinforce my cautions about playing off Justin’s citations of biblical texts against the evidence of actual early copies of those texts.

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10 Comments
  1. Alan Paul permalink

    Thank you for drawing attention to the reference in “Greek Papyri – an introduction”by Eric Turner (pp 91-92). I have read this passage in order to understand exactly what Turner is saying.

    It seems clear that he is discussing here the phenomenon that certain passages from Classical Greek poetry and other secular literature appear in the Papyri with such frequency that they are most likely to come from anthologies, including anthologies used for schools. He refers to a tradition of collecting passages for anthologies used in teaching that culminates in the work of John of Stobi (Stobaeus) in the 5th century.

    The comment of his which you quote, about the unreliability of such papyri, which have been “copied and recopied without being checked against the original” is made in this specific context and refers to a process of copying secular material over many centuries. How confident, therefore, are you that Turner’s remarks are applicable to gospels (which he clearly does not have in mind here)? Justin Martyr was much closer in time to the gospel writings, so the issue of “copying and recopying” over many centuries would not arise. Given this, and given your view that scribes generally copied faithfully and not wildly, it would seems that reasons other than the phenomenon described by Turner are needed in order to explain the variations between some of the texts quoted by Justin and the canonical gospels that we have today.

    • Alan: Of course, Turner wasn’t writing about the Gospels or early Christian excerpt texts. But (1) it is pretty well agreed that early Christians prepared excerpt texts and harmonized versions of the Gospels, (2) and so it does seem relevant to note that the process isn’t the same as copying out a full-length text.
      As for some (and NB only some) of Justin’s apparent citations of Gospel texts in variant forms, no one would deny flat out that there weren’t variant texts. My point (from my essay on 2nd century NT transmission onward) has been that the dominant pattern evident in our early manuscripts is on the whole a relatively careful copying process.
      Otherwise, the question for you and others would be how to explain this body of evidence, how to explain the relatively stable transmission of the Gospels in our earliest manuscripts.

      • Alan Paul permalink

        Thank you for this further clarification. Guided by this and by your previous comments, and taking account of other scholars such as Pedersen and Bellinzoni, It seems to me that, when considering the sources of Justin’s various citations, one should perhaps distinguish between:

        1) The process of copying of early Christian texts, which I would expect to have been done with greater care than the copying of some secular material, anthologies and literary gems for school text books etc., as described by Turner; and
        2) The phenomenon prevailing at the time of different gospel traditions, reflected in the availability of other gospel material that differed in not unimportant ways from our “canonical” gospels; and (related to this)
        3) The existence of gospel harmonies (predating the Diatessaron) which may have included texts now known variously as “Gospel of the Hebrews”, “Gospel of the Ebionites” etc.

        Would you agree that the evidence points to the likelihood that (1) Justin used such a harmony or harmonies when citing the words of Jesus; and that either (2) these harmonies included other traditions not found in our gospels or that (3) Justin had direct access to these other traditions?

        The issues which point to conclusions (2) and (3) are:
        – Justin’s sources repeatedly (11 times) trace Jesus’ Davidic lineage through Mary, never through Joseph, as in our gospel tradition;
        – He invariably makes references to “Magi from Arabia” – a formulation not found at all in the canon, which uses “Magi from the East”;
        – His “apostolic memoirs” tell of Jesus being born in a cave, a notion not found in the canonic gospels, but prevalent in other “non canonic” gospels.
        – Justin’s sources describe Jesus as one who “made a carpenter’s works, ploughs and yokes” – a detail absent from Luke, and diluted in Mark, although it appears in Thomas.
        – In the baptism of Jesus, Justin’s sources refer to “fire kindled in the Jordan” (absent from the canonicals) and to the fact that the voice from heaven says “Thou are my Son, this day have I begotten thee” (not Thou are my Son, with whom I am well pleased). The point here is that, had Justin known of our canonical formulation, he would have used it, since it would have suited his apologetic purpose to show Christ as a pre-existing God.

        One could go on, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll stop here.

      • Alan: We agree that Justin seems to know and use traditions (oral or written, we can’t say) additional to the contents of the four Gospels. That’s not the issue. The issue I raised was whether we can use these citations to claim a “wild” treatment of the copying of these Gospels. I think not.

  2. Wayne Brindle permalink

    In reference to your statement, “We know that ancient writers tended to make excerpts of texts that they intended to use as sources for their own works. We also know that people of the Greek and Roman eras made collections of passages from writings, anthologies, sometimes from various writings and topics, and sometimes passages assembled on a given topic,” could you give me some proof, evidence, or scholarly sources showing this to be so? Where can I look to find actual ancient examples of this (especially in early Christianity)?
    Thanks.

    • On the practices of ancient writers, see the study I mentioned earlier: Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series,74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
      Also see these studies: Raffaella Cribiore, Writing, Teachers and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996); Raffaella Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton: Princeton Universtity Press, 2001);
      And note also the discussion with examples in Eric Turner’s book, Greek Papyri: An Introduction

      For an actual artefact of a Christian text, see C. H. Roberts, “Fragment of a Testimony Book,” BJRL 20 (1936):237-44.

  3. bryantiii permalink

    It would seem, then, that a “harmony” of the gospels was present much earlier than expected?

    • Yes, it’s thought that Justin used one, ca. 150 CE.

    • GPG permalink

      If a standard harmonization was available by 150 ACE, then that could fit many other data points.

      For example? That we have no gospel texts from before that date; they might have been purged, destroyed, as not standard. Not consistent with an emergent, harmonized account.

      Can others think of other corroborating bits of data?

      • Look, your comment again reflects your lack of knowledge of the subject combined with your readiness, nonetheless, to pose views as if you did know things. This is a pattern with you. Hence my rather direct response.
        To say that Justin used a harmony doesn’t mean “a standard harmony”. And how the devil could you have a harmony of the gospels without them being already written and circulating? Further, the harmonizing texts such as the one used by Justin were study texts, not texts to read in churches (the Gospels were read in churches).
        Please, please. Stop formulating these crazy notions of yours. Do some solid study in the field if it interests you.

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