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“Books and Readers in the Early Church”: Gamble’s Book is a Good Bet!

November 1, 2017

In preparation for a class on Thursday this week, I’ve been re-reading (3rd time, I think) Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (Yale University Press, 1995; the UK online entry for the paperback reprint edition here).  I’ve mentioned this book several times in previous postings, repeatedly urging it as required reading for anyone seriously interested in Christian origins.

It’s just jam-packed with important data, cogent discussion, and copious references to primary texts and scholarly works.  He begins with a wide-ranging discussion of “Literacy and Literary Culture in Early Christianity” (Chap 1), engaging questions of the extent of literacy generally in the Roman world, and offering cogent reasons for thinking that early Christianity may well have promoted literacy more than the general culture of the time.  He also considers the notion that early Christianity began in “orality” (to the near exclusion of texts), rightly rejecting this as a romantic notion, and emphasizing the major place that the composition, copying, distribution and usage of texts had in early Christian circles.  I’ve reiterated this latter point in a recent journal article and in my book, Destroyer of the gods.[1]

Gamble then gives a chapter to “the Early Christian Book,” focusing on the physical and visual features of early Christian manuscripts in the context of the book-culture of the time.  This emphasis on the material/visual phenomena of early Christian manuscripts (“the material turn,” to use Kim Haines-Eitzen’s phrase) is also something I’ve supported in several publications.[2]  There are a few places where I’d quibble (or where Gamble may not have expressed himself carefully enough), such as his statement that “Almost without exception, the earliest Christian books known have the form  . . . of the papyrus codex . . .” (49).  By my count, this is true for those writings that came to form part of the Christian canon (OT and NT writings).  But for copies of other early Christian writings (e.g., so-called “apocryphal” writings, theological treatises, etc.), about one-third are bookrolls.  That’s still a hefty majority in codex-form, but there wasn’t apparently the same strenuous commitment to the codex for these texts.[3]

This chapter also features Gamble’s proposal that the initial step toward the early Christian preference for the codex was an early collection of Paul’s letters.  I won’t attempt to lay out the case here, but it remains in my view a very plausible option.  As well, Gamble reviews the nomina sacra, the distinctive early Christian way that certain key titles and other words were written in a curious, abbreviated manner.  I’ve pointed to this practice a number of times in previous postings (which you can see by clicking on the term in the “word cloud” on the home page).[4]

Gamble’s third chapter is given to “the Publication and Circulation of Early Christian Literature,” and is worth particular attention as it gives analysis not readily available elsewhere.  Among the matters discussed:  Did pagans read early Christian writings?  How did writings get “published” and circulated in the larger Roman world? How did early Christians circulate their texts, given that they were small and widely-dispersed geographically?  Were the Gospels originally intended to local/particular circles or to be circulated more widely?  What kind of resources were there for the copying of early Christian writings, and when might “copying centers” (or “scriptoria”) have emerged?  Gamble takes his survey all the way into the fifth century CE.

In Chapter Four, he discusses early Christian libraries (again, with a survey of the formation of book-collections and libraries in the wider Roman world).[5]  Gamble explores references to book-collections held in/by early churches, and the formation of larger libraries, such as the one in early third-century Caesarea, and early monastic libraries in the Byzantine period.

In his final chapter, Gamble considers “the Uses of Early Christian Books.”  After noting the reading of scriptures in synagogues, he turns to the reading of scripture in early Christian worship circles, the emergence of the church-office of “readers” and their particular role in worship and in the custodianship of scriptures.  As well, Gamble explores how scriptures were read in worship, proposing that it may have typically been a “cantillated” reading influenced by Jewish synagogue practice.

But these are only some of the many matters informatively probed in Gamble’s book, which should now be regarded as a modern scholarly classic.

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies?  ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” NTS 60.3 (2014): 321-40; Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), esp. 105-41.

[2] Particularly, Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[3] Compare Gamble, p. 80, where he more carefully notes “not all early Christian texts were inscribed in codices.”  See also my discussion in The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 43-93.

[4] As well, see my full discussion in The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 95-134.

[5] On the latter topic, see now George W. Houston, Inside Roman Libraries:  Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    I was hoping you would not mind elaborating a little more Professor Hurtado, on the idea that at least a thirty year period of “orality” after Jesuses earthly ministry, which a lot of scholars believe in, is a “romantic notion” (paragraph two in this post). I agree that it is indeed a romantic notion, but the evidence is difficult to find.

    • John: Everything we know about early Christianity and its Roman-era environment tells us that texts were central. Letters, bills, inscriptions, treatises, etc. And it’s widely thought that the Gospels draw upon written sayings collections, passion narratives, miracle-story collections,etc. that derive from decades earlier. Then, there’s Paul’s letters, 50-60 CE, and all that they reflect about writing used for trans-local networking, and also the reading of scriptures in synagogues and early churches. “Orality”? Sure. People valued and used the spoken word. But my point is, not to the disdain or exclusion of the written word too.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        Larry do you think it is possible that the “Mark” mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13 is the same Mark who made the first attempt at the Gospel according to Mark? I realize the author calls him “my son Mark”, but that could be just a term of affection for “my son (a younger man) in Christ”. Plus I realize the 1 Peter we have now has been crafted in fine Greek and most doubt Peter could have been such a skilled Greek writer. But also, is the Greek of 1 Peter similar at all to the Greek in the Gospel of Mark? Could Mark have been Peter’s secretary?

      • I think that most scholars see the “Mark” of 1 Peter 5:13 as the same figure referred to in Acts (12:12, 25; 15:37-39), Colossians (4:10), 2 Timothy (4:11), and Philemon (1:24). So, a figure linked with Paul (esp. Philemon) and also “Peter” (1 Peter), and who acquired some visibility in the tradition. But, no, it’s not likely that “Mark” wrote 1 Peter.

  2. Larry, when I enter Tacitus to the LDAB data base, it reports that the total number of records found is zero.

    • Yeah. So? What’s your point? For many ancient authors there are very few or no copies earlier than the middle ages. That’s what makes the early copies of other texts so interesting and valuable.

      • Larry, it makes me think that Roman history from the likes of Tacitus and Psuetonius is unreliable. The late dates of manuscripts leaves the history wide open to possible interference.

      • Well, Geoff, then by comparison you ought to feel highly confident about NT texts, for which we have textual evidence from as early as sometime 2nd century.
        But also, in considering the textual reliability of a given text, we ask whether there appear to be bizarre things, or anachronistic things, or things that look suspiciously like something tendentious. To my knowledge, application of these queries to the Roman writers in question has led historians to judge that they’ve been pretty well preserved. Another test: We now have copies of other (more popular) texts from the very early centuries, and can compare them with the later copies that we have had for some time. And we can see what kinds of accidental or deliberate changes were made, as a measure of more general textual handling of writings.

    • Larry, I believe that some of the early Church Fathers were sufficiently powerful, that they created and changed much of what we regard as Roman and Christian history. They had the opportunity to do it, as the dates of the extant manuscripts show.

      • Geoff: Your own particular “conspiracy theory” isn’t shared by the scholars who’ve considered the evidence. You have a right to your own opinion,but not to your own truth! There are no “alternate facts.” I know of no evidence that “early Church Fathers” were interested in monkeying about with Roman historians such as you imagine.

      • Larry, but power corrupts.

      • Yes, and evidence rules!

      • Larry, before 100 CE there is no evidence.

      • Uh, Geoff, if your cryptic sentence refers to evidence for early Christianity, we have letters of Paul commonly dated ca. 50-60 CE, and other writings dated across the later decades of the first century.

      • Larry, how commonly are the letters (I presume you mean manuscripts) of Paul dated to 50-60 CE? How did they arrive at that date?

        Could you give me some examples of manuscripts across the later decades of the first century?

      • The earliest COPIES of Paul’s letters are from ca. 200 CE, Geoff, as you may well know (you don’t do “coy” very well, I’m afraid). But scholars commonly date the COMPOSITION of the letters to 50-60 CE (as you surely know). And scholars of various stripes commonly treat several of the letters as direct evidence of Paul and early Christianity in those years and earlier. What’s your game, Geoff??

      • Larry, thank you for the above statement. I like to see things in black and white. It does leave open the possibility that the letters of Paul were composed later 50-60 CE whatever the scholars say.

        I have been looking at Justin’s First Apology. It appears not to know anything of Paul’s letters, yet it apparently does know about the gospels Mathew and Luke. How come?

      • Geoff: If you really want to learn what a couple of centuries of scholarly investigation of the earliest Christian writings yields, and why, just read any of a number of introductions to the NT, such as the much-used one by Bart Ehrman. And here are some publications on Paul and how he was “received” in the second century:
        –Calvin J. Roetzel, “Paul in the Second Century,” in The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, ed. James D. G. Dunn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 227-431.
        –Richard I. Pervo, The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010)
        –Michael F. Bird and Joseph R. Dodson, eds., Paul and the Second Century: The Legacy of Paul’s Life, Letters, and Teaching (London: T&T Clark, 2011).

        Justin’s Apology was specifically directed to the Roman imperial administration to appeal against persecution. It’s not a complete index of everything Justin knew. And from earlier texts such as 1 Clement and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch we know that Paul’s letters were read then.

  3. Larry, it seems that most of the Roman ancient historical manuscripts were preserved by Christian monks, and were late. For example, the earliest manuscripts of the first six books of the Annals attributed to Tacitus, were written in German about CE 850 in the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda.

    • No,Geoff, we have manuscripts (papyri rolls) palaeographically dated to the second century CE and some earlier still. Admittedly many/most are only surviving portions of the manuscripts in question, but we aren’t reliant solely on medieval copies for a number of writers. The key online resource is the Leuven Database of Ancient Books.

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