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My List of Second/Third Century Manuscripts

January 18, 2018

Brent Nongbri has some valid observations about the limits of my listing of second/third century Christian manuscripts on his blog site here.  It’s true, that it’s a list of copies of texts, not a list of manuscripts as such.  It originated in an attempt on my part to tabulate what texts we have in earliest Christian manuscripts, and then also to count how many copies of each text we have.

I discuss the results of that investigation in the chapter entitled “The Texts,” in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).  I found some surprises in doing that work.  For example, what are we to make of the several early Christian copies of Leviticus, not a text you’d think terribly meaningful to early Christians?  But apparently it was!

Or how about there being only one copy of the Gospel of Mark from these earliest centuries?  So, if the comparative number of extant copies reflects basically the comparative number of copies of a given text circulating in that period, how did the Gospel of Mark “make it” into the canon?

But, as I also note, the “artifactual” data are also important.  For example, the copies of texts such as the Gospel of Mary or Gospel of Thomas seem to have been comparatively more common in roll format than the case for those texts that were more widely treated as “scripture” and then formed part of the developing NT canon.

As Nongbri notes, the dates of some manuscripts vary, and are subject to revision.  But I hope that my list of texts/manuscripts serves at least as illustrative of the sort of material that can be investigated.

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  1. Larry, Brent says: “We don’t actually know with certainty how many second and third century Christian manuscripts we have. There are actually very few pieces that can be dated on non-subjective grounds to the period before Constantine”. How many pieces does a few mean?

    • Geoff: We don’t “know with certainty” a lot of things! If by “with certainty” you mean that there is or can be no disagreement or judgment involved at all. But, if you want to reckon with the dating of early Christian manuscripts widely accepted, consult my list referred to in my posting.

      • Larry, I can’t accept that terms such as “widely accepted” or “most scholars” should be used in any argument.

      • Yeah, Geoff. But that’s your problem. A body of critically based opinion by people with appropriate training in a given field should count for something. Or else, you have to show where everyone else has gone wrong. The scholarly journals eagerly await your submission!!

      • Larry, we “know with certainty” that there are no first century christian manuscripts or copies of manuscripts in existence. What can be concluded from that? Does no evidence mean that there must have been manuscripts from which later manuscripts were derived? Or does no evidence mean that Christianity has all been fabricated?

      • There are no copies of a number of early texts, Jewish, Christian and pagan, till much later than their composition, Geoff. You don’t understand the nature of the relevant historical data.
        And the lack of first century *copies* of a text isn’t “no evidence.” You don’t understand how historians work with data. But nothing I can say will deter you from your peculiar hobby-horse notions, Geoff. So, sail away in your own sea of misunderstanding.

      • Larry, don’t you think that historians have ignored the data? The relevant data or facts are: that during the first century there are no manuscripts and then suddenly during the second and third century there is an avalanche. One can invent all sorts of reasons for this gap in our knowledge. But any statistician would immediately sense that something was not right.

      • Geoff: You once again display your ignorance of the relevant data. We don’t have “an avalanche” of manuscripts in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We have perhaps a handfull from the 2nd, and then a somewhat larger number in the 3rd century. But these are also the periods when Christians were much more numerous, and so there would have been many more copies made, from which the paltry few that survive have come. What’s “not right” is your silly and misinformed reasoning. If you want to engage a topic, for heaven’s sake, at least trouble yourself to learn the relevant data first. We’re ending this pointless thread here.

  2. Ryan Wettlaufer permalink

    Thanks Larry. You wrote

    “So, if the comparative number of extant copies reflects basically the comparative number of copies of a given text circulating in that period…”

    I’m curious about that premise.

    On the one hand, it makes a certain kind of sense: it stands to reason that the more popular a text was, the more copies would be made, and consequently the more copies were made, the more probability that more would survive.

    On the other hand, do we have any evidence that this was the case? How do we know?


    • Ryan: The answer to your question is we don’t “know” the premise to be the case. As in a good many other matters of historical inquiry, we have to proceed on premises that seem plausible . . . until they’re falsified. If the comparative numbers of extant copies of texts don’t reflect comparative frequency of copying (in the ancient setting), what else might it reflect more plausibly?

      • Ryan Wettlaufer permalink

        Thanks Larry. I’ve heard the premise before and I’ve always wondered if there was any strong supporting evidence for it. If you’re not aware of any either, then I guess my question is: why is it a plausible starting point? Or better said, why is it more plausible than some alternatives? I could imagine, for example, a scenario where there is an inverse relationship between the popularity of a text and the probability that more copies survived: the more popular a text was, the more likely its copies were to be used up and worn out; only the lesser read texts were left in pristine condition on the shelf. Or, perhaps more likely in my opinion, is the premise that the factors that contributed to manuscript loss were varied and random enough (e.g. fire, exposure, etc) that we cannot safely draw conclusions about the popularity of a text from the number of copies that happened to survive. What do you think?
        Ryan Wettlaufer

      • Yes, Ryan, in principle anything is possible. One thing, however, that seems to me to corroborate the premise that the comparative extant number of manuscripts may reflect the comparative frequency of the copying and usage of the texts in question is this: There is a similar pattern in the evidence of the citation/usage of texts in early Christian writers. Also, note that of the extant manuscripts, many are from refuse heaps. So, if more popular texts were more readily and more frequently used up and discarded, then our extant numbers are relevant.

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