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Justin and Manuscripts

April 11, 2018

Nearly 1,200 years separate Justin Martyr from the earliest manuscript of his works (Parisinus graecus 450, completed 11 September 1364, the only manuscript of independent value for Justin).  I mention this as a small footnote to my posting yesterday about Justin and his references to, and knowledge of, the Gospels.

Some people make much of the chronological distance between the composition of the Gospels, for example, and our earliest manuscript data, which, by contrast is considerably less.  We have portions of copies of Matthew and John, for example, palaeographically dated as early as the late second century, and more and larger portions dated to the third century.  So, about 100 to 150 years or so between composition and earliest manuscripts.

And we have portions from an impressive number of those manuscripts, each of them an independent witness to their respective texts.  So, you see what I mean when I exhort some perspective in matters.  This is all the more relevant when we take account of the lifespan of ancient papyrus manuscripts, which have been shown to remain in use for well over a century, sometimes a few centuries.  So this means that the predecessor copies of texts remained available and in circulation, along with copies made from them.  It wasn’t a situation, thus, in which earlier copies disappeared, to be wholly replaced by new ones.  The implications for textual transmission should be obvious.

But, to return to Justin, I highly recommend the recent edition of his Apologies by Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr:  Apologies (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009).  They provide a full and detailed discussion of the text-critical data (3-31), as well as “the Man and His Work” (32-56), and “Justin’s World” (57-70).

They offer a novel (but cogently argued) proposal that what is typically designated now the “Second Apology” is actually “outtake” material left from Justin’s final editing of his Apology.  They also note the intriguing idea that Justin might have been the original object of Celsus’ attack on Christianity in his treatise, The True Word.

In any case, I cite a few of their appreciative statements (70):

  • “Christianity in Rome would never again know such intellectual vitality and diversity as it enjoyed in the second and third centuries.”
  • “It is likely that it is to Justin that we owe the very category of ‘heresiology’.  If this is so, it might be said that no other Christian writer after the New Testament had so large and enduring an impact on the shaping of Christian discourse.”
  • “The path Justin cut through the thickets of contemporary speculation, Jewish, pagan, and Christian, was to become, from shortly after his death until the present, the broad highway of Christian theology.”


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  1. Relative to heresiology, so Minns and Parvis support Alain Le Boulluec’s thesis from La notion d’hérésie dans la littérature grecque? [Declaration of interest: I’m on the team working on an OUP translation of the book.]

    • I notice that Le Bouluec’s book appears in their bibliography, but, quickly scanning footnotes, I can’t see any reference to the book. But there may be a difference between “heresiology” (which they ascribe to Justin) and the phenomenon of doctrinal differences/deviances. On the latter, see an unpublished PhD thesis of a former student:
      Troy A. Miller, “The Emergence of the Concept of Heresy in Early Christianity: The Context of Internal Social Conflict in First-Century Christianity and Late Second-Temple Sectarianism” (PhD, University of Edinburgh, 2002).

  2. Dr Hurtado
    Please excuse a question that is somewhat tangental to the theme in this thread. Someone has recently sent me a pdf of something called “The Hebraic-Roots Version Scriptures” by a certain James Scott Trimm, a name with which I was not familiar. Trimm claims that that “the original language of the “New Testament” was Hebrew and Aramaic”. Perhaps the existence of ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the New Testament — comparable to the age of the Greek texts that we have — has totally passed me by.
    I would be grateful for any pointers that you could make that might correct my ignorance — or alternatively any other comment that you may wish to make on this claim. (It might indeed merit a separate thread in your blog.)
    Many thanks for all your work.
    Trevor R Allin

    • Uh, there are no early Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts of any NT writing. And the claim you cite is absurd and not entertained by scholars in Christian origins.

      • Thank you for your speedy response. So (on this one occasion!), it wasn’t my ignorance that was the problem!

  3. It’s neat to see two scholars’ real-time dialogue via the blogosphere. I appreciate your willingness to do this and am impressed by the rate of output.

  4. Dear Larry, regarding the statement in your first sentence above: are you familiar with P.Oxy. 5129, a 4th century Greek parchment fragment of Justin’s First Apology?

  5. Roy Kotansky permalink

    There’s a new 4th cent. papyrus of Justin: P. Oxy 5129.

  6. Hon Wai Lai permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, I have some questions which are off-tangent to this post, but still related to textual criticism, on which I would like to seek pointers to the answers. Some Conservative Christians claim that the Nestle-Aland text represents 99% of the NT text as originally written in the 1st century. Yet as Ehrman pointed out, there are more textual variants among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Hence a great deal of work had to be done to reconcile the variants to arrive at our best judgment on the original text. Would you say it is overly optimistic to assert that we are confident we have recovered 99% of the original? Given we have relatively few and patchy manuscripts from the 2nd century and none from the 1st, how confident can we be that there were very few major significant alterations to the texts between time of composition and earliest manuscripts containing the texts?

    • Hon Wai: In a sense, the two views talk past each other. On the one hand, textual critics would tend to judge that the Nestle-Aland editions over the years do successfully present the texts of the NT writings over the greater body of them. On the other hand, the many manuscripts of NT writings do exhibit thousands of variants. But among the thousands of variants, only a very small number are of any size. Indeed the sizeable ones can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Most variants are presence/absence of the definite article, tenses (e.g., imperfect or aorist), word-order, etc., which don’t make radical difference as to meaning, and which largely seem to be the accidental errors in copying that characterizes any text. Because the NT writings were copied so very often, there happen also to be more of these kinds of errors.
      I’d say that the claim that the Nestle-Aland text is 99% firm is probably too high. But it might not be all that off the mark to think in terms of 85-90% undisputed among textual critics.

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