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Textual “Mentalities” in the Ancient World

April 13, 2018

The question has arisen in recent discussion whether in the ancient Roman world there was the concept of, and concern for, an accurate or fixed text of literary works.  Observations by the great Eric G. Turner in his splendid book, Greek Papyri:  An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1980) came to my mind.

In his chapter on “Papyri and Greek Literature,” and especially in the section on “Alexandrian scholarship and the papyri,” Turner has some interesting discussion relating to this question.  In particular, he observed that the early Ptolemaic-period copies of literary texts often exhibit a “lack of respect for the accurate recording of an author’s words,” demonstrated in “adding extra lines, leaving out lines known to us, and containing substantial variant phrases or formulas,” and he judged that these divergences cannot be ascribed simply to “mere carelessness by scribes” (p. 107).

He then makes a comparison with copies of the same literary texts from the Roman period, in which, he notes, “the coefficient of error is not so high, nor is there so great a bulk of variants.”  Instead, in the Roman period, “there is a steady respect for the authority of the text” (108).  (He distinguishes between this level of respect for the text of literary writings and the greater “indifference” shown in copies of documentary texts and in quotation of texts in ancient philological commentaries (109).  (I have pointed to a similar difference in the way that ancient texts were cited, often very loosely, and the comparatively greater care shown in copying the same texts.)

Now, Turner credits this concern as originating in Alexandrian scholarly circles, but he judged that their concerns and work “probably reached the general public through the schoolmasters, who attended their lectures and read their commentaries” (109).  But, however it came about, “from about the middle of the second century before Christ” copies of literary texts “conform more closely than those of the third century to the standard text,” no longer exhibiting “whole series of additional lines or exuberant random variants” (109).

The principles that guided this early text-critical work are varied, including some “subjective” ones that modern textual critics would not employ.  The point here isn’t the quality of the methods but, instead, that their efforts exhibit a notion of better or worse copies of texts, and efforts to produce better ones.

One pedestrian example of this is the oft-cited letter from a Julius Plakidus to his father (P.Petaus 30; 2nd century CE) in which he says that a travelling bookseller came by and showed him a number of parchment books (membranas).  Julius judged six of them not worth purchasing, but another eight “we compared/collated” (with copies of the same texts already in his possession?), and Julius paid 100 drachmas for these.  (For the text and an online discussion, see here.)

So, if this concern for textual accuracy can be shown to have become operative from the second century BCE, are we to think that, somehow, early Christians of the second century CE were immune to it, or, for some reason, operated in a different mode?  Over the last century or so of scholarship, the general principle has been that early Christianity should be seen as genuinely a part of its wider cultural environment.

There are, to be sure, indications of distinguishing features of early Christianity, as I have noted in a recent book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).  These include a strong “bookishness” exhibited in an impressive amount of effort given to composing, copying, disseminating, and reading texts.  As well, early Christians seem to have favored the codex bookform well beyond (or well ahead of) the wider Roman-era culture.  But are we to think that their distinguishing features included a lack of a notion of the integrity of literary texts?  I rather doubt that myself.

Of course, as anyone who examines earliest Christian manuscripts of known texts will know, the quality of copying varies.  To cite an example, the several hundred copying errors in P66 (a copy of the Gospel of John) are well known.  But the same, not very good, copyist appears then to have gone back over his work, making hundreds of corrections.  So, this copyist clearly had a notion of textual accuracy; he just wasn’t very skillful (at least in his first attempt) in achieving it!

As I noted in an essay some years back, there appears to have been a certain spectrum of copying practices in the early period:  “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Text, Collections, and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception:  New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, eds. J.W. Childers & D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ:  Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27 (the pre-publication form of the essay here).  This spectrum included (among some copyists) care for accuracy, as exhibited even in some copies apparently intended for personal usage, such as P22 (the pre-publication form of my study of this papyrus of part of the Gospel of John here).  But, again, whatever the skills of the various copyists, and along with the evidence of a certain fluidity in the transmission of some texts, we should also grant that the notion of textual accuracy was there in the culture.

I cite Turner’s discussion as another example of the importance of forming our views of the ancient Roman world and early Christianity with adequate attention to the hard data, and when it comes to our views of ancient attitudes toward texts, adequate attention to the work of papyrologists such as Turner.

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  1. Apparently everyone would acknowledge that strict copying came to be tightly regulated, under the Romans. But in scholarly writing and commentaries on – or say, expansions of – earlier works, more latitude was practiced. So if Matthew is the expansion of Mark, we would expect some relaxation of the standards we see for strict copyists.

    • You’re once again confusing copying with the use of texts as sources for new texts. Please try to follow the point under discussion more carefully. The question isn’t whether Matthew (and Luke) used Mark as one of their sources for their own new works. The question is whether there was a notion of texts as relatively fixed entities, and whether copyists (NB: copyists, not authors) generally tried to copy what lay before them. Clear I hope now.

  2. Robert permalink

    I hate to be pedantic, but was Turner’s book not first published in 1968?

    • Yes, the first edition came out in 1968, but I cite and use the 2nd and revised/updated edition of 1980. And so should you.

  3. Kirk Durston permalink

    A “spectrum of copying practices” seems so plausible, it is hard to imagine it would not be the case. I expect an early Christian copying one of the Gospels or epistles, would have more motive for “getting it right” than a hired scribe churning out books for the purpose of travelling book sellers, where volume may be the priority over accuracy.

  4. Very interesting!

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