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“Material Culture” of Early Christianity

May 2, 2018

A recent multi-author volume commendably addresses the physical/material evidence of early Christianity:  Alan H. Cadwallader, ed., Stones, Bones and the Sacred: Essays on Material Culture and Religion in Honor of Dennis E. Smith (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016).  Given the focus of the volume, it is curious, however, that there appears to be no treatment of a highly important body of physical evidence:  earliest Christian manuscripts.

To be fair, the omission isn’t peculiar to this volume.  Sadly, it’s all too typical.  For some reason, scholars (who are likely unfamiliar with manuscripts) unconsciously (?) overlook manuscripts as artifacts.  Instead, they treat them (or better, neglect them) as simply copies of texts.  They are that, of course.  But these earliest Christian copies of texts are also physical objects from the time of early Christianity, and they have physical and visual features that furnish what we might call “para-textual” data, in addition to the textual data.

Illustrative of the mistaken attitude of some scholars, I recall a conversation with a senior NT scholar some years back.  After I mentioned that early Christian manuscripts were important, he responded, “But I’m not interested in manuscripts; I’m interested in artifacts.”   To which I replied, “But, don’t you see, manuscripts are artifacts.”

I began calling attention to this way of looking at these data in an essay published nearly two decades ago:  “The Earliest Evidence of an Emerging Christian Material and Visual Culture: The Codex, the Nomina Sacra and the Staurogram,” in Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson, ed. Stephen G. Wilson and Michel Desjardins (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), 271-88.  Then, in a book, I discussed these matters more fully:  The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

Indeed, arguably, accepting the widely-adopted datings of some of them to the second and early third century, the manuscripts in question comprise (or are at least among) our earliest Christian artifacts (hence, the title of my book). And the “para-textual data” are significant.

The distinctive early Christian strong preference for the codex is perhaps our earliest expression of an emergent “material culture.”  The nomina sacra comprise visual earmarks distinctive to early Christianity, visual expressions of reverence for the figures to whom these abbreviations applied.  I emphasize that the nomina sacra show that early Christians wanted to signify these figures in a special way visually.  The “staurogram,” a device combining the Greek letters tau and rho, was adapted by early Christians to serve as what appears to be a “pictographic” reference to the crucified Jesus, in manuscripts that are dated as much as 150 years earlier than what art historians commonly think that visual depictions of Jesus on the cross first appeared.  These data are, arguably, the earliest extant expressions of an emergent “visual culture” in early Christianity.

The way the pages of a number of early Christian codices are laid out provides additional data.  Often, this involves larger letters and inter-line spacing, fewer lines per page, a greater incidence of punctuation (in comparison to copies of “pagan” literary texts), and the use of spacing to signal sense-units.  I have proposed that these features may give us physical evidence of the social diversity of earliest Christian circles, these features all comprising “aids” for the reading of these texts by individuals of varying abilities:  “What Do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?,” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in Early Communities of Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 179-92; and “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading,” in The Early Text of the New Testament, ed. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 49-62.

Or, to offer another example, consider the early Christian practice of treating the name of the Old Testament figure, “Joshua,” as a nomen sacrum.  The Greek form of his name is Iesous (English: Jesus), and in earliest Christian copies of OT writings where he appears, his name is written in the abbreviated form of nomina sacra.  This wasn’t a mistake.  Instead, it is physical/visual evidence of the early Christian belief that this OT figure was a fore-type of Jesus of Nazareth.  The point is that early Christians didn’t simply believe certain things; they also expressed these beliefs sometimes in material and visual forms.

Of course, not all scholars of the New Testament and Christian Origins can (or should) be papyrologists too.  But I think that every scholar in this field who wishes to address historical questions about early Christianity should become familiar with the material and visual characteristics of earliest Christian manuscripts.  Their data are too important to be left solely to papyrologists and textual critics!  And our conception of what is available as evidence of early Christian “material culture” and “visual culture” should be enlarged to include these data.





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  1. Professor Hurtado,
    On the “practical advantage” of codex, you acknowledge the potential cost reduction (Artifacts, 64), “Skeat estimated that there might have been a saving of about 26% between producing the Chester Beatty Codex of the Pauline epistles and copying the same body of texts on a roll.” But you argue, “The handwriting is not generally smaller or more compressed than one finds on literary rolls of the day, and the wide margins and generous line spacing further indicate no concern to conserve on writing material.”

    I find the argument not persuasive for two reasons:

    First, the material cost of the bookform used is different from scribal habits, and shouldn’t be confused together. To use an analogy, I can try to save money by purchasing cheap materials for my clothing, but I have no control over how sparingly the tailors use that material.

    Second, as you argue elsewhere, the generous line spacing and wide margins have practical purposes, e.g. readability. I think those practical considerations need to be balanced with material costs. If we take into account both factors, and compare the cost of producing the same body of text with the same attention to readability etc., is the codex still cheaper than the roll? IF so, then that is still a reasonable argument for “practical advantage”.


    • Nemo: The point about the typical layout of early Christian manuscripts of biblical texts is that the generous use of space suggests no real concern to save money and economize on writing material. I’m not confusing anything. I think you are perhaps confused, or not getting the point.
      Furthermore, in addition to the amount of writing material required, the steps necessary for making a codex were additional to those necessary for a bookroll. Codex usage required development of an additional skill-set, and the commitment to do so. And the various experiments with codex construction in early Christian manuscripts suggests that Christians were at the “leading edge” of the serious use of codices for extended texts.

      • Professor Hurtado,

        But it is not a scribe’s concern to economize on writing material, his concern is to copy the text. He can’t change his scribal habits just because he writes on a codex and not a roll. No?

        As for the additional skills required to construct the codex, no arguments there. This also seems to suggest that the people who made those codices are used to manual labor, probably craftsmen, and not of the upper echelon of the Roman society.

      • Nemo: It’s not a matter of “scribal habits” being followed mindlessly. The point you’re still missing is that the generous use of space (which was a decision of the intended user) indicates a lack of concern to save on writing material, which makes the modest amount that might be saved in comparison to using a bookroll irrelevant.
        The additional skills needed to construct a codex don’t point to “manual labor” or “craftsmen”. Copyists of any kind weren’t “upper echelon of Roman society.” The point (again, which you seem to miss) is that it took extra efforts to use a codex, beyond that of the ordinary skills of “craftsmen/copyists”. The choice of a codex was, thus, a deliberate choice that involved extra efforts.

      • Professor Hurtado,

        Thanks for pointing out that the generous use of space is a decision of the intended user, which I take to mean the reader. I did miss that. However, I think it actually fits the second point in my original comment. The reader, who I assume is paying the bills, has to balance economic concern with other practical concerns, such as the readability of the manuscripts, which doesn’t make the former “irrelevant”. Unless, of course, it can be demonstrated that the generous use of space has no practical advantage to the reader and is not due to some technical constraints in the construction and copying process.

        I’m not denying that the codex construction requires extra efforts and therefore deliberate choice. I’m just speculating which group of people are more likely to contemplate and exert such extra efforts. It’s all part of the question: What, if anything, can we infer about the early Christians from the artifacts they left behind?


      • Nemo: One last attempt to get through to you. Your first statements beg the question: You presuppose that the one commissioning the copy was balancing “an economic concern”. But as I’ve indicated there is no reason to presuppose this concern, as evidenced by the generous use of writing space/material. I’ve stated this several times. If you don’t get it, then drop it.
        As for your second statement, those “more likely to contemplate and exert” the extra efforts required to make a codex are those who prefer a codex to a bookroll. We can infer quite a lot of things from the artifacts (in this case, manuscripts), as I’ve indicated in the publications I’ve cited. But this must suffice on this thread.

    • Professor Hurtado,

      You wrote, “You presuppose that the one commissioning the copy was balancing “an economic concern”. But as I’ve indicated there is no reason to presuppose this concern, as evidenced by the generous use of writing space/material”.

      I’m not presupposing an economic concern. Instead, I’m suggesting that lack of economic concern doesn’t necessarily follow from the generous use of space. It’s a non sequitur. First, the cost reduction of using codex you cited makes economic concern a possible factor; Second, the generous use of space can be explained by a balancing of concerns.

      When more than one proposals can explain the data available, additional evidence is needed to decide between them. If the codex with the generous spacing still costs less than the roll, that would be evidence for an economic concern, I think; On the other hand, if the codex with generous spacing costs more than the roll, economic concern is not a factor.


      • Nemo: For heaven’s sake, let this be the end of it! My argument from the generous use of writing material/space isn’t at all a non-sequitur. It suggests a lack of concern to save on writing material. If you can’t see that, then we’re at an impasse and no further discussion will profit.

  2. Perry Lassiter permalink

    I’ve always been bugged by minimalists who consider any reference to manuscripts a fundamentalist ploy. It’s reasonable to see a Moses figure who was a dynamic leader and a religious genius. You don’t have to accept a million followers and ten literal plagues. Likewise, why not assume that there was a strong king of Judah named David, whose exploits may not have been as grand as portrayed in Samuel, but nevertheless was definitive in Israel’s history. I realize this is not what you are arguing, but the mindset is the same. Yes, the MSS should be included and their contents also explored. I’m not arguing for their veracity at all points, but I am agreeing with you and adding the idea that the MSS contents should find a place, even if disputable, in the history. No one writes the history of Europe strictly from the archaeology.

    • Perry: YOur comment is off-beam of my posting. The argument between “minimalists” and others has nothing to do with manuscripts, but is over dates of the composition of the texts that they contain. That’s not “material culture”.

  3. It’s more a matter of simply those of us who pursue historical questions taking account of all the relevant data. Scholars in Christian origins aren’t typically archaeologists, or specialists in Roman history, for example, but we draw upon the work of those who are in doing our own work. The same should be true for manuscripts and the work of those who focus on them.

  4. Would this be best classified as a call for inter-specialty dialogue? I believe you are onto a very important resource of information. Thanks for calling attention to this. Hopefully more scholars will heed your call.

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