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The Copying “Environment” of Early Christian Papyri

March 4, 2019

In reflecting further on Wasserman’s essay that I mentioned earlier here, I turned once again to Eric Turner’s discussion of the varying types of copyist practices evident in the early papyri of classical texts: E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (1968; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), esp. 100-112.  Turner (one of the foremost papyrologists of modern times) described two copying practices or “cultures”, so to speak.

In a posting last year, I drew attention to Turner’s discussion, and I thought it worthwhile to point to that posting again here.  I underscore both the diversity of copying practices in the larger textual “environment” of the ancient world, and also Turner’s claim of a growing respect for more careful copying in the Roman period, which he attributed (at least in part) to the influence of Alexandrian scholars, disseminated via school teachers, etc.

And, as in my previous posting, I ask whether early Christians (especially those literate ones who made copies of texts) were somehow immune to this concern or respect for the wording of the texts that they copied.  Or, given the growing sense that early Christians were in many respects fully part of their wider culture, isn’t it more likely that they (or at least some of them) shared in this more careful/respectful attitude toward texts, especially those that they used as scripture (i.e,, read out in the gathered worship setting)?  This would help us account for the accumulating evidence that from our earliest extant manuscript evidence for these Christian texts we have what appears to be a careful copying practice as dominant.

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6 Comments
  1. Michael Mojica permalink

    I’m beginning to read your “bookish” chapter in Destroyer of the gods. You state that reader-copyists in the early church copied with “generous spacing between lines of text.” 1. Why was spacing not an issue in the previous centuries (or was it)? 2a. Were Greco-Roman readers sooo adept at reading rolls of non-spaced words and lines that they could read with fluidity or did they read slowly and perhaps only had to read the same material once or infrequently that spacing was a non-issue; or, 2b. Did they read and study the material to themselves first so as to become familiarized with the text before reading it out loud?

    3. Can we safely assume that a reader-copyist was an educated and, perhaps, a wealthy person; otherwise, where would they have access to ink and ‘paper’?

    In, Textual “Mentalities” in the Ancient World, you state: “(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.)” and in this article you say, “This would help us account for the accumulating evidence that from our earliest extant manuscript evidence for these Christian texts we have what appears to be a careful copying practice as dominant.” I’m not clear what the argumentation is regarding early sloppy Christian copyists by Ehrman when on the other hand you seem to assert “a careful copying practice as dominant” in the second century. 4. Does the distinction from sloppy to “careful” lie in a Christian copyist taking liberties in paraphrasing an author but being meticulous when copying for a commentary?

    • The greater line-spacing is one of several “aids” to readers, which are not typically found in elite copies of classical texts. As William Johnson has shown such elite copies were intended for readers with advanced skills. So, the readers’ aids in some early Christian mss suggest a wider spectrum of reader-competence. Yes, readers of any text likely read the text in advance before public reading. Coming to a typical literary text “cold” in public would have required some really advanced reading skills.
      But we shouldn’t associate reading skills with economic levels. Well off people often trained a slave to do the reading well at social gatherings.
      As for “sloppy” copyists, we don’t see them typically. Some are less skilled, and so make mistakes. But they typically show a concern (and largely success) in copying their texts accurately. Copyists didn’t “take liberties” with what they copied. Here’s some reading material for you:
      –William A. Johnson, “Towards a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” American Journal of Philology 121 (2000): 593-627
      –Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window Into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017)
      –Larry W. Hurtado, “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)

  2. Erich von Abele permalink

    If it’s not certain whether early Christian copyists were following careful procedure that was the norm in their culture around them, this would only be significant if someone could point to a remarkable number of copyists of the same place & time (the Ecumene, circa the inter-testamental period, give or take a century) who were NOT careful. Do any such relatively sloppy copyists (Christian or non-Christian) exist?

    • Erich: As I noted in my posting, Eric Turner’s book does discuss examples of pre-Roman and Roman era copies of classical texts that show the development/shift in copying practices.

  3. The big problem I see with any discussion of copying practices is that we have no idea of how many mss have been lost, nor (of course) whether those lost mss showed careful copying or not. It could be that the great majority of non-extant mss were poorly written copies, but we have no way of knowing. As we cannot know what percentage of the total earliest manuscript evidence is represented by our “earliest extant manuscript evidence” any conclusions drawn from the extant mss rest on very shaky ground.

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