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The Investment of Early Christians in Texts: Further Thoughts

March 25, 2019

In an earlier posting (here) I noted the indications of a remarkable investment of time, effort, and expenses in the composition, copying and distribution of texts in early Christian circles, especially (but not exclusively) Christian texts such as became part of the NT.  I offer here a few further thoughts on the subject, exploring what was involved in some settings.

As I pointed out in that previous posting, Randolph Richards has attempted to calculate the time and effort involved in preparing and copying Paul’s various epistles.  So, e.g., he calculates that it would have taken a copyist over 11 hours to make a fair copy of Romans.  That in itself is an impressive effort.  But in the case of Romans, and also Galatians, we have epistles addressed to more than one early Christian assembly (e.g., Gal 1:2, “the assemblies of Galatia”).  So, did Paul send out individual copies to these respective assemblies?  Or did he send one copy to one of them in each case, and then expect that assembly to make a copy for another?

Personally, I’d guess that he may have had individual copies made for the churches in question.  That would ensure that each assembly actually got a copy of the respective epistle, and also would ensure that the copy each assembly got was approved by Paul.  But this means that Paul and his “team” who traveled and worked alongside him would have to help shoulder the burden of making multiple copies of these epistles.  That in turn suggests that they sometimes  operated as an early kind of publication group.  In the case of Galatians, did Paul personally add the postscript (6:11-18) to each of several copies?  If not, the effect of its claim that it is written in Paul’s own “hand” would have been diminished quite early.

Or let’s consider Revelation, which, likewise, is addressed to multiple assemblies (in this case, seven).  Were there seven copies prepared and sent out to the individual assemblies?  If so, who was involved in making these copies?  Or did the author send one initial copy (e.g., to Ephesus), and each church in succession was expected to make a copy to send to the next assembly in the series?

Either way, a goodly amount of time and effort was required of someone (or some group or groups) to make multiple copies of these texts.  Then, there was also the necessity of arranging for the copies to get to the various assemblies.  In the case of Romans, at least they were all in one city.  But in the case of Galatians, we’re likely dealing with assemblies in various cities of Galatia.  That means couriering the copies trans-locally across some distances.  This, of course, is also the case with Revelation.

(I should also mention the statement in Colossians 4:16, where the readers of this epistle are directed to have it read also in Laodicea, and in turn to read the letter from Laodicea.  Whether Colossians is from Paul or written in his name, either way this statement reflects what is likely an early practice of sharing Paul’s letters among various assemblies.)

All of this reinforces my emphasis on early Christianity as a “bookish” type of religion (in my book, Destroyer of the gods, 105-41).  So, even though the great majority of earliest believers may have been illiterate, thanks to the efforts of those who could write and read and copy texts, Christian assemblies were shaped heavily by texts, and they invested considerable efforts in making texts available and influential in their circles.

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8 Comments
  1. Side question: have you ever published any work on the status of the Messiah in the DSS 4Q521, whom has the heavens and earth listen (and some scholars thus read “obey”)? And if not, would you be willing to write a post on your interpretation of this text?

    • On 4Q521 I doubt that I could add anything useful to the analysis given in John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (Doubleday, 1995), 117-22. It is not clear what kind of “anointed one” the text refers to, but Collins argues that the primary features of the text suggest an Elijah-type figure, not a royal Davidic one.

  2. Jeroen permalink

    Interesting post. I was thinking, perhaps Paul made several copies of the same letter, and added a personal note for each of the assemblies. But I assume that you have already read the endings with this possibility in mind?

    • In most cases, Paul’s epistles were sent to one assembly. In the case of Galatians and Romans, several assemblies were addressed. In those cases, the question arises whether Paul prepared a copy for each assembly or not.

  3. Jack Irwin permalink

    Did the same apply to copying the Hebrew Scriptures?

    • Yes, in general. These texts too had to be copied one pen-stroke at a time. But there isn’t the same indication of the trans-local dissemination of texts, I’d say.

  4. Your question about Paul’s “publication group” is interesting. Colossians 4:16 tends to indicate that Paul’s letters, as opposed to being immediately copied for other churches, were instead carried from one assembly to another: “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.”

    This extensive ‘carrying and sharing’ process of a single manuscript might explain why we have none of the originals. Frequent transporting of these manuscripts would make them much more prone to premature deterioration.

    • There are two phenomena: (1) the preparation/dissemination of multiple copies of a given text such as an epistle to several churches, and (2) the copying/sharing of a given text sent to one church, but sought by another. We have no original for any literary text from antiquity, pagan, Jewish or Christian. So, no mystery about there being none for Paul’s epistles.

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