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Text-Collections and an Emergent NT Canon

May 13, 2019

A recent survey of the contents of Christian manuscripts from the first three centuries focuses on identifying which texts were combined in the same manuscript:  Michael Dormandy, “How the Books Became the Bible:  The Evidence for Canon Formation From Work-Combination in Manuscripts,” TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism 23 (2018):  1-39.  (TC is an open-access and online journal:  available here.)

After laying out carefully his method and his gathering of data (using the Leuven Database of Ancient Books), Dormandy then classifies extant manuscripts (including very fragmentary ones) as to the level of certainty that we can attain in determining whether the manuscripts contained more than one text, and, if so, what texts they contained.  His approach is cautious and careful, which makes his conclusions all the more sound.

Dormandy coins the term “collection-evident” to designate collections of texts that combine texts that came to form part of the NT.  For example, manuscripts that contained only our four NT Gospels or epistles of Paul are instances of “collection-evident” artefacts.  The question behind his study was whether we see a pattern of collecting certain texts together in a given manuscript, or a diversity in collections of texts, combining canonical and non-canonical texts.

As he concludes, “The results are striking.”  The clear majority of multi-text manuscripts from any of the early centuries are “collection-evident,” i.e., they include only texts that later became part of our NT.  Manuscripts that combine what became canonical texts with non-canonical texts are “relatively rare.”  Importantly, he found no instance of a combination of gospels beyond the familiar four in the NT (p. 21).  To cite him further, “It is crucial to note that . . . there is nothing even resembling an alternative Bible, that is, a set of works, different to the ones now canonical, that are regular­ly combined” (p. 22).  Noting that Codex Sinaiticus includes Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, and that Codex Alexandrinus includes letters of Clement, these are exceptional.  Moreover, they are included at the end of the respective manuscript, suggesting that they may have been intended as a kind of appendix.  But, in any case, there are no alternative gospel-collections, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas.  As he observes, in those early centuries, “There may be other gospels, but there is no other gospel collection” (p. 22).

He also confirms earlier observations that a good many early manuscripts are single-text ones, e.g., containing one Gospel.  This is reflected in the varying number of extant copies of the individual Gospels, many more of Matthew and John, and very few of Mark.  As he notes, this casts doubt on David Trobisch’s claim that by the late-second century the complete NT canon had been determined and circulated together.

Likewise, there is little indication of letter-collections that combined what became canonical texts with others.  So, e.g., we have the well-known collections of Pauline letters (P46 being the most well-known example).

Dormandy seems to me to judge rightly that the consistency in manuscript practice in this early period is not likely the result of some diktat from any influential figure.  Instead, it seems to reflect a widespread view among those preparing these manuscripts that certain texts belonged together.  We may not be able to discern the reasons, but it is evident.  In Dormandy’s words, “early Christian bookmakers did not have to be told by ecclesiastical superiors what was in the canon” (pp. 22-23).

In sum, contra the views of some scholars, the frequent inclusion of certain texts in the same manuscript suggests that they were seen to have something in common, something that led to the NT canon.  On the other hand, contra the views of other scholars (e.g., Trobisch), the numerous single-text manuscripts suggest that the circulation of the four Gospels together or complete editions of the NT in the second century is not plausible.

Some years ago, I proposed that the collection of texts, both conceptually and physically, was an important feature of second-century Christian circles, and was a step toward what became a canon of the NT.[1]  So, it is particularly gratifying to see Dormandy’s careful and persuasive survey of the evidence.

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception:  New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ:  Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27, esp.19-24.  See also my comments in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006), 35-40.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Okay, I’m really trying to get my head around this. Michael Dormandy says that canonical texts were rarely combined with non-canonical texts in early manuscripts. Isn’t this exactly what Trobisch pointed out, and that he drew upon as evidence that the canon was settled already in the second century? So how can this be used as evidence against Trobisch’s thesis? Plus isn’t the Diatessaron good evidence for second century fourfold gospel? Trobisch points to use of codex, nomina sacra, fixed titles, text order, and actual editorial notes in the text(!), as evidence of second century editorship of the New Testament collection.

    • Trobisch contended that the entire NT canon was formed and circulated together physically in the 2nd century. The manuscript evidence works against this. E.g., it appears that the Gospels circulated independently, and when combined took different orders. It is the case, however, that the second century was the time when we have the embryonic steps toward a canon. E.g., a fourfold gospel closed collection.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Are you sure that Trobisch argues for the physical circulation of the complete NT in the second century? I recall his argument being that the NT was conceived and promoted as a coherent canonical collection (equivalent to the LXX OT) by the mid second century, and that editorial features (codex, nominal sacra, titles, text order, editorial additions) indicated the collection was the work of a small group or an individual. (Polycarp, in fact) I don’t recall Trobisch saying this collection was necessarily often (or ever?) copied together as a complete collection in the second century, but that when smaller sections were copied, the common editorial features are evidence that they belonged to what was already convened as the New Testament canon.

      • Donald, Why don’t you take this up with Donaldy? It’s his work that you’re asking about.

  2. Reblogged this on Christian Worldview and commented:
    This dovetails very nicely with Michael Kruger’s new series on the Canon from Ligonier. Again, highly recommended!

  3. Dr. H.,
    I, for one, appreciate the link to the article. Having the physical evidence available examined and categorized certainly is a positive. I also appreciated the way Dormandy conservatively catalogued the evidence.
    Thanks again.

  4. This line: “the numerous single-text manuscripts suggest that the circulation of the four Gospels together or complete editions of the NT in the second century is not plausible.” So, “the four Gospels together” never appear in the 2nd century?


    • There are two distinguishable matters: (1) were the four Gospels linked in a closed set conceptually in the 2nd century, and (2) were they physically bound together in one codex. Certainly, Irenaeus (late 2nd century) testifies to a closed set of our four Gospels, and there are other evidences that this was functioning earlier in the 2nd century. The earliest physical combination of the four Gospels in one book extant is P45 from the mid-third century. It is, of course, unlikely to be the first such production, but how much earlier a four-gospel codex appeared we can’t say for sure.

  5. What evidence does the author present that there was no diktat responsible?

    • Uh, the absence of any reference to a dikta is one thing, and for another there was no “pope” or other figure who could issue such a diktat.

      • Can you recommend any good scholarly papers examining the possibility that the longterm survival of early texts, texts as we have them today, might have been effected by late editorial agencies? Churches preferring – and therefore preserving – some texts, but not others?

        We sometimes note such things in the historical and anthropological field.

      • If you read my discussion of the texts that we have in extant mss of the first three centuries, you’ll see that (1) some texts are better represented than others, and (2) this seems to be the result of a more “grass roots” process rather than a top-down one. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), esp. the chapter on “Texts”.

      • Some scholars are now dating the Didache at the end of the first century. Could that suggest an emerging, fairly standard doctrinal outline by a date as early as that?

      • The Didache isn’t a creedal outline. It’s more a set of ethical instructions borrowed from Jewish tradition and instructions for baptism, eucharist, etc. The first century date alleged by some doesn’t apply to the final-form as we have it, but to an earlier form.

      • Well, baptism is a major doctrinal matter; found in Luke 3, and John 1.

        And the Eucharist of course is central in some gospels. And in churches too.

        So it might seem we have some very major Christian orthodox doctrines, in some kind of churches, before the end if the first century.

      • Yes, but the point is that those broad belief-convictions and ritual practices weren’t dictated from some pope figure. They were broadly shared across various circles. OK?

      • OK; no pope or Orthodox metropolitan. But it’s still hard to imagine that degree of unanimity – and phrased in a liturgical language – without some kind of central gatekeeper(s). A major bishop? A second or third generation apostle, named or unnamed?

        Are there any speculations on such a figure? Any specific candidates? Author(s) of Didache, etc. ?

      • There isn’t “unaminity” in earliest Christianity! You don’t know the scene, obviously. There are broad similarities, family resemblances, but lots of diversity. And, no. No pope, or equivalent figure able to issue a diktat across the diversity of earliest Christanity.

      • Granted, I’d be the last to argue for COMPLETE unanimity between the various early Christian and related texts.

        But if there is at least a NOTICEABLE, PARTIAL interrelation between the synoptics, and possibly the Didache? Then we’re still left wondering how that came about.

        Here I’m interested not even just ecclesiastical authority; but even more, the natural work of scribes; editors.

        Their natural tendency is to try to impose consistency. And that need would become especially evident, as the new book or “codex” format made comparisons between gospels say, so much easier.

        The codex format would foreground differences. And encourage editing for consistency, harmony.

        Their work was not completely successful to be sure. But to this very day many persons attempt to produce better “harmonizations.”

      • The basic dynamic in the shared features of nascent Christianity is the networking of groups trans-locally. Though separated by distance, they typically/widely regarded themselves as part of a larger network of believers. See, e.g., Larry W. Hurtado, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62.

  6. Jon Davies permalink

    Fascinating article.

    I can see the force of the argument but would the same argument not apply to Vaticanus with its inclusion of a number of ‘apocryphal’ books (1 and 2 Esdras etc)? Any thoughts?

    • The books considered by Protestants to be OT apocrypha were treated as scripture in early Christianity.

  7. The evidence here for the gospels and the letters of Paul being collected with other canonical books of the same sort and rarely appearing with non-canonical works, seems quite convincing. But the methodology which presupposes a division into the current list of canonical and non-canonical and analyzes the data based on that distinction strikes me as pretty questionable and uses the very strong and convincing evidence concerning the gospels and the Pauline letters to paper over a lack of evidence concerning the Catholic letters (which are a small proportion of the “collection evident” and a large proportion of the “not collection evident”). This approach to the data is especially strange since the most common “alternative Bible” we know for certain existed (the Syriac cannon) is distinguished by being shorter not longer.

    • I don’t think you quite grasp the approach. Which was to test whether books that became canonical subsequently are or are not combined with other texts that did not become canonical. That’s no pre-judging anything. It’s a valid experiment. And the question wasn’t whether all the books subsequently defined as canon were immediately recognized,but whether books that became canonical are combined with others. A shorter canon isn’t relevant.

      • But “the books that became canonical” are a highly heterogenous set defined only in retrospect. Evidence that the canonical gospels tend to be combined with other canonical gospels (and not non-canonical books) and that the Pauline letters tend to be combined with other canonical Pauline letters (and not non-canonical books) is *not* in any way evidence that the canonical Catholics tend to be combined with other canonical Catholics (and not non-canonical books). And I think if you look at the evidence presented, it does not appear as though the evidence suggests that the canonical Catholics tend to be combined only with other canonical books (though one would need to do a more serious statistical analysis to be sure).

      • Of course, books weren’t “canonical” in the 2nd century! That’s not the point. Which is that books that became canonical tend to be combined in a given manuscript: gospels, Paulines, and (a bit later) Catholic letters. I’m confused at what you’re trying to say. You admit, e.g., the results. So, what’s your problem? If Catholic letters are combined with Catholic letters, and not generally with other texts, so?? Doesn’t that echo Dorandy’s conclusion?

      • My point is that there’s not clear evidence that the canonical catholics tend to be combined with other canonical catholics and not with non-canonical catholics. Instead the catholics (unlike the gospels and Pauline letters) are frequently combined with non-canonical texts, and just looking at the data in the (canonical and non-canonical) catholics themselves, I don’t think you can draw the conclusions this paper comes to. I think the paper would be on much firmer ground if it restricted its conclusions to the gospels and Pauline letters, where it makes a very conclusive case.

      • I really don’t get your point or see the data that you allege. There are in fact very few mss that contain what became “Catholic Epistles” of the NT canon, and I see no frequent instances of the combination of them with non-canonical texts. The valid point of the article is that, when we have texts that became canonical combined with other texts, those texts are overwhelmingly other texts that became canonical.

      • The fact that there are very few mss that contain the catholics (or the non-canonical texts) is exactly my point. You could use the same article and the same evidence to conclude that “the texts which later appeared in Vaticanus tend to be collected with other texts which overwhelmingly are texts that later appeared in Vaticanus” or for “non-Antilegomena texts that later became canonical tend to be collected with other texts which overwhelmingly are texts that later became canonical and are also non-Antilegomena.” The correct thing to do is to instead conclude that “the gospels and the letters attributed to Paul which later became canonical tended to be combined with other texts, which were overwhelmingly other gospels/Pauline letters which later became canonical.”

      • Uh, Noah, you’re being a bit tedious. But ok. Let’s let it go with your comment.

  8. Enlightening, thank you

  9. “the circulation of the four Gospels together or complete editions of the NT in the second century is not plausible”. So what about the dating of Canon Muratori: if end-of-II-century is accepted, then one could safely assume that some sort of NT editions were circulating during such century…?

    • Well, even if we date the “Canon Muratori” to the late 2nd/early 3rd century, it says nothing about what works were copied in which manuscripts. It only attests the acceptance of certain works as scripture. And Canon Muratori doesn’t give us a complete list of NT works either!

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