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New Article in Welt und Umwelt der Bibel

I’ve just received an advance copy of my invited article on how the NT writings originated and circulated in the earliest centuries, translated and published in Welt und Umwelt der Bibel 2018 (pp. 32-38):  “Wie entstehen und wie verbreiten sich die neutestamentlichen Schriften?”  So, those able to read German may find this a useful introductory-level discussion.

My thanks especially to Helga Kaiser, editor of the magazine, for her cordial communications and for overseeing what appears to me an excellent translation of my piece.


Lautenschlaeger Award for 2020

The Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise is a unique recognition of outstanding younger scholars on the basis of their first book or doctoral dissertation.  The subject area “God and Spirituality (broadly defined)” is intended to cover practically any topic or approach in the study of religions.

Applications are now invited for the 2020 awards.  The deadline is 31 May 2019.  The notice and information on how to apply is online here.  Winners receive $3000, and are invited to Heidelberg for the award ceremony and intensive seminar discussions of their projected research.

Second/Third-Century Christian Texts: Update

I’ve just got around to placing an updated list of Christian texts dated to the second/third century, including now the relevant items in the recently published Oxyrhynchus Papyri volume (vol. 83).  That is, P137 (the Mark fragment), and P138 (the Luke fragment).

As before, this list is in the items under the tab “Selected Published Essays,” here.

“Resurrection Cults,” and Early “Material Traces” of Christianity”?

Having praised the recent volume,  The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, in my blog post yesterday, I have to express some surprise at, and dissent from, the statement that opens an otherwise helpful introduction to catacomb art by Norbert Zimmermann (pp. 21-38).  He refers to early Christianity in the first few centuries as “then only one of many oriental resurrection cults in the Roman Empire,” and claims that Christians “left no material traces” in this period.  Both claims are dubious, however.

Let’s consider first his reference to the “many oriental resurrection cults.”  I have to say that my fifty years or so studying early Christianity and its historical context has yielded no evidence to support this.  There were many cults of the time, to be sure.  But resurrection (at least actual bodily resurrection) wasn’t typically a feature that they offered.

Some, such as the Isis cult, offered this or that form of transformation beyond death.  But, as observed in the now-essential study, Religions of Rome, by Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price (Cambridge Univ Press, 1998), “This is a quite different conception from the ideas of immortality or resurrection that developed among some Jews by the first century A.D., and became particularly associated with Christianity–which offered not only a radically new life here and now, but also the hope of a bodily resurrection and a glorious after-life” (290).

On the same page they go on to note that “through the first centuries A.D., Christian writers had to defend the idea of bodily resurrection against general mockery; and it was this very strange notion that prompted the writing of some of the first technical works of Christian theology.”

And note also their questioning and rejection of the term “oriental cults,” and their rejection of the notion that the new cults of the time “shared a common preoccupation with ‘salvation’,” an assumption (influenced by the early 20th century scholar Franz Cumont) “that the ‘Oriental cults’ were the precursors of and rivals to Christianity that has encouraged us to construct them in those terms–on directly Christianizing lines” (247).  That is, earlier ideas about the many new cults of the Graeco-Roman period were actually constructed on the dubious presupposition that they were essentially like early Christianity, and accounted for it.

Now, as for Zimmermann’s assertion that there are no “material traces” of Christians/Christianity in the first two centuries, this, too, I have to query.  For there are a number of obviously Christian manuscripts palaographically dated as early as the latter half of the second century.  And once again I have to emphasize that manuscripts aren’t simply copies of texts; they are physical and visual artifacts as well, “material traces” of Christians of their period.  That was the main burden of my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

Moreover, the earliest Christian manuscripts attest an early Christian preference for the codex bookform over the scroll, and this preference seems to have emerged earlier than the earliest extant manuscripts.  As well, already in these earliest extant manuscripts, we have another physical and visual feature that identifies them as Christian productions:  the “nomina sacra,” those curious abbreviated forms of key words in early Christian faith-vocabulary.  These devices also must have originated much earlier than our extant examples, likely by the early second century and perhaps earlier still.

Art historians rightly complain that textual scholars don’t take account of visual phenomena, such as “early Christian art”.  I must observe also that art historians don’t typically take account of the sort of phenomena that I have mentioned here.  The codex and the nomina sacra and the staurogram aren’t perhaps “art”, but I contend that they are our earliest extant expressions of an identifiable Christian “visual culture.”  That is, they are material and visual expressions of an early Christian identity.  So Zimmermann shouldn’t be singled out, for the dubious assertions that I’ve challenged here are, unfortunately, not his alone.  It’s the result of the unavoidable “silo” effect of modern scholarship, something that we all struggle with.

Further Reading

Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

Larry W. Hurtado, “What Do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?” Pp. 179-92 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).

Larry W. Hurtado, “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading.” Pp. 49-62 in The Early Text of the New Testament, ed. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Larry W. Hurtado, “Earliest Christian Graphic Symbols: Examples and References From the Second/Third Centuries.” Pp. 25-44 in Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,, ed. Ildar Garipzanov, Caroline Goodson and Henry Maguire (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017).

New Article on the Codex in BAR

At the invitation of Biblical Archaeology Review, I wrote a modest-size article summarizing data and arguments over the early Christian preference for the codex bookform.  The article, “Early Christian Dilemma:  Codex or Scroll,” is now published.  The table of contents of the current (November/December) issue is online here.

New Handbook of Early Christian Art

Students of early Christian art (and Roman-era art generally), as well as textual scholars and historians of early Christianity now have a valuable resource to survey the emergence and development of early Christian visual culture:  The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, eds. Robin M. Jensen and Mark D. Ellison (London/New York:  Routledge, 2018).  The publisher’s online description, including table of contents is here.

The first sixteen chapters comprise discussions of the various media of early Christian art, including catacomb painting, sarcophagi, sculpture, wall mosaics, floor mosaics, gold-glass, engraved gems, ceramics, icons, ivories, textiles, silver, and illuminated manuscripts.  The remaining seven essays address various themes in early Christian art, including art and ritual, visual references to Jesus’ passion, miracles, Christianization of portraits, mosaics of Ravenna, the interest in early Christian art in sixteenth- and seventeen-century archaeology in Rome, and a concluding discussion of the terms “early,” “Christian,” and “art.”  By my count, there are about 220 illustrations as well (all in black and white).

The time-span covered extends well into the Byzantine period, beyond the focus of this blog site.  But several essays take note of the very early emergence of an identifiable Christian visual culture.  For example, Jeffrey Spier argues that there are extant examples of early third-century Christian engraved gems (for seals and rings) that “clearly announce the religious convictions of the owner” (141). These include inscriptions of the name of Jesus and the acrostic Greek word for “fish,” a well-known device:  ΙΧΘΥϹ = “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.  Spier also argues that one gem that may be as early as ca. 200 CE depicts the crucified Jesus, and “is probably the earliest surviving representation of the Crucifixion, one that in turn must follow now lost models” (145).  (Cf., however, Jensen’s reference to these gems as “hypothetically dated as early as the late third or early fourth century,” 11).

Felicity Harley-McGowan surveys the visual references to Jesus’ passion, supporting the view that pictorial references appear as early as ca. 200 CE, citing items such as those identified by Spier (291).  She also points to the well-known “Alexamenos graffito” from about the same time, a satirical image picturing a donkey-head figure on a cross and an inscription, “Alexamenos worships his god,” arguing cogently that “for the joke to work, the concept of the crucified Jesus as a figure of power for Christians needed to be both widely understood and the picture recognizable to the viewer” (291).

I am also pleased to find that she takes note of the use of the “staurogram” in early Christian manuscripts (as early as sometime in the third century, acknowledging that the device (combining the Greek letters tau and rho) is a visual reference to Jesus crucifixion “having the appearance of a miniature crucifix” (293).  (I give a full discussion of the device in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2006, pp. 135-54.)

Unfortunately, the price of the book (£175!!) means that readers will likely have to rely on library copies.  And that means that the wealth of information in the volume may not be accessible (or even noted) to many potential readers.  Personally, I think a more modestly priced volume would sell more widely, and so generate the desired gross income for the publisher.  But, hey, it’s out of my hands.

But rather than end on a somewhat sour note, let me reiterate my admiration for the quality of this volume and the treasure trove of information and analysis that it contains.  The twenty-three essays collectively give a rather good introduction to the development of early Christian art, its various media and themes.

Latest Volume of Oxyrhynchus Papyri

The latest volume in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series includes several manuscripts of biblical texts, including the much referenced fragment of the Gospel of Mark:  The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXXXIII, ed. P. J. Parsons and N. Gonis (London:  Egypt Exploration Society, 2018).

I’ve just completed a review of the volume for Review of Biblical Literature, focusing particularly on these biblical texts (which comprise only four of the 59 items included in the volume, the remaining majority being a variety of new literary and sub-literary texts, a goodly number of documentary texts such as letters, contracts, etc., and several paintings and drawings).

The volume leads off with a single leaf of a sixth-century codex of the Psalms (P. Oxyrhynchus 5344; Rahlfs 2228).  The leaf preserves Psalm 2:1-8, and there are page numbers, indicating that it gives us pages 3-4 of the codex.

It is the second item, however, that will likely elicit the most attention among NT scholars:  P. Oxyrhynchus 5345; P137), the much-rumored fragment of Mark that has generated such interest and controversy over the last few years.  (The Egypt Exploration Society issued a statement responding to questions about the fragment and the rumors surrounding it here.)

Contra earlier sensationalist claims, the editors (D. Obbink and D. Colomo) date the fragment to sometime in the late second to early third century.  It preserves lines from Mark 1:7-9, 16-18.  It is not possible to determine whether the codex contained only Mark (which would have occupied 78 pages), or other writings as well.  But, as the editors note, the sequence of the text, from the vertical fibers side to the horizontal fibers side of the leaf, suggests that it was a single-quire codex.

This is now perhaps the earliest witness to Mark, as P45 is dated toward the mid-third century, and P137 is now certainly the earliest witness to these verses (as P45 is so fragmentary).

The third item in the volume, P. Oxyrhynchus 5346; P138, is two fragments from a codex leaf, palaeographically dated to the third century, giving us remnants of lines of Luke 13:13-17, 25-30. The extant writing is only several letters per line, and so much of the text must be reconstructed from the Nestle-Aland edition of the NT.

The fourth item is a fragment of a codex leaf giving parts of lines of Philemon 6-8, 18-20 (P. Oxyrhunchus 5347; P139), dated by the editor (D. Lincicum) to the fourth century.  The codex was apparently in two-column format, likely containing the traditional Pauline corpus.

One general observation is that these papyri show no major disruptions, excisions or interpolations in the texts that they preserve.  The variants are essentially small (and largely accidental) ones of the sort that we expect to see in texts copied by hand.  This suggests that already by the late second century (if not much earlier) there was an interesting stability in these texts.

A Personal Update

In light of the many expressions of encouragement and good wishes from readers of this site in response to my illness, I feel it appropriate to give a brief update.  I was released from hospital and the second round of chemo therapy on 21 September.  I’m still trying slowly to catch up on emails and other matters that simply had to be put on hold during the hospitalization (which comprised most of July through September).  I’m told that it will take about 6 months for me to regain lost weight (ca. 14 kg), energy/strength, and hair (!!).  But it’s wonderful to be home and free of hospital routines and constraints.

So, thanks again for all the emails and comments expressing concern and encouragement.  Blogging on this site will have to take a back seat to more pressing matters, such as reference letters for former students, etc.

Reprints of Important Studies on Early Christology

I’m one of the editors of a series published by Baylor University Press:  Library of Early Christology.  The series largely consists of reprints of important publications of the distant or recent past.  See the publisher’s online list of volumes in the series here.

The volumes include some from the older so-called religionsgeschichtliche Schule (history of religion school) of the early 20th century, which were landmarks of their day, but some of their claims now dubious (e.g., Reitzenstein, Bousset).  There are also a number of more recent studies that reflect what some have referred to as “the new religionsgeschichtliche Schule, which often were initially published in more expensive monograph series, and now much more affordably priced by BUP in this series.

Students and newer scholars seeking to acquire these important volumes for easy reference should check out this series.

Gordley’s New Book on NT “Christological Hymns”

While I’m temporarily at home, I can’t resist drawing attention to a splendid new book by Matthew Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns:  Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance (IVP Academic, 2018).

He  carefully discusses all the passages in the NT often thought to be, or to reflect, early Christian “hymns”, and so to reflect also early Christian worship practices (Phiiippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-18; and several other shorter texts including Ephesians 2:14-16; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:1-4; the Lukan nativity-narrative songs; and (often overlooked) the hymns of Revelation.  He engages more recent questions about whether these texts (such as Philippians 2:6-11) really are (as often thought previously) pre-formed hymns plugged into epistles, or (as Gordley grants) perhaps more likely compositions by the authors of the various NT writings.  But he also cogently argues that they likely incorporate hymnic elements from early worship, and so are indirectly indicative of such practices.

I’m very impressed with the coverage of scholarly work in the book.  Of course, this is Gordley’s third book relating to these hymnic texts and related issues.

One of his further contributions is to emphasize the original social and historical contexts in which christological praise and hymnic devotion were expressed.  The texts all posit Jesus as the true universal saviour and ruler, which poses an obvious contrast with the Roman imperial narrative of Rome as the world ruler, and the emperor in particular as rightful object of worship.  Gordley posits a “spirituality of resistance” reflected in these texts.  Not open resistance/revolt against Rome, to be sure, but an advocacy of an alternate grand narrative and hope that treats the emperor as only a human ruler, and not the divine being in Roman propaganda.

I’ve endorsed the book as the “go-to book on the texts often cited as New Testament hymns,” and I stand by that.

In addition to the excellent scholarly analysis of the texts and issues, Gordley concludes with some gentle but probing questions and suggestions about how contemporary Christian worship and hymnody might benefit from close attention to these NT texts.

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