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Mark and Its Jewish Context

A recent multi-author book offers illustrations of examining the Gospel of Mark in light of second-temple Jewish texts and traditions:  Reading Mark in Context:  Jesus and Second Temple Judaism, ed. Ben C. Blackwell, John K Goodrich, and Jason Maston (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2018).  The publisher’s information here.

Each of the contributors tackles a passage in Mark and draws upon this or that ancient Jewish text to make a comparison or contrast.  In most cases, the Jewish texts are cited as “context” or background, in the light of which the Markan passage is read.  In at least one case, however, Michael Bird on Mark 5:1-20 read alongside the Testament of Solomon, the comparison text is posited as influenced by Mark.

The discussions are all concise and basic, and the book is intended clearly to show students and “general readers” how the Jewish context can relate to and illuminate features of the Markan text.  Each contribution has a bibliography guiding readers to the Jewish texts dealt with and giving some key scholarly publications.  There is also a glossary of scholarly terms, and there are indexes of primary texts cited and subjects addressed.

Some scholars may well note that there is scant attention to the wider historical context, which involved non-Jewish material and texts.  But the book doesn’t claim comprehensiveness.

“The Great Divide”: Orality and Texts

Trying to catch up on recent journal articles after my prolonged confinement in hospital, I came across the article by Paul S. Evans, “Creating a New ‘Great Divide’: The Exoticization of Ancient Culture in Some Recent Applications of Orality Studies to the Bible,” Journal of Biblical Literature 136.4 (2017): 749-64.  Evans alleges and challenges a tendency among some scholars of the ancient near east and OT to “exoticize” the ancient culture, meaning to impute to the ancients a romanticized character overly different from our own time.

To be sure, as in the famous line from The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”  But, granting differences, Evans argues (effectively, I think) that these can be exaggerated unhelpfully, in this case when it comes to assessing how texts functioned.  So, for example, the notion that written texts were not read out but were memorized for oral “performance” (as in a play) has scant basis, either in references to reading practices or in the physical evidence.  Granted, the majority of the population was likely illiterate, and so experienced texts as they were read out in their hearing.  But the point is that the texts were read out, not “performed” from memory like in a play.

Moreover, as Evans notes, field studies show that the introduction of texts into a culture affects illiterates as well as literates.  So, thereafter, we don’t have an “oral culture” in some pure sense.  The failure to recognize this is what Evans means by his complaint of “exoticizing” the ancient world.

I made a somewhat similar complaint about my own field a few years ago (and I’m pleased to see my article cited by Evans):  Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60.3 (2014): 321-40.  And in earlier postings on this blog site (here, and here) I referred to the matter.  After my article was published, Kelly Iverson wrote a critique of it published in the same journal, to which I responded, and posted about the exchange here.

The advocates of “performance criticism” (as the approach has been termed by some, even describing the approach as a new discipline!), however, seem to me to show little signs of taking heed of the sort of data that Evans and I (with some others) have cited.  I know from personal experience that they show scant acquaintance with the features of ancient manuscripts, surely our most direct indication of how texts functioned and were read.  We shouldn’t play off “orality” and texts.  Literary texts were written to be read, both in group settings (and so read aloud) or privately (and so, typically, silently).

More on Carbon-14 Dating of Manuscripts

In an earlier posting in which I offered a review of Brent Nongbri’s new book, God’s Library (here), I noted that he gives a helpful introduction to what Carbon-14 dating comprises, and its limits.  I also benefited earlier from a presentation by Josephine Dru given at a conference on manuscripts back in 2014 (which I reported on in a posting here).[1] More recently, she presented a poster on the topic at the 2017 manuSciences conference (here), and she has generously allowed me to re-use one of her illustrations from that presentation (given below) to make a particular point.

The point to note is that, contrary to initial (and perhaps still some popular) assumptions, the potential exactness of Carbon-14 dating isn’t consistent across time.  Instead, there are a number of what are referred to as “plateaus”, varying times (ranging from a few decades to a few centuries in length) when the level of Carbon-14 left over today remains fairly indistinguishable.[2]  Dru kindly supplied me with a graphic showing these plataeus, as shown in the grey boxes in this graph (the bottom horizontal axis giving dates from ca. 100 BC to ca. 900 AD, and the Roman numerals representing centuries): C14-levels_for_I-BCE-to-IX-CE_IntCal13The import of this is that if a Carbon-14 test places the likely date of an object in one of these plateaus, the item’s date could fall anytime along that plateau.

Now it’s particularly interesting for the dating of earliest Christian manuscripts that one of those plateaus is the time-frame from approximately the 130s to the 220s CE (boxed in gray from centuries II to III on Dru’s graph).  By contrast, there is a noticeable difference between C-14 remainder levels from the early I and early II centuries CE. This difference means that C-14 dating can usually distinguish between items from ca. 40 and 130 CE, but not between items from ca. 130 to 220 CE, even though it is the same time-span.

Another part of Dru’s presentation reported on C-14 tests for several manuscripts that had previously been dated palaeographically.  These included three NT items, P.Oxyrhynchus 1780 (P39), P.Oxyrhynchus 1353 (Gregory-Aland 0206), the “Wyman fragment” (Gregory-Aland 0220), and a Septuagint manuscript, P.Bodmer XXIV (Rahlfs 2110).  In all these cases, the C-14 tests produced most likely dates that were compatible with the palaeographically based dates.  Dru estimates that C-14 results are compatible with palaeographical dates in roughly 80% of cases.  This cuts both ways, affirming both palaeographical dates and C-14 testing in a high percentage of instances, but also indicating that there remain a smaller percentage of instances where the two approaches don’t agree.  This could result from the method used in the palaeographical dating of those particular items, contamination of the sample used in C-14 testing, or other factors.

The bottom line is that C-14 testing can be useful when conducted with care.  But C-14 testing can yield only an approximate date, as the case with palaeographical dating, and in some instances that approximate C-14 date can be frustratingly wide.

[1] Dru clarified in recent correspondence that, contrary to my earlier posting on her presentation in 2014, all of the literary manuscripts from the 2014 initiative were C-14 dated just once. (Discussion of multiple labs occurred only in the context of other initiatives and one internally dated documentary papyrus.) The subtitle of her forthcoming study thus asks “How Can a Single Radiocarbon Result Contribute to Dating a Manuscript?”  My thanks to Dru for correcting this and for reading and advising on an initial draft of this blog-post.

[2] One of these plateaus is the 8th through 6th centuries BC.  This means that C-14 testing can’t distinguish a more specific dating for items in this plateau period.

National Geographic on “Bible Hunters”

I’ve just received in the post my complimentary copies of the latest issue of National Geographic (December 2018), which features a major article on “Bible hunters” and the (sometimes frantic) search for ancient manuscripts of biblical texts.  There is also an elaborate multi-page graphic laying out the time-frame of the composition and collection of the biblical texts and many other matters.  I’m listed as one of the “sources” for the information that lies behind the graphic, along with Craig Evans, Brent Nongbri, Lawrence Schiffman, and the editors of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (Martin Abegg, Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich).

In the late Summer and early Autumn, I was asked to advise the magazine on various matters, and responded to a large number of questions.  Converting volumes of information into a graphic such as this one must have been a daunting task.  Despite the input from me and the other consultants, there will be individual matters on which there will be disagreement or on which we would demur.  I note, for example, that the graphic identifies the Gospels as “Eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ Life,” something that I think none of us noted in earlier versions of the graphic (or else we missed it somehow).  And the graphic appears to include the book of Hebrews among the Pauline texts.  This reflects a view attested in early Christian circles (as reflected in P46), but isn’t held today by scholars of whatever stance.

But, overall, the graphic is an impressive attempt to convey an array of information in a compressed and visual form.  And the essay in which the graphic is embedded is a breezy overview of the process of finding ancient biblical manuscripts, ranging from Tischendorf (19th century) through the Qumran discoveries, and on to continuing archaeological projects.  There is also another graphic describing some of the latest applications of technology to recovering and reading ancient manuscripts (e.g., multi-spectral imagery, and software to enable reading charred scrolls).

An Imperial Reaction to the Empty Tomb?

Kyle Harper sent me a link to his newly published essay  in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the “Nazareth Inscription,” which is thought to be authentic, and may be an imperial reaction to the early Christian claim about Jesus’ empty tomb:  here.  I confess that I hadn’t known of this artefact previously (surely, one of many things I don’t know).  As Harper grants, it’s not clear whether the inscription is to be taken as a first-century response to early Christianity, but some have so proposed.  (I note that there is also an entry on this artefact in Wikepedia here, along with a number of other web links.)

Whatever the case about the impetus for, and import of, this inscription, Harper tells the fascinating story of the somewhat eccentric scholar  who owned the item among his many artefacts, and Harper points out the frustrating gaps in our knowledge about this particular item.  Such is the nature of historical evidence quite commonly.

While I’m at it, I’ll also remind interested readers of Harper’s recent book, The Fate of Rome, which I posted about previously here.  I also found a previous work by him, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013), informative in researching for my book, Destroyer of the gods (Baylor University Press, 2016).

Notable Markan Variants in Codex W

In earlier postings I’ve noted that major variants continue to appear, and in some cases “succeed” in gaining widespread acceptance in the subsequent manuscript tradition as late as the fifth century and thereafter.  There are also examples of interesting variants that first appear in the extant Greek manuscripts that late, but didn’t “succeed”.  Having done my PhD thesis on the text of the Gospel of Mark in Coldex W (the Freer Gospel codex), I’ll cite a few interesting variants in this manuscript as examples.[1]

I’ll begin with a variant that is more well known, the so-called “Freer Logion.”  This variant appears only in Codex W among extant Greek manuscripts after what we know as Mark 16:14 (in the “long ending” variant).  Here is an English translation:

And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or, does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God.] Therefore reveal your justice now”— thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of justice which is in heaven.”[2]

A version of this variant is attested as known to Jerome in some Greek manuscripts in the fourth century.[3]  But Codex W is the only extant example.  Metzger opined that the logion was probably first added to the text of the “long ending” of Mark by a “scribe” sometime in the second or third century “to soften the severe condemnation of the Eleven in 16.14.”[4]  The ascription of the motive for the variant seems cogent, but, as with other “intentional” variants, we should more plausibly ascribe the Freer Logion to some unknown reader/user of a copy of the Gospel of Mark.[5]  But my main point is that, whatever its point of origin, this variant didn’t “succeed” in being accepted into the manuscript tradition of Mark beyond Codex W.

A far less well-known variant in the text of Mark in Codex W appears at Mark 1:3.  Whereas the best-attested text in vv. 2-3 is a slightly variant quotation of Exodus 23:20 and Isaiah 40:3, in Codex W the quotation of Isaiah includes the whole of 40:3-8.  Again, Codex W is the only witness in the Greek manuscript tradition for this variant.  And again I think it likely that the variant arose in the course of someone reading the text and adding the words of Isaiah 40:4-8, perhaps originally as a marginal note.  In any case, this is another variant of significant size that just didn’t “succeed”.

I cite now a third instance of a variant apparently unique to Codex W.  This one is much smaller, but I judge it clearly intentional.  I’ll have to set the scene in Mark where the variant appears.  In Mark 3:21, the best attested text refers to Jesus’ “associates/friends” or (more likely here) his “relatives” (Greek:  οι παρ’ αυτου) setting out to take Jesus in hand for they (or others?) judged him to have lost his senses (Greek:  ελεγον γαρ οτι εξεστη).[6]  In Codex W (and also Codex Bezae), however, those who sought to take Jesus in hand in v. 21 are “those around him, the scribes and the others” (Greek:  ακουσαντες [οτε ακουσαν Codex D] περι αυτου οι γραμματεις και οι λοιποι).  Note that this shared variant involved “correcting” the preposition, changing παρα to περι, and disambiguating the text further by specifying “those around him” as “scribes and the others.”  The effect (and the purpose) of this variant was clearly to avoid (“correct”) the idea that Jesus’ family could have regarded him as needing to be seized.

But in Codex W there is a further, and apparently distinctive, variant.[7]  In place of the report that some were saying Jesus had lost his senses (εξεστη), Codex W has “they were saying ‘he has made them his adherents’.”[8]  This actually involved another minor change of two words.  Instead of εξεστη (“he is beside himself”), Codex W has εξηρτηνται αυτου, which means something like “they have become his adherents.”  The effect (and the purpose) was to avoid the suggestion that Jesus was thought by some to have become somewhat unhinged.  It seems to me likely that an early reader of the passage, troubled by what the more familiar wording says, and thinking that it must be some mistake, sought to put things right.  Note that this involved replacing εξεστη (exestē) with a word that has a slight phonetic similarity, εξηρτηνται (exērtēntai).

It’s pretty obvious that both of the variants in Codex W (the one shared with Codex Bezae and the one unique to Codex W) were motivated by a pious desire to avoid what seemed to some readers an embarrassing passage that could reflect badly either on Jesus’ family or Jesus himself.[9]  So it’s all the more interesting that neither one “succeeded” in getting adopted into the subsequent textual tradition.  Instead, the potentially “embarrassing” text was preferred!  In short, if the variants in Codex Bezae and Codex W are examples of an attempt at what Ehrman colourfully termed “orthodox corruption” of Mark, the attempts failed, and what is likely the originating, and more “difficult,” form of the text was preferred and preserved.

These interesting variants in Codex W illustrate both the creation of variants, likely by devout readers seeking to amplify (as in the variant in Mark 1:3) and/or to correct the text (as in the “Freer Logion” and the variants in Mark 3:21), and also that such attempts didn’t by any means always “succeed” in the subsequent manuscript tradition.  As I’ve emphasized repeatedly, the forces that generated such variants and that made for either their subsequent adoption or rejection deserve more attention.

[1] A lightly revised version of my 1973 PhD thesis was published later:  Larry W. Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark (“Studies and Documents,” 43; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).

[2] Translation from Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart:  Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 104.  The Greek text (adapted slightly from the Nestle-Aland 28th edition apparatus):  κακεινοι απελογουντο λεγοντες οτι ο αιων ουτος της ανοµιας και της απιστιας  υπο τον σαταναν εστιν ο µη εων τα υπο των πνευµατων ακαθαρτα την αληθειαν του θεου καταλαβεσθαι δυναµιν. δια τουτο αποκαλυψον σου την δικαιοσυην ηδη εκεινοι ελεγον τω χριστω και ο χριστος εκεινοις προσελεγεν οτι πεπληρωται ο ορος των ετων της εξουσιας τον σατανα αλλα εγγιζει αλλα δεινα. και υπερ ων εγω αµαρτησαντων παρεδοθην εις θανατον ινα υποστρεψωσιν εις την αληθειαν και µηκετι αµαρτησωσιν ινα την εν τω ουρανω πνευµατικην και αφθαρτον της δικαιοσυνης δοξαν κληπονοµησωσιν.

[3] Jerome, Dialogues Against the Pelagians 2.15.

[4] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 104.

[5] In my own earlier work, such as my 1981 study, I unthinkingly echoed the ascription of such intentional changes to “scribes”.  I have come to see, however, that we should grasp and distinguish the processes of copying and reading/using texts more carefully.  Basically, copyists copied; and “intentional” changes tended to be produced by users/readers who took the time to study and puzzle over the text.  As Zachary Cole has shown in his study of how the copyist of Codex W handled the designation of numbers, he rather mechanically reproduced his exemplar:  Zachary J. Cole, “Evaluating Scribal Freedom and Fidelity:  Number-Writing Techniques in Codex Washingtonianus (W 032),” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 52 (2015):  225-38.

[6] Those mentioned here are likely the family members who re-appear slightly later in Mark 3:31-35, which explains Jesus’ response in vv. 33-35.

[7] I discussed this variant in Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology, 77, and I also make reference to a couple of earlier discussions.

[8] Codex Bezae has εξεσταται αυτους (“he has maddened them”) instead of εξεστη.

[9] There are actually a number of other variant readings in the manuscript tradition that show that various readers found Mark 3:21 a troubling text.

“God’s Library” (by Brent Nongbri): A Review

In an essay published nearly two decades ago, I drew attention to several features of early Christian manuscripts, identifying these features as likely our earliest expressions of an emergent Christian visual and material culture.[1]  A few years later, in a contribution to the Society of Biblical Literature Forum series, I wrote about early Christian manuscripts as artefacts.[2]  In the following years in several further publications I emphasized the relevance and importance of early Christian manuscripts for historical questions about the origins and early development of Christianity.[3]  In particular, I single out my 2006 book urging greater attention to the specific features of early Christian manuscripts.[4]

So it is encouraging to see this emphasis on manuscripts taken up in Brent Nongbri’s newly published book, God’s Library:  The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (Yale University Press, 2018).  Whereas my studies have focused on what we might call the para-textual features of earliest Christian manuscripts, Nongbri focuses on questions about their provenance, acquisition, and how we go about assigning manuscripts dates. The “archaeology” in the sub-title is mainly what he refers to as “museum archaeology,” the detailed “digging” into the archives of the institutions that hold these manuscripts, to address his questions.  And Nongbri has certainly done this sort of digging!  His book is chock-full of discoveries of answers to these matters, or, in other cases, fresh questions about them.

In a number of essays of his own over recent years, Nongbri has surfaced questions about the acquisition of manuscripts and, more provocatively, querying the heretofore widely-accepted dates of some key manuscripts of the Gospels.[5]  In the book reviewed here, in his own words, “issues of dating have recurred throughout this study” (269).  But his argument about dating isn’t so much a firm defence of the later dates that he prefers, so much as it is a (properly in my view) critical querying of the unwarranted specificity of dates assigned to some NT manuscripts by some scholars.

Nongbri repeatedly notes that dates have often been assigned solely (and, in many cases, unavoidably so) on the basis of palaeography; and, as anyone can verify by examining the relevant publications, even recognized experts in Greek palaeography can differ over the likely date of a given manuscript by as much as a century or more.  His main complaint is that scholars have too often preferred the earlier dates of some experts over the later dates assigned by others, without noting that any date based on palaeography can only be approximate.  So our handling of the dates of early papyri, which forms the real focus in the book and in questions about the early texts of NT writings, should be more modest and careful than has sometimes been the case.

But, whatever your view of the dates of early papyri, Nongbri’s book is a rich harvest of his investigations, especially in the archives of some key collections and holding institutions.  I did some of this sort of work myself in the Freer Gallery of Art archives, in preparation for an edited volume on the Freer biblical manuscripts, and I share Nongbri’s enthusiasm for this “museum archaeology.”[6]

The first chapter, “The Early Christian Book,” is a review of writing material used and the techniques of codex construction.  There is excellent detail in this discussion, with helpful visual illustrations.  My one quibble is over Nongbri’s statement that, with “a few” exceptions, “‘the book’ in the early Christian centuries was almost always the codex” (22).  As I’ve shown, the early Christian preference for the codex appears to have been particularly consistent for those texts that were coming to be treated as scriptures, whereas there seems to have been a somewhat greater readiness to copy other texts on rolls (e.g., theological treatises and certain other texts).  By my count, about one-third of the extant manuscripts of the latter types of texts are rolls.[7]  Indeed, Nongbri’s table of the forms of Christian books at Oxyrhynchus (Table 6.1, p. 237) rather clearly supports my point.  This still obviously represents a Christian preference for the codex overall, but I think that the marked distinction in degrees of preference for various kinds of texts is noteworthy.

Chapter two, “The Dating Game,” reviews the methods used to try to establish the likely date of an undated literary manuscript.  These involve noting their contents, their re-use (“opisthographs,” the writing of a text on the outer surface of a roll that was initially used for some earlier, sometimes dated, text), palaeography, radiocarbon analysis, and analysis of the ink of a manuscript.  Readers will find this a very informative chapter.  For example, Nongbri explains the different handwriting styles referred to by palaeographers, and the somewhat different approaches advocated by them.

As noted earlier, Nongbri offers an extended critical appraisal of the limits of palaeographical dating, observing, for example, that a given type of handwriting may well have been practiced over a century or more.  In this chapter he rightly urges that palaeographical dating must proceed on the basis of securely dated comparisons, whenever possible.  He is equally helpful and candid in noting the limits of radiocarbon analysis, and the importance of conducting this sort of analysis with great care to avoid contamination.  And, as for ink analysis, he notes that this can only tell us the chemical contents of the ink, not its age.

In the following chapters, Nongbri lays out the results of his impressively detailed investigation of questions about the provenance and acquisition of some collections of early Christian books.  Chapter four is devoted to the Chester Beatty biblical papyri (eleven codices, the largest single collection of early biblical papyri).  He discusses both the collection and how it was acquired, and also reviews the individual books in the collection.  The “jewels in the crown” among the Chester Beatty papyri, so far as NT scholars are concerned, are obviously P45 (P.Chester Beatty I, a codex that originally contained the four Gospels and the book of Acts) and P46 (P.Chester Beatty II, a collection of Pauline epistles in one codex), both of them typically assigned to sometime in the third century.

Nongbri expresses some hesitation about the dates of these two codices, however, because “our corpus of datable samples in taken almost entirely from rolls,” a format that was “largely supplanted [in general usage for Christian and non-Christian manuscripts] by the codex by the end of the fourth century” (138).  True, but whether roll or codex “documentary” texts tended to have dates written by the copyist, and so they can still be used to help us make comparisons with undated literary texts such as the NT writings.  Perhaps I’m missing something, therefore, but I don’t find his argument persuasive.  His review of dates for the other Chester Beatty codices (e.g., the Numbers-Deuteronomy codex), however, is informative and corrective (more likely third century than second).

Chapter five is devoted to the Bodmer Papyri, a much more diverse body of early Christian writings, and reflecting a much wider timeframe.  Here, too, Nongbri combines a critical discussion of the various stories about the finding and acquisition of these items with the contents of the books.  In several helpful tables, he lays out the details of the various Bodmer codices, drawing upon the Leuven Database of Ancient Books.  The diversity of the Bodmer collection includes the writing material (both papyrus and parchment), the languages (Greek, Coptic, and Latin), and the construction (both single and multiple quire codices). Nongbri classifies the manuscripts into three groups, based on their format, drawing particular attention to the “considerable group” of “basically square codices” (195).  Contra the judgements of some earlier scholars, Nongbri opines that much of the Bodmer collection can be dated in the fourth century.

This includes both P66 and P75 (the latter was purchased from the Bodmer foundation privately and then donated to the Vatican Library).  Nongbri’s arguments here and in his earlier essays on dates of these items deserve careful consideration, to be sure, but I think that he is more effective in his critique of some overly specific dates than in establishing his own preferred ones.

Chapter six is a highly informative discussion of the excavations conducted at Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt and subsequent archaeologists.  This is the site from which comes the largest number of manuscripts of early Christian writings.  In an appendix (273-80), Nongbri lists Christian books from Oxyrhynchus as of 2016, classified by types of literature.[8]  Noting that the Oxyrhynchus papyri were unearthed in trash heaps of the ancient city, and Nongbri poses, but doesn’t try to answer, what that might signify.  The story of the excavations by Grenfell and Hunt will make fascinating reading for those unfamiliar with it.  They employed as many as a couple of hundred local men and boys for the digging, and unearthed many thousands of manuscripts (albeit, many of them only fragments), shipping then back to the UK in metal boxes.  To date well over 5,000 have been published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, but this amounts to only a small percentage of the total, much of which is currently housed in the Sackler Library (an extension of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK).

Chapter seven gives a particularly interesting piece of detective work by Nongbri on a small set of papyrus fragments of the Gospel of Matthew (P64, P67) and the Gospel of Luke (P4).  Nongbri deftly shows that the oft-repeated story of the fragments coming from the binding of a copy of works by Philo of Alexandria arose from a misunderstanding of the original account.  He further shows that the subsequent proposals that these fragments derive from a four-Gospel codex of the second century CE are highly dubious, and seem to rest more on speculation than secure evidence.  Granting that a second-century date is “not impossible,” Nongbri makes it as “equally possible” that they derive from the third or even fourth century (267).

In his epilogue, Nonbri judges that “although a few Christian books may be as old as the second century, none of them must be that old” (269, emphasis his).  Complaining that there remains a “drive to have older and older Christian manuscripts,” he cites the ill-judged rumors of a first-century fragment of a manuscript of Mark as another example of this.[9]  Nongbri concludes by urging the greater use of radiocarbon analysis, greater interest in “museum archaeology,” and the greater digitization of manuscripts held in various institutions.[10]  All of these suggestions are cogent and to be embraced.

Nongbri has produced a “must read” for all those interested in early Christian manuscripts, and will likely persuade some of those who haven’t shown such interest that they should!  His proposals for revisions of dating of some key manuscripts carry varying force, but deserve a careful and considerate evaluation.  But it has to be said that the dates assigned to early Christian manuscripts have tended to be reached by papyrologists and palaeographers, practicing the same methods by which they date non-Christian manuscripts.  So, for example, if too many Christian manuscripts have been assigned too early, then is the same the case for the many more non-Christian manuscripts dated by the same people and by the same methods?  But, to repeat myself for emphasis, we can all be grateful for Nongbri’s impressively researched book, which I am sure will deservedly generate still greater interest in the study of early Christian manuscripts as artefacts.

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “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, edited by Stephen G. Wilson and Michel Desjardins (“Studies in Christianity and Judaism 9; Waterloo:  Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), 271-88.  (American and British spellings of the word differ slightly, “artifact” and “artefact” respectively, hence the variation in the titles of publications, depending on their provenance.)

[2] “The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins,” SBL Forum.  ( 2004.

[3] Hurtado, “The ‘Meta-Data’ of Earliest Christian Manuscripts,” in Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean.  Jews, Christians and Others:  Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson, eds. Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland (Sheffield:  Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 149-63; “Early Christian Manuscripts as Artifacts,” in Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, ed. Craig A. Evans and Daniel Zacharias (Library of Second Temple Studies,70; Leiden:  Brill, 2009), 66-80; “What do 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. C. A. Evans (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 179-92; “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading,” in The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill, Michael J. Kruger (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2012), 49-62; “P45 as an Early Christian Artefact:  What it Reflects about Early Christianity.” Teologisk Tidsskrift 4 (2016): 291-307.  Some of these essays (along with some others) are republished now in Hurtado, Texts and Artefacts: Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts LNTS 584 (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018).

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

[5] There are sixteen publications by Nongbri listed in the bibliography to his recent book (including several postings from his blog-site).  With particular reference to the dates of certain manuscripts, Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52:  Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 98.1 (2005): 23-48; “Grenfell and Hunt on the Dates of Early Christian Codices:  Setting the Record Straight,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 48 (2011): 149-62; “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri:  Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35; “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135.2 (2016): 405-37.

[6] Larry W. Hurtado (ed.), The Freer Biblical Manuscripts:  Fresh Studies of an American Treasure Trove (Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).  See esp. the detailed discussion by Kent D. Clarke, “Paleography and Philanthropy:  Charles Lang Freer and His Acquisition of the ‘Freer Biblical Manuscripts’,” 17-73.

[7] Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 53-61.

[8] See now Lincoln H. Blumell and Thomas A. Wayment, Christian Oxyrhynchus:  Texts, Documents, and Sources (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015), for the texts of 175 items.

[9] The item in question has now been published in the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series.  See my blog posting on the publication here.

[10] I’m pleased to have had a hand in arranging for the digital photography of the Chester Beatty biblical papyri several years ago, which are now available online at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (here).

Nongbri on John 21 in P66

Brent Nongbri has recently blogged about his newly-published article in which he explores the possibility that P.Bodmer 2 (P66) may give us a hint of an earlier copy of the Gospel of John without chapter 21.  See here.  The full article appears in the latest issue of the journal Early Christianity 9.3 (2018): 345-60.

An intriguing suggestion.  It has been held for some time now that John 21 is a secondary epilogue to an earlier edition of John that ended at 20:31.  But, heretofore, there has been no manuscript evidence for this.  P66 isn’t necessarily direct evidence, but Nongbri proposes that it may give us indirect evidence.

It will bear further thought.  The key datum in Nongbri’s proposal is that in P66 the page that ends with John 20:31 seems to have had a larger-than-usual lower margin/blank space, and John 21:1 then commences at the top of the following page.  There could be other reasons for this, although Nongbri’s suggestion should not be dismissed too quickly.  John 21 is obviously a new major “sense-unit”, and copyists often signaled sense-units with enlarged spaces between them.  So one option to consider is that the copyist may have intended only to signal that, already in his time, chap 21 was read as a new sense-unit.  One would have to see if there are any other examples of indicating new sense-units by commencing one on a new page.

More on Rethinking the Textual Transmission of the Gospels

In earlier postings, I’ve questioned the paradigm/model of an early “wild” period of textual transmission of the Gospels and a subsequent/later period of textual stability (here, here, and here). The model may seem intuitively credible, but the manuscript evidence doesn’t seem to support it.  To cite one thing, the manuscript evidence suggests that significant textual variants continued to appear, or at least first became widely accepted, well into the Byzantine and early Medieval periods.  Here are some examples.

Take the sizeable variant known as the pericope of the adulteress.[1]  The passage first appears in the extant manuscripts in the fifth century (e.g., Codex Bezae), and not in earlier manuscripts (e.g., P66, P75, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, as well as a number of somewhat later manuscripts).  But thereafter the passage became a regular part of the Gospel of John at 7:53-8:11.  So, the “success” of this passage, in terms of widescale incorporation into the Gospel of John, came, not in some early “wild” period, but later, in the period of supposed textual stability.  The variant may well have first appeared early in some now-lost early manuscripts, but obviously did not enjoy that “success” till later.

Or consider the “long ending” of the Gospel of Mark (which became 16:9-20 in the Medieval text).  Due to the comparatively less frequent usage and copying of Mark in the earliest centuries, the first Greek manuscripts that allow us to check the matter are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, which don’t have these verses.  Again, to find the variant in the manuscript tradition we have to go later, to the fifth/sixth century, in Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Bezae and others.  And once more, this sizeable variant became thereafter solidly a part of the Medieval text of Mark.  So, another sizeable variant that may have featured in some early manuscripts but only became a “success” later.

Still more striking, consider the variant at 1 John 5:7-8.  The earliest Greek manuscripts with these words (or variations on them) are a small number from the Medieval period.  Yet the variant became part of the “Textus receptus” (and so part of the KJV) thereafter.[2]

Now if we combine these facts with studies of the textual character of our earliest Greek manuscripts (papyri commonly dated to the third century or earlier), there is further reason to question the model of early/wild and later/stable textual transmission.  Studies by Barbara Aland and Min on the papyri for the Gospel of Matthew, and the more recent and more sophisticated study of early papyri of the Gospel of John by Lonnie Bell, all show that these texts were transmitted basically with care—no “wild” variants in evidence.[3]

The major points to make are these:  (1) The process of producing and incorporating significant and intentional textual variants continued well into the supposed period of textual stability.  Indeed, it appears that factors (yet to be identified) may have made for the “success” of such variants in the later period, in contrast with the earlier centuries.  (2) The earliest extant Greek evidence does not support the notion that in the first centuries the text of the Gospels was transmitted in some free-wheeling “wild” manner in which variants were introduced freely, producing some highly fluid state of affairs.  The earliest witnesses do show variants, to be sure, although almost entirely those relatively small ones incurred in the process of copying, not the larger and intentional variants, and clearly some copyists were more skilfull than others, and followed somewhat distinguishable practices.[4]

The larger point is that there is much to be explored about the textual transmission of the Gospels all across the first several centuries down through the Byzantine and early Medieval periods.  What factors made for the “success” of major variants only in these later times?  What factors made for a relatively cohesive transmission of Gospel texts reflected in our earliest Greek evidence?  Time for a more data-based model/paradigm!

[1] Chris Keith, “Recent and Previous Research on the Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53–8.11),” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2008): 377-404; David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone, eds., The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

[2] On this and the other variants mentioned in this blog, see, e.g., Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies, 1994), and the references cited at the respective places.

[3] Barbara Aland, “Das Zeugnis der frühen Papyri für den Text der Evangelien:  Diskutiert am Matthäusevangelium,,” in The Four Gospels 1992, ed. F. Van Segbroeck et al. (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1992), 325-35; Kyoung Shik Min, Die früheste Überlieferung des Matthäusevangeliums (bis zum 3./4. Jh):  Edition und Untersuchung, ANTF 34 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005); Lonnie D. Bell, The Early Textual Transmission of John:  Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[4] E.g., James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

Terminology and Its Effects: E.g, “Scribes” vs. “Copyists

In a number of blog postings and publications I’ve referred to “copyists” and distinguished their work (copying a text by hand) from “readers/users” of texts (individuals who invested time in studying a text, and who might well make changes to it, believing that thereby they were correcting some error in their copy or were removing ambiguities,  or who might add marginal notes, etc.).  In earlier studies, scholars often referred to “scribes”, and one still sees this term used to refer to the copying of Greek texts.  But it’s not helpful.  It blurs the distinction between the task and conventions of copying Greek texts and the role of readers/users of texts.

The first thing to note is that “scribes” in Jewish tradition were individuals who studied Torah and were deemed authoritative interpreters of it.  These are the guys mentioned in the Gospels often as critics of Jesus.  They didn’t make their living copying texts.

So, to avoid confusion, the term “copyist” is a better label for individuals who  . . . copied out texts.  Some of them in the Roman period were professionals, who got paid for their work on the basis of the length of text copied.  In some other cases, wealthy individuals had texts copied for them by household slaves trained to do so.  In still other cases, it appears that individuals made their own personal copies of texts.

My preference for “copyist” isn’t idiosyncratic.  I point to the comments by the distinguished papyrologist Peter Parsons:  “Copyists of Oxyrhynchus,” in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts, ed. A. K. Bowman et al. (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007), 262-70.  Note especially this one, where he makes the distinction between “scribes” (“a professional member of a sacred calling”) and “copyists”, and wrote, “We owe our literary papyri not to scribes, but to copyists” (262-63).

As others have noted also, copyists didn’t take the time to make intentional changes.  E.g., Ulrich Schmid, “Scribes and Variants: Sociology and Typology,” in Textual Variation: Theological and Social Tendencies?, ed. H. A. G. Houghton and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2008), 1-23.  The job of copyists was to copy the texts put before them.  They might be good at it, or not so good.  They might accidentally omit words or even larger amounts of text through a slip of their eye.  The might repeat a word or phrase.  They might produce an altered word-order (often correcting an overlooked word).  These sorts of variants come by the bushel in ancient texts.

But the larger and intentional variants (e.g., the various endings of Mark beyond 16:8, or 1 John 5:7, or the insertion of the pericope of the adultress, et alia) were the product of serious readers and students of the texts, who took the time to try to “improve” them in various ways.  The readiness to do this wasn’t indicative of whether a text was considered “canon” or “scripture.” I’ve noted, for example, how various readers of Acts seem to have produced what were intended as “disambiguating” variants at a number of places where the original reading was likely “kyrios” and it’s not immediately clear whether the referent is God or Jesus:  Larry W. Hurtado, “God or Jesus? Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts of the Apostles,” in Texts and Traditions: Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott, ed. Peter Doble and Jeffrey Kloha (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 239-54 , republished in Larry W. Hurtado, Texts and Artefacts: Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts (London: BloomsburyT&T Clark, 2017), 64-80.

So, let’s follow Parsons in using “copying/copyists” to designate the transmission of a text by hand, and “readers/users” to refer to those individuals who used the texts copied, and who were responsible for making any intentional changes in them.

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