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The Adulteress Narrative: New Book

A new book is now the “go-to” resource on the text-critical question about the account  of the adulteress brought to Jesus (in traditional texts, John 7:53–8:11):  The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, eds. David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

Ironically, though one of the most well-known narratives in the New Testament, the account is widely judged by scholars as an addition to the text of the Gospel of John.  But that is not a universal view, and this volume features treatments of the question by five scholars, two of them (John David Punch and Maurice A. Robinson) proposing that the story is an authentic part of Gospel of John and omitted in the course of its transmission, and three other scholars (Tommy Wasserman, Jennifer Knust, and Chris Keith) arguing that the account originated elsewhere and was added to Gospel of John.

The essays originated in a symposium held in Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, North Carolina), 25-26 April 2014.  I was contacted sometime later and asked to write a response to the essays, which forms the final essay in this volume:  “The Pericope Adulterae:  Where from Here?” (pp. 147-58).

I judge superior the arguments (by Wasserman, Knust and Keith) that the text is an addition to copies of the Gospel of John, and I state my bases for this judgement in the essay.  In particular, I focus on the lack of the account in our earliest manuscripts that preserve the relevant portion of John (P66, P75, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus).  In the manuscript tradition, the account first appears in Codex Bezae (5th century).  But, curiously, not long thereafter the account won acceptance and so appears as a standard part of John in the mass of Medieval manuscripts.

Focusing on the repeated references in the story to Jesus writing on the ground, Chris Keith’s award-winning book (based on his PhD thesis completed here in Edinburgh) presents his case that the text was initially inserted in some copies of John to present Jesus as fully literate:  The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 2009).  Some early Christian writers reflect a knowledge of the story, and 4th century writers indicate that it appeared in some copies of John.  So, was it likely inserted initially perhaps in the 3rd-4th century??

As a very modest contribution of my own, in my concluding essay I focus on the chronology and the manuscripts.  Whenever the account first became a part of John, it clearly didn’t win widescale acceptance until sometime in/after the 5th century.  Now, according to a widely held view in NT text-critical circles, the first two or three centuries were a time of “wild” transmission and various major textual changes, and then the 4th century and later was a time of much greater fixity and control of the text.  But the manuscript evidence for the story of the adulteress woman, and also for the “long ending” of Mark, seems to call this view into question.

For example, the impression one takes from the manuscript evidence is that neither of these major textual variants (in fact, the two largest textual variants in the NT) won much acceptance in the earliest period of supposed “wild” attitudes and freely made changes.  Instead, both variants actually won acceptance later, in the period when supposedly such major changes were not so likely to gain acceptance.

So, the question I pose very briefly in my essay is this:  Is it possible that the common view of the transmission-history of NT writings (however intuitively it appeals) is wrong, or at least seriously defective?  More specifically, were there factors and dynamics in the later period that facilitated the inclusion and wide acceptance of these sizeable variants?

To ask such a question is, I recognize, a “heretical” move, in terms of widely-held scholarly views.  And, to be sure, to ask the question is not to presume the answer.  But I think that we (NT textual critics) should perhaps consider my question more closely than has been done to this point.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the early history of the transmission of NT writings is a bit more complex than the standard model allows . . . and perhaps a good bit more interesting!

Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?


Just returned from my trip to Milwaukee to give the 2016 Pere Marquette Lecture in Marquette University.   A good turnout (my local host estimated a crowd approaching 300), and very hospitable colleagues, who made my brief stay very comfortable.

The 50 minute lecture was based on the larger written discussion of the same question that I was asked to produce, and which is now published as a small book:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries (Milwaukee:  Marquette University Press, 2016), ISBN 13: 978-1-62600-504-4.  (The book was published in such a rush to make copies available for the lecture that as of this a.m. it’s not yet listed on the press web-site!  But it’s been pointed out that it’s listed on Amazon here.)

I give a brief overview of the growth of Christianity across those early centuries, which makes the question appropriate.  But the question I frame is a bit different from the one usually put:  not why did Christianity as a movement grow, but why did individuals commit to Christian faith?

Scholars have tended to focus on putative features that may have attracted individuals, such as social bonding in Christian circles, or their charity toward fellow believers, etc.  But such discussions often leave out an equally important feature:  There were also strong reasons not to become a Christian then.  I discuss what I term “judicial/political” consequences, and also “social” consequences of becoming a Christian that we know served as disincentives for identifying yourself as a Christian then.

So the more pointed question that I try to underscore is why, in light of these negative costs/consequences did people continue to align themselves with the early Christian movement.  Assuming that they weren’t stupid or insane, they must have judged there to be positive factors that outweighed the negative consequences.

I don’t claim to provide a full answer in my small Marquette volume.  My purpose instead is to draw attention to this way of putting the question, exploring the growth of adherents to early Christianity specifically in the context of those costs/consequences.

I think it helps us to put a human face on the phenomenon.  Whereas most scholars have focused on the growth of Christianity as a social movement (a subject that I don’t in any way disparage), my question is intended to get down to the level of individuals and the consequences of their religious choices.

The consequences of becoming a Christian in that period also set apart that move from any other religious affiliation.  You could become a Mithraist or Isiac or whatever, and it made no difference to your previous religious activities and loyalties.  You continued to take part in the worship of your inherited deities of household, city, nation.  But if you became a Christian you were expected to desist from worship of all other deities.

And the ubiquitous place of the gods in all spheres of social and political activity made that difficult, and made for potentially serious consequences if you did desist.  Indeed, it made it difficult to know how you could function socially and politically (to use our terminology).

So, I hope that the lecture and the little book on which it was based will contribute to our continued investigation of what must surely be one of the most intriguing phenomena of history:  that all across this early period people became adherents of Christianity in the face of the costs and consequences of doing so.

The Retreating Claim of an Early NT Textual Recension

The continued claim that there was a datable “recension” of NT writings sometimes resembles the stubborn rear-guard action of a retreating force that’s been beaten in battle but won’t surrender.   When driven from one position, claimants simply retreat to another.

A century and more ago, some scholars posited a major “recension” of the text of the NT supposedly carried out in the fourth century and sometimes ascribed to Hesychius of Alexandria (3rd-4th century) as the source of the text that we have in the great codices such as Vaticanus.  But the bases for this ascription are not secure.  More importantly, when 3rd-century NT papyri were discovered and published, it became clear that the NT text attested in the great 4th-century codices was substantially attested in these papyri from a century or more earlier.

So then the claim of a major NT textual recension moved backward in time to the late 2nd or early 3rd century and Alexandria.  The late William Petersen, for example, posited 180 CE as “the date when the ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Neutral’ recension was created, probably by the generation of Leonidas [sic], the father of Origen.”[1] From this supposed recension, he further posited, all our extant 3rd-century papyri derive. This claim quite handily allowed him, thus, to disregard these early witnesses to the NT text, and to preserve the cherished notion of a recension.

Indeed, Petersen insisted that the only relevant data for describing the state of the text of the NT in the second century (prior to his alleged recension) are the apparent uses of NT writings in the writings of 2nd-century church figures such as Justin Martyr. But, as I urged some years ago now, this is a major methodological error, confusing the conventions pertaining to ancient citation/use of text with the conventions pertaining to the copying of texts.[2] We know that Roman-era writers typically drew upon other writings loosely, and often deliberately did so.[3] That was a feature of rhetorical and writing practices of that time. But it is not indicative of how copyists treated the task of transmitting texts in manuscripts.

So, in fact, the primary data pertaining to the transmission of ancient writings such as the NT are the early manuscripts. In the case of the NT writings, we have some that take us back to ca. 200 CE and perhaps even a bit earlier. In particular, we have such early manuscript data for the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John in the papyri known as P75 and P66, as well as P46 for the letters of Paul. And these manuscripts, together with collateral data, suggest that, instead of some phantom recension relocated into the late 2nd century CE, we should posit a relatively conscientious copying of NT writings as what lies behind the extant manuscripts (or at least behind the majority of the early ones). There were, to be sure, variations in the abilities of early copyists, resulting in a number of copying errors (which are usually readily identifiable). And some ancient readers clearly made changes here and there, most often reflecting stylistic preferences but also for what they meant as clarification and removal of ambiguities in meaning (and these also most often readily identifiable). But, in the main, ancient copyists just copied their exemplars.

As for “the generation of Leonidas” (properly, Leonides) and subsequent figures such as Origen, here too the data don’t justify much confidence in the assertion that the sort of text that we have in P75 and Vaticanus, for example, derives from some recension dated to ca. 180. Consider, for example, Gordon Fee’s data-rich critique of “The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in which, among other things, he pointed to studies of Origen’s text-critical practices.[4] In short, there is scant basis for ascribing to Origen and others of his (or the preceding) generation the sort of project that Petersen and some others have asserted.

But the rear-guard action continues in some quarters, and one still encounters claims of a major recension of NT writings from which all extant manuscripts derive. Only now it’s often put well back into the second century, and increasingly earlier as the counter-evidence accumulates. With no desire to over-simplify things, however, such a notion seems increasingly to be an apparition that, however, cherished and linked with respected scholars of the past, should probably be laid aside as we continue to probe the transmission of NT writings in the second century.[5]  There were likely various efforts to collect and transmit these writings, but the notion of a recension carried out at some particular point is, as Fee labelled it, a myth.


[1] William L. Petersen, “What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?” in New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis, and Early Church History: A Discussion of Methods, ed. Barbara Aland and Joël Delobel (Kampen: Kok-Pharos, 1994), 150 (136-52).  I knew and liked Petersen, and his work on Tatian’s Diatessaron is the “go-to” resource on that subject, but I found his claim about this supposed recension of the NT text bizarre.

[2] 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, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.

[3] Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[4] Gordon D. Fee, “P75, P66, and Origen: The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 19-45; republished in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 247-73.

[5] For earlier postings on a similar subject, see here and here.

First Published Greek New Testament: 500th Anniversary

March 1st, 2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the first publication of a printed Greek New Testament edited by Desiderius Erasmus (born 1466), the work published in Basle, Switzerland.  Erasmus is widely cited as one of the greatest scholars of his time.  For an ad hoc photo of a copy of this edition click here.

Erasmus prepared his edition mainly from two rather late Greek manuscripts (14th-15th century), one of the Gospels and another of the Acts and Epistles, which are preserved in the University library in Basle.  For the book of Revelation, Erasmus had to hand only one manuscript, which was missing its final leaf containing the last six verses.  So, he retro-translated these verses from the Latin Vulgate!

Thereafter, Erasmus prepared five successive editions of the work, each with improvements, and each a Greek-Latin edition (1519, 1522, 1527, 1535).  The 1519 edition served as the basis for Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.

It was also a pioneering step in the development of New Testament textual criticism, although the apparatus to Erasmus’ successive editions never made reference to more than eight manuscripts, all of them actually comparatively late in the light of the manuscripts used today.

But pioneering efforts are typically afflicted with mistakes or things that can be improved on, so in this 500th anniversary year, let’s simply celebrate this pioneering work by one of history’s great scholars.  All users of the Greek New Testament today (and all who use translations based on modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament as well) are, in some way, in his debt.

(For a history of the printed text of the Greek New Testament, see, e.g., Philip Schaff, A Companion to the Greek New Testament and the English Version [4th ed. rev.; New York/London:  Harper & Brothers, 1911], 225-98.  Appendix I [pp. 497-524], prepared by Isaac H. Hall, is a list of printed editions of the Greek New Testament down to 1887.)


Forthcoming Book

I’ve just had word that my forthcoming book, Destroyer of the Gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, Sept 2016) is available for pre-order here.

More on it later, but there’s a decent “blurb” on the publisher’s web site.

Recent Questions about the Nag Hammadi Codices

In commencing work toward a future project, I’ve come across a couple of noteworthy articles that question the widely-repeated stories (and there are several versions) of how the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered.  In addition to cautioning us (especially scholars) about passing on to our students and the general public stories of the find that have dubious bases, there are also some wider lessons to be learned.

First, this one:  Mark Goodacre, “How Reliable Is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35, no. 4 (2013):  303-22.  Goodacre documents the variant-forms of the story of the discovery of the codices, and shows that they seem to have become more elaborate as time went on, becoming more elaborate decades later than the date of the discovery.  He shows also how Western prejudices about supposedly ignorant and uncivilized Egyptian peasants seem to have shaped and promoted certain versions of the story.  And he finally draws a few intriguing similarities with the variant forms of stories that we find in the Gospels (e.g., resurrection narratives), noting that we scholars are highly suspicious of the latter, but have curiously ignored and repeated uncritically the legendary features of the accounts of the Nag Hammadi codices.

Also, Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices,” Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 2 (2014): 399-419, address the matter, offering a similar critique.  But their argument involves proposing a different likely account of where the codices were found, the likely reason the codices were buried, and the circumstances of the find.  And their argument involves also a proposal about who the ancient readers of these codices and texts were.  Their article I found especially intriguing.

For they seem to me to provide a further basis for the sort of view that I came to several years ago (influenced by proposals originally from Fred Wisse), that these texts weren’t the “scriptures” of this or that supposed version or sect of early Christianity, but, instead, probably circulated among loose networks of like-minded individuals who had a particular penchant for things esoteric.  I think that Denzey Lewis and Blount have now provided a strong basis for this sort of view of the 4th-century people among whom the Nag Hammadi codices likely circulated.  They also contend (and quite cogently, to my mind) that the codices weren’t actually found where the traditional reports put them, but, instead, were likely found by would-be grave-robbers among burials of individuals, these texts buried with them as a kind of “books of the dead” (in keeping with ancient Egyptian practice for centuries).

The implications are considerable.  If, for example, the Nag Hammadi codices weren’t composed by and for Pachomian monks, and weren’t hidden in the 4th century from “orthodox” bishops, and don’t, thus, reflect some variant-version of early Christianity, that’s quite a lot to take on board.  If, as Denzey Lewis and Blount contend, instead, these texts (at least in the 4th century) circulated among somewhat elitist individuals of esoteric tastes and rather eclectic reading habits, then these codices can’t really be used as they often have been to “re-write” 4th century history of Egyptian Christianity.  So, it will now be interesting to see how the scholarly discussion moves forward.  But, to my mind, these articles, particularly the Denzey Lewis and Blount study, can’t rightly be ignored.


Psalms in NT and Wider Jewish Context

Having prepared a paper for a symposium in Salamanca (May this year) focusing on “messianic” Psalms, I’ll pass on a couple of interesting notes for now.  Essentially, NT use of Psalms (1) reflects broad developments in the Jewish tradition about how the Psalms were viewed, and (2) also reflects some distinctive particularities in NT usage.

Those broad developments in Jewish tradition were these: (1) collecting Psalms into a “book” (although there appear to have been variant forms of what comprised the collected Psalms till perhaps the late first century CE); (2) the broad ascription of the Psalms to David, making Psalms his “book”; (3) the notion that David was prophetically endowed, which (4) made the Psalms, not simply liturgical texts, but prophetic in properties, predictive and instructive of eschatological events for those Jews who operated in an eschatological framework.

All these developments are reflected in various NT writings, showing, once again, that in its earliest phase(s) what became “Christianity” should be understood as a particular and distinctive variant-form of second-temple Jewish religion.

But there are also distinctive features in NT usage of the Psalms.  For example, compare the index of texts cited and alluded to in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graecae (28th ed.) with the index by Armin Lange and Mattias Weigold, Biblical Quotations and Allusions in Second Temple Jewish Literature Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).  Among other things to note, you’ll see that the Psalms most frequently cited in one list differ from those most frequently cited in the other.  There are some overlaps, but also some striking differences.  The most striking one is Psalm 110, which is among the most frequently cited/alluded to Psalms in the NT, but has no trace of quotation or allusion elsewhere in second-temple Jewish literature.

Likewise, Psalm 2 is frequently cited and alluded to in the NT, but the Lange/Weigold index shows only three references.  In the NT, the Psalm is particularly linked to views of Jesus’ divine sonship.

So, I contend that the specific Psalms cited, and the particular interpretations placed upon them in the NT all derive from the particular convictions characteristic of earliest circles of the Jesus-movement.  Jesus’ death and the conviction that God had raised him from death and exalted him to heavenly lordship were obviously crucial factors.

The Apostle Paul on Satan: New Book

I’m pleased to note a newly published book by a former PhD student:  Derek R. Brown, The God of This Age:  Satan in the Churches and Letters of the Apostle Paul (WUNT 2.409; Tuebingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2015).  This is a lightly revised form of Brown’s PhD thesis submitted here in 2011.

Others have examined Paul’s references to “principalities and powers” and related phenomena in a more generic manner, but Brown’s innovative study focuses on the questions of why Paul mentions Satan and how references to Satan function in his letters.

Instead of a diachronic approach (e.g., where does the idea of Satan come from?), Brown takes more of a synchronic approach, seeking to form a picture of how Satan is referenced in literature roughly contemporary with Paul (and/or literature used and read by Paul).  But the heart and real contribution of Brown’s study lies in the chapters dealing with Paul’s references to Satan in the context of key features of Paul’s theology and view of his mission, and chapters dealing with the references to Satan in Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 1&2 Corinthians).

Brown notes similarities to the Jewish context in Paul’s references to Satan, and also interesting differences, and both must be taken into account.  In particular, Brown argues (cogently to my mind) that Paul’s specific references to Satan are shaped by Paul’s view of his own calling and mission — which specifically involved the formation of churches–and which Paul saw as a special responsibility in the fulfilment of God’s eschatological programme.  That is, Paul saw himself as a salvation-historical figure, not simply one missionary among others.

And so Paul saw Satan as particularly concerned to oppose him and his mission.  This is why Paul’s references to Satan are largely in statements where Paul is mentioning opposition to his mission, including direct attacks by Satan upon his person.

Congratulations to Derek on a fine thesis and on the publication of this book!


Marquette Lecture: Advance Notice

For those living in/near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I give advance notice of my Pere Marquette Lecture to be delivered on 10 April (Sunday), 2 p.m., Eckstein Hall (Appellate Courtroom), Marquette University Law School:  “Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?”  The flyer advertising the lecture is available here.

The lecture is based on a larger discussion of the matter that Marquette University Press is publishing in the Marquette Lecture series.  I understand that they hope to have the (small) book (with the same title as the lecture) available by the date of the lecture.

The lecture is free and open to the wider public.  The flyer cited above gives details for obtaining any more information desired.

Pliny’s Letter about Christians

Among ancient sources used by historians to chart the rise of early Christianity, Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan is commonly taken as crucial.[1]  In a newly-published article, however, Enrico Tuccinardi employs some recent method-developments in stylometric analysis of texts and presents the proposal that the letter has interpolations (putatively inserted by Christians, I presume).[2]

As I am among those (many, I suspect) scholars not engaged or expert in stylometric analysis, I have had to devote a good deal of time trying to absorb at least the basics of some recent developments in methods in order to engage (or even to understand) Tuccinardi’s article (and the bibliography to Tuccinardi’s article is a good guide to the relevant literature). That various methods are still being developed and refined suggests that the aim of producing an authorship test sufficiently reliable to be used in law courts, for example, has not yet been achieved.

The fundamental assumption behind all stylometric analysis is that each author has a characteristic stylistic habit, or pattern, or “profile,” and (what is still more essential) that this profile is unconscious to the author, meaning that the author does not (and therefore cannot) change it, even if he/she changes topic or genre. That assumption, it seems, is crucial; but it is really what all the various approaches also seek to verify.  Over the years, scholars have experimented with word-frequencies, sentence-lengths, punctuation, and other features.

As I understand it, Tuccinardi’s particular experiment basically involved the recently-developed approach of tabulating a set number of character-sequences (called “n-grams”) in a given text. These n-grams can be of varying sizes, typically from two to five characters.  Tuccinardi used n-grams of four to six characters.

A text is fed through a programme to produce all n-grams of a chosen character-length, and the most commonly recurring n-grams then form the basis of a hypothetical author-profile. So Tuccinardi produced a “profile” of the most recurring n-grams in book 10 of Pliny’s letters (his correspondence to Emperor Trajan).  Note that this is a composite profile produced from treating all of Pliny’s letters in book 10 as one textual body.

I can’t go into all the other details of his procedure here. But in Tuccinardi’s tabulation the letter about Pliny’s interrogation of Christians (letter 10.96) seems to be something of an outrider in comparison to this composite profile.  There is notable variation among all the samples he studied, but it appears that 10.96 is somewhat more of an outrider than the other samples.  How much of an outrider, however, depends partly on what calculation-model is chosen.  Curiously, Tuccinardi contends that the profile of letter 10.96 suggests the presence of interpolations in the letter, i.e., material inserted that throws off the n-gram data for this letter.  But he doesn’t (or can’t) indicate what the supposed interpolations are.  In email correspondence, nevertheless, he proposed that Pliny’s letter should not be used as a source in historical inquiry as it has been used.

It is, of course, always appropriate to reconsider widely-accepted positions and widely-trusted sources and data, and the historical importance of Pliny’s letter makes it fully right to consider any new light to be cast on it. I leave it to those more expert than I in the highly-specialized stylometric work reflected in his article to assess the specific technicalities of Tuccinardi’s experiment, and I’m sure that he, too, would welcome engagement from such experts.  I will simply lodge a few observations on matters within the limits of my own competence.

First, strictly speaking, contrary to Tuccinardi (pp. 6-7), his data don’t of themselves “suggest” interpolations. His data surely indicate that letter 10.96 has a distinctive n-gram pattern in comparison with his composite book 10 profile.  But the suggestion of interpolations (and that suggestion only) is from Tuccinardi, not the data.  For, assuming the validity of his data, they are compatible with at least four hypotheses:  (1) the letter is a forgery, (2) there are interpolations that corrupt its stylistic character, (3) Pliny’s stylistic profile is varied, and letter 10.96 simply exhibits that, and so/or (4) the method may be inadequate for the task and need some further tuning.

Further, from the detailed stylistic analysis of Pliny’s correspondence by Gamberini, it’s clear that book 10 is markedly different from books 1-9 of Pliny’s letters, and also that within book 10 itself there are noticeable and multiple variations in Latin style, forms, and topics. Moreover, it appears that Pliny edited his letters for the collection in which they are preserved.[3]  In light of this, it appears that Pliny may have been able to vary his writing a good deal, and even adjust his style for the edited collection, and so whatever method we use to authenticate his writings we must take this into account.  Indeed, Pliny was trained in an educational culture that prized the ability to vary your writing style and imitate that of others.  So, Tuccinardi’s analysis may reflect Pliny’s particular gift of stylistic diversity rather than signal inauthenticity or interpolations in letter 10.96.

Second, in considering “external” evidence for the letter, Tuccinardi discusses Tertullian’s reference to it (Apologeticum 2.6-7, composed ca. AD 197), but dismisses Tertullian as insufficiently trustworthy, in light of other works cited by him that are likely legendary in nature.  But, of course, whatever one thinks of Tertullian, the far earlier external witness (not mentioned by Tuccinardi) is the reply to Pliny’s letter by Emperor Trajan (letter 10.97 in Pliny’s correspondence), in which Trajan comments on a report sent to him by Pliny specifically concerning his handling of Christians.  That is, Trajan’s letter confirms that Pliny wrote a letter to the Emperor about his interrogation of Christians in Bithynia, and from Trajan’s reply it seems that the contents were pretty much what we have in the familiar letter 10.96.

Third, from the published stylometric work that I’ve read, I can’t recall any that attempts to detect small interpolations of the sort that Tuccinardi suggests. Instead, the typical aim is simply to identify the author of a given text (and preferably texts of at least several hundred words length).  So, Tuccinardi’s use of the n-gram method to detect small interpolations, e.g., of sentence-size, is novel, and all the more, thus, has to be treated with some caution, at least until there are confirming experiments on other texts.

Further, if there are interpolations in a given text (not an impossibility by any means), it is crucial that they be specified (which Tuccinardi says that he can’t do). This is usually done by identifying anachronisms, or other irregularities that raise our suspicions about this or that bit of a text.[4]  So, what specifics in Pliny’s letter about the Christians raise such suspicions?  So far as I can judge, its contents seem to have secured the confidence of historians immersed in the period.[5]  Many decades ago, to be sure, the claim of interpolations was raised, but for many decades now has been judged fallacious, at least as we are able to judge on the basis of historical information and Latin stylistic data.

It seems to me dubious, or at least premature, therefore, to follow Tuccinardi’s advice and set aside Pliny’s letter, simply on the basis of his particular experiment in the use of a particular stylometric technique. As in all things historical, obviously, the matter remains open for further investigation.  But, for now, it seems to me that we are justified in continuing to cite the letter as a valuable piece of evidence about earliest treatment of Christians by this Roman legate in early second-century Pontus and Bithynia.  The letter exhibits a distinctive n-gram profile, but the reason for this is, so far as I can see, yet to be established.

[1] E.g., Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, Religions of Rome (2 vols; Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1: 225-26, 237-38; 2: 277-79.

[2] Enrico Tuccinardi, “An Application of a Profile-Based Method for Authorship Verification:  Investigating the Authenticity of Pliny the Younger’s Letter to Trajan Concerning the Christians,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (Advanced Access, 14 February 2016):  doi:  10.1093/llc/fqw00l.  I thank Tuccinardi for alerting me to his article, and I congratulate him of publishing his work in such a venue where it can be engaged by scholars.  I also thank him for patiently responding to my queries relating to his article in several emails over the last couple of weeks.

[3] Federico Gamberini, Stylistic Theory and Practice in the Younger Pliny (Hildesheim/Zurich/New York: Olms – Weidmann, 1983).

[4] The textual witnesses are very few, as noted by Tuccinardi (2), and so it is not possible to approach the matter from a text-critical standpoint in the way that the abundance of early witnesses to NT writings, for example, permits us to do.

[5] E.g., T. D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968):  32-50; A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966); and the confident use of the letter in Beard, North, Price, Religions of Rome, cited in n. 1.


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