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A “D-Cluster” in Acts? Epp’s Recent Article

Eldon Epp (my revered former teacher, and a senior figure in NT textual criticism) has a recent (and very large) article presenting the argument that there was a dual stream of textual transmission of the book of Acts in the earliest centuries:   “Text-Critical Witnesses and Methodology for Isolating a Distinctive D-Text in Acts,” Novum Testamentum 59.3 (2017): 225-96.

This is a renewed defense, and significant modification, of a view long held, but challenged in recent decades, that there were two distinguishable textual traditions or ways of handling the text of NT writings, particularly evident in the evidence for Acts.  The one textual tradition/stream is that represented in such manuscripts as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, with a number of other early witnesses, often referred to as the “Alexandrian text-type.”  The other textual tradition has often been labelled the “Western text/text-type,” and at least as far back as the classic work of Westcott and Hort, this “Western” textual tradition has been posited as equally early.

With some other scholars today, however, Epp sets aside the term “Western” and also the term “text-type,” granting that the former term is not soundly based (the witnesses in question aren’t particularly Western geographically) and that the latter term suggests a tightness of agreement that is misleading.  Instead, Epp refers to textual “clusters,” and contends that he can show in Acts witnesses both a “B” textual cluster ( i.e., a group of early witnesses that reflect the sort of text that we have in Vaticanus), and also a “D” textual cluster.  His article focuses on evidence for the latter.

Epp also is careful to point out, however, that Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (the four Gospels and Acts in a 5th century Greek-Latin bi-lengual codex), should not be used as the basis for identifying the D-cluster.  Codex Bezae is a peculiar and quite distinctive manuscript in Acts, some 14% longer overall than the Vaticanus-type text, with a number of expansionist variant-readings at various points.  Also, as Epp contended in his oft-cited study, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), Bezae has a number of smaller distinctive variants that seem to reflect an “anti-Judaic” attitude.

So, instead, here is the method that Epp follows for identifying a “D-cluster” in Acts:  For each variation-unit found (1) identifying the Primary witnesses [already thought to represent a “D” text] available for a given reading; (2) counting the number supporting a  presumptive D-Text reading; (3) counting those that do not; and (4) calculating the percentages of witnesses agreeing and not agreeing to the readings in question. Three or more Primary witnesses must be present in a variation-unit to be included.  The quantitative results of his analysis:  available Primary D-Text witnesses agree with one another 88% of the time on readings in 425 variation-units, while 97% of the time these readings are opposed by both א and B together.

For readers not familiar with this kind of close textual analysis my summary of the approach may seem a bit difficult to grasp.  But I hope that the basis approach is sufficiently clear.  The key point is that Epp shows that there is a “cluster” of witnesses who agree in supporting a variant at a few hundred places in Acts, where a cluster of other witnesses agree in supporting an alternate variant.  And these two groups of witnesses line up respectively as what Epp calls “D” witnesses and “B” witnesses.

This isn’t the place to attempt a detailed engagement with the article.  But I will offer a few preliminary comments.  First,  Epp’s study reminds us that the textual history of individual NT writings varies from one writing to another.  Acts seems to have had its own transmission-history, and two distinguishable textual traditions seem to have developed early.

Second, the variants that distinguish the “D-cluster” from the “B-cluster” appear to include a number of “intentional” ones, that is, not variants created by accident of copying, but instead created by users of Acts.  Epp’s 1966 study mentioned already was a pioneering probe into this kind of variant reading in Codex Bezae, and if he is right that we have an earlier “D-cluster” that agree on a large number of variant readings, a next step would be to analyze their contents and what they tell us about the interests and viewpoint(s) that they reflect.

Although specifics must be tested, the general direction of Epp’s study seems cogent to me.  Acts did have its own transmission history.  It was not physically copied as part two of the entity that scholars today refer to as “Luke-Acts”.  So, Acts may well exhibit a distinctive pattern of textual variants.

As well, our early papyri of the Gospels suggest to me (and others) a spectrum of transmission practices that might be put into two categories.  There are those papyri that seem to reflect an attempt at a very conscientious and careful copying of texts, with few accidental changes and little indication of intentional changes.  Then, there are other papyri that exhibit a somewhat less skillful copying, and a somewhat greater number of what look like intentional changes (the latter likely made by users of the writing, these changes then included into subsequent copies made from the copies with these users’ alterations).

Here is Epp’s statement of what is at stake and what could be the potential wider gain for historical analysis of early Christianity:

“Any text, of course, would embody various characteristics and mind-sets. It is clear, I think, that the concept of dual texts in Acts has offered access and insight to dual or multiple viewpoints in early Christianity—as portrayed by the author of Acts. That is, in each of the alternate texts of Acts [reflected in the different “clusters” of witnesses], there are differing stories to be told, varying interpretations and vigorous defenses of or opposition to early leadership, to ritual and ethical practices, and to dissimilar understandings of historical and theological matters. To eliminate dual texts is to blur— seriously, I would say—our grasp of how Acts viewed the events and interactions in the ancient churches. If any of this resonates with New Testament scholars, it would be a disservice to treat everything as if all were in a single box. Dual texts of Acts is a ready-made invitation to think outside the box.” (p. 227).

Epp has always been interested in how textual variants can reflect and inform us about theological developments and diversity in early Christianity.  He is surely correct that, whatever the results, these data are important and should not be left to languish in the apparatus of critical editions of the NT.

Paul and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

A couple of readers have asked for my comments on the news story on Philip Payne’s recently-published article in which he discusses scribal features of Codex Vaticanus as these pertain to the question of the originality of 1 Corinthians 14:34-25.  (The news story, e.g., here. Payne’s article:  “Vaticanus Distigme-Obelos Symbols Marking Added Text, Including 1 Corinthians 14.34-35,” New Testament Studies 63 (2017), available online here.

The newspaper story focuses on the view espoused in Payne’s article that vv. 34-35 are an interpolation inserted into some copies of 1 Corinthians, probably originating as some reader’s marginal note, and then incorporated into the copy-stream at some early point.  But, actually, for a number of years now an increasing number of scholars have reached this basic conclusion.  Indeed, in his article Payne points to the numerous scholars who agree that vv. 34-35 are not an original part of Paul’s letter.  For example, note Gordon D. Fee’s judgment in his commentary:  The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1987), 705-8.

There are several reasons for this judgment.  The verses seem to go against practically everything else in Paul’s uncontested letters pertaining to women’s involvement in the churches.  E.g., in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers to women praying and/or prophesying in church, requiring only that they have their heads suitably covered (likely with hair).  As well (and a rather telling matter in text-critical terms), in some witnesses these verses appear, not where we have them in most Bibles, but instead following v. 40.  Such a multiple location for a body of text usually means that it has been inserted by various copyists, who made different choices about where to do so.

Over the last couple of decades Payne has been involved in adding to this acute observations about certain scribal features of Codex Vaticanus in particular, which he argues (cogently to my mind) are evidence that the copyist/scribe of this manuscript knew of some significant textual variants, and marked these places in the margins.  The mark he/she used resembles the German umlaut, two dots horizontally placed in the margins.  Payne’s new article is really about these scribal marks, backing up his earlier publications on the subject with an impressively thorough analysis of the data.

So, the article isn’t announcing that vv. 34-35 are likely an interpolation, for Payne has contended this, and many scholars have agreed, over a number of years now.  (Another instance of the news media not quite getting it!)  Actually, the new findings and contentions in the new article have to do more with the quality of the text of Codex Vaticanus, and the likely early date of the “archetype” copy from which it comes.

I was intrigued at Payne’s observation that Vaticanus has scant punctuation in the Gospels, but abundant punctuation in the Epistles.  Payne infers that this likely results from the copyist of Vaticanus using a Gospels codex for the Gospels and a separate Epistles codex for the Epistles (Vaticanus is one of the earliest “pandects,” i.e., an entire Christian Bible in one book/codex).  The Gospels archetype likely didn’t have punctuation (for whatever reason), whereas the Epistles archetype did.  And so the copyist of Vaticanus simply copied each into his manuscript.  He didn’t edit or add punctuation to the Gospels, but just copied.  That suggests a copyist/scribe committed simply to copying, producing as accurate a copy as he could.

And that agrees with some other recent studies about other copyists as well.  Copyists copied.  They didn’t tend to make editorial changes.  Readers might do so, but not copyists.  For another study tending in the same direction:  Zachary J. Cole, Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts: Text-Critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies, NTTSD 53 (Brill: Leiden/Boston, 2017).

Payne also proposes that the lack of punctuation in the Gospels means that the Gospels archetype had a very early text and may have been produced prior to the introduction of punctuation (which may have come along sometime in the 3rd century or a bit earlier).

In sum, Payne’s article is full of fascinating data and observations that NT textual critics will want to pore over with care.  But the news that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is likely not original to the epistle, but is an interpolation isn’t news!



The Internet and Scholarly Discussion

The Internet does not necessarily serve us well when it comes to scholarly discussion of topics.  As an experienced “blogger” attempting to promote scholarly work now, I know this well.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful to post something and then within days (or even hours) to have responses and helpful contributions from other scholars across the world, sometimes from individuals that I otherwise don’t know personally.  It’s also encouraging and affirms a sense of the worth of my efforts when there are readers who ask questions, or ask for further information/explanation, or who ask about contrary views. On the other hand, it’s tiresome and annoying when others clearly out of their depth in knowledge of the subject but who confidently take issue on some matter, act as if they have some superior grasp of things.

The Internet makes it possible for us to express our opinion freely, almost effortlessly.  But that doesn’t mean that we should do so!  Scholarship doesn’t properly consist in half-baked notions based on insufficient (or inaccurate) information.  Scholarly discourse demands good knowledge of the relevant data and prior scholarly work on the data, the ability to analyze the data and make cogent inferences, and a readiness to learn from others.

In the world of scholarship, your opinion gets as much respect and attention as it deserves, based on your having demonstrated your knowledge of the data and ability to analyze and construct cogent inferences and interpretations–“demonstrated” in the judgment of other scholars competent to judge.  Scholarship isn’t a townhall meeting.  It’s a meritocracy in which opinions suffer informed critique, and those views that get accepted are the ones that are seen to be worthwhile by those competent to judge, who have themselves had to develop and demonstrate the “goods.”  In the memorable words of the Bill Murray character in the movie Stripes, “That’s the fact, Jack!”

Recent Studies on Early Christian Textual Transmission

In light of my recent postings about the textual transmission of early Christian texts (especially, but not exclusively, the Gospels), I note again two other recent volumes that are rich in data and intriguing in analysis.

Alan Mugridge, Copying Early Christian Texts: A Study of Scribal Practice, WUNT 2.362 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), which I posted on earlier here.

Scott Charlesworth, Early Christian Gospels: Their Production and Transmission (Papyrologica Florentina, 47; Firenze: Edizioni Gonnelli, 2016), which I posted on earlier this year here.

Along with other/earlier works such as James Royse’s massive study, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), these two hefty volumes demonstrate the detailed and in-depth work on which any view of early textual transmission of Christian texts needs to rest.

And I ask that anyone who tries to engage the issues at least commit themselves to analysis of these works, and not shoot off opinions from the top of the head.  Queries and questions are always welcome, whatever the level of previous knowledge.  But it’s really very tiresome to have comments from people obviously uninformed about the evidence who, nevertheless, proffer opinions and objections with unmerited confidence, as if they are competent to challenge serious scholarship on the topic.


Textual Stability and NT Studies

Claims by some that the earliest period of textual transmission of the Gospels was so “wild” that we cannot take extant early copies of the Gospels as a good representation of what the authors may have written are all belied in practice by NT scholars, including those who make such claims.

Indeed, a great deal of the field of the study of NT/Christian Origins would have to be shut down if these claims were taken seriously.  The work of “redaction criticism” and of its successor “literary criticism,” for example, in which the detailed particularities of the individual Gospel texts are compared closely to assess their respective emphases, all rests on the confidence that we have sufficient textual continuity to the originating authors to make such fine judgments.

Scholarly works on the possible social and geographical location of the Gospels, their grammatical character, and on the nature of any literary dependence of this or that Gospel on the others, investigation of Paul’s activities and teachings, these and most of the rest of NT scholarly work would be put into question methodologically if we took seriously the notion that our manuscripts don’t give us a pretty good picture of what the authors actually wrote.

Of course, there is textual variation.  And we textual critics are quite keen to identify and consider any such variation, however small (others might say we’re a bit obsessive about the matter!).  So, we furrow our brows, for example, over at a given point the presence/absence of a definite article before the name of Jesus, or which word-order at a given variation-unit is to be preferred.  And there are, as the handbooks report, thousands of such variations to weigh among the many manuscripts in question.

There are also some more noteworthy variations, though these are remarkably few in the main.  The variant endings of GMark (including the uniquely attested phrasing in Codex W), the “adulterous woman” pericope commonly found in later copies of GJohn, and the remarkable variants that distinguish the Greek text of Codex Bezae (D) in Acts, come readily to mind.

And we shouldn’t generalize overly.  For in the earliest centuries the Gospels were copied and transmitted in individual manuscripts (not all in a single codex), and individually enjoyed varying levels of usage and favor.  Consequently, each of the Gospels has its own textual history.  It appears, for example, that GMark was frequently harmonized (at the “micro” level) to parallel passages in the other Gospels (especially to GMatthew).

In the case of some other texts, such as 2 Corinthians, scholars differ over whether it comprises two or more letters that may have been combined to form it in the process of the formation of an early collection of Paul’s letters.  That’s a substantial question, to be sure.  But it’s also nearly exceptional, as the general textual integrity of other NT writings isn’t as widely queried.

And there are questions (e.g., by my esteemed teacher, Eldon Epp) about whether the aim of reconstructing the “original” text of any of the Gospels is realistic (or at least what we mean by the term).  Given that any “autograph” would have been immediately copied, and these or subsequent copies would then have served as the basis for subsequent copies, and given that copying almost always would involve some level of accidental changes (at the least), can we achieve that “autograph” text at a word-for-word level and with absolute confidence?  But the question reflects the detailed focus and aim of traditional textual criticism (some might say “obsessive”): to reconstruct the “original” text as perfectly and confidently as we can, right down to every word.

So, in critical editions such as the Nestle-Aland or others, the apparatus of variant readings indicates that the most that can be achieved is our best judgment, based on extensive familiarity with the variants, the quality and character of witnesses, knowledge of copying practices, and other factors.  There remain places where judgments differ, and it’s not possible to settle matters definitively.  But, in the main, these are both comparatively small matters (e.g., word-order of phrases, presence/absence of definite article, tense differences, etc.).

The really more “interesting” variants (whether judged “accidental” or “intentional”) tend to be more readily judged.  So, for example, the variants in Mark 3:21 (“those around him” or “those attached to him”) are commonly (and rightly) judged:  “Those attached to him” (Jesus’ family members) are the ones who went to seize him.  The alternate variant is rather clearly an attempt to “correct” what was seen as an inappropriate characterization of Jesus’ family (perhaps especially his mother).

In sum, no one should deny textual variation, right from the start of the textual transmission of the Gospels (and all other ancient texts).  But it’s an exaggeration to characterize the earliest transmission of these writings as “wild” and chaotic, or to suggest that we can’t know what the authors actually wrote.  We can continue to practice NT studies with the confidence that our modern critical editions give us substantially what the Gospels authors (and other NT authors) wrote.  No need for all my NT colleagues to close up shop (although I could wish that more of them were a bit more familiar with textual criticism)!

Selected Essays on Jesus-Devotion

I’m pleased to have author’s copies of a volume of selected essays of mine:  Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion:  The Context and Character of Christological Faith (Baylor University Press, 2017), the publisher’s online catalog entry here.

The 32 essays range in date from 1979 to 2017, originally published in various journals and multi-author volumes.  They’re grouped by broad approach and focus, however, not by date.

Part I:  The Scholarly Context, includes essays on christological work of Bousset and Cullmann, N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham.

Part II:  The Ancient Jewish Context, has essays on ancient Jewish “monotheism,” on the various “principal angels” and other such figures in ancient Jewish texts, and on early Jewish opposition to Jesus-devotion.

Part III:  Explanations, has essays on the “forces and factors” that I propose help us to account historically for the eruption and shape of early Jesus-devotion, and on the role of “revelatory” religious experiences in particular.

Part IV:  Expressions (the largest portion), comprises 19 essays devoted to specific texts and phenomena reflective of early Jesus-devotion.  These include Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus’ death as “paradigmatic” in the NT, homage given to the “historical” Jesus, the meaning of “the son of man” expression in the Gospels, Jesus’ divine sonship, discipleship in GMark, the remarkable scene in Revelation 4–5, christology in Acts, Paul’s christology, early Christian appropriation of Psalms, Jesus and Jesus’ name in Justin Martyr, Jesus’ place in early Christian prayer, the social and political consequences of Jesus-devotion, and some other topics as well.

I’m grateful to Baylor University Press for prompting me to put the collection together, and for all their work in converting the various essays to a pleasing book format.  As well, I’m glad that it’s got an affordable price, $39.95 (not bad for a book of nearly 700 pages).

New Book on Philosophers & Theologians Using Social Media

Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media:  Advice, Tips, and Testimonials, ed. Thomas Jay Oord (San Diego, CA:  SacraSage Press, 2017), has contributions from 91 scholars, who describe how they got into using various social media (e.g., blogging, or whatever), what they aim to do, and giving their tips and advice for those considering following their example.

Is a Paradigm Shift Now Called for?

Some comments in response to my previous posting on the textual transmission of early Christian writings (here) reflect the difficulty that some have in facing the need in a given field of study to undergo what Thomas Kuhn famously called a “paradigm shift,” i.e., a change in a fundamental approach or conception about a given subject.

In this case, the shift in question is from an older confident assumption that the early period of the copying of texts in Christian circles was “wild” and chaotic, followed then by a change to a stable and more fixed copying, typically linked to a “recension.”  As I noted in an earlier posting (here), by the end of the 19th century scholars often posited such a major recension of NT writings sometime in/after the 4th century CE.  This seemed intuitively cogent because in the 4th century we have monarchical bishops able to exercise to control over teaching and practices, the emergence of Christian scriptoria, and, by the end of the century, the emergence of a fixed/closed NT canon.

But the discovery of early NT papyri, initially the Chester Beatty papyri, but then still more remarkably P75 and also P66, put that theory in doubt (among those who followed the data).  For especially in P75 (codex containing large portions of Luke and John, dated ca. 175-250 CE) we have a text that is almost exactly that of Codex Vaticanus (the 4th century codex that had earlier been posited as the result of that supposed 4th century recension).[1]  So, clearly, the Vaticanus-type text of the NT writings wasn’t the result of a 4th century recension!

The early (2nd/3rd century CE) papyri do show the predictable types of variants that characterize the manual transmission of texts, and exhibit a certain variety in copyist skills and the influence also of readers.[2]  But we also have examples of fairly exact copying (again, e.g., P75), and scrupulous concern to correct copying errors (e.g., P66).

So, then the “recension paradigm” was adjusted to posit that it happened earlier, sometime in the second century CE.  This produced a picture in which supposedly from ca. 70-150 CE or so, copying was “wild” and chaotic, and the comparative stability in all our 2nd/3rd century NT papyri was the product of this re-dated recension.  (Note the apparent reluctance to abandon the old paradigm, and the effort to salvage it, as Kuhn observed in the sciences too.)

The “evidence” of the supposedly early “wild” copying of NT writings (prior to the late 2nd century) was the way that early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr sometimes use NT writings, appearing to cite them in wording that varies (sometimes markedly) from even our earliest copies.  But, for one thing, this kind of argument fails to take account of the very different practices followed in citing and using texts in the Roman era, compared with the practices followed in copying texts.  For ancient writers often (typically?) cited texts rather freely, often re-wording them for effect, which seems to have been regarded as both acceptable and even clever of them.[3]  Moreover, well after the supposed stabilization of NT writings and the formation of a NT canon, early Christian writers continued to use these texts with striking flexibility and freedom, which makes it a demanding task to use citations in these writers in NT textual criticism.[4]  So, the “free” citation of texts wasn’t confined to the early second century, and so isn’t evidence that the texts cited were handled loosely in copying them.

But if we focus on the only direct evidence of how texts were copied  ̶  ancient copies of them, surely  — we get the sense that copyists . . . copied.  Sometimes carefully, sometimes less so.  Sometimes skilfully, sometimes less so.  It wasn’t their job, however, to make major changes to texts.[5]

In my essay cited already on the NT in the second century I pointed to the social force upon those writings that were frequently read in churches.  This made these texts “corporate property” of circles of believers, and thus made major changes in them less likely.  In a forthcoming book that I’ve blogged on previously (here), Brian Wright shows how widespread the “communal” reading of texts was in the wider environment of the first and second centuries, and gives evidence that this practice also featured in early Christian circles.[6]  The effect of Wright’s study is to show that the social force of repeated corporate reading that curbed major changes in texts was likely active already in the first century and early second century (the time in which NT writings were supposedly handled in a “wild” manner).

In short, it is time for us to consider whether the notion (seemingly cherished by some) that there was an initial period of “wild” handling of writings that later became part of the NT, followed by a supposed fixing of texts sometime in the latter part of the 2nd century, now should be laid aside in favour of a “paradigm” that more adequately reflects the evidence.  Scholars yield long-held notions reluctantly, often striving to salvage them.  That’s not wrong, for new ideas should be critically examined.  But there come times when even cherished notions should be set aside, when, instead of repeating dubious mantras we should boldly consider a new “paradigm.”  That time has probably come with reference to the early transmission of Christian texts.

[1] 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; Reprinted in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, E. J. Epp, G. D. Fee (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 247-73.

[2] James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), is now the major study of the matter.

[3] See, e.g., Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, SNTSMS 74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), on citation practices in the wider Roman world.

[4] Gordon D. Fee, “The Use of Greek Patristic Citations in New Testament Textual Criticism:  The State of the Question,” in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, SD 45 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1993), 344-59.

[5] See, e.g., Barbara Aland, “Die Rezeption des neutestamentlichen Textes in den ersten Jahrhunderten,” in The New Testament in Early Christianty, ed. Jean-Marie Sevrin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1989), 1-38, who also notes the differences between citation/use of texts and copying them.  Also 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; Michael W. Holmes, “Text and Transmission in the Second Century,” in The Reliability of the New Testament:  Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 47-65; Kyoung Shik Min, Die früheste Überlieferung des Matthäusevangeliums (bis zum 3./4. Jh):  Edition und Untersuchung, ANTF, no. 34 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005); and more broadly, Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Lonnie Bell’s forthcoming study of early papyri of John (Leiden:  Brill).

[6] Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus:  A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

Early Textual Transmission of Christian Texts

Assumptions and claims about the transmission of the texts of early Christian writings continue to require correction.  Old assumptions and claims die slowly, advocates sometimes seeming so wedded to them that they exhibit some resistance to the data.

There is, for example, the persistent claim/assumption that there was some kind of “recension” of NT writings sometime in the (late?) second century CE (advocates include Helmut Koester and William Petersen).  I addressed this notion in an earlier posting here.  This sort of claim seems more and more to look like a kind of “rear guard” action against the accumulating manuscript evidence.  Moreover, it’s difficult to posit the ecclesiastical structure(s) that could have carried off such a recension at that early point, supposedly succeeding in erasing all evidence of the “pre-recensional” situation.  Historical work does involve imagination, but it really should be controlled by the evidence!

Likewise, there is the accompanying claim/notion that the second century, or that part of it (conveniently for this assumption) from which we have no extant manuscripts, was a time of “wild” copyist practices.  In this assumption, God knows what copyists got up to, perhaps including making substantial changes to texts, inserting blocks, deleting blocks, re-writing freely, conducting doctrinal purges, etc.  So, it is further asserted, we have no way of knowing what Paul or any of the Gospels writers may actually have penned.

But, again, this notion seems increasingly more dubious.  In an essay published some years ago I sketched several factors and lines of evidence that point to a comparatively more stable transmission of certain texts, especially those treated/read as scriptures in early Christian circles (the pre-publication version of this essay on this blog site here, and see also my review of early papyri, the pre-publication version here).

The second century may well have been a time of “uncontrolled” copying (i.e., no ecclesiastical structure controlling the process), but it does not appear to have been a time of particularly “wild” copying of the biblical texts.  (I borrow here a helpful distinction in terminology from my former PhD student, Lonnie Bell, whose PhD thesis on earliest papyri of the Gospel of John is forthcoming in the NTTSD series from Brill.)

There is variation, to be sure.  But the variation is relatively minor, and none of the supposedly major textual changes posited show up.  The major distinguishing large variants in Codex Bezae, for example, don’t appear.  There are, certainly, some variants that textual critics find “significant,” but they are small and not the sort of thing that some imagine.

By contrast, those writings that likely functioned more as “edifying” texts for personal usage appear to have been susceptible to more substantial changes, as reflected, e.g., in the extant portions of the Greek copies of the Gospel of Thomas or other such texts.  Michael Holmes has distinguished between what he calls “micro” variation, exhibited in the copies of biblical texts, and “macro” variation, exhibited more in some other early Christian texts.  In short, those texts that early became the “textual property” of Christian circles (i.e., read in churches) seem to have enjoyed a comparatively greater stability in transmission.

In sum, the general weight of manuscript evidence of biblical writings reflects a relatively conscientious copying of these texts.  That’s not an apologetic tactic, just a statement of the evidence.  Whatever you make of the contents of these writings, the early Christians seem, by and large, to have transmitted them with some impressive care.

Gemstone Crucifixion Image: A Recent Study

In a recent article, Roy Kotansky provides a fresh analysis of an ancient gemstone that that is regarded as giving one of the earliest visual depictions of the crucified Jesus:  Roy Kotansky, “The Magic ‘Crucifixion Gem’ in the British Museum,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 57.3 (2017): 631-59 (the article available here). (There is an online image of the gemstone in question here.)

Kotansky proposes a cogent fresh transcription and interpretation of the inscribed image and writing on the front (“obverse”) side and also the different inscription on the reverse side.  He proposes that the two sides were inscribed by two different people at two different times, and the two inscriptions reflect somewhat different mentalities.  I find this all very intriguing and plausible.

He accepts a date for the initial image and inscription sometime late 2nd to early 3rd century CE.  This is possible, but it has to be noted that the technique of dating gemstones is at least as approximate as the dating of ancient literary papyri.  A date a century later wouldn’t be out of the question.

But his handling of the visual data, the depiction of the crucified figure, seems to me to include some dubious proposals that are offered far too confidently.  He makes much of the image as showing the crucified figure appearing attached to the crossbar by ropes rather than nails.  He asserts that this likely shows that the gemstone image was carved before the Gospel passion narratives had circulated widely.

Well, for one thing, this claim appears to reflect an inadequate knowledge of the body of (multiple copies of) early Christian papyri that are commonly dated to the same period as Kotansky’s dating of the gemstone.  These papyri show that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John in particular circulated early and were apparently avidly read in early Christian circles. That is, by the putative date of the gemstone, the Gospels were in fact circulating and influential.  (Note also Justin Martyr’s reference to the Gospels read in churches that I cited in a previous posting here, which takes us back to ca. 150 CE or earlier.)

Also, it is worth noting that a similar gemstone in the British Museum also depicts the crucified Jesus without nails (here).  This gemstone is more typically dated 3rd/4th century CE, well past the time when the Gospels (including GJohn, the only account to mention Jesus nailed to his cross) were evidently in wide circulation.  So, it would seem more accurate simply to note that (for whatever reason) the depiction of the crucified Jesus without nails appears to have been used (preferred?) on such gemstones.  It tells us nothing about whether the Gospels were also circulating at the time of the production of these gemstone images.

Kotansky is an established and respected scholar in the study of amulets and such items.  But it seems that he is not sufficiently familiar with the papyrological data.   It’s not unique, however, for a scholar expert in one body of data to be insufficiently aware of other relevant data, and it shows how careful we all have to be in making large claims from something as small as one gemstone.


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