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On Papyri and Integrity

The publication of the fragment of the Gospel of Mark that has been generating excitement and controversy for several years now and the preceding and ensuing accounts about it raise the issue of integrity.

The papyrus fragment (which I posted about most recently here) is now palaeographically dated by its editors as late second/early third century CE.  The earlier claim that it was a first-century fragment that was sounded by Daniel Wallace in a debate with Bart Ehrman a few years ago, was clearly based on incorrect information.  Wallace (in a commendable example of scholarly honesty and integrity) has now given his own account of how he was misled (here).

On another site, Brice Jones has expressed puzzlement (here) about claims that the fragment was offered for sale, given that it is now clear that it was part of the Oxyrhynchus hoard of ancient papyri held now in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford).  The claims implicate the esteemed papyrologist, Dirk Obbink, and Jones poses questions about how he could have supposedly offered the fragment for sale.

The recent news release on the fragment from the Egypt Exploration Society (which own the Oxyrhynchus Papyri) denies that any of the papyri in its collection was ever put up for sale (here).  As a further note, I personally have great confidence in Dirk Obbink as a scholar and a person of honor and integrity.  I will say nothing more about the claim that troubled Jones or the person to whom it is ascribed.  But I trust Obbink, and that means that the claim that he offered the item for sale like some huckster I regard as false and mischievous.

This whole drama has been a sad instance of ballyhoo and perhaps worse distorting what should have been a sober editing and analysis of a small but very important bit of papyrus.  I hope that we shall not see such a case anytime soon.

Consequences of Christian Faith in the Early Period

Another video in the series sponsored by our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins has just been posted here.  In this one, I talk about the “social consequences” of adherence to early Christianity.

Paul, Stephen Fowl, and Trinitarian Doctrine

The contributions to the multi-author volume that I noted yesterday here include a thoughtful essay by Stephen Fowl (who, in my experience, writes only thoughtful work):  “Paul and the Trinity” (pp. 151-61).

He first notes that, although in Paul we have a “christological maximalism,” Paul did not engage the questions that occupied pro and anti figures in the Nicene-era debates, such as how to understand the “generation of the Son.”  So, “both pro- and anti-Nicene theologians made ready recourse to Paul.  If one is to say that there are Trinitarian implications to Paul’s view of God, then one must say that there are Arian implications too” (152).

Fowl then surveys quickly the questions with which Paul was concerned, which mainly focused on the terms on which Gentiles could be treated as full co-religionists by Jewish Jesus-believers.  But Fowl also notes how readily Paul linked God, Jesus, and the Spirit in his discourse and references to divine redemptive and creative work.

Fowl concludes by proposing that we, though we should not ascribe a full-blown Trinitarianism to Paul, “pro-Nicene doctrine” may be viewed as a reasonable way of handling the tensions in Paul’s thought between an “unwavering commitment to God’s singularity and his Christological maximalism in the light of theological and ecclesial pressures different from those Paul faced” (161).

That’s not to close off further discussion, and Fowl would agree.  But his essay demonstrates the kind of patient and irenic exploration of how each age has to formulate doctrine in light of its own conceptual categories and pressing issues.

What Yet Lies Beneath? The Hoard of Unpublished Oxyrhynchus Texts

My note about the newly published items included in vol 83 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri reminded me that to date, over 100 years after the excavations there, the vast hoard of papyri shipped to Britain by Grenfell & Hunt (in hundreds of metal boxes) remains stored and unpublished.  This latest volume brings the number of published items well past 5,000.  But by some estimates this leaves several hundred thousands of papyrus fragments, perhaps more, yet to be studied and published.

That only in this latest volume do we have a remarkably early fragment of the Gospel of Mark, as well as fragments of a couple of other NT writings, shows that gems continue to be found in that hoard.  And who knows what else lies there?

Nearly 50 years ago, on a trans-Atlantic flight, I found myself seated next to a lady who worked for the British Library.  When she discovered that I was (then) a graduate student working in NT textual criticism and with strong manuscript interests, she said gave me her card, and encouraged me to visit her.  “There are crates of to-date unexamined material down in the basement,” she said, “You might want to see it.”  Sadly, my pre-booked itinerary did not permit it.

I think that the bulk of the Oxyrhynchus material is now housed in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), where the editing process is centered.  We must all be grateful to those scholars who have developed the expertise to do this work, and who quietly go about it without fanfare.  Strength to their hands!


Historical Roots of “Trinitarian” Theology

I’m pleased to have a contribution included in a recently-published multi-author volume: The Bible and Early Trinitarian Theology, eds. Christopher A. Beeley and Mark E. Weedman (Catholic University of America Press, 2018; the publisher’s online catalogue entry here).

The book arose from a multi-year consultation unit in the Society of Biblical Literature, and I am honored to be included with a stellar group of scholars in NT and Patristics.  After an introduction by the editors, here are the contents:

“Scholarship on the Old Testament Roots of Trinitarian Theology:  Blind Spots and Blurred Vision,” Bogdan G. Bucur

“Observations on the ‘Monotheism’ Affirmed in the New Testament,” Larry W. Hurtado

“Trinitarian Theology and the Fourth Gospel,” Harold W. Attridge

“The Johannine Riddles and Their Place in the Development of Trinitarian Theology,” Paul N. Anderson

“The Gospel of John and Early Trinitarian Thought:  The Unity of God in John, Irenaesus, and Tertullian,” Marianne Meye Thompson

“The Johannine Prologue before Origen,” Mark J. Edwards

“Basil of Caesarea on John 1:1 as an Affirmation of Pro-Nicene Trinitarian Doctrine,” Mark DelCogliano

“Paul and the Trinity,” Stephen E. Fowl

“Paul and His Legacy to Trinitarian Theology,” Adela Yarbro Collins

“The Image and Unity of God:  The Role of Colossians 1 in Theological Controversy,”   Jennifer R. Strawbridge

“The Spirit and the Letter:  2 Corinthians 3:6 and the Legacy of Origen in Fourth-Century Greek Exegesis,” Christopher A. Beeley

“Augustine’s Move from a Johannine to a Pauline Trinitarian Theology,” Mark E. Weedman

My contribution is a revised form of a presentation originally given at a conference in Lausanne several years ago.  I’ve uploaded the pre-publication form of the essay to this blog site under the “Selected Published Essays” tab here.

That Curious Fragment of the Gospel of Mark–Now Published

It appears that the much-touted “first-century” fragment of the Gospel of Mark has, at last, been published, inThe Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXXXIII (Graeco-Roman Memoirs) (Egypt Exploration Society, 2018).  I haven’t had access to the volume yet, nor have many others.  But already there are blog reports on it, e.g., here and here.

The brief notice issued by the Egypt Exploration Society today here follows:

“In the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, volume LXXXIII text 5345, Professor Obbink and Dr Colomo publish a fragment from a papyrus codex (book). The two sides of the papyrus each preserve brief traces of a passage, both of which come from the gospel of Mark. After rigorous comparison with other objectively dated texts, the hand of this papyrus is now assigned to the late second to early third century AD. This is the same text that Professor Obbink showed to some visitors to Oxford in 2011/12, which some of them reported in talks and on social media as possibly dating to the late first century AD on the basis of a provisional dating when the text was catalogued many years ago. Papyrus 5345 was excavated by Grenfell and Hunt and has never been for sale. No other unpublished fragments of New Testament texts in the EES collection have been identified as earlier than the third century AD.”  (Emphasis mine)

The official Oxyrhynchus number of the item is LXXXIII.5345.  A photo of the item should be included in the volume, as well as a transcription and palaeographical commentary.  The Mark fragment includes parts of 1:7-9, 16-18.  (In addition, the volume is said to include newly edited fragments of Luke and Philemon, as well as a variety of non-biblical texts.)

Though not now judged to be “first-century,” this fragment of Mark is still important, doubling the number of manuscript witnesses to GMark from before 300 CE (the only other one being the Chester Beatty Gospels codex, P45).


When did “Gospel” First = a Book?

My recent postings about the NT Gospels elicited a reminder of an essay by James Kelhoffer:  “‘How Soon a Book’ Revisited: EUAGGELION As a Reference to ‘Gospel’ Materials in the First Half of the Second Century,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 95 (2004): 1-34.  The essay was republished in his volume of collected essays:  Conceptions of “Gospel” and Legitimacy in Early Christianity, WUNT (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 39-75.

This meaty and detailed study addresses the questions about when the word “gospel” (Greek:  evangelion) first came to designate a book.  Everyone agrees that its initial early Christian usage was a reference to the message which Jesus was central (e.g., Romans 1:15).  It could also refer to the activity involved in disseminating that message (e.g., Romans 1:9; 15:16).  Everyone also agrees that by the mid-second century the term was being used also to refer to certain writings about Jesus (as, e.g., in Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 66.3; ca. 153 CE).  Indeed, Justin’s wording suggests that the term was at that point already in common usage in Christian circles.

Graciously acknowledging earlier studies and positions, even as he corrects and challenges them, Kelhoffer argues that the term “gospel” was probably being used to designate what I have called “Jesus books” by sometime 100-130 CE.  He builds his case by detailed analysis of texts in several early Christian writings, especially Didache and 2 Clement.

His proposal is that the use of the term in the opening words (and title) of GMark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” may have inspired some early reader or copyist to extend the term to designate books about Jesus.  This could have happened, so Kelhoffer, as early as the circulation of two or more such writings, i.e., as soon as both GMark and GMatthew were circulating.

Those seriously interested in these matters will surely need to take account of this study.

The Gospels: Some Reading Suggestions

In light of the kind of comments and questions that have come in over the past week or two in response to my recent postings about the Gospels, I think that a few reading suggestions are in order.  It is rather tiresome to have individuals making confident claims about this or that, which only reveal their lack of acquaintance with the rich body of scholarly work that has gone into almost any historical question about the Gospels.

As I’ve said before, questions are always welcome.  But bold, sometimes strident, claims that rest obviously on ignorance are  . . . just tiresome.  And, despite the convenience of the Internet for many things, it’s still unavoidable (!) to have to sit down and do some serious reading if you want to investigate anything seriously.  So, a very few initial key reading suggestions on a few matters.  They in turn have rich further bibliographical resources.

  • On the formation of the fourfold Gospel, the origins of the traditional authorship ascriptions, and related matters, a good place to start is this one:  Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 2000).   Hengel was a prolific NT scholar, in my view perhaps the most impressive NT scholar of the late 20th century.  Some of his views are contestable, to be sure, but to do so you would have to develop an equivalent wide acquaintance with the data (and that won’t come easy!).
  • On the early history of the textual transmission of the Gospels and other NT writings, this multi-author volume is now the “go-to” work:Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).  This collection of 21 essays covers these major topics: “The Textual and Scribal Culture of Early Christianity,” “The Manuscript Tradition” (analysis of the early manuscript evidence for NT writings, book by book), and “Early Citation and Use of New Testament Writings” (with a particular focus on 2nd century figures and sources).


Gospels and Names

My posting about “anonymous gospels” certainly has elicited interest.  I’ll try here to emphasize some points and hopefully clarify some matters.

First, the main observation in my previous posting was that none of the authors (and they were authors) of the NT Gospels included his name in his text.  This immediately contrasts, of course, with Paul’s regular identification of himself in his epistles, and the prophet John in Revelation, just to cite NT texts.  And also note the direct claim of authorship in the so-called “Gospel of Thomas.”  (But “Hebrews” is the other, even more curious, example of an early and influential anonymous text.)

The reason(s) why these authors didn’t explicitly identify themselves are debatable, and possibly varied.  In the case of the text we call “1 Clement,” for example, we think it was written and sent as from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth.  It reads very much as the product of a single author.  But, if so, he/she doesn’t claim the work, probably precisely because it was sent as communication from the Roman church, and so carried its authority, not that of its author.

But the traditional ascriptions of authorship to the NT Gospels must be very early.  A number of scholars place the formation of the (unusually phrased) traditional titles (“the gospel according to X”) in the early second century, and Hengel proposes the late first century.  Indeed, it quite plausibly (in my view) may reflect a view/knowledge of the matter that circulated along with these texts from the moment of their composition.

It bears noting that these ascriptions include two names of figures who weren’t apostles:  “Mark” and “Luke”.  The authority of figures known in early Christian circles as apostolic figures, such as “Matthew” and “John”, would have given to the texts linked to them a certain standing.  So, it’s interesting that the two other NT Gospels aren’t attributed directly to such figures.  Instead, “Mark” and “Luke” are referred to in early Christian comments as companions and associates of Peter and Paul respectively.  So, their texts carry some authority in a more derived manner.

Therefore, if as scholars commonly judge, “Mark” was the first of these texts written, and even if the traditional authorship was attached from the outset, this text is noteworthy in having such a strong effect without itself claiming apostolic authorship, or making any claim at all about authorship.  On the one hand, it generated somewhat similar compositions, most obviously “Matthew” and “Luke.”  On the other hand, each of the authors of these latter texts produced a distinguishable “rendition” of the Jesus-narrative.  Perhaps part of the reason for the influence of the Gospel according to Mark is that the association of “Mark” with Peter goes back to those earliest years after the text appeared (noting here Hengel’s case for a date ca. 69 CE).

In any case, the four NT Gospels are perhaps the four most widely read books ever written.  And, whatever your stance as to their contents and purposes, you have to admit that they are historically exceptional.

(For further reading, e.g., Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [London:  SCM; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000.)

Anonymous Gospels

Although early in their circulation the NT Gospels were ascribed to the familiar four figures (probably sometime early 2nd century), they actually originated as anonymous, which deserves more notice than scholars have typically given to the matter.  Noting that many OT books and several NT books are anonymous, David Aune judged this “a striking literary feature” that, nevertheless, “has been almost completely neglected.”[i]

For, in the literary environment of the authors of the Gospels, the overwhelmingly customary practice was for authors of literary works (such as historical or biographical narratives) to identify themselves, and claim credit for their works.  This was often done as part of the formal prologues to their works.[ii]  So, to release substantial works such as the NT Gospels anonymously was very unusual, amounting to a significant departure from literary practices of that time.[iii]

In looking for scholarly attention to the matter, the most recent discussion I could find was an informative article by Armin D. Baum.[iv]  This study documents Greek and Roman literary conventions, showing how striking the anonymity of the NT Gospels is.  But Baum notes that anonymity of what he calls “historiographical” texts (narratives) is also characteristic of OT writings of this type, and, he contends, and was practiced more widely in the Ancient Near East.[v]

So, it appears that the authors of the NT Gospels may have been influenced by the pattern of authorial anonymity in the OT narratives that they considered scriptures.  It is dangerous to try to explore their intentions.  Did they consciously imitate the anonymity of these OT texts, perhaps thereby wishing to link their narratives with those?  Greek and Roman authors identified themselves, wishing credit for their works.  Did the authors of the NT Gospels think it inappropriate to identify themselves as the authors of these texts, wishing instead simply to foreground the contents and simply serve the message/cause?  In any case, the evident individuality of the four Gospels reflects the work of four authors.  But, for whatever reason, they did not wish to foreground themselves, and that is noteworthy.

As we move into the second century, however, the four Gospels were ascribed to the now-traditional authors.  But, as others have noted, the “superscriptions” that identify them, for example, “the Gospel according to Matthew (κατα Μαθθαιον) are all unusually phrased.[vi]  More typically, the name of an author was placed it in a genitive construction in relationship to the work.  The phrasing of these superscriptions identifies “the Gospel” as the subject shared by all four texts, each one of which presents a version of it.

The anonymity of the NT Gospels also contrasts with the more direct authorial claims of subsequent “apocryphal” gospels.   For example, the opening lines of the Gospel of Thomas identify the text as “the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke, as Judas Thomas wrote them.”  These later texts tend to claim some unique revelation or insight granted to this or that named individual (and denied to all other disciples of Jesus).

Typically, commentaries take little note of the anonymity of the Gospels, but it deserves more attention, given how unusual it apparently was.


[i] David E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 35.

[ii] This practice was typically followed by Jewish authors of the Greco-Roman period too.  E.g., the prologue to Josephus’ Jewish War, 1.1-3.

[iii] In John 21:24, an unidentified “we” vouch for the truthfulness of “the disciple who witnesses about these things and wrote these things,” which appears to point to the putative author of the preceding Gospel of John.  But this figure is not named.  Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1 address these texts to a Theophilos (not otherwise known), but the author does not identify himself.

[iv] Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” Novum Testamentum 50.2 (2008): 120-42.

[v] Baum notes, on the other hand, that OT Wisdom and Prophetic texts typically were linked to named figures.

[vi] Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 2000), 48-53.

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