Skip to content

More on Rethinking the Paradigm

In an earlier posting (here), I asked whether we need to rethink the now-standard paradigm/model for the textual transmission of the Gospels.  In the interest of explaining further why I ask the question, I’ve now uploaded the pre-publication form of my essay that concludes the recent mult-author volume on the “pericope adulterae” (John 7:53–8:11 in the traditional text of John).  That essay is accessible under the “Selected Essays” tab here.

Especially in pp. 9-12 (of this pre-publication form of the essay), I briefly sketch some observations that suggest to me that we may need to re-think how we picture the transmission of the Gospels in the early centuries.  In particular, I point to the most sizable and salient variants, the pericope of the adulteress and the “long ending” of Mark.  It is commonly thought that these variants first appeared as early as the second century CE.  This may well be so.  But, in any case, to judge from our earliest manuscript evidence, they did not apparently acquire widescale acceptance as part of the text of the Gospels till later, perhaps not until sometime by or after the fifth century CE.

So, if there were factors that generated these variants in the second century (to accept for the purposes of discussion the common assumption), there seem to have been other factors operating much later that led to the “success” of these variants, such that they became thereafter part of the “received” text of the Gospels.  This means that the simple paradigm of “early wild” and later “stabilized” transmission of the Gospels isn’t quite adequate.

Our model/paradigm of the textual transmission needs to include the evidence that (1) the earliest period of textual transmission of the Gospels wasn’t simply “wild” but, actually, more interesting, including a surprising degree of stability evidenced in a number of earliest Greek witnesses, and (2) if the second century was a time when many textual variants first arose, including large ones such as the two mentioned, by the fifth century CE and thereafter there were additional factors (thus far not adequately identified) that enabled these variants to obtain a commonly accepted place in the text of the Gospels, a greater acceptance than these variants held in the earlier period.

In short, a more sophisticated or complex paradigm seems to me to be required, with more complexity both in the earlier and subsequent centuries.


A Reference Work on Biblical “Background”

The Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity, eds. Edwin M. Yamauchi and Marvin R. Wilson (Hendrickson, 2017) deserves attention from anyone seeking a handy resource on a multitude of topics on the historical context of the biblical writings.  The work originated as a 4-volume publication, but now is available in a one-volume edition, the publisher’s online catalog entry here.

Each entry surveys the topic as referred to in biblical texts, and then also in the ancient near eastern and Roman contexts.  There aren’t in-text references to scholarly work, but copious bibliographies complete each entry.

The scope and idea of the work differs from the familiar Bible dictionaries, which tend to have as their entries specific people, items and topics in the Bible itself.  This work focuses more broadly on topics that take readers into the cultural and historical context of the biblical texts.  So, e.g., we have entries on Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Banks & Loans, Boats & Ships, Armies, Clothing, Furniture, Hair, Jewelry, Metallurgy, Weapons, and Wild Animals & Hunting (to cite only a few of the 115 entries).  For other reviews, see, e.g., here, and here.

The intended readership seems to be broad, including students, general readers, and pastors.  But scholars will find it helpful too, as its breadth of coverage will almost certainly help scholars who seek to explore topics outside their own specialism.  And, for a hardback volume of over 1,800 pages (including 23 pages of full-colour photos at the end), the price is commendably reasonable.

Textual “Mentalities” in the Ancient World

The question has arisen in recent discussion whether in the ancient Roman world there was the concept of, and concern for, an accurate or fixed text of literary works.  Observations by the great Eric G. Turner in his splendid book, Greek Papyri:  An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1980) came to my mind.

In his chapter on “Papyri and Greek Literature,” and especially in the section on “Alexandrian scholarship and the papyri,” Turner has some interesting discussion relating to this question.  In particular, he observed that the early Ptolemaic-period copies of literary texts often exhibit a “lack of respect for the accurate recording of an author’s words,” demonstrated in “adding extra lines, leaving out lines known to us, and containing substantial variant phrases or formulas,” and he judged that these divergences cannot be ascribed simply to “mere carelessness by scribes” (p. 107).

He then makes a comparison with copies of the same literary texts from the Roman period, in which, he notes, “the coefficient of error is not so high, nor is there so great a bulk of variants.”  Instead, in the Roman period, “there is a steady respect for the authority of the text” (108).  (He distinguishes between this level of respect for the text of literary writings and the greater “indifference” shown in copies of documentary texts and in quotation of texts in ancient philological commentaries (109).  (I have pointed to a similar difference in the way that ancient texts were cited, often very loosely, and the comparatively greater care shown in copying the same texts.)

Now, Turner credits this concern as originating in Alexandrian scholarly circles, but he judged that their concerns and work “probably reached the general public through the schoolmasters, who attended their lectures and read their commentaries” (109).  But, however it came about, “from about the middle of the second century before Christ” copies of literary texts “conform more closely than those of the third century to the standard text,” no longer exhibiting “whole series of additional lines or exuberant random variants” (109).

The principles that guided this early text-critical work are varied, including some “subjective” ones that modern textual critics would not employ.  The point here isn’t the quality of the methods but, instead, that their efforts exhibit a notion of better or worse copies of texts, and efforts to produce better ones.

One pedestrian example of this is the oft-cited letter from a Julius Plakidus to his father (P.Petaus 30; 2nd century CE) in which he says that a travelling bookseller came by and showed him a number of parchment books (membranas).  Julius judged six of them not worth purchasing, but another eight “we compared/collated” (with copies of the same texts already in his possession?), and Julius paid 100 drachmas for these.  (For the text and an online discussion, see here.)

So, if this concern for textual accuracy can be shown to have become operative from the second century BCE, are we to think that, somehow, early Christians of the second century CE were immune to it, or, for some reason, operated in a different mode?  Over the last century or so of scholarship, the general principle has been that early Christianity should be seen as genuinely a part of its wider cultural environment.

There are, to be sure, indications of distinguishing features of early Christianity, as I have noted in a recent book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).  These include a strong “bookishness” exhibited in an impressive amount of effort given to composing, copying, disseminating, and reading texts.  As well, early Christians seem to have favored the codex bookform well beyond (or well ahead of) the wider Roman-era culture.  But are we to think that their distinguishing features included a lack of a notion of the integrity of literary texts?  I rather doubt that myself.

Of course, as anyone who examines earliest Christian manuscripts of known texts will know, the quality of copying varies.  To cite an example, the several hundred copying errors in P66 (a copy of the Gospel of John) are well known.  But the same, not very good, copyist appears then to have gone back over his work, making hundreds of corrections.  So, this copyist clearly had a notion of textual accuracy; he just wasn’t very skillful (at least in his first attempt) in achieving it!

As I noted in an essay some years back, there appears to have been a certain spectrum of copying practices in the early period:  “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Text, Collections, and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception:  New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, eds. J.W. Childers & D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ:  Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27 (the pre-publication form of the essay here).  This spectrum included (among some copyists) care for accuracy, as exhibited even in some copies apparently intended for personal usage, such as P22 (the pre-publication form of my study of this papyrus of part of the Gospel of John here).  But, again, whatever the skills of the various copyists, and along with the evidence of a certain fluidity in the transmission of some texts, we should also grant that the notion of textual accuracy was there in the culture.

I cite Turner’s discussion as another example of the importance of forming our views of the ancient Roman world and early Christianity with adequate attention to the hard data, and when it comes to our views of ancient attitudes toward texts, adequate attention to the work of papyrologists such as Turner.

The Kingdom of God is “Within your reach”

It’s amazing how slowly the work of papyrologists influences the work of other scholars.  Here’s an example.  In Luke 17:20-21, Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God will come, and Jesus responds exhorting that it doesn’t come “with observation” (a term used also for medical observation of symptoms) and by pointing “here or there,” for the kingdom of God is ἐντὸς ὑμῶν (“entos humon”).  

The plural form of the pronoun (“humon“) is commonly recognized as calling into question the translation of the phrase in the KJV, “the kingdom of God is within you” (as if in some sort of mystical sense.)  So, commentaries now typically prefer something like, “the kingdom of God is among you” or “in your midst”.

But 70 years ago, C. H. Roberts pointed out that the expression (and variations of it) in papyri roughly contemporary with the NT writings more reasonably meant that something or someone was “within reach,” or “to hand.”  (C.H. Roberts, “The Kingdom of Heaven,” Harvard Theological Review 41, 1948, pp. 1-8).   So, the phrase should probably be rendered:  “the kingdom of God is within your reach,” or “near to hand.”  (As commentators commonly observe, the statement here probably alludes to Jesus’ ministry as the vehicle of the kingdom of God.)

Commentators can be forgiven, I suppose, because even the important resource, the Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich/Danker lexicon of the NT and early Christian literature, buries the reference to Roberts’ article and its results well down into the entry for ἐντός.

(The phrasing of the statement in The Gospel of Thomas (logion 3), “the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you,” reflects the emphasis on interiority in this esoteric-leaning writing.)


Justin and Manuscripts

Nearly 1,200 years separate Justin Martyr from the earliest manuscript of his works (Parisinus graecus 450, completed 11 September 1364, the only manuscript of independent value for Justin).  I mention this as a small footnote to my posting yesterday about Justin and his references to, and knowledge of, the Gospels.

Some people make much of the chronological distance between the composition of the Gospels, for example, and our earliest manuscript data, which, by contrast is considerably less.  We have portions of copies of Matthew and John, for example, palaeographically dated as early as the late second century, and more and larger portions dated to the third century.  So, about 100 to 150 years or so between composition and earliest manuscripts.

And we have portions from an impressive number of those manuscripts, each of them an independent witness to their respective texts.  So, you see what I mean when I exhort some perspective in matters.  This is all the more relevant when we take account of the lifespan of ancient papyrus manuscripts, which have been shown to remain in use for well over a century, sometimes a few centuries.  So this means that the predecessor copies of texts remained available and in circulation, along with copies made from them.  It wasn’t a situation, thus, in which earlier copies disappeared, to be wholly replaced by new ones.  The implications for textual transmission should be obvious.

But, to return to Justin, I highly recommend the recent edition of his Apologies by Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr:  Apologies (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009).  They provide a full and detailed discussion of the text-critical data (3-31), as well as “the Man and His Work” (32-56), and “Justin’s World” (57-70).

They offer a novel (but cogently argued) proposal that what is typically designated now the “Second Apology” is actually “outtake” material left from Justin’s final editing of his Apology.  They also note the intriguing idea that Justin might have been the original object of Celsus’ attack on Christianity in his treatise, The True Word.

In any case, I cite a few of their appreciative statements (70):

  • “Christianity in Rome would never again know such intellectual vitality and diversity as it enjoyed in the second and third centuries.”
  • “It is likely that it is to Justin that we owe the very category of ‘heresiology’.  If this is so, it might be said that no other Christian writer after the New Testament had so large and enduring an impact on the shaping of Christian discourse.”
  • “The path Justin cut through the thickets of contemporary speculation, Jewish, pagan, and Christian, was to become, from shortly after his death until the present, the broad highway of Christian theology.”


Justin Martyr and the Gospels

In a response to my blog-post about early textual transmission of the Gospels, Brent Nongbri points to Justin Martyr in support of the idea that in the early 2nd century we can’t really think of the texts of the Gospels as we know them (or perhaps can’t be sure that these texts were in circulation at the time).  Nongbri’s posting is here.

So, indeed, let’s have a look at Justin, whose major writings to consider are his Apology (addressed the Emperor Antoninus Pius) and his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (presented as a debate/discussion between Justin and three Jewish interlocutors about the validity of the Christian faith, particularly claims about Jesus).[1]  I judge that the evidence from Justin works against the line that Nongbri takes.

Justin’s frequent use of the term apomnēmoneumata (15x, often translated “memoirs”) comes in for attention.  Nongbri seems to doubt that we can view the term as referring to the familiar NT Gospels.  Well, it’s surely important to note that Justin actually identifies the writings in question as the writings also called “gospels” (ἅ καλεῖται εὐαγγέλια, 1 Apology 66.3).  So, clearly, Justin knows this term as a label for certain specific texts.  For him the term “gospel” is the Christian message and the tradition about Jesus, to be sure, but the term has also come to designate a certain set of texts.

Moreover, in Dialogue 103.8, Justin refers to these “memoirs” as “composed by his [Jesus’] apostles and those who accompanied them.”  This implies that Justin not only knew certain texts as “gospels,” but also thought of them as composed/authored by specific individuals.  Indeed, his reference to their authors as “apostles and those who accompanied them” suggests to many scholars that Justin has in mind here our familiar NT Gospels, two of which were (at a very early point) ascribed to apostles (Matthew and John), and two of which were ascribed to figures linked with apostles (Mark, linked to Peter; and Luke, linked to Paul).[2]

One might ask why Justin refers to these texts as “apomnēmoneumata,” and the obvious answer is that both of the writings in which he uses the term are posed as addressing non-Christians, for whom the term had an established and respected meaning for a genre of literature (whereas, “gospel” did not).  As Oskar Skarsaune observed, apomnēmoneumata had an association with Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates.[3]  The term didn’t designate loose notes or sub-literary texts, but, instead, connoted texts that conveyed the authentic remembrances of a great teacher, whether Socrates or (for Justin) Jesus.

Moreover, detailed studies of Justin’s use of his scriptures (which became the “Old Testament”) and early Christian material shows that he sometimes quotes the Gospels directly, and at other points uses writings that appear to have been composed by drawing upon the NT Gospels (and perhaps also other texts such as Gospel of Peter).[4]  This is a somewhat similar to Justin’s use of “Old Testament” scriptures, which involved both direct (sometimes extended) citation and also the use of “testimony sources” (Christian compilations of “proof texts” and accompanying interpretations).[5]

In sum, Justin (writing mid-second century CE) gives us what I take to be evidence that (1) certain texts had come to be known in Christian circles as “gospels,” (2) these texts were regarded as composed by known figures of apostolic standing or linkage, (3) these texts were among those read in the worship gatherings of Christians (1 Apology 67.3), which made them what we may call the corporate property of these circles, and (4) these texts enjoyed a particular value and authority.[6]

Now, in light of these things, it seems entirely appropriate to practice textual criticism of these texts.  Whatever the process(es) by which they were composed, by Justin’s time at the latest, they seem to have acquired an identity, even a certain textual stability, and so were not protean entities that could be shaped however one wished.[7]  To be sure, people continued to draw upon these texts in composing others, such as Tatian’s Diatessaron or (as I see it) texts such as the so-called “Egerton Gospel.”  But this should not be confused with the copying of the Gospels, or indication that, at least by the mid-second century, the Gospels had no textual integrity of their own.[8]  So, I maintain that textual criticism has not been rendered invalid or passé by our knowledge of ancient compositional and editing practices.


[1] For those who can handle Greek, Edgar J. Goodspeed (ed.), Die ältesten Apologeten:  Texte mit kurzen Einleitungen (Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1914; reprint 1984) is a handy resource; but especially for Justin’s Apology see now Denis Minns and Paul Parvis (eds.), Justin, Philosopher and Martyr:  Apologies (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009).  Older English translations of Justin’s works are in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (orig. 1885; reprint, Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1994).

[2] E. g., Oskar Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds, eds. Sara Parvis and Paul Foster (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2007), 72 (53-76).  This essay is essential reading for any view of Justin’s use of the Gospels and other texts.

[3] Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” 71-72.  “Justin evidently sees considerable argumentative value in the fact that these Memoirs were put into writing at an early stage, by Jesus’ closest disciples, the apostles, or by their immediate followers” (73, emphasis his).

[4] See the full discussion in Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” 64-74.  In the same volume, see Paul Foster, “The Relationship between the Writings of Justin Martyr and the So-Called Gospel of Peter,” 104-12.  And also see C. E. Hill, “Was John’s Gospel among Justin’s Apostolic Memoirs?” 88-94, arguing cogently “yes.”

[5] Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible,” 55-61.

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

[7] The Gospels weren’t the only texts that were acquiring a special status at an early date.  It’s also worth noting that the author of 2 Peter accuses “the ignorant and unstable” of twisting the meaning of Paul’s letters, not re-writing their text (3:15-16).  This author (sometime 70-130 CE?) has what he regards as a complete collection of Paul’s letters.

[8] Of course, “textual integrity” doesn’t mean that there weren’t textual variants, which makes textual criticism necessary.

Women in the Jesus-Movement

Last night in the UK, Channel 4 aired a TV documentary on the evidence of women’s involvement in the ministry of Jesus and the earliest Jesus-movement, featuring Professor Helen Bond (New College, Edinburgh) and Professor Joan Taylor (Kings College London), available here.  On the whole, and for the popular TV audience for which it was prepared, the programme was interesting and informative.  The main point was (quite rightly) to bring to the foreground the place of women among Jesus’ followers and in early Christianity thereafter.

For many (most?) TV viewers of the programme, the named women who were highlighted (from Luke 8:1-3, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Salome), and the references to many other women followers as well, were perhaps new things to consider.  And, of course, with scholars in any discipline, I’m always grateful when the popular media take account of my subject area.

Professors Bond and Taylor performed their task well, combining some serious discussion of key texts, Greek words, and archaeological data with the sort of “light touch” necessary for TV.  One could quibble about this or that particular item, such as Professor Taylor’s proposal that Greek wording in the reference to Jesus’ followers sent out “by two” in Luke 10:1 (ἀνὰ δύο δύο) intentionally echoed the Greek text of Genesis 7:9, which portrays the animals entering Noah’s ark “two by two, male and female.”  Professor Taylor suggested that the phrasing in Luke perhaps meant that Jesus sent out his followers in (unmarried) male/female pairs.

We do have Paul’s reference to other apostles and “the brothers of the Lord” travelling about with their wives (1 Corinthians 9:4).  But in the ancient cultural setting it would have been quite another matter for unmarried male/female pairs to travel about without generating suspicions and accusations.  And among the accusations against Jesus in the Gospels, we don’t have reflection of that sort of scandal.

But, also, the textual data aren’t quite so simple.  For one thing, the manuscript witnesses are actually rather strongly divided over the variant readings in Luke 10:1,  ἀνὰ δύο δύο or ἀνὰ δύο.  The editors of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT indicate their lack of confidence as to which is to be preferred by printing the first reading and putting the second δύο in square brackets.

The δύο δύο reading, however, may well be the prior one, for it reflects a Koine idiom attested in various other instances as well.[1]  The other variant, ἀνὰ δύο, is somewhat more “Atticizing” and may have been preferred by some readers of Luke as a bit more elegant.  But, in any case, the δύο δύο variant isn’t really remarkable, and for ancient readers wouldn’t necessarily comprise an allusion to the Genesis passage.  So, on grammatical grounds, too, I don’t find Professor Taylor’s proposal persuasive.

Such quibbles aside, the larger force of the programme is, in my view, to be applauded:  Women, many women, were among Jesus’ followers, made substantial contributions (both in effort and finances) to his ministry, and continued to exercise important and leading roles in earliest Christian circles.

TV producers, of course, have to make grand claims to generate an audience.  But it should be noted that the recognition that women were important in Jesus’ ministry and earliest Christianity is hardly new or surprising, at least in scholarly circles.  I think immediately of Witherington’s 1988 volumes, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, and Women in the Earliest Churches.[2]  A few years earlier (1983), there appeared perhaps one of the most widely noted books of the late 20th century, by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, which likewise highlighted the place of women.[3]  As well, there were studies pointing to evidence of women leaders in early Christianity, such as the sort of archaeological data treated in the TV programme.[4]  So, for several decades now scholars have been producing studies of the matter.

But there is hardly a place for footnotes in a TV programme, and, as I say, for most viewers the observations presented were new, perhaps startling.  So, Professors Bond and Taylor performed a useful service in dissemination of scholarly findings, and presented a commendably sane and educative programme.  It’s so nice to have this sort of programme, instead of the sometimes zany ideas that get TV time.  Congratulations to my two colleagues, and may there be more TV programmes of similar quality.


[1] E.g., J. H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. 1: Prolegomena (3rd ed.; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1908), 97; and see also Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, 172-73.  The expression δύο δύο appears also, for example, in Mark 6:7, where it specifically refers to the Twelve sent out in pairs, and note also similar constructions in Mark 6:39 (συμπόσια συμπόσια = “in groups”) v. 40 (πρασιαὶ πρασιαὶ = “in bunches”).

[2] Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); idem, Women in the Earliest Churches, SNTSMS 59 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[3] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1988).

[4] Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo, eds., Women and Christian Origins (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity:  Epigraphical and Literary Studies, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000); Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).  Earlier, Bernadette Brooten pointed to similar evidence of women in ancient Judaism: Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, Brown Judaic Studies 36 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982).  But note also Kathleen E. Corley, Women and the Historical Jesus:  Feminist Myths of Christian Origins (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2002).

Which New Paradigm?

In a recent blog posting, Brent Nongbri takes issue with my postings advocating a new paradigm in the study of earliest textual transmission of Christian texts such as the Gospels:  here.  Brent promises further postings, which I’ll look forward to with interest.  But, essentially, he seems to me to advocate a version of the one that I think needs replacing.

I should also note that, contrary to what Brent seems to assume, the case laid out in the recently published monograph by Lonnie Bell, The Early Textual Transmission of John: Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD, no. 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2018) doesn’t actually stand or fall on the palaeographical dating of P66 or P75.  Bell’s study instead bases itself on the full number of extant portions of 2nd and 3rd century manuscripts of GJohn (which number about 17).  His aim was to assess the extent and nature of textual variation in this pool of data.  Colleagues will have to read the study before making judgments about it.

Nongbri refers to a recent journal article by Matthew D. C. Larsen, “Accidental Publication, Unfinished Texts and the Traditional Goals of New Testament Textual Criticism,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 39.4 (2017): 362-87.  Nongbri seems to think that it points persuasively in the direction of a very different paradigm, but I’m not so sure.  The article is an advance notice on Larsen’s forthcoming monograph, and so I look forward to studying it in due course.  But, as for the journal article itself, I find it more ambitious than persuasive.  I’ll sketch briefly my reasons.

The first (and major) portions of the article are given over to a survey of textual practices that I should have thought were already familiar to scholars in ancient textual studies.  Some Roman-era authors alleged unauthorized publication of their works by others (which may or may not be a literary topos used by some authors of the day).  We also knew that some authors and groups produced revised versions of their literary works.

Indeed, in NT studies these ideas have been drawn upon, for example, in proposals about a “proto-Mark” or “proto-Luke.”  Likewise, it is pretty clear that two or three editions of Paul’s epistle to the Romans circulated (Harry Y. Gamble, The Textual History of the Letter to the Romans, SD 42 [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977]).  In short, I don’t think that NT textual critics are quite as naive in these matters as Larsen seems to allege.

Larsen contends, however, that these phenomena make the traditional practice and aims of textual criticism invalid; but I fail to see why.  Some of the phenomena he cites seem to me somewhat less than relevant, such as the passage in 4 Ezra (14:23-26, 37-48) where Ezra is instructed to have 94 books written, 24 of which are to be made public and the others kept secret.  Unless I miss something, the text doesn’t seem to present us with an example of the sort of “accidental” publication that Larsen claims., or any reason to call NT textual criticism to a halt.

Larsen makes much of early references to the Gospel of Mark as hypomnemata and apomnemoneumata, which he urges should be taken as “disorderly or unpolished notes” (377).  Larsen proposes that Matthew be seen, not as “a separate piece of literature from Mark,” but, instead, as giving “alterations of Mark” that are “fairly minor” (378).  I leave it for others to judge whether this characterization of either writing fits.  But, given that GMatthew is some 65% again larger than GMark, it seems to me a bit of a stretch to characterize GMatthew as a “fairly minor” alteration.

Moreover, Justin Martyr refers to all the Gospels as apomnemoneumata (1 Apology 66.3; 67.3), and in contexts that hardly were intended to represent the Gospels as simply “disorderly or unpolished notes.”  So I think Larsen may make too much rest on this term.

To be sure, I agree that GMatthew is what I would call a “friendly” appropriation of the GMark, incorporating about 90% of GMark.  But the extended birth narrative, the large body of sayings material (so carefully crafted into five discourse-blocks), the extended resurrection-appearance narrative, and the rather well-known Matthean emphases and vocabulary all seem to most of us to amount to a new work in its own right, not simply a revised version of GMark.

And it appears that ancient Christians took Mark and Matthew as quite distinguishable works as well.  Perhaps the most obvious indication of this is that both works were preserved and copied.  GMatthew didn’t eclipse GMark (although, to be sure, GMark was cited and copied far less frequently than GMatthew in the earliest period when the Gospels circulated individually).  Contrast this with the disappearance of “Q” and the other sources often thought to have been used by the authors of the Gospels.

Also, in my view, another major problem in Larsen’s case (at least as put forth in the article) is precisely his blurring of the actions of composition, editing, “publication,” and copying texts.  Granted,  authors of texts often produced successively revised editions of their works.  But it is also important to note that copyists didn’t perform revisions, but copied, albeit with varying levels of skill and varying practices (e.g., James R. Royse, , Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 [Leiden: Brill, 2007]).  The copying process should not be confused with the editing or revising of texts.  And it is the copying process that is the focus of textual criticism, not the process of composition or revision of texts.

It is, I think, noteworthy that all of our earliest extant copies of the Gospels, even the fragmentary remains, are readily recognizable as such.  That is, the extant manuscript evidence from the second and third centuries doesn’t show multiple versions of Matthew or John, for example.  To be sure, the evidence does show the various kinds of variants that can characterize a text that is frequently copied, under various circumstances, and by copyists of varying skill and attention to the task.  But the point is that what we seem to have are copies of this or that given text, not copies of variant editions of that text.  Contrast this with the evidence that the Shepherd of Hermas was transmitted in more than one edition (Malcolm Choat and Rachel Yuen-Collingridge, “The Egyptian Hermas: The Shepherd in Egypt Before Constantine,” in Early Christian Manuscripts: Examples of Applied Method and Approach, ed. Thomas J. Krause and Tobias Nicklas (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010), 191-211.

We think that GMark likely acquired various endings perhaps sometime in the early second century.  But this likely reflects the comparison of GMark with the other Gospels, i.e., another indication of the continuing use of GMark as a text in its own right alongside the other Gospels.

So, with all due appreciation for the fluidity of textual composition and “publication” in the ancient Roman era, I think that NT textual criticism still has a validity and a future.  And I remain persuaded that the new paradigm that we need in our approach to the textual history of the Gospels (and other texts) is closer to what I’ve advocated.



An Introduction to the Coherence Based Genealogical Method in NT Textual Criticism

For several years, scholars and students have puzzled over the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) developed in the Muenster Institute for New Testament Textual Research.  There is now a clear and helpful guide:  Tommy Wasserman and Peter J. Gury, A New Approach to Textual Criticism:  An Introduction to the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (SBL Press, 2017), the publisher’s online catalog page here.  As I read the book in pre-publication stage, and am one of those who endorsed it, I’m a bit tardy in giving this notice of it.

The authors patiently take readers step by step, explaining how the CBGM relates to previous approaches, and then introducing and illustrating the specific procedures involved in the application of the CBGM.  I think that the authors have made the CBGM as clear as possible for those new to it, but readers will still have to follow their discussion carefully and slowly (best to have a large pot of coffee to hand!).  The CBGM both builds on more familiar text-critical steps, and also introduces some new ones, along with some new concepts and some technical terms that will be new to most.

Those of us who engage in study of the textual transmission of the NT (or any other early text) will now have no excuse for treating the CBGM as terra incognita.

Fred Wisse on Early Textual Transmission

In a previous posting I asked if we need a revised/new paradigm for portraying the earliest transmission of NT writings (here).  In support of this, I’ve also drawn attention to the newly-published monograph by Lonnie Bell here, which provides a close analysis of the earliest papyri of the Gospel of John.

An earlier voice advocating a similar position is Frederik Wisse (Emeritus Professor, McGill University) in an essay published in 1989:  “The Nature and Purpose of Redactional Changes in Early Christian Texts: The Canonical Gospels,” in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text and Transmission, ed. William L. Petersen (Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 39-53.  I provide a few choice quotations from his incisive discussion.

“It is widely taken for granted in biblical scholarship that early Christian texts were extensively redacted during the first century of their transmission. . . . .[and]  thought to have served mainly ideological purposes. Since this view has for many the status of a virtual fact, one would expect that it is based on clear textual evidence. However, this is not the case.” (p. 39)

Although a supposedly “wild” handling of the NT writings in the 2nd century is often contrasted with a supposedly more “controlled” and stabilized copying in the subsequent centuries, Wisse noted, “if we judge by the interpolations for which there is textual evidence then it appears that the numbers increase rather than decrease after the second century.” (p. 45).

He then went on to observe, “These facts speak against the common assumption [advocated, e.g., by Helmut Koester] that by the early third century emerging orthodoxy brought about an end to the period of considerable redactional freedom by deciding on a ‘standard’ text and by suppressing all manuscripts which deviated. Long after the third century the church was in no position to establish and control the biblical text, let alone eliminate rival forms of the text. Though there may have been an attempt at establishing a standard text as early as the fourth century, only beginning with the twelfth century do we have evidence for a large scale effort. . . . There is no evidence for the Byzantine period or for an earlier date of efforts to eliminate divergent copies of New Testament manuscripts.” (p. 45)

Consequently, in light of the extant evidence, “Since there is no basis to assume that the early, poorly attested history of the transmission of the text was governed by factors different from those operative in the canonical period, the existing textual evidence may be taken to be indicative of the nature and purpose of redactional activity from the beginning.” (p. 47)  That is, the evidence of the extant papyri from the third and late second century CE likely reflects the handling of the relevant writings in the earlier period from which we don’t have manuscripts.

In sum:  “Thus the claims of extensive ideological redaction of the Gospels and other early Christian literature runs counter to all of the textual evidence. This lack of evidence cannot be explained away by speculations about an extensively interpolated ‘standard’ text which was imposed by orthodox leadership late in the second century, and the successful suppression of all non-interpolated copies. The Church certainly lacked the means and apparently also the will to do this.” (p. 52).

It’s nice to point to Wisse’s essay in support of the view that I’ve been advocating for a number of years now.  As I used to say in some of my classes, I may well be right or wrong in this or that view, but I am not idiosyncratic!



%d bloggers like this: