In commencing work toward a future project, I’ve come across a couple of noteworthy articles that question the widely-repeated stories (and there are several versions) of how the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered. In addition to cautioning us (especially scholars) about passing on to our students and the general public stories of the find that have dubious bases, there are also some wider lessons to be learned.
First, this one: Mark Goodacre, “How Reliable Is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35, no. 4 (2013): 303-22. Goodacre documents the variant-forms of the story of the discovery of the codices, and shows that they seem to have become more elaborate as time went on, becoming more elaborate decades later than the date of the discovery. He shows also how Western prejudices about supposedly ignorant and uncivilized Egyptian peasants seem to have shaped and promoted certain versions of the story. And he finally draws a few intriguing similarities with the variant forms of stories that we find in the Gospels (e.g., resurrection narratives), noting that we scholars are highly suspicious of the latter, but have curiously ignored and repeated uncritically the legendary features of the accounts of the Nag Hammadi codices.
Also, Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices,” Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 2 (2014): 399-419, address the matter, offering a similar critique. But their argument involves proposing a different likely account of where the codices were found, the likely reason the codices were buried, and the circumstances of the find. And their argument involves also a proposal about who the ancient readers of these codices and texts were. Their article I found especially intriguing.
For they seem to me to provide a further basis for the sort of view that I came to several years ago (influenced by proposals originally from Fred Wisse), that these texts weren’t the “scriptures” of this or that supposed version or sect of early Christianity, but, instead, probably circulated among loose networks of like-minded individuals who had a particular penchant for things esoteric. I think that Denzey Lewis and Blount have now provided a strong basis for this sort of view of the 4th-century people among whom the Nag Hammadi codices likely circulated. They also contend (and quite cogently, to my mind) that the codices weren’t actually found where the traditional reports put them, but, instead, were likely found by would-be grave-robbers among burials of individuals, these texts buried with them as a kind of “books of the dead” (in keeping with ancient Egyptian practice for centuries).
The implications are considerable. If, for example, the Nag Hammadi codices weren’t composed by and for Pachomian monks, and weren’t hidden in the 4th century from “orthodox” bishops, and don’t, thus, reflect some variant-version of early Christianity, that’s quite a lot to take on board. If, as Denzey Lewis and Blount contend, instead, these texts (at least in the 4th century) circulated among somewhat elitist individuals of esoteric tastes and rather eclectic reading habits, then these codices can’t really be used as they often have been to “re-write” 4th century history of Egyptian Christianity. So, it will now be interesting to see how the scholarly discussion moves forward. But, to my mind, these articles, particularly the Denzey Lewis and Blount study, can’t rightly be ignored.
Having prepared a paper for a symposium in Salamanca (May this year) focusing on “messianic” Psalms, I’ll pass on a couple of interesting notes for now. Essentially, NT use of Psalms (1) reflects broad developments in the Jewish tradition about how the Psalms were viewed, and (2) also reflects some distinctive particularities in NT usage.
Those broad developments in Jewish tradition were these: (1) collecting Psalms into a “book” (although there appear to have been variant forms of what comprised the collected Psalms till perhaps the late first century CE); (2) the broad ascription of the Psalms to David, making Psalms his “book”; (3) the notion that David was prophetically endowed, which (4) made the Psalms, not simply liturgical texts, but prophetic in properties, predictive and instructive of eschatological events for those Jews who operated in an eschatological framework.
All these developments are reflected in various NT writings, showing, once again, that in its earliest phase(s) what became “Christianity” should be understood as a particular and distinctive variant-form of second-temple Jewish religion.
But there are also distinctive features in NT usage of the Psalms. For example, compare the index of texts cited and alluded to in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graecae (28th ed.) with the index by Armin Lange and Mattias Weigold, Biblical Quotations and Allusions in Second Temple Jewish Literature Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011). Among other things to note, you’ll see that the Psalms most frequently cited in one list differ from those most frequently cited in the other. There are some overlaps, but also some striking differences. The most striking one is Psalm 110, which is among the most frequently cited/alluded to Psalms in the NT, but has no trace of quotation or allusion elsewhere in second-temple Jewish literature.
Likewise, Psalm 2 is frequently cited and alluded to in the NT, but the Lange/Weigold index shows only three references. In the NT, the Psalm is particularly linked to views of Jesus’ divine sonship.
So, I contend that the specific Psalms cited, and the particular interpretations placed upon them in the NT all derive from the particular convictions characteristic of earliest circles of the Jesus-movement. Jesus’ death and the conviction that God had raised him from death and exalted him to heavenly lordship were obviously crucial factors.
I’m pleased to note a newly published book by a former PhD student: Derek R. Brown, The God of This Age: Satan in the Churches and Letters of the Apostle Paul (WUNT 2.409; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015). This is a lightly revised form of Brown’s PhD thesis submitted here in 2011.
Others have examined Paul’s references to “principalities and powers” and related phenomena in a more generic manner, but Brown’s innovative study focuses on the questions of why Paul mentions Satan and how references to Satan function in his letters.
Instead of a diachronic approach (e.g., where does the idea of Satan come from?), Brown takes more of a synchronic approach, seeking to form a picture of how Satan is referenced in literature roughly contemporary with Paul (and/or literature used and read by Paul). But the heart and real contribution of Brown’s study lies in the chapters dealing with Paul’s references to Satan in the context of key features of Paul’s theology and view of his mission, and chapters dealing with the references to Satan in Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 1&2 Corinthians).
Brown notes similarities to the Jewish context in Paul’s references to Satan, and also interesting differences, and both must be taken into account. In particular, Brown argues (cogently to my mind) that Paul’s specific references to Satan are shaped by Paul’s view of his own calling and mission — which specifically involved the formation of churches–and which Paul saw as a special responsibility in the fulfilment of God’s eschatological programme. That is, Paul saw himself as a salvation-historical figure, not simply one missionary among others.
And so Paul saw Satan as particularly concerned to oppose him and his mission. This is why Paul’s references to Satan are largely in statements where Paul is mentioning opposition to his mission, including direct attacks by Satan upon his person.
Congratulations to Derek on a fine thesis and on the publication of this book!
For those living in/near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I give advance notice of my Pere Marquette Lecture to be delivered on 10 April (Sunday), 2 p.m., Eckstein Hall (Appellate Courtroom), Marquette University Law School: “Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?” The flyer advertising the lecture is available here.
The lecture is based on a larger discussion of the matter that Marquette University Press is publishing in the Marquette Lecture series. I understand that they hope to have the (small) book (with the same title as the lecture) available by the date of the lecture.
The lecture is free and open to the wider public. The flyer cited above gives details for obtaining any more information desired.
Among ancient sources used by historians to chart the rise of early Christianity, Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan is commonly taken as crucial. In a newly-published article, however, Enrico Tuccinardi employs some recent method-developments in stylometric analysis of texts and presents the proposal that the letter has interpolations (putatively inserted by Christians, I presume).
As I am among those (many, I suspect) scholars not engaged or expert in stylometric analysis, I have had to devote a good deal of time trying to absorb at least the basics of some recent developments in methods in order to engage (or even to understand) Tuccinardi’s article (and the bibliography to Tuccinardi’s article is a good guide to the relevant literature). That various methods are still being developed and refined suggests that the aim of producing an authorship test sufficiently reliable to be used in law courts, for example, has not yet been achieved.
The fundamental assumption behind all stylometric analysis is that each author has a characteristic stylistic habit, or pattern, or “profile,” and (what is still more essential) that this profile is unconscious to the author, meaning that the author does not (and therefore cannot) change it, even if he/she changes topic or genre. That assumption, it seems, is crucial; but it is really what all the various approaches also seek to verify. Over the years, scholars have experimented with word-frequencies, sentence-lengths, punctuation, and other features.
As I understand it, Tuccinardi’s particular experiment basically involved the recently-developed approach of tabulating a set number of character-sequences (called “n-grams”) in a given text. These n-grams can be of varying sizes, typically from two to five characters. Tuccinardi used n-grams of four to six characters.
A text is fed through a programme to produce all n-grams of a chosen character-length, and the most commonly recurring n-grams then form the basis of a hypothetical author-profile. So Tuccinardi produced a “profile” of the most recurring n-grams in book 10 of Pliny’s letters (his correspondence to Emperor Trajan). Note that this is a composite profile produced from treating all of Pliny’s letters in book 10 as one textual body.
I can’t go into all the other details of his procedure here. But in Tuccinardi’s tabulation the letter about Pliny’s interrogation of Christians (letter 10.96) seems to be something of an outrider in comparison to this composite profile. There is notable variation among all the samples he studied, but it appears that 10.96 is somewhat more of an outrider than the other samples. How much of an outrider, however, depends partly on what calculation-model is chosen. Curiously, Tuccinardi contends that the profile of letter 10.96 suggests the presence of interpolations in the letter, i.e., material inserted that throws off the n-gram data for this letter. But he doesn’t (or can’t) indicate what the supposed interpolations are. In email correspondence, nevertheless, he proposed that Pliny’s letter should not be used as a source in historical inquiry as it has been used.
It is, of course, always appropriate to reconsider widely-accepted positions and widely-trusted sources and data, and the historical importance of Pliny’s letter makes it fully right to consider any new light to be cast on it. I leave it to those more expert than I in the highly-specialized stylometric work reflected in his article to assess the specific technicalities of Tuccinardi’s experiment, and I’m sure that he, too, would welcome engagement from such experts. I will simply lodge a few observations on matters within the limits of my own competence.
First, strictly speaking, contrary to Tuccinardi (pp. 6-7), his data don’t of themselves “suggest” interpolations. His data surely indicate that letter 10.96 has a distinctive n-gram pattern in comparison with his composite book 10 profile. But the suggestion of interpolations (and that suggestion only) is from Tuccinardi, not the data. For, assuming the validity of his data, they are compatible with at least four hypotheses: (1) the letter is a forgery, (2) there are interpolations that corrupt its stylistic character, (3) Pliny’s stylistic profile is varied, and letter 10.96 simply exhibits that, and so/or (4) the method may be inadequate for the task and need some further tuning.
Further, from the detailed stylistic analysis of Pliny’s correspondence by Gamberini, it’s clear that book 10 is markedly different from books 1-9 of Pliny’s letters, and also that within book 10 itself there are noticeable and multiple variations in Latin style, forms, and topics. Moreover, it appears that Pliny edited his letters for the collection in which they are preserved. In light of this, it appears that Pliny may have been able to vary his writing a good deal, and even adjust his style for the edited collection, and so whatever method we use to authenticate his writings we must take this into account. Indeed, Pliny was trained in an educational culture that prized the ability to vary your writing style and imitate that of others. So, Tuccinardi’s analysis may reflect Pliny’s particular gift of stylistic diversity rather than signal inauthenticity or interpolations in letter 10.96.
Second, in considering “external” evidence for the letter, Tuccinardi discusses Tertullian’s reference to it (Apologeticum 2.6-7, composed ca. AD 197), but dismisses Tertullian as insufficiently trustworthy, in light of other works cited by him that are likely legendary in nature. But, of course, whatever one thinks of Tertullian, the far earlier external witness (not mentioned by Tuccinardi) is the reply to Pliny’s letter by Emperor Trajan (letter 10.97 in Pliny’s correspondence), in which Trajan comments on a report sent to him by Pliny specifically concerning his handling of Christians. That is, Trajan’s letter confirms that Pliny wrote a letter to the Emperor about his interrogation of Christians in Bithynia, and from Trajan’s reply it seems that the contents were pretty much what we have in the familiar letter 10.96.
Third, from the published stylometric work that I’ve read, I can’t recall any that attempts to detect small interpolations of the sort that Tuccinardi suggests. Instead, the typical aim is simply to identify the author of a given text (and preferably texts of at least several hundred words length). So, Tuccinardi’s use of the n-gram method to detect small interpolations, e.g., of sentence-size, is novel, and all the more, thus, has to be treated with some caution, at least until there are confirming experiments on other texts.
Further, if there are interpolations in a given text (not an impossibility by any means), it is crucial that they be specified (which Tuccinardi says that he can’t do). This is usually done by identifying anachronisms, or other irregularities that raise our suspicions about this or that bit of a text. So, what specifics in Pliny’s letter about the Christians raise such suspicions? So far as I can judge, its contents seem to have secured the confidence of historians immersed in the period. Many decades ago, to be sure, the claim of interpolations was raised, but for many decades now has been judged fallacious, at least as we are able to judge on the basis of historical information and Latin stylistic data.
It seems to me dubious, or at least premature, therefore, to follow Tuccinardi’s advice and set aside Pliny’s letter, simply on the basis of his particular experiment in the use of a particular stylometric technique. As in all things historical, obviously, the matter remains open for further investigation. But, for now, it seems to me that we are justified in continuing to cite the letter as a valuable piece of evidence about earliest treatment of Christians by this Roman legate in early second-century Pontus and Bithynia. The letter exhibits a distinctive n-gram profile, but the reason for this is, so far as I can see, yet to be established.
 E.g., Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, Religions of Rome (2 vols; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1: 225-26, 237-38; 2: 277-79.
 Enrico Tuccinardi, “An Application of a Profile-Based Method for Authorship Verification: Investigating the Authenticity of Pliny the Younger’s Letter to Trajan Concerning the Christians,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (Advanced Access, 14 February 2016): doi: 10.1093/llc/fqw00l. I thank Tuccinardi for alerting me to his article, and I congratulate him of publishing his work in such a venue where it can be engaged by scholars. I also thank him for patiently responding to my queries relating to his article in several emails over the last couple of weeks.
 Federico Gamberini, Stylistic Theory and Practice in the Younger Pliny (Hildesheim/Zurich/New York: Olms – Weidmann, 1983).
 The textual witnesses are very few, as noted by Tuccinardi (2), and so it is not possible to approach the matter from a text-critical standpoint in the way that the abundance of early witnesses to NT writings, for example, permits us to do.
 E.g., T. D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968): 32-50; A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966); and the confident use of the letter in Beard, North, Price, Religions of Rome, cited in n. 1.
In previous postings here and here I addressed some claims of some proponents of “performance criticism,” indicating their fallaciousness. In an article published a couple of years ago, I tried to correct and advance the discussion: Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60, no. 3 (2014): 321-40.
The latest issue of that journal includes an article by Kelly Iverson in which he challenges my views: “Oral Fixation or Oral Corrective? A Response to Larry Hurtado,” New Testament Studies 62 (2016): 183-200. In the same issue, I respond to Iverson’s attempt at critique: “Correcting Iverson’s ‘Correction’,” 201-206. Unfortunately, Iverson’s “correction” of my article is directed at a serious misconstrual of it, and so my response is essentially to show how he has misconstrued it, and to urge that we make some progress in discussions of how texts were used in early Christianity.
Both in my 2014 article and my current response to Iverson, my main points are (1) that some claims of some advocates of “performance criticism” are invalid, especially in downplaying the place and usage of written texts in early Christianity (and in the larger Roman-era environment), and (2) that the efforts given in early Christianity to composing, copying, distributing, and reading texts comprise a remarkable feature of the young movement.
It is specious to play off the oral “performance” (reading aloud) of texts and the written texts themselves. Certainly, written texts were typically composed with a view to how they would sound when read. But the typical “oral performances” in such settings as dinners, other social occasions, and in early Christian circles involved the reading-out of written texts.
I indicated yesterday some doubts about the theory that certain people of social aspirations may have become Christians to cope with their experience of “status inconsistency.” That is, they were frustrated in their aspirations of upward social mobility/acceptance, and so turned to early church-groups as a venue in which they could satisfy their desire for affirmation.
One commenter opined this as an explanation/defence of the notion: “Because they derive their sense of self-worth with reference to other members of the new group they join rather than society at large where they find it harder to compete. It’s a case of preferring to be a big fish in a small pond.” Yes, this is essentially what the theory poses. But I wonder if it’s soundly based or sufficiently thought through.
For one thing we’ve learned over the last several decades of renewed interest in the many “voluntary associations” of the Roman era is that there were many, many opportunities for “status inconsistency” individuals to achieve this sort of “big fish in a small pond” success. There were other religious groups, such as Mithraism, and a whole raft of other kinds of groups too, in which one could aim for obtaining respect, prominence, etc.
And here’s the crucial bit: None of the other groups had any great negative side-effects or demands on your other social or religious activities and associations. You could freely maintain all your previous associations and activities, without suffering the suspicion, negative rumors, hostility, and potential ostracism that often accrued to early Christians/Christianity.
So, I repeat: Why on earth would you choose to become a Christian in particular, if what you were concerned about was your social standing? Why make yourself subject to the social consequences/costs of doing so, when it could all be avoided by joining any of a number of other groups?
It’s this failure to take a “360” look at the matter, the failure to consider the social costs involved in becoming a Christian in the first three centuries, that I try to address and correct in my Marquette Lecture (10 April). For those interested, Marquette University Press are aiming to publish the 28K-word essay from which I will distill my 10 April lecture, producing a small booklet in the Marquette Lecture series. They hope to have it printed in time for the lecture event.
In the course of my recent writing projects, I’ve come across a new book on the evidence of individuals from the “elite” levels of Roman-era society as early Christian converts: Alexander Weiß, Soziale Elite und Christentum: Studien zu ordo-Angehörigen unter den frühen Christen (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015) roughly = Social Elites and Christianity: Studies on Members from Elite classes among Early Christians. (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)
A century or so ago, it was a widespread view that early Christianity was essentially a religion of slaves and people of near-abject poverty. But, particularly commencing with the pioneering work of Edwin Judge published in 1960 (The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century) a “new consensus” has developed. In this view, early Christian churches were more socially mixed, and heavily comprised of people with some modest financial means, including some who had homes adequate to accommodate Christian gatherings.
As Weiß indicates (21), this “new consensus” involves two main claims: (1) There were no Christian converts from the “ordo-Angehörigen” (members of the elite levels of Roman society) in earliest Christianity; and (2) “Status-dissonance” or “status-inconsistency” was a major factor in drawing converts, as the Christian ekklesia allowed them to resolve this problem. (That is, people whose aspirations for upward social mobility were frustrated are thought to have been attracted to Christianity as they could acquire respect and status within Christian circles.) Weiß’s main aim, however, is to challenge these two notions. So, he focuses on evidence of early Christian adherents from the three “ordines” of Roman society: the ordo decurionum (typically leaders at civic levels), the ordo equester (Roman knights), and the ordo senatorius (Roman senatorial class).
As some of the evidence to be considered is from Acts of the Apostles, Weiß devotes an early and lengthy chapter to methodological issues about using Acts for historical purposes, laying out his case for a critically positive stance on the matter. In Acts, he points to references to Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:4-14), Dionysios the Areopagite (Acts 17:16034), the high-status women in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), and the “most excellent Theophilus” to whom the author of Luke-Acts dedicated the work.
Then, Weiß deals with the Erastus “the city treasurer” mentioned in by Paul Romans 16:23, discussing also the inscription mentioning a figure by this name. Weiß contends that this figure really was a member of the local decurian class.
In the following chapter, Weiß considers several figures who have sometimes been posited as early Christians: Pomponia Graecina, Flavius Clemens, Flavia Domitilla, and Acilius Glabrio, dismissing each of them for want of good evidence.
Weiß then considers the specific hindrances and problems for members of the social elite in being Christians: particularly, their public responsibilities that involved taking part in cultic events dedicated to the traditional gods. Weiß argues that such individuals likely made various considered compromises, negotiating their existence in ways that Christians of lower orders didn’t have to face.
Ranging across the first three centuries, Weiß argues cogently that there are indications of Christians from the elite levels of Roman society, including literary and archaeological evidence. He grants that they were a small minority among Christians of this period, but insists that there were such adherents. And this leads him to challenge the “status inconsistency” view: Christians of high social status wouldn’t have experienced “status inconsistency,” and so that is not the factor that prompted them to become Christians.
He has a good point. Indeed, I wonder really how compelling the “status inconsistency” claim is for any early Christians. How would people anxious to improve their standing find it attractive to become an adherent of a religious group regarded with deep suspicion and hostility by many (most?) other people, particularly people of upper classes it seems (to judge from comments by Tacitus, Suetonius, Celsus, etc.)? Why would they have found it reasonable to become a Christian, given the considerable social consequences and costs involved in making such a move?
I think that Weiß’s book deserves notice by anyone interested in early Christianity, especially anyone engaging in social-description of the movement.
In my Pere Marquette Lecture (10 April 2016, Marquette University), I probe the question, “Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries.” The advance-notice flyer is here.
The deadline for applications for the 2017 Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise looms: 31 May 2016.
The Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise 2017 will be given to ten
young scholars. The celebration of the Awards will take place at the University of Heidelberg in May 2017. The winners will receive a prize of €3,000 each.
Applications have to be based on the accepted doctoral dissertation or first book after the
dissertation and can come from all religious traditions and from all academic fields. Applicants should be no older than 35 years.
Submissions genuinely can be from any discipline and addressing any religious tradition, text, or topic. Winners are invited to Heidelberg for the awards ceremony, and also for a two-day seminar in which they present proposals for their next project. Members of the selection committee and other winners engage each project in discussion. It’s a stimulating time for all.
The flyer advertising the Award is here: lautenschlaeger-award2017.
I mentioned earlier (here) that I’d received the published form of my own essay in the newly-released volume responding to N.T. Wright’s 2-volume opus on Paul, and yesterday the actual book arrived, all 833 pages of it! God and the Faithfulness of Paul, eds. Christoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. 413; Tuebingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2016). (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.) Even in paperback, it is priced at 129 Euros, which will make it prohibitively expensive for many individuals, but it probably should be acquired by any library intended to serve serious scholarship on the NT.
The 29 contributions are by scholars in various specialities, including NT, Ethics, Theology, and Missions, and approach Wright’s work focusing on a wide variety of questions. All express some admiration for Wright’s commitment to his work, and for various features of it. But pretty much every contribution also lays out some matters for critique, some sharper and more forceful than others. I would say that my own contribution, “YHWH’s Return to Zion: A New Catalyst for Earliest High Christology?” (pp. 417-38) is perhaps among the more critical of the essays. And as it focuses on Wright’s own claim to posit the essential “key” and “catalyst” for all of early beliefs about Jesus, the question of whether his claim is correct is all the more important.
In fairness to Wright, he was allowed generous space in which to respond (although the task of reading and considering the various essays must have been onerous), and in a 56-page concluding discussion he does so.
Again, I say that this large multi-author volume attests the impact of Wright’s work (especially on Paul), and will also perhaps further attention to it in German-speaking scholarly circles (where it has not had nearly so much attention). The various essays also reflect the controversial features of Wright’s interpretation of Paul, such as Wright’s grand-narrative approach, his (mis?)handling of Jewish apocalyptic thought, his (dubious?) treatment of Christ and Israel, and a number of other matters. But one must certainly congratulate him for the enormous energy put into his scholarly work, and the considerable attention that it has won from other scholars, as well as the wider reading public.