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C’est fini!

In response to my posting late last week attempting to clarify a comment referring to Bart Ehrman and to offer an apology for any offence caused to him, I’ve had a number of comments, none of which I’m publishing.  Some urged that no apology was necessary, others than I’m devious and hypocritical.  In any case, my posting was not up for discussion.  The key response was from Bart, who assures me that he accepts my statement of matters, and, with me, hopes that we can get on with scholarly discussion (and disagreements on scholarly matters).

So, thanks to all (those who offered support and even those who think I’m a cad) who commented.  But I didn’t seek to generate discussion of that posting.  I offered it in good faith, and it’s been received in that spirit.  C’est fini!

A Clarification and an Apology to Bart Ehrman

In light of a rebuking email from my colleague in the field of Christian Origins and long-time personal acquaintance, Bart Ehrman, I think a clarification, and even an apology from me, are due.  Bart has emailed complaining about a recent comment of mine.  Well, I genuinely don’t want to offend, and so I want to try to make amends if I can, at least with reference to the immediate cause for his rebuke.  Since the offending remark was published here, I feel obliged to try to make amends publicly as well. (To cite an old saying, repentance is good for the soul!)

First, some clarification.  I don’t go out of my way to denigrate Bart (or, to my recollection, even to bring him into the discussion gratuitously).  Sure, he’s a controversial figure in some circles, but for me is a personal acquaintance over many years whom I respect for his scholarly contributions.  The recent mention of him was by way of explaining how the rumour of a first-century fragment of GMark got going:  Initially, in a debate between Bart and Dan Wallace.  I did opine that I don’t think that such debates are a particularly useful way of informing the general public about scholarly issues involved in the origins of Christianity, the transmission of the NT writings, etc. I also opined that both sides in these debates have agendas, and can be tempted to engage in rhetorical flights.

My comment to which Bart objects came in response to a reader who responded by contending that only those whom Bart debates have an agenda and a stake in the debate.  I reiterated the view that there are things at stake on both sides. Then, I added (and here comes the offence) otherwise, why would Bart engage in these debates?  Simply for the fee?

Well, Bart’s email rebukes me for hinting that he is motivated by financial aims, and he indicates that all of his (considerable) debating fees go into a few charities that he supports, and I accept (and admire) that entirely.  We may disagree about this or that matter of historical judgment (as reflected, e.g., in my criticisms of some things in his latest book here), but I state publicly that I hold Bart in high esteem as a scholar and as to his trustworthiness in what he says about his fees.  His generous commitment to his charities is commendable and impressive.  I intended no smear in what was, granted, a careless remark; but Bart perceives an offence, and so I publicly apologize for that offence.  I really do have no interest in generating personal animosities, and so I hope that Bart will accept my apology, which is offered in sincerity. I meant no accusation of greed or other unworthy motives in my throwaway comment.


Roman-era Mystery Cults: Bremmer’s Recent Book

I’ve just learned from my friend, the respected scholar of ancient religion, Jan Bremmer (University of Groningen), about his recently published book on ancient “mystery cults”:  Jan N. Bremmer, Initiation Into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014).  I immediately read a few chapters, and can already register my praise for the book.  It’s a readable, obviously informed study, drawing upon and engaging the whole history of scholarship on these ancient religious developments.  Another noteworthy feature is that it is an “open access” publication, the “epub” version available free.  The online version is freely available here.

As Bremmer notes, scholarly understanding of these various “mystery cults” has developed (and changed, markedly in some matters) over the last 100+ years.  For example, there are now doubts about previous claims of supposedly common “dying/rising gods” (there are gods that die, but hard to find gods that get resurrected).  To cite another example, it’s now increasingly thought that the “Mithraism” of the Roman era wasn’t actually an import from the East, but instead a concoction in the Roman empire itself.

Moreover, Bremmer helpfully emphasizes that some of the “mystery cults” were local cults, very much linked with a particular site or area, whereas others (e.g., Isis and Mithras) were much more trans-local and trans-ethnic.

Bremmer’s particular focus is on what we can know of the rituals, the actual practices of each of the mystery cults, e.g., initiation rituals, what devotees did when they met, etc.  This brings to the many other books on these movements a helpful contribution that allows us to get more of a sense of what it was like to take part in these groups.

Of direct relevance to this blog site, Bremmer also considers questions (and dubious claims) about the relationship of early Christianity and these mystery cults, and he gives a nuanced, cogently argued, and well-supported analysis.  He proposes that it is far easier to see borrowings or influences from some of the mystery cults on Christianity in the fourth century and thereafter.  In the prior centuries, however, it’s hard to substantiate claims for such influences.  Christians in the second century sometimes drew upon terminology used in the mystery cults to make contrasts with Christianity, but, of course, that’s not the same thing as being influenced/shaped by mystery cults.

But, as the book is so freely available, there’s little need for me to prattle on about it further here.  Those interested can digest it for themselves.

The Hong Kong Lectures: What Made Early Christianity Different?

I arrived back from my Hong Kong lectures, the 2014 Josephine So Lectures given in China Graduate School of Theology, last Friday. As these lectures form some of the material that I aim to develop into a book across 2015, I’m not publishing the full texts of the lectures now.  But, given the curiosity of some readers about their contents, I provide the brief summaries distributed to those who attended:  What Made Early Christianity Different–Lecture titles & summaries.

Granted, these summaries provide just enough to provoke further curiosity, or questions, but I ask readers to wait for the book to make a full judgement about the matters mentioned.  Indicative of my concern for an adequate historical grasp of early Christianity in its Roman-era setting, I quote a statement by my friend, the respected ancient historian, Edwin Judge:

“History walks a tightrope between the unique and the typical. If we explain everything by analogy, we deny to our forebears the individuality we take as a basic feature of our own humanity.”[1]

[1] Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century: Pivotal Essays by E. A. Judge, ed. David M. Scholer (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 134. I take “history” in Judge’s statement to refer to the efforts of historians to attempt reconstructions of the past.

Early Manuscripts of Biblical Writings? What’s at Stake?

In light of the renewed hubbub about a supposed first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, I’ll offer some comments about why people get all excited (or exasperated) about the matter and other such incidents.

For any text of antiquity, scholars prize early copies, the earlier the better.  In the transmission process (hand-copying) every copy to be made presented the possibility of accidental or deliberate changes (variants) being introduced.  So, in principle, the closer we can get to the origin of the text, the fewer such opportunities we have to consider, and the closer we might get to the text as it originated.

To take a well-known example, until the Qumran find, the oldest copy of the Hebrew scriptures we had was from the 10th century AD.  In the Qumran manuscripts, however, scholars found copies of writings of the Hebrew scriptures that were dated (palaeographically) to the 1st century BC, i.e., some 1000 years earlier than the previously oldest Hebrew copy of these writings.  That’s a monumental gain, and both scholarly studies and even recent translations (e.g., the NRSV) reflect some of the import of this.

Given that our only copy of Mark from the first three centuries is in “P45″ (the Chester Beatty Gospels codex), which is commonly dated to ca. mid-3rd century AD, any additional copy of Mark from the pre-Constantinian period would be most welcome by all scholars.  We know that the transmission of Mark resulted in many variants (although nearly all of them are small changes in word-order, tenses, etc., i.e., more stylistic than of any substance).  The most well-known Markan variation-unit, of course, is the ending, where we have as many as four variant-endings reflected in the extant evidence.  So, particularly because the early manuscript evidence for Mark is so limited, any additional copy from the earliest centuries would be greeted with great excitement.

But (you may ask) how useful can a mere fragment of a manuscript be for judging the transmission-history of a given writing?  Well, of course, we’d always prefer a full/complete copy.  But fragments of a manuscript can still tell us a lot.  As to the text-critical question, although only a portion of the writing remains, what remains is at least a sample, and, very importantly, a random sample.  That is, what remains hasn’t been determined by scholars but by the accidents of history.  That randomness actually enhances the usefulness of a fragment.  For a random sample may be indicative of the skill, care, ability of the copyist generally.  If the portion of text in the exhibits a number of variants, perhaps variants that indicate carelessness in copying, then we may well suspect that the fragment reflects a larger copy of a text made by a copyist with limited skill or care.

If, however, the preserved portion of text seems to be fairly free of variants, and reflects a form of the text that seems to have been copied with some accuracy and care, then it’s fair to judge that the larger copy from which the fragment derives had those characteristics.  So, although fragments only give us “snapshots” (so to speak) of ancient texts, they are still valid evidence on which to base judgements.

In the current flurry of excitement over the putative 1st-century fragment of Mark, there are obvious agendas at work.  That both Dan Wallace and Craig Evans mentioned the item in debates and settings appealing to Christian apologetics clearly reflects one agenda:  to emphasize the extent of evidence available for judging the early transmission and textual integrity of NT writings.  But this particular agenda was formed in response to another, and equally suspicious purpose and agenda, reflected, e.g., by some rhetorical flourishes by some other scholars (e.g., Bart Ehrman, et al.), in which it is asserted that the chronological distance between extant copies of NT writings and the time of likely composition is such as to make it almost impossible to say whether extant copies resemble with any great faithfulness what the authors actually wrote.  This sort of claim, too, is a kind of apologetics, in the service of scoring points in a religion-debate, in an effort to unsettle those (esp. traditional Christians) who revere the NT writings as scriptures.

As a former inter-scholastic debater (in high school days), and a fairly good one at that, I find these “debates” (e.g., Ehrman vs. this or that Evangelical) not the most productive way to engage the issues involved.  I’ll simply point out that there are TWO agendas in play, TWO opposing apologetic-aims, and that there seems to me to be the danger (and incidence) of exaggeration and distortion on BOTH sides.

So, let’s all chill a bit, tone down the rhetoric, and allow the scholarly process to proceed.  As to what we can make of early evidence about the early transmission of NT writings, I’ll refer readers to my essay published in 2006, “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Texts, Collections and Canon”, the pre-publication version (and the publication facts) available here.

Oh, and one final note:  One of my recent PhD students, Lonnie Bell, produced a study of all pre-Constaninian copies of the Gospel of John as his thesis (successfully defended last year).  He’s currently preparing the thesis for submission to a publisher.  I won’t “steal his thunder” here, but his analysis seems to me an important contribution to questions about the early transmission of this writing (and perhaps other NT writings).  I think it should be published and that scholars will find it a cogent and valuable study, with perhaps a few surprises.

A First-Century Copy of the Gospel of Mark?

In the last week or so I’ve had a number of inquiries about news stories of the discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century AD.  Actually, this isn’t a new claim, but instead a rehashing (or belated notice) of a story that initially appeared back in early 2012.  But, thanks to an article more recently in “Live Science” (here) the story has taken on renewed life.  Concerns and critiques have been offered in news outlets as well, this one instance here.  So, I’ll offer some comments in what follows.

First, some background.  The original news derived from a public debate held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman, during which Wallace mentioned that he’d been told that a first-century fragment of Mark had been identified.   That generated some excitement and critical comments, such as those from Brice Jones here.

The more recent excitement seems to have come from someone, apparently at “Live Science”, noticing a Youtube talk by Craig Evans (here) given in Canada back in 2014, in which he mentions again this putative fragment of Mark.  Evans appears essentially to be reporting on the claim initially reported by Wallace, and was not himself directly involved in the process of taking apart mummy cartonage to look for manuscript fragments.

Here are my own thoughts on the matter.

1) First, no such claim can be engaged at all unless/until the item in question is made available for critical scrutiny by qualified scholars (and that means scholars who are qualified to make an independent judgement on palaeographical grounds).  This hasn’t been done, and so the entire matter is (or should be) moot.  What do I think of the claim?  Can’t comment, as there is no item openly available for critical scrutiny.

2) Second, there are further good reasons to treat this particular claim with caution.  By wide scholarly consent, the Gospel of Mark was composed sometime roughly 65-75 AD.  It was obviously copied and circulated, as scholars also dominantly think that the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark as the model for their own accounts of Jesus (and for much of the contents of their respective accounts).  But the chance of fragments a first-century copy of Mark being found are very, very slim.  In that very early period there would have been far fewer copies than, say from the third century AD.  But, thus far, the only copy of the Gospel of Mark from the first three centuries is in the Chester Beatty Gospels Codex (P.Chester Beatty I, or P45).  So, you see what I mean. Mark seems not to have been copied nearly as often as the other NT Gospels, so the statistical chances of any copy surviving are slim, and the chance of fragments of a first-century copy surviving very, very, very slim.  Many things are possible in principle, but don’t bet the farm on this one!

3)  Evans (a personal acquaintance) assures me that he didn’t go to the press, and that his own statements when contacted were much more cautious than what was reported.  Personally, I think it was misguided even to refer to this item in the talk from which the YouTube video came.  It scores no apologetics points to invoke as relevant evidence something that can’t be verified.  But that’s milk that’s been spilled.

4) Finally, some (especially Roberta Mazza) have complained about the use of “unprovenanced” items, i.e., artefacts whose derivation is unknown (or at least not, yet, indicated).  This is a fair concern . . . in principle.  It is particularly relevant with reference to artefacts that have been discovered more recently, when there are protocols that are supposed to be followed.  But there are many, many artefacts that were taken from their original finding-spot and acquired by collectors in the early 20th century, and their provenance is unknown.  Let’s think of some major collections, such as the John Rylands Library, the Chester Beatty Library, the Freer Gallery, etc.  To take items with which I’m acquainted,  Charles Freer was never able to verify where his biblical manuscripts came from.  He purchased them from an Egyptian antiquities dealer and that’s all we know for sure.

Lots of colleges and individuals who contributed to early 20th century expeditions in Egypt got back papyri as a return for their gifts.  Often, these items sat in institutional libraries or in the hands of individuals for many decades, never studied or published.  In recent years, a number have come onto the market, as institutions find that they need the money, and heirs of those individuals sometimes think they want money more than scraps of papyrus.  For whatever reason, papyri acquired long ago under very different circumstances and rules than we advocate today come up nowadays for acquisition.  So long as those who acquire the papyri make them available for scholarly study in due course, that’s about all we can ask.

So, what we can ask in the case of this putative fragment of Mark is that the owner(s) enable the scholarly world to access it, so that a critical and measured analysis can be done.  Until then, there is no need to ask what I think of the claim that it is a first-century fragment of Mark.  No data, no opinion.

What Made Early Christianity Different?

On Monday (19th) I head off to Hong Kong to give the Josephine So Lectures in China Graduate School of Theology.  My topic for these (four) lectures is “What Made Early Christianity Different in the Roman World?”  For a few years now, I’ve been wanting to get time to write a book-length discussion of this question, and the invitation to give these lectures has allowed me the opportunity to get it going.

The first lecture will address relevant issues in the current scholarly context and indicate how I aim to deal with the question, giving illustrations of why it’s valid.  In each of the remaining three lectures I’ll focus on some aspect of early Christianity that I contend made it unusual in the Roman world.  In lecture two, I propose that early Christianity advocated a distinctive pattern of religious belief and practice.  Lecture three focuses on the distinctive religious identity advocated in early Christianity.  In lecture three, I focus on early Christianity as a “bookish” religion, among other things emphasizing the remarkable place of texts in the young religious movement.

It’s my aim across 2015 to add discussion of some additional features of early Christianity, with a view to completing the book by the end of the year.  I’ll be interested to see what the folks in Hong Kong make of these lectures.

A Helpful Glance Backwards: 20th-Century NT Studies

In participating yesterday in a session of the core course in our masters-degree in Biblical Studies (Edinburgh), and having been asked to highlight some major issues and questions current in NT studies, I remembered also briefly the need to look backwards, to the history of previous scholarship.  Certainly, anyone who aspires to become really conversant with a field of study needs to know something of the prior history of the field, and how we got to where we are.

From my own student days onward, I’ve been interested in this, and have found it not only interesting but also useful in critically assessing further and more recent developments.  It’s interesting (and sometimes surprising) to find that things announced as “new” often turn out to be re-treads of ideas and approaches of an earlier period in the field, the presenters of the idea often unaware of this.  I have also found that actually reading older work can highlight oversimplifications and even distortions of that older work as it is reported on in subsequent scholarship.

As well, to speak for myself, it’s often been a humbling experience to read older work and note how impressively well educated and knowledgeable the scholars of previous generations were.  Indeed, often, I’ve come upon some idea myself, and then discovered subsequently in reading older work that it wasn’t really a new idea at all, but had been mooted, sometimes decades or more earlier.  (But, I tell myself, at least my idea wasn’t completely bizarre or idiosyncratic!)

For those who might want some initial steer as to major figures, developments, projects, etc., of earlier years, I’ll mention my own survey of 20th-century NT studies:  “New Testament Studies in the Twentieth Century,” Religion 39 (2009): 43-57.  The pre-print version is available on this blog site here.

B.F. Westcott: 190th

Continuing in the spirit of some previous postings about famous scholars of yester-year, today (12 January) marks the birthday of Brooke Foss Westcott (12 January 1825), who, along with J. B. Lightfoot and F. J. A. Hort, formed the famous Cambridge trio of NT scholars.  Westcott features as today’s highlighted biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and you can read an online account of his life here.

Westcott is probably most well known for his joint-editorship of the Westcott & Hort Greek NT, a landmark work in the history of NT textual criticism.  But, as the online biography shows, he made many other contributions to scholarship, Cambridge University, and the Church of England.


(Thanks to my colleague, David Reimer, for tipping me off to the date and the ODNB online article.)

Constantine Tischendorf: New Book

Constantine Tischendorf (1815-1874) was certainly one of the most prodigiously productive scholars of his or any other time.  He was (and remains) also a figure of controversy, claim and counter-claim.  In a new book on Tischendorf (and released in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of his birth on 18 January), Stanley Porter gives a short biography and an appreciative assessment of the man and his scholarly work:  Constantine Tischendorf:  The Life and Work of a 19th Century Bible Hunter (London:  Bloomsbury, 2015).

Tischendorf is most famous (and controversial) for his discovery and publication of a manuscript found in the St. Catherine Monastery that is likely the oldest manuscript of a complete Christian Bible (of “Old Testament” and New Testament):  Codex Sinaiticus (most of it now housed in the British Library, London; see the link here).  But in addition he produced a huge body of other scholarly work, including the several successive editions of his Greek New Testament (Novum Testamentum graece, the 8th edition of 1869-72 still an essential reference for NT textual critics).

Drawing upon material held in Leipzig University and available more readily since the re-unification of Germany, and also guided by Christfried Böttrich (who has several German-language publications on Tischendorf), Porter gives a very readable brief account of Tischendorf’s career, and a concise discussion of his contributions to several areas of study (palaeography, textual criticism, the Greek Old Testament, the Greek New Testament, and his critical engagement with “higher criticism and theology”).  In addition, Porter includes the English translation of Tischendorf’s apologetic work, When Were Our Gospels Written?, preceded by a 32-page introduction to this work, helpfully setting it in the context of its time and the issues on the boil then (which, actually, aren’t all that different from those boiling today).

On questions about Tischendorf’s integrity, in particular his actions and intentions in the acquisition of Codex Sinaiticus, Porter is strongly positive, giving his reasons for taking this view.  Porter’s small book is a timely tribute Tischendorf and an accessible reminder of his remarkable career and many contributions to scholarship.


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