In the ongoing debates about the reliability of early Christian manuscripts, and whether they have been transmitted with fidelity, it is often claimed that early Christian scribes were amateurs, unprofessional, and some probably couldn’t even read.
In Michael Satlow’s recent book, How the Bible Became Holy (Yale, 2014), this same sort of argument appears. Satlow’s book argues that both the OT and NT canons were late bloomers, and that they bore no real authority until the third or fourth century CE. And part of the evidence for this claim comes from Satlow’s assessment of the NT manuscripts. He states:
The copies of early Christian manuscripts from around the second century CE were utilitarian. They were generally on papyrus rather than the more expensive and durable parchment. They lack the signs both of being written by a professional scribe and of being intended for public recitation (255).
There are a lot of claims in this brief couple of sentences. Unfortunately, virtually every one of them is mistaken. Let’s take them one at a time:
1. Early NT Manuscripts were unprofessional/utilitarian. This claim, though widespread, has been seriously questioned in recent years. Although some of the earliest Christian papyri (second and third centuries) were not characterized by the formal bookhand that was common among Jewish scriptural books or Greco-Roman literary texts, others were much closer to the literary end of the scale than is often realized. In fact, many second/third century Christian texts do exhibit a more refined hand and literary style, such as P77 (Matthew), P46 (Paul’s letters), P4-P64-P67 (Luke and Matthew), and P66 (John).
Such evidence led Graham Stanton to declare, “The oft-repeated claim that the gospels were considered at first to be utilitarian handbooks needs to be modified” (Jesus and Gospel, 206). Likewise, Kim Haines-Eitzen directly states, “The earliest copyists of Christian literature were trained professional scribes” (Guardians of Letters, 68, emphasis mine).
2. Serious manuscripts were on parchment, not papyrus. This, again, is a bit misleading. For the first four centuries, most Christian manuscripts were on papyrus but this does not mean they were valued less or regarded as something other than Scripture. Indeed, the Gospels were on papyrus during this time period, but Justin Martyr tells us they were read as Scripture alongside OT books (1 Apol. 67.3). Moreover, many OT manuscripts were on papyrus during this time period! And this certainly doesn’t suggest their authority should be lessened.
In addition, the idea that parchment is more durable than papyrus has been challenged by both T.C. Skeat (“Early Christian Book Production,” 59-60) and Harry Gamble (Books and Readers, 45). See also comments on papyrus by Pliny the Elder (Nat. 13.74-82).
3. NT manuscripts were not intended for public reading. This idea, again, has been seriously challenged by a number of modern scholars. Larry Hurtado and Scott Charlesworth have both observed that NT manuscripts, compared to elite literary texts in the Greco-Roman world, have an inordinate number of reader’s aids, more generous spacing between lines, and more characters per line–all designed to help in the public reading of these books. This also seems to fit Justin Martyr’s statement noted above that early Christian texts were being read publicly in worship.
On top of all of this, one might add that Christian scribal practice of abbreviating key words such as God, Lord, Christ, and Jesus–called the nomina sacra (“sacred names”)–indicates a substantially well-organized and developed book/scribal culture.
The nomina sacra were not only widespread among early Christian manuscripts (we can hardly find a text without them), but they also have deep roots that go well into the first century.
How does such an early, widespread scribal convention emerge out of a scribal culture that is supposedly amateurish and disorganized? In short, they don’t. On the contrary, Skeat argues that the nomina sacra “indicate a degree of organization, of conscious planning, and uniformity of practice among the Christian communities which we have hitherto had little reason to suspect” (73).
In sum, the oft-repeated claim that early Christian scribes were unprofessional and untrained simply does not fit with what we know about early Christian manuscripts nor about early Christian literary culture. Loveday Alexander provides a perfect summary,
It is clear that we are dealing with a group [early Christians] that used books intensively and professionally from very early on in its existence. The evidence of the papyri from the second century onwards suggests . . . the early development of a technically sophisticated and distinctive book technology (“Ancient Book Production and the Circulation of the Gospels,” 85).
Herman of bibledifferences.net says
Thank you for this enlightening post.
I would like to re-blog it on my blog where I study the causes for the differences between the older translations like the KJV versus modern translations like the NIV.
Unfortunately I find no “re-blog” facility.
May I “copy and paste” it and also translate it into Afrikaans for my Afrikaans blog covering mostly the same material please?
Herman of bibledifferences.net
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
This is an excellent summary of the present state of affairs in Textual & Canonical Studies.
False assumptions abound in the field of NT studies (let alone OT studies). First, the evolutionary development of Scriptures is also used in Canonical & Textual studies including criticism. There is the assumption that the church had unlettered, low and slave class, and unprofessional scribes, then those who copied the texts were also.
Second, the question of authority rears it ugly head. There must some type of ecclesiastical pronouncement required; thus, the Council of Nicaea, Council of Trent are necessary. This also applies to High Christology.
Third, the argument from silence is used. “Absence of evidence ” is an argument from silence. Remember, absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence.
Fourth, there is the use of false-dichotomies. A distinction is made between history & theology, science & theology, etc. Theology is the explanation behind science, history, etc. Furthermore, it must be remembered that there is no such thing as being “unbiased.” Every one has a bias. The authors of Scripture are quite clear regarding where their bias lies, GOD.
Steve Mittelstaedt says
#3 is just silly. Why anyone even broached that idea is simply astounding to me.
The likely reality is that with the possible exception of a narrow literate elite reading the Greek of Homer and philosophy the predominate use of NT manuscripts was public reading. Hardly anybody could read at at anywhere near the level we take for granted. The ancient world in the first century was a primarily oral society.
Dr. Kruger, I think your points about the early copyists being professionals etc are totally valid, however all this never-ending discussion and debate about such details creates a much more depressing image if seen from an all-encompassing perspective.
It is depressing because it means the Word of God has to be approached in the same manner as any other ancient text. Which cannot but lead to the next question: why would an omnipotent and omniscient God want us to go to such interminable length and quarrels to understand his word? Not just academic quarrels, but such as causing interminable bloodshed, war and strife among his sincere followers. This to me is extremely troubling. On one hand we affirm the miraculous ways in which God preserved the word during all persecutions and vicissitudes of Roman oppression, but on the other hand we don’t have answers to much more obvious questions as:
-why would God not direct one or several of Jesus’ disciples to write down everything He said and did, like a chronicle, instead of waiting 20-30 years?
-why would He choose not to preserve such writings at least in the language He spoke, but choose instead to give us copies of copies in an altogether different language? If we had a chronicle in its original like that, nobody would have disputed it.
And strangest of all for me is the fact that not only the earliest documents God chose to preserve for us are from the hand of somebody who had never met Jesus (St. Paul), but that this same individual was chosen to establish almost all the theology of the NT, in other words to explain Jesus to us. I have struggled with this for a long time and cannot find any answers. I fail to see here a “plan established from the foundation of the world”.
1) It’s conjecture to say he didn’t direct one of the disciples to write things down while Jesus was alive as much as it is conjecture to say that he did. It’s perfectly plausible to think that Matthew (at least) could have taken notes as was the custom of itinerant rabbis. Being a tax collector, it’s plausible that he was literate. As to the dating of the gospels, this too is conjecture. There is very little solid evidence to date them late as there is little evidence to date them early.
2) If there was a cultural norm of colloquial language vs. literate language why would it be surprising that the literature would be written in the language that most literature was written in at the time?
3) You should look up the kerigma. Paul wasn’t exactly inventing theology. But aside from that, is God not allowed to choose whom he wants to carry his message? That he would choose an enemy of the church who was charismatic and bold in his personality makes perfect sense.
As to your 1), that’s precisely my point: it’s all conjecture, no difference from any other ancient text. I’m just saying it would have been much more helpful to have a Word that proclaims what it proclaims with full clarity.
As to your 2), the same is valid: you are making an argument totally valid for human documents, not befitting to the Word of God.Someone had to translate the words of Jesus from Aramaic into Greek, and it’s common knowledge that lots of nuances are lost in translation.
As to your 3), if you go by that argument “God does whatever He wants” then I’m sorry but all our efforts to better understand the Bible are nullified: imagine yourself asking any of the “why?” questions people have asked throughout history, trying to find answers during really difficult times, and getting constantly the same cavalier answer “because God does whatever He wants”. Imagine that answer being given in the midst of most terrible human suffering like Wars of Religion in 17th century, our own Civil War, the Holocaust, etc etc etc. I can’t believe for a moment you yourself would be satisfied with such an answer!
1) That wasn’t your point. At least, that isn’t what you communicated. Your assumption above is that God DID NOT direct a disciple to take notes. My point was that’s an assumption. For all we know, He did precisely that. You’re assuming that the Gospels are late. It’s an assumption. If it’s a wrong assumption, then you are depressed about God not doing something that God actually did. And I’m sorry, but the NT is very clear in doctrinal issues, especially to early readers/hearers. It may seem clouded to our modern eyes, but that’s a deficiency on our part, not the NT’s. I’ve been studying the Carmen Christi (Phil 2:6-11) recently and it is mind-boggling to me as a 21st cent. American how much is packed into a few lines of verse but to a 1st cent. Jew the message would come through clearly. We may have to exegete carefully what “Son of God” means in the Gospels but the message was clear enough to the Jews at the time to execute Christ for blasphemy; “making himself equal to God” according to John.
2) Why do you assume that you are the judge of what’s “befitting the Word of God”? Why do you assume that Greek writings are inferior to Aramaic? Because in uninspired works, some things get lost in translation? Is it not amazing to you that even with the centuries of gaps in our manuscript tradition and the thousands of variants that have taken place, the NT is incredibly well preserved? Again, try to put yourself into the mind of a 1st cent. Christian who grew up with both Greek and Hebrew. And do you really believe that if the NT were written in Aramaic, “no one would dispute it”? That seems to belie Jesus’ own teaching that the Gospel is an offense to the unbelieving.
3) That was only 1/3 of my response. And it is a sufficient answer regardless of how satisfying you may find it. It’s the same response God himself gives to Job at the end of that book. But aside from that, God choosing an educated, charismatic enemy of the church to radically transform and carry the Gospel around the world looks very planned in advance to me. The other part of my response was in regards to your statement that Paul “establish[ed] almost all the theology of the NT”. Paul seems to have been carrying the message that Jesus himself gave to his disciples. The theology was already in place for Paul to utilize.
Cory, I believe you are still making my general point, which, again, is that we have too many “don’t know” and “assumptions” when dealing with NT. And I’m not aware of any NT scholar today who holds the view that the Gospels came from the hand of somebody sitting in the room with Jesus (it’s an altogether different matter to argue if teachings were faithfully transmitted). As for NT being “very clear”, this is a very huge stretch: it’s belied by the whole history of endless debates and quarrels inside Christianity, and not in its early years only. Also, clarity was not supposed to be for 1st century Jews only, but for the posterity. As to why Christ was executed, the position you are taking (for blasphemy) is, again, only one among many.
As for the language point, I’m not assuming any inferiority of Greek writings, but simply stating a common human knowledge: things get lost in translation. To call on “inspiration” for help is again a different discussion, as you will need to define “inspiration” and also the authority in charge of defining it. The Catholic Church only can make such a claim of authority. And for the Gospel to be offensive, has nothing to do with the translation issue, it can very well be offensive in Aramaic: we can argue if we accept it, but at least not about what it is and what says.
As for Paul’s theology being already in place, please refer to Galatians 1:11-19. Paul doesn’t consult with anybody for three years after his conversion and then meets with Peter and James for 15 days only, and goes away for 14 years. If this is not “working alone” I don’t what it is.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
Lately scholars are finding that Jesus was trilingual. The area of Galilee is now recognized to have Hebrew, Aramaic & Greek speakers. Luke 4 clearly indicates that Jesus spoke He brew. John 14 hasJesus speaking Greek to the Greek-speaking Jews who approached Phillip to speak with Jesus.
In case you are wondering what are the sources, check out http://www.larryhurtado.wordpress.com.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III
Why would God do or not do anything the way we wanted is precisely why God is God I would say.If only God had made it easier we woudnt have to exercise faith as much?
Saul did meet Jesus on the road to Damascus where he was blinded by the light & then given the task of bringing the good news to the gentile world.Saul/Paul saw himself like one abnormally born but nevertheless equipped with all that he needed after coming to terms with God’s Grace in Christ.
God’s plan of Salvation will always be met with opposition as it was in the begining & throughout the life of the patriachs & the OT church & the new, within & without. God continues to call people out of darkness & into His marvelous light just as much today as yesterday & tomorrow & the Bible continues to tell us so.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
Dear Steve, Angelo, et al,
Over at http://www.larryhurtado.wordpress.com are several articles that will also help with regard to this issue that Dr. Kriuger as touched upon. They are:
“On Linguistic and Textual Complexity in First-Century Christianity,” September 7, 2015.
“Diversity and the Emergence of “Orthodoxy” in Early Christianity,” August 4, 2015.
“‘Early High Christology’: Taking up a Dialogue,” July 31, 2015.
“‘Early Christianity’: A Plea and a Modest Programme Proposal,” Jul 29, 2015.
“Early High Christology”: A “Paradigm Shift”? “New Perspective”?, July 10, 2015.
“The Spread of Early Christianity: A Valuable Tool,” July 4, 2015.
““Early Christianity in Contexts”: Recent Book,” June 19, 2015.
There are other articles that should be of interest.
A final thought, Dr. Hurtado, has written some article on the use of the “codex.” True, the codex as used in the Ancient Greco-Roman world of literature, but near to the extant that Christianity used it. The late 1st Century- early 2nd Century CE saw the rapid and increased use of the Codex. It was really of great use to put several Gospels into one form rather than several scrolls. To do this would require some professionalism of the scribes copying the NT texts.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III