Review of The Early Text of the New Testament (Part I)

Title: The Early Text of the New Testament

Editors: Charles Hill and Michael Kruger

Bibliographic info: xiv + 413 + 69

Cover: Hard with Dust-jacket

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2012

Buy it at Amazon

With thanks to the kind folk at OUP for the review copy!

This wonderful book is a collection of essays by various contributors concerning the early textual transmission of the New Testament text. The book is divided into three sections:

  • Part I. The Textual and Scribal Culture of Early Christianity
  • Part II. The Manuscript Tradition
  • Part III. Early Citation and Use of the New Testament Writings.

The first section is comprised of four chapters which have an overarching theme of discussing the culture in which the Greek text of the New Testament was originally written, with an emphasis on book production, the scribal process and scribal habits. The first chapter (pp. 23-36), by Harry Gamble, contains information concerning the Roman book trade, including aspects such as how books were published and disseminated in those days. It’s actually pretty easy to not stop and think about how the book trade would have been quite different than it is to today due to various factors present back then (e.g. mass illiteracy, book production methods, etc). This chapter was actually quite a fascinating read, especially for a bibliophile such as myself.

The second chapter (pp. 37-48), by Scott Charlesworth, aims to show, through an examination of the early NT papyri, the presence of “catholicity” in early Christianity through the use of standard-sized gospel codices and the use of nomina sacra in copies of NT texts. Charlesworth believes that these two factors are indicators that “there was consensus and collaboration between early Christian groups” (39) and are “indicative of an interconnected ‘catholic’ church in the second half of the second century” (41). Charlesworth also thinks that this indication of catholicity cuts against the Bauer thesis outlined in his classic work Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity (Fortress, 1971). This is due to two reasons: (1) non-canonical gospel papyri (Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary) do not exhibit these indicators of catholicity; and (2) the non-canonical gospels are infrequently cited and preserved compared to the canonical gospels.

Another implication of scribal features in early NT manuscripts is found in the third chapter (pp. 49-62) which is from Larry Hurtado. Drawing upon the study of William A. Johnson ‘Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity’ (AJP 121; 2000; 593-627), Hurtado seeks to offer up a “complementary (but much more modest) pilot-study of the reading of literary texts in worship gatherings of Christian circles of the first three centuries” (52). Hurtado looks at the “conscious and deliberate” preference for the codex book-form amongst early Christians. Noting this, he says:

Early Christians cannot have been unconscious that their preferred book-form was out of step with the larger book culture of the time. Indeed, the evidence suggests a particularly deliberate effort to move away from the bookroll for copies of texts that were intended to function in their assemblies as scripture, as part of their ritual culture, as texts that were associated closely with their gathered worship settings. (56)

Hurtado also discusses various orthographical conventions in the early Christian manuscripts, such as diaeresis and “punctuation marking sense-units”. He then goes on to elucidate the social effects of these various features, saying that it demonstrates a deliberate turn away “from the elitist format of high-quality literary manuscripts” (59), and that this indicates “these Christian manuscripts appear to be intended to enable a greater range of Christians to serve in the public reading of texts in Christian gatherings” (59).

Hurtado goes on to mention the nomina sacra  and the staurogram, saying that these “represent efforts to mark early Christian manuscripts visually as Christian. These scribal devices were not utilitarian in purpose … They originated and developed as visual expressions of Christian piety” (61-62). In summary, this chapter was quite the interesting discussion concerning manuscripts and the sociology of early Christianity. Note, Hurtado also discusses this subject in his book The Earliest Christian Artifacts (Eerdmans 2006).

The fourth chapter (pp. 63-80), and final one in the first section, is from Michael Kruger and is about the attitudes that Christians took towards the scribal process of reproducing their sacred texts. Kruger says that:

One area that has been largely overlooked is the attitude toward the text that is actually expressed by Christians in the earliest literary sources, that is, statements about how they would have viewed their sacred writings, how they would have understood the transmission and preservation of these texts, and how they would have responded to changes or alterations in the text. (63)

Kruger breaks this down into early testimony regarding the scriptural status of NT texts (e.g. 2 Pet. 3.16), and early testimony regarding the reproduction and preservation of NT texts. He ends this chapter with a brief survey of early Christian attitudes toward the reproduction of the texts they held to be Scripture. In order to account fully for the complexity of the historical data, Kruger contends that the historian must allow the explicit testimony of early church leaders to inform the reconstruction of their actual practice in handling those texts.

Read Part II of this review.

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