Home > New Testament Studies Monograph Series > New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts And Their World

New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts And Their World

Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers | ISBN: 9004149457 | edition 2006 | PDF |

New Testament Manuscripts-Their Texts and Their World comprises twelve essays dealing with manuscripts of the New Testament and/or what we can learn from them today. Starting from different angles the contributors — distinguished scholars of international reputation — focus on the fascinating and thrilling stories manuscripts tell, for instance about the times they were produced in or the people who handled them. The multitude of manuscripts used for establishing the critical text of theNew Testament is often only perceived as abbreviations in form of single letters or numerals, and today’s biblical scholars may hardly ever take notice of the specific features of an original manuscript, above all those not mentioned in a critical edition. Therefore, three sets of contributions deals with the conditions under which manuscripts from the early days of Christianity were produced and transmitted, specific individual manuscripts, and then special features observed in and with the help of various manuscripts. In a final essay the usual method of how to organize and categorize New Testament manuscripts is challenged and an alternative method proposed. The essays are linked with each other so that readers may get a feeling of how astounding an occupation with the original manuscripts of the New Testament and the days of the early Christians can be.

With justification the publication of the first fascicle of the Aegyptische Urkunden aus den Königlichen [ later Staatlichen] Museen zu Berlin, Griechische Urkunden (BGU) in 1892 can be regarded as the beginning of papyrology as an academic discipline. Today we take it for granted that the massive number of documentary papyri that have been edited since then and those still awaiting publication help to paint a colorful picture of the political, social, and cultural life surrounding their usage and, above all, the people and institutions behind them. In other words, with these documentary papyri, we often get to know far more about living individuals than we do from classical authors or archaeological ruins. However, literary papyri2 are of no less use and significance— even if the stories they can tell us today sound different in tone, the reality is not different as far as their contents are concerned.

In 1885/86, after their first excavation campaigns in the northeast of the Fayum, an oasis southwest of Memphis, the two friends Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt3 from Queen’s College, Oxford, moved south to the ancient county town of Oxyrhynchus (today Behnesa), 120 miles south of Cairo. There together with about one hundred and thirty workers, the two of them started to dig through the rubbish dumps in 1886/87. Soon they found such a massive quantity of papyri that they had to utilize almost any container available, even biscuit tins, to ship them to Oxford—they found documentary papyri but also numerous literary papyri, among them classical and theological ones. However, none of the latter— in the words of Grenfell and Hunt—“aroused wider interest than a page from a book containing Sayings of Jesus and published by us under the title of Sayings of our Lord ”. This sheet of papyrus with previously unknown sayings, unearthed on 11 January 1897, was supplemented by two further fragments with sayings during their second excavation at Oxyrhynchus, with one written on the back of a survey-list and the other consisting of eight fragments of a papyrus roll.5 The three pieces were soon understood as parts of the Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus that had become an apocryphal text in the course of church history. The story of these sensational findings of extra-canonicaland quite early manuscripts with portions of the canonical New Testament at ancient Oxyrhynchus—for instance, P.Oxy. I 2 (Π1) with a portion of the Gospel of Matthew was also discovered in the course of Grenfell and Hunt’s first campaign—caused such a stir that since then the term ‘papyrus’ has been repeatedly associated with sensationalism or even rumors of conspiracies to keep the apocryphal texts under lock and key.

Nevertheless, other discoveries, acquisitions, and publications added to the great fascination of papyri. In the years 1930–31 Alfred Chester Beatty, who was knighted later on, acquired three biblical papyrus codices (Π45–47) now kept in the Beatty Museum in Dublin, Ireland. More than twenty years later, in 1956, the Genevan bibliophile Martin Bodmer succeeded in making the sensational acquisition of an ancient library, now in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana in Cologny/ Geneva, Switzerland, among which there are some invaluable textual witnesses to the writings of the New Testament (Π66.72.74.75), of the Old Testament, and of early Christian and classical texts. In between the excitement among biblical scholars caused by these two collections, Colin H. Roberts edited P.Ryl. III 457 (Π52) with John 18:31–33, 37–38, the oldest extant witness to any canonical text of the New Testament to the present, which he dated to 125 ce (± 25 years).

Furthermore, not only papyri—here meaning the writing material— aroused that kind of fascination. Analogously, other materials, above all parchment manuscripts, caused a stir. Among these are the spectacular and sometimes even miraculous tales to be told and retold of those like: Constantin Tischendorf, who by chance read leaves of a parchment codex later labeled Codex Sinaiticus (a) at the monastery of St. Catharine on Mount Sinai in 1844, and that finally made its way into the British Museum in London; or of the thirteen codices with fifty-four different works (most of which otherwise unknown) discovered in a jar by Egyptian peasants near Nag Hammadi in 1945; or of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first of them accidentally found in the area around Khirbet Qumran by a Bedouin in 1947, which are still in the process of publication.

Each of the manuscripts, libraries, and collections, their texts and the circumstances of their discovery deserve a full-scale account in order to tell about their thrilling and sometimes obscure background. Nevertheless, often scholars concentrate on specific features only, such as the character and the quality of the text preserved or the date given and the material used, even if fully aware of that shortcoming. This is legitimate and, of course, sufficient for specific purposes, for example the reconstruction of a reliable critical text of the New Testament or the recognition that there are more than one alternative reading.

However, manuscripts have many more stories to tell if you listen closely to the sounds of the details they preserve for today’s world, such as the forms of letters, their layout, their being part of a collection, the other texts written down either on the same or reverse side of a leaf, or the background of their provenance if known, to mention only a few.

This is what this book in general and its essays in particular are meant to do: to retell or even recount for the first time the fascinating tales of the manuscripts of the New Testament and their surroundings, to search for the clues they offer to get to know the people and the world behind them better, and then to assess anew what we have so far considered as common knowledge about those days.

The two opening essays deal with the conditions under which manuscripts from the early days of Christianity were produced and transmitted. Above all, the county town of Oxyrhynchus captures our attention, as it is the origin of many textual witnesses to the New Testament integrated into the famous Gregory-Aland list. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, Oxyrhynchus received a certain reputation for being the place where not only canonical but also apocryphal texts were unearthed. As many papyri found there can be dated to specific periods and the provenance of them is known, a socio-historical pattern may be set up to learn more about their production and transmission. In other words, with the help of semi-literary as well as documentary papyri significant features of the world of Oxyrhynchus and its inhabitants might be reconstructed.

(1) Eldon J. Epp has regularly put the focus on such specific features in recent years.8 In his contribution to this volume he adds new facets to the picture of Oxyrhynchus as a place of writing and reading. With his ‘The Jews and the Jewish Community in Oxyrhynchus’ he intends to circumscribe the ‘socio-religious context for the New Testament papyri’, as his subtitle precisely states. However, he immediately points out the trouble with the enterprise of collecting and assessing the testimonies of Jews and/or a Jewish community in Oxyrhynchus from 100 bce to 600 ce: which sources should be used? Which ones can be identified as being Jewish at all? What about periods of silence, for which no traces of Jewish life have been found (e.g., the impact of the futile Jewish revolt under Emperor Trajan)? Be that as it may, even if aspects of Jewish practice that can be found remain vague, some others continuously run through consecutive periods of time, and others permit selective insights into some individual lives.

(2) The author of the second in this first set of essays, Marco Frenschkowski, concentrates on another town as the home of what was of major significance for the transmission of early Christian literature and the texts of the New Testament: Caesarea and its wellknown library. Today we just know many of the early Christian writers and their texts only from quotations in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea, who had direct access to these in the library itself. Besides its uncertain fate, and the quality and quantity of its books, Frenschkowski’s ‘Studien zur Geschichte der Bibliothek von Cäsarea’ also discusses the still unsolved mystery of the total disappearance of the library in the course of the fourth and above all fifth centuries. In contrast to other scholars, who blame war or catastrophes for its end, Frenschkowski utilizes a variety of examples and parallels in order to demonstrate that it is quite plausible to regard the library of Caesarea as a private collection of books. Furthermore, this private collection might have been handed on from Origen to Pamphilos and possibly then to Eusebius, after whose death it was not passed on and thus not used anymore, but dispersed bit by bit. The picture Frenschkowski paints of the ancient library of Caesarea not only is important for the study of its features, background, and end, but may at the same time serve as a model for the problems that libraries in general and  theNew Testament manuscripts in particular have continually faced.

A second group of essays revolves around specific issues to be discussed by means of individual manuscripts. Those specific issues are manifold and extend the scope here from the discovery and publication process of one parchment manuscript, to specific features of a manuscript, such as paleographical particularities, its purpose, and interesting readings of a text, and finally to the question why some texts were bound together in one and the same codex.

(3) Peter M. Head singles out the recently discovered parchment fragments de Hamel MS 386 (Gregory-Aland 0312, abbreviated as De Hamel Coll. Gk. MS 2) kept in Cambridge to demonstrate the necessary steps to be taken from its discovery to its identification and publication. In the course of his study, ‘A Newly Discovered Manuscript of Luke’s Gospel (de Hamel MS 386; Gregory-Aland 0312)’, he systematically describes and analyses the fragments, and then reconstructs the original format of the codex and offers a tentative reading of its text of the Gospel of Luke. Head concludes by pointing out the context of the manuscript within the textual history of the New Testament and its significance for a better understanding of the transmission of the New Testament.

(4) Alongside other studies of the famous Codex Sinaiticus (a) performed in the course of an extensive research project, Dirk Jongkind here concentrates on the generally accepted observation that three scribes were involved in the copying process. With ‘One Codex, Three Scribes, and Many Books: Struggles with Space in Codex Sinaiticus’ he puts the focus on the tiny irregularities between the three hands often discernible when there is a change of scribe. After collecting these, he draws some conclusions from scrutinizing these irregularities so that the circumstances of the production of this codex become visible. It is very important to acknowledge the problems a scriptorium in late Antiquity was confronted with when instructed to produce a complete Bible.

(5) More than once a small papyrus fragment with writing on both sides has been the subject of scholarly discussions. P.Oxy. XXXIV 2864 (Π78) has been regarded as part of either a codex or an amulet. Tommy Wasserman tries to solve the riddle of this papyrus and argues in favor of the latter alternative. Consequently, to put the papyrus into the category of ‘amulet’ provokes further questions to be answered: what does this then imply as far as the value of this as the oldest textual witness to the Letter of Jude? How can the relation between the two terms ‘magic’ and ‘religion’ be defined in an appropriate way? Why—according to the title of Wasserman’s study, ‘Π78 (P. Oxy. XXXIV 2684)—The Epistle of Jude on an Amulet?’—was this specific text from the Letter of Jude used as an amulet? Based on a paleographic description of the item, Wasserman not only answers these questions, but he reveals the complex interaction of social, textual and religious aspects by means of a small piece of papyrus.

(6) Tobias Nicklas and Tommy Wasserman then discuss another essential witness to the Letter of Jude, P.Bodm. VII + VIII (Π72), which also preserves the First and Second Letter of Peter. Moreover, the two authors widen the scope of their study and concentrate on Codex Bodmer Miscellani of the famous Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, which probably consisted of a whole set of interesting texts: besides the Letter of Jude and the First and Second Letter of Peter, the fascinating collection includes apocryphal texts such as one about Mary’s birth (better known as the Proto-Gospel of James), the Third Letter to the Corinthians or the Eleventh Ode of Solomon, two psalms, and writings from authors of the early Christian church (a homily by Melito of Sardis, a fragment of an unknown hymn [by Melito?], and the Apology of Phileas). After an initial description of the codex Nicklas and Wasserman discuss the potential reasons responsible for the formation of this collection of texts alongside possible intertextual relationships. Furthermore, the two of them intend to give answers to additional questions motivated by their studies: how was this codex transmitted, how was it read and used? Are there any clearly discernible parallels and allusions to other ancient manuscripts? Consequently, they entitle their essay ‘Theologische Linien im Codex Bodmer Miscellani?’

(7) More than the previous essays, the next essay moves the text as preserved in a particular manuscript into the centre of attention. Michael W. Holmes concentrates on the particularities of one of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyry (P.Beatty III9)—among biblical scholars well known as P. Chester Beatty II (Π46)10—and focuses there on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Holmes collects the textual variants in the codex and draws the conclusion that these indicate a tendency to widen and/or explain the text. This observation leads Holmes to assume that this text of Romans might manifest an incipient example of early Christian commentary, or at least an indication of early activities in such a direction, as is expressed in the title of his study, ‘The Text of Π46: Evidence of the Earliest “Commentary” on Romans?’.

Special features observed in various manuscripts, that is, more or less general traits of writing and using ancient manuscripts, are the common subject of a last category of essays. By studying many papyri, parchments, ostraca, and tablets specific tendencies become visible, whether they consist of the usage of certain texts with each other, specific writing conventions (e.g., short forms, layout, handwriting), or features of diverse religious backgrounds in some Christian manuscripts, to mention only a few.

(8) Larry W. Hurtado has often emphasized abbreviated forms of words that scribes regarded as special and significant in his research.11 Here Hurtado investigates the evolution and the developmental stages of the staurogram, which can be found in many of the very early Christian manuscripts and may relate to the early forms of Christian iconography and Christ devotion. Accordingly, his title asks: ‘The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus?’ The staurogram, a composite form of the Greek majuscule letters tau and rho with a superimposed ver- tical line of the latter on the first, looks like what we today identify as the symbol for the crucified Jesus. If it really is, the manuscripts will have preserved a reference to Jesus prior to the commonly held start of the depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus.

(9) In response to the question of which Christian text may be the one most often preserved on papyri, the common answer would be ‘the Lord’s Prayer’—although the Gregory-Aland list lacks specific entries for papyri with the Lord’s Prayer. Thomas J. Kraus collects early Christian manuscripts with verses of the Lord’s Prayer, he describes each of them paleographically, he evaluates the data collected in order to assess anew the ways they have been described previously, and finally he compiles the other texts with which the Lord’s Prayer is preserved. The many pieces of a massive puzzle fit together to create a picture of the people living in those days and make their world(s) of belief and thought visible. Thus, Kraus demonstrates that each early Christian manuscript is invaluable, even if it has been excluded from the official Gregory-Aland list. So, the title of his essay—‘Manuscripts with the Lord’s Prayer—they are more than simply Witnesses to that Text itself ’—is established.

(10) Not only those manuscripts with extracts from the New Testament writings can and should be accepted as witnesses to the text of the New Testament, however, no matter if they have been integrated into the Gregory-Aland list so important for the creation of the critical editions of the New Testament. Malcolm Choat’s ‘Echo and Quotation of the NT in Papyrus Letters to the End of the Fourth Century’ provides extensive proof for the necessity to take private letters from early Christians seriously. On the one hand, these letters often contain quotations from, allusions to, and echoes of biblical texts; on the other hand, phrases or terms common in the New Testament and its related texts clearly made their way into the everyday language of the senders and addressees of the letters. Additionally, letters offer data regarding their time of writing, their provenance, or even the place to which they were sent. That leads to further insights into the background of a particular word or phrase and, thus, to a circumscription of a scenario of how the world of biblical texts and everyday life interacted on the level of language.

(11) Although the issue of women’s literacy has been treated by a number of scholars, it remains a neglected aspect in biblical studies. The notion that a specific genre of literature has ever been popular with women—in biblical studies the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles—manifests a traditional stereotype. Kim Haines-Eitzen links gender studies with the manuscripts of the Apocryphal Acts and, thus, for the first time investigates how far that stereotype can be proved by a close observation of those textual witnesses. Do the manuscripts themselves offer any indications that the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles are a kind of women’s literature? What can be said about their readership and audience? Haines-Eitzen answers these two questions and more in her ‘The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles on Papyrus: Revisiting the Question of Readership and Audience’.

It is not by accident that one essay is set apart from the others as challenging the usual method of how to organize and categorize New Testament manuscripts. Several times reference has been made to the Gregory-Aland list of witnesses to the New Testament, the official and updated list of the Institute in Münster/Germany. Nevertheless, this list has its advantages and disadvantages, in other words its strengths and shortcomings. One of the latter is that it ends up with the exclusion of specific manuscripts or even categories of manuscripts, some overlapping of categories, and a biased treatment of items being classified as ‘magic.’

(12) Only if all manuscripts of the New Testament are taken as what they are, i.e. real artifacts of real people worthy to be respected and accepted as such, will we get a more precise picture of the sociohistorical and theological background of early Christianity. Thus, Stanley E. Porter methodologically unfolds a system of how to integrate all witnesses to the New Testament available, be they papyri or parchments, ostraca or tablets. With his ‘Textual Criticism in the Light of Diverse Textual Evidence for the Greek New Testament: An Expanded Proposal’ he argues for an understanding of textual criticism that allows us to integrate into our textual reconstructions such items as amulets or apocryphal texts, which are necessary for a full-scale knowledge of the situation in which the manuscripts of the New Testaments were written. Furthermore, he pleads for a fresh evaluation of all the entries in the official Gregory-Aland list, because there might be some significant textual witness to the New Testament that has so far been overlooked, only because it was put into the category of lectionaries. Admittedly, the Gregory-Aland list is practical, but the great variety of extant manuscripts is more complex than the existing categorical system of the official list of witnesses to the New Testament. How far and in what respect Porter’s proposal is going to affect the traditional practice of New Testament textual criticism and the classification of manuscripts will be seen in the next few years.


  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: