Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bagnall Chapter One

Last week I posted some initial comments about Roger Bagnall's new book, Early Christian Books in Egypt. Now I want to look at it chapter-by-chapter. I'll start with chapter one. There are several good reasons for starting with chapter one:
first, the chapters come in a numerical sequence and chapter one is the first in that sequence (followed in turn by chapters two, three and four);
secondly, this numerical sequence is reflected in the binding of the book (and the pagination), with chapter one printed as pages 1-24 and bound in "before" chapter two (it is a codex in English, reflecting traditional left-to-right reading practices);
thirdly, chapter one is on-line so anyone can read it (well anyone in the 4% of the world's population with an internet connection);
fourthly, chapter one (as I find often to be the case) opens the book with some of the general issues which the author thinks is important.
Of course one wonders whether one should throw off the repressive power-play that this sort of control over my reading habits represents, but hey, maybe the revolution can wait.

Fundamentally Bagnall is puzzled by a couple of things:
  1. Documentary evidence for the existence of Christians among the papyri is completely lacking until the middle of the third century (after which date there are reasonably numerous examples of identifiable Christians in letters and semi-official records). This is puzzling if the normal dates assigned to Christian literary texts (in the second and early third centuries) is correct: why would Christians write gospels but never write letters to each other?
  2. Scholars have disagreed about the dating of some of the early Christian texts. Especially Eric Turner 'who new vastly more early codices than Grenfell and Hunt or indeed practically anyone else before of afterward [and] fairly consistently also opted for later dates than those that the editors of papyri and other commentators had offered' (p. 12). In particular Bagnall thinks that the early Christian texts have been dated early in relation to each other and without comparative evidence from other texts, so the whole cluster could shift with each other to a later date.
  3. Bagnall attempts to model the number of Christians in Egypt across the first few centuries (based on a load of assumptions, but essentially assuming a steady rate of increase between 40 CE and the late fourth century throughout the whole empire). On this basis, for example, in 200 CE there were 21,747 Christians making up 0.395% of the population of Egypt (p. 20 - yes, inappropriate levels of precision I know). Using these figures, and working on the further assumption that Christians had or used books in the same proportion as the rest of the population he figures, for example, that in the second century there are 1,474 surviving books from Egypt; Christians (averaging things out) made up 0.092% of the population, and thus that we might explect 1.360 Christian books from the second century. He writes:
'On any reckoning, the number of published fragments of Christian character usually assigned to these early periods considerably exceeds the expected number.' (p. 21)
This combination of modelling and appeal to the authority of Turner is then the basis for the proposal that Christian literary texts have been dated too early (by most other scholars). A generally later dating would allow for more coherence not only with the models, but with the appearance of Christians in the documentary papyri.

There are plenty of positive points raised by Bagnall. He is a good writer, very clear. I think he has detected a tendency among some writers to think of how early texts can be dated, and an over-confidence in dates assigned by editors. I agree that a wider perspective is necessary and welcome. But I think there are a lot of problems here. The assumptions behind the modelling are to my mind problematic (e.g. I think Christians would be more book friendly than the general population, although not as bookish as the educated elite). The deliberate avoidance of literary evidence (Christian texts which speak of books, especially the martyrological reports) is not actually utilising all the evidence. And his argument is most noticeable for its avoidance of any engagement with the palaeography of the papyri - here we have simply the appeal to authority (of Turner instead of Parsons, Cavallo, Seider, Skeat etc., etc.). Bagnall is actually wrong to think that the dating of the Christian literary tests is as inbred as he thinks (he seems to think that Peter Parsons would date a Christian text on a different basis to other texts); he is also wrong to think that early Christian texts form a distinct palaeographically moveable cluster, as if they can be shifted back a century or so without any impact on the dating of every other second and third century literary text.
But it is good to hear the challenge and in the next chapters (which follow numerically) he offers some more argumentation.


The White Man said...

"Posted by Peter M. Head kl."

Is this another sign of the intrusion of Swedish orthography into an English post?

Tommy Wasserman said...

Yes, White Man, it is. "Kl" is an abbreviation of "klockan" in Swedish. This is inappropriate, but I must tell you that I have looked in the Blogger settings to change that, but I do not know how. A while ago the template went "Swedish" for some reason (I have no idea why). I eventually (after many attempts) suceeded in changing most of it to English again, but now you have spotted something that I am unable to change at this point.

Anonymous said...


You wrote: he is also wrong to think that early Christian texts form a distinct palaeographically moveable cluster, as if they can be shifted back a century or so without any impact on the dating of every other second and third century literary text.

When you date Christian texts "in relation to each other" then the whole cluster indeed will move if it can be shown that the "fixed temporal points" are off. However, this is really not saying anything of interest; it is just true IF Christian texts were dated in relation to each other. This is where he is off. Christian manuscripts are dated, not only in relation to other texts, but in relation to a plethora of secular literature. Does he deny this?

Peter M. Head said...

He doesn't explictly deny this (i.e. in so many words). He points out that in editorial comments about dating (e.g. in Oxy Pap) there are often references to other early Christian literary texts (pp. 11-15).