Roger Bagnall, papyrological supremo, has written an interesting book: Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), which I read last week. The first chapter is available on-line and is well worth reading as an introduction, but I found the other chapters, especially those on the economics of ancient book production and the spread of the codex, even more interesting, even occasionally intriguing, although not altogether convincing.
Even more exciting than the book itself is the promotional blurb provided by the publisher, which suggests that all previous scholarship on the subject has been biased and that the dates of Christian texts have been dated too early:
It is a little disconcerting to realise how few of the things in the blurb are actually contained in the book. The verbs of the blurb sound impressive: "Bagnall ... shows ... provid[es] a detailed picture ... reveals ... explains ... offers a realistic reappraisal ... examines ..."; but the book is actually very brief and not much given to detail or actual facts (certainly nothing of a palaeographical argument about any particular manuscript). The basic motif, as regards dates assigned to early Christian literary texts, is 'Eric Turner dated many of these texts late' and Turner's dates fit better with some statistical modelling I've come up with for estimating the Christian population in Egypt. He doesn't think much of the scholarship in this field that he has read (although he hasn't read much because he doesn't read theological journals and he spends one sixth of the book critiquing Carsten P. Thiede's claims as if they have never previously been addressed). (Fair enough, that gets personal, since I wrote a thorough critique of Thiede in 1995* which Bagnall does not mention) It is rather strange to me that he critiques 'the excessively self-enclosed character' of scholarship on the subject of early Christian books on page 1, and then later refers dismissively to 'a number of articles not cited here [which] appeared in theological periodicals little read in papyrological circles' [page 94] - so whose scholarship is more excessively self-enclosed?
For the past hundred years, much has been written about the early editions of Christian texts discovered in the region that was once Roman Egypt. Scholars have cited these papyrus manuscripts--containing the Bible and other Christian works--as evidence of Christianity's presence in that historic area during the first three centuries AD. In Early Christian Books in Egypt, distinguished papyrologist Roger Bagnall shows that a great deal of this discussion and scholarship has been misdirected, biased, and at odds with the realities of the ancient world. Providing a detailed picture of the social, economic, and intellectual climate in which these manuscripts were written and circulated, he reveals that the number of Christian books from this period is likely fewer than previously believed.
Bagnall explains why papyrus manuscripts have routinely been dated too early, how the role of Christians in the history of the codex has been misrepresented, and how the place of books in ancient society has been misunderstood. The author offers a realistic reappraisal of the number of Christians in Egypt during early Christianity, and provides a thorough picture of the economics of book production during the period in order to determine the number of Christian papyri likely to have existed. Supporting a more conservative approach to dating surviving papyri, Bagnall examines the dramatic consequences of these findings for the historical understanding of the Christian church in Egypt.
Anyway, I hope to pick up on some of the issues raised by Bagnall in some later posts.