Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Papyri and Christian Origins

In reading over Carl B. Smith, No Longer Jews: The Search for Gnostic Origins, pp. 237-44, it is apparent that manuscripts have a real part to play in mapping the origins of the early Christian movement. Walter Bauer argued that gnostic Christianity preceded orthodox Christianity in Egypt. Apart from the fact that we have very scant evidence for any Christians in Egypt in the first century (be they gnostic or orthodox), Colins Roberts ("Early Christianity in Egypt: Three Notes," JEA 40 [1954]: 92-96) identified 14 papyri that could be dated to the second century CE in middle and upper Egypt. These texts were "orthodox" and showed signs of Jewish influences, and only two have gnostic tendencies:

7 OT texts
3 NT texts (John; Matthew; Titus)
4 Extrabiblical texts (Egerton Gospel; Shepherd of Hermas; Gospel of Thomas, and Irenaeus' Against Heresies).

Brook Pearson adds to the list several other non-gnostic manuscripts:

Gospel of the Hebrews
Gospel of the Egyptians
The Secret Gospel of Mark [though I doubt this existed]
The Epistle of Barnabas

Does the textual evidence count against Bauer's thesis (at least in Egypt)? See further Smith, No Longer Jews, p. 243.

What further role can analysis of manuscripts play in plotting the various parties, groupings and overall diversity of early Christianity? Or is this line of evidence itself suspect due to our inability to assign a provenance to any manuscript with complete certainty?


  1. I'm confused by what is being counted here. It appears that the 14 mss counted by Roberts are physical mss from 2nd c. Egypt of books written elsewhere. But the added bits from Brook Pearson appear to be books thought to have been written in 2nd century Egypt, but whose extant mss are not from there.

    Also, I might add something along the same lines. I haven't studied Coptic yet. But I noticed in a diglot of the Gospel of Thomas that was used in one of my classes that the text used nomina sacra, and in place of the word stauros (regarding taking up one's cross) there was a staurogram. This struck me, since the use of a staurogram would seem to indicate some reverence for Christ's crucifixion on the part of the scribal community that made the ms. Moreover, the nomina sacra, though not used very much more liberally than many NT mss, were used for all three persons of the Trinity, including uses of pneuma that were not references to the Holy Spirit.

    Granted, we are talking about a later ms here (and I am assuming the phenomena I noticed in this print edition were there because they are in a Coptic ms). But it still strikes that these things may serve as circumstantial evidence of an orthodox community in Egypt strong enough to influence the scribes of our Coptic Gospel of Thomas manuscript with conventions, such as these, that betray an orthodox underpinning.

  2. Roberts addressed the whole subject in his 1979 book Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt

  3. > What further role can analysis of manuscripts play in plotting the various parties, groupings and overall diversity of early Christianity?

    I think this is a precarious attempt (though not necessarily impossible). It seems to me that it is very easy to read far too much into very little exivdence in the texts themselves (unless, of course, we are dealing with an explicit gnostic text). Epp demonstrated that ability in his SBL pres. address in 2003 (which contains some helpful data, but far too much speculation on inadequate evidence). The early gnostic arguments have been dealt with (decisively, IMHO) by Yamauchi apart form TC considerations.

    Though not directly relevant to this question, it is tangential since it involves Oxyrhynchus. Does anyone know if Peter Parsons' work *Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts* has ever been published? It was listed (in Epp's JBL article) as "forthcoming" as of 2003, but I find no listing for this--at least in places where I've looked. If it's available, a date or (better yet) an ISBN would be appreciated.

  4. Rod,

    I haven't heard that the book is published yet. The conference was in 1998 so it is not a decade yet (!). But they were very useful papers, so I hope they emerge at some point. If you are absolutely desparate for a particular item I could probably find the handouts (somewhere in my office); the line up was as follows:
    Prof.R.S.Bagnall (Columbia), Families and social structure

    Dr. A.K.Bowman (Oxford), Oxyrhynchus and Roman history*

    Dr.Sarah Clackson (Cambridge), Coptic Oxyrhynchus

    Dr.R.A.Coles (Oxford), The site and the excavation

    Dr.Raffaella Cribiore (New York), Schools of Oxyrhynchus

    Prof. E.J.Epp (Case Western Reserve), The biblical texts

    Prof. D.Hagedorn (Heidelberg), The city and its government

    Prof.M.W.Haslam (Manchester), Oxyrhynchus and the textual tradition

    Prof. A.Jones (Toronto), Astrologers of Oxyrhynchus

    Prof.L.Koenen (Michigan), Greeks and Egyptian Greeks

    Prof.L.Lehnus (Milan), Grenfell and Hunt in correspondence*

    Prof.H.G.T.Maehler (London), Greek, Egyptian and Roman Law

    Dr. Alain Martin (Brussels), The Papyruskartell

    Dr.D.Montserrat, Grenfell & Hunts's excavations*

    Dr. D.Obbink (Oxford), Readers and intellectuals

    Prof. K.Parlasca (Erlangen), Sculpture of Oxyrhynchus

    Prof. P.J.Parsons (Oxford), Scribes of Oxyrhynchus

    Dr. J.L.Rowlandson (London), The town and its hinterland

    Mr.M.L.Sharp (Oxford), The food supply*

    Prof. W.J.Tait (London), Petrie's excavations

    Prof. J.D.Thomas (Durham), Roman citizens and Latin texts

    Dr.H.V.Whitehouse (Oxford), Textiles and designs

  5. Thanks for the run-down on the contents. (Hope you didn't have to type all that in manually!) I'm not in a desparate hurry, so I'll keep waiting. Just want to be sure the library doesnt miss it when it comes out.

  6. Rod,

    I didn't type it all in manually. I nicked it from the internet (the original description of the conference on Papy-List archive), which I found while Googling to see if the book existed yet. If I'd typed it up by hand it wouldn't be finished yet, it would be full of errors, and I probably wouldn't have bothered anyway.

    Now that we know that Google censors results perhaps I ought to double check the search. What is the second best search engine?

  7. Eric,

    I'm not too convinced about the NS in GT providing evidence of orthodox scribal influence (except of the most general kind). Plenty of non-orthodox mss have nomina sacra of various types. Perhaps the most interesting example is P. Egerton 2 which has loads of extra NS type abbreviations (perhaps the scribe was tryign just a bit too hard to pretend to be writign scripture?).

  8. Readers may be interested in my forthcoming book (Eerdmans, autumn 2006), "The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins", which focuses on the artifactual significance of early Christian mss (widely overlooked) for wider questions about early Christianity. One chap. deals with the texts copied (including number of copies of each text, etc.).

  9. Thanks, Larry. If you want to send any more details I'll put in on the main page (which is what gets picked up by search engines). So far there appear to be no details on the Eerdman's site.