Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bagnall on Early Christian Books in Egypt


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:

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.

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?

Anyway, I hope to pick up on some of the issues raised by Bagnall in some later posts.


  1. Everybody should read this book!

    Basically Bagnall argues for two things:

    1. The early Christian papyri are dated too early throughout by about 50 years.
    I have no problem with that and I think it doesn't matter much, does it?

    2. The origin of the Christian codex is due to an adoption of Roman custom.
    Again no problem with that. I never understood why this is an interesting question at all.

    The interesting thing for me is from point 1 that if there are so few early papyri, the time and possibility for an evolutionary origin (slow development theory) of the Byzantine text is further shrinking. It is present probably already in the middle of the 4th CE (Gospels). If numbers of Christian manuscripts start to appear only around 200 CE, there are only about 150 years to allow for the Byzantine text to come up. In 150 years a manuscript is copied perhaps 1-3 times, not enough for an evolutionary model, IMO.
    I still think that the origin of the Byzantine text (Gospels) is best explained by some kind of recension or revision.

  2. But Wieland, he is only talking about surviving papyri from Egypt, so there would have been plenty of NT mss on papyri elsewhere (which don't survive). You don't lose copying generations by redating extant papyri.

  3. What he is doing is correlating the number of extant papyri with the possible number of Christians. And he finds the numbers to fit roughly if one uses his dating. In the beginning there were, according to him, much fewer papyri than we commonly assume. The less papyri there are in the beginning, the less copying takes place and the less copying generations you have up to about 350 CE. The shift, Bagnall proposes, is about 50 years.

  4. Yes - but he is only dealing with Egypt, outside of Egypt there would be population centres with significant Christian populations in the first and second century.

  5. Well, maybe. I don't see why Alexandria would be that different from e.g. Antioch or Rome, papyri-wise.
    But I don't want to stress this point too much, it doesn't matter much.

  6. I was wondering when you might comment on this book. I've been working through it and was curious if you two might have had some history. It was really odd that he cited Comfort's appraisal of the Magdalen Papyrus issue, but not yours (though published in the same journal!), simply relegating it to one of those which "…appeared in theological periodicals little read in papyrological circles."

    I look forward to future posts…I'll have to hurry up and finish reading the book!

  7. There is no history (until now!).

  8. Sorry, two clarifications.
    1. I do think this book is interesting, and I shall bring this out in some future posts.
    2. I also think there has been grade inflation in some circles in relation to the dates assigned to NT mss.
    3. Roger Bagnall was a respondent to a paper I gave at SBL in Toronto in maybe 2002. But we didn't have any argument, he basically agreed with my paper. I would be a nobody to Bagnall.