Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Craig Evans on Use of Manuscripts

Over at Bible and Interpretation, Craig Evans has a short article on How Long Were Biblical Manuscripts in Use. The blurb reads:
I speculated that if the Gospel of Matthew were published and circulated in 75 CE and if it and some of the first copies of it were in use as long as the manuscripts in the collections and libraries studied by Houston were in use, then some of these manuscripts could still have been in circulation, being read, studied, and copied, as late as the end of the second century and perhaps even on into the third century. This means that New Testament autographs and first copies could still have been available when our oldest extant papyri manuscripts (e.g., P45, P46, P66) were produced. If still in circulation and being read and copied, the autographs and first copies would have continued to give shape to the text. In a sense, then, the gap between autograph and extant manuscript is bridged.
In the end Evans wonders what bearing this has for conceiving of early Christian libraries and the formation of the canon:
What I propose is that the New Testament canon of writings be viewed more as a library or collection. Many of the libraries and collections that Houston studied were assembled either by families or by groups of literate friends with common reading interests. Members of these groups met together from time to time to read and study. They acquired manuscripts, sometimes multiple copies, compared and discussed texts, and made notes, which in some instances approximate what we today would regard as commentary. I should think that some of these activities were very much those of early Christian groups that collected the founding documents of the Christian faith. In short, some of the dynamics behind the collecting, reading, and studying of the literary collections studied by Houston might be very close to the dynamics behind the collecting, reading, and studying of sacred texts by early Christian groups.


  1. Yes and the way EN EFESW gets tossed about passim tends to support this. Individuals and communities alike would have held a common keen intetest.

  2. I would advise extreme caution in the use of Houston's articles. Many of his conclusions are hyperbolic, to put it mildly. The typical life of individual literary texts is less than 100, probably closer to one or two generations. NB the use of years for dating and the estimation of the lifespan, so to speak, of a literary papyrus is terribly misleading, unless there is a secure documentary date attached to it (such as a dated document on the back, vel sim.). It gives an impression of precision that is quite beyond our ability to argue for from evidence. There are famous examples of literary papyri remaining in use for two centuries or more. These are exceptional, and in argumentation, this fact should be explicitly recognized

    I am completely in sympathy with any and all attempts to counter the pernicious influence of Prof. Ehrman's more extravagant views on textual transmission, which seem to be motivated by something other than scientific respect for the limits of our evidence. But one must be careful in turn not return hyperbole for hyperbole, else soon we will find ourselves arguing about each others ill-supported conclusions and not about the evidence itself.

  3. My first thought is to the "so what" test, as in, so what if the autographs existed for an extended period of time, even overlapping the existence of some now extant papyri -- what pay-off does Evans see in that?

    After all, once they had birthed their various lines of transmission (and the ongoing variation inherent in those lines) the continued existence of the autographs would be, theoretically, irrelevant.

    Irrelevant, that is, unless you could demonstrate that besides merely existing, those autographs also managed to exert some sort of governing influence on the transmission process.

    That possibility seems to be where Evans sees the pay-off, as he writes "If still in circulation and being read and copied, the autographs and first copies would have continued to give shape to the text."

    In that quote, however, he seems to be assuming as fact something that I think would need to be demonstrated: namely, that the autographs would exert a governing influence (or as Evans terms it, "give shape"). Perhaps he expands on it elsewhere, but here he merely says that if they existed the autographs "would" exert that influence. But why does he think that?

    Certainly they would work that way for Evans (and a great many others): if Evans suddenly had access to the autographs, I am sure he would regard them authoritatively and would permit them to exert a governing influence.

    But were the first generations of copyists and readers of the same mindset? To what extent did they realise and regard these writings as sacred? And was their nascent doctrine of scripture formulated in such a way as to privilege the initial composition? Would they even see a difference between the original and subsequent copies? And if so, would the geography and technology of the time really allow them sufficient access to those autographs so that they could exert that governing influence?

    I'm not saying that all of those things couldn't be true - they, and Evans, may very well be. I'm just saying there seems to be a premise in there that is being assumed when it needs to be proven.

  4. Irenaeus says that 666 was read ‘in all the excellent and ancient copies (en pasi de tois spoudaiois kai archaiois antigraphois)’ of Rev. 13.18 (AH 5.30.1). The use of antigraphos would indicate that he does not claim to have seen the original manuscript written by John. But when we remember that Irenaeus was writing in the mid or late 180’s and says that Revelation was written late in the reign of Domitian (ca. 96; AH 5.30.3), we see that “ancient” in this instance has only about a 90 year limit. Could archaios mean only 20-40 years old? This seems very doubtful. It is hard to believe that he would have considered archaios any manuscript which was very much younger than himself (late fifties at least, more probably well over sixty). Sixty to ninety years seems much more likely. These old manuscripts, which must have been copied not long after the original (perhaps from it), were still in existence in Ireneus’ day, and they were the ones that responsible church leaderslike Irenaeus would have looked to. Most likely they were in the possession of the churches to which Revelation was originally sent. One of these would have been Irenaeus’ own home church at Smyrna. Another would have been the church of Ephesus, where Ireneus says that the author had lived. The use of the single article before spoudaiois kai archaiois should indicate that it is the same manuscripts which are both spoudaiois kai archaiois. Spoudaios in this context must mean best, most carefully or finely produced. This strengthens the idea that at least some of these copies were church copies, carefully executed exemplars kept by the churches.

    C. E. Hill

  5. The "Pamphilian corrector" and his colophons in Codex Sinaiticus seem germane to this discussion -- although the dating is much later than the period of interest in Evans' article. The "Pamphilian corrector" (or cpamph) supposedly corrected the text of 2 Esdras and Esther in Codex Sinaiticus against "an extremely old copy," an "ancient book." We learn this from the Pamphilian corrector's colophons. He brings over into Sinaiticus the colophons from his exemplar (the "extremely old copy") which contain Pamphilus' signature. Pamphilus claims that his MS was "copied from and corrected against the Hexapla of Origen." Interestingly, Jerome says that Pamphilus' copies of Origen "may be found this day in the library at Caesarea."

    The question is how "ancient" or "extremely old" was the MS used by the Pamphilian corrector. If the "extremely old copy” was the original MS purportedly "copied from and corrected against the Hexapla” by Pamphilus (who was martyred in 309 CE), then it could be anywhere from 75-100 years old, depending on the date of the Pamphilian corrections in Sinaiticus. It is possible that the Pamphilian corrector was using a copy of a copy of Pamphilus' MS. But if this was the case, then why describe the MS as "ancient" and "extremely old"? It is quite possible that this “extremely old copy” was nearly one hundred (100) years old, especially if we assume that it was produced around the turn of the fourth century and that the Pamphilian corrections were made sometime near the turn of the fifth century. In any case, if we take at face value Jerome’s statement that Pamphilus’ original copies of the Hexapla were kept at the library at Caesarea, then it would square nicely with Evans’ idea of Christian texts as “library” or “collections” which were preserved and consulted by early Christian groups. Although this example is later and pertains to the LXX, it still seems relevant vis-a-vis the age of MSS and the fact that Codex Sinaiticus is a Christian production.