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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins

The earliest extant artifacts of Christianity are manuscripts, but they hardly receive the attention that they deserve, even among specialists in Christian origins. [1] Though ours is a time of intense historical investigation of earliest Christianity by hundreds of specialists in many nations, many scholars regularly overlook what early Christian manuscripts can offer. Today, we borrow questions and approaches from a variety of other fields for the study of early Christianity, but we do not make full use of crucial physical evidence. There are some recent developments, however, that may offer signs of a change for the better.
The earliest Christian manuscripts are papyrus, most of them either fragmentary or only partially extant, and the texts that they contain include those that came to form part of the familiar canon of Christian scriptures, as well as some of the many extra-canonical texts of the early Christian period, too. To be sure, we have some other important physical evidence of Christianity from the early to middle third century C.E., such as the church in Dura-Europos and the earliest levels of the Roman catacombs. [2] But, if commonly-accepted paleographical dating of early Christian manuscripts is correct, these include several that go back to the middle to late second century, some of which have only recently been published, making them earlier than anything else extant as artifacts of Christianity in its earliest period. [3]

But some important biblical manuscripts have been available for many years, such as the remarkable collection of Chester Beatty biblical papyri, which includes a manuscript of the epistles of Paul from sometime near 200 C.E., a manuscript of the four canonical Gospels and the book of Acts from 200-250 C.E., and copies of other (Old Testament) biblical texts that are even earlier. [4] There are also important papyri in the Bodmer collection, including copies of some of the canonical Gospels that may be as early as the late second century or early third century C.E., [5] The Rylands Library (Manchester) holds a fragment of the Gospel of John that is widely thought to be the earliest Christian manuscript, usually dated towards the middle of the second century. [6] There are also manuscripts of extra-biblical texts from approximately the same early date as these biblical papyri that have been available for a century or more. [7]

Of course, New Testament textual critics will be well aware of the importance of early manuscripts, particularly for tracing the textual history of New Testament writings. Certainly nowadays the readings favored in early papyri carry a great deal of weight in efforts to establish a critical edition of the New Testament. Indeed, on the basis of the early papyri manuscripts of these writings, some leading scholars have proposed major re-formulations of our approach to the history of the text of the New Testament. [8] But, although for many years textual critics have mined early manuscripts for variant readings, with most other scholars they have not usually noticed the wider range of information that can be derived from these important artifacts, information that is relevant for larger issues about early Christianity. [9]

Furthermore, "early Christian manuscripts" includes more than copies of New Testament writings. There are early Christian manuscripts of writings from the Jewish Bible that became part of the Christian Old Testament, copies of early extra-canonical writings such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Shepherd of Hermas, and fragments of other, unknown writings, as well as liturgical and theological texts. Any manuscript of Christian provenance can provide valuable historical information about early Christianity.

This wider range of information (beyond the wording of the texts copied) basically involves the physical and visual features of manuscripts, the sorts of things characteristically noted and logged by paleographers and codicologists. But, as with many specializations today, these scholars generally study the details of early manuscripts with reference to technical questions investigated and debated among their fellow experts in their own disciplines. [10] To be sure, it does require some effort to acquire even a basic acquaintance with the features of ancient manuscripts. This is surely one major reason why many biblical scholars (indeed, perhaps most today) have little experience in the study of manuscripts, relying on printed editions of ancient texts, and are little aware of what they are missing. [11]

For instance, what does the early Christian general preference for the codex over the roll indicate? (A codex is a book constructed of folded sheets of writing material, basically like our modern books.) Was this purely a pragmatic choice, or does it signal some deliberate move to identify manuscripts as coming from Christians? If the latter is involved, then is the Christian use of the codex our earliest extant expression of a Christian "material culture"?

What is the meaning of the curious abbreviations of certain words that characterize Christian manuscripts (the so-called nomina sacra), in particular the Greek words for "God," "Lord," "Jesus," and "Christ," which are treated this way rather consistently from our earliest manuscripts onward? Why do early Christian manuscripts of biblical texts depart from literary texts of the time in making greater use of several scribal devices such as spaces at the end of major sense-units (sentences), punctuation, and other features that appear to function as aids to the public reading of these texts? For instance, some manuscripts have wide margins, comparatively generous-size letters, and fewer lines per page. Were such manuscripts prepared especially for public reading in churches?

In at least two very early manuscripts of Gospel texts, the words for "cross" and "crucify" are written in a distinctive manner, with a monogram formed of the letters tau and rho. Some scholars have proposed that this is a pictographic reference to the crucified Jesus. If so, it predates by about 150 years what most art historians would cite as the earliest visual representations of Jesus' crucifixion. [12]

Among the signs that things may be changing, however, is the inclusion in recent years at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature of a unit on "Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds." Harry Gamble's fascinating study, Books and Readers in the Early Church, mines much of the data, and Kim Haines-Eitzen has investigated scribal features of Christian manuscripts probing what we can tell about some social characteristics of early Christianity in her book, Guardians of Letters. [13] There is a major project on "Papyri of Early Christian Egypt" at Macquarie University (Sidney, Australia) that promises to provide a significant new database for any investigation.

Another promising project focuses on the small but important collection of biblical manuscripts housed at the Freer/Sackler Galleries (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC). The Freer/Sackler administration, Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (Brigham Young University), and SBL are collaborating on a set of high-resolution color photographs of the six Greek biblical manuscripts. I am coordinating a team of scholars who are working on fresh studies of these manuscripts, their findings to be presented in the 2006 Annual Meeting, which will be held in Washington. In addition, the Freer/Sackler Galleries are promising a major exhibit that will include these biblical manuscripts, which is scheduled to open in connection with the SBL 2006 Annual Meeting, and which will mark the centenary year of the acquisition of this, the most important collection of biblical manuscripts in the Americas. [14]

So, perhaps the next generation of scholars will include more who are aware of what early Christian manuscripts have to offer to wider historical investigation of Christian origins, and who are better equipped to harvest from this relatively under-investigated body of evidence.

Larry W. Hurtado is Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology and Directs the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, University of Edinburgh.

[1] I return here to an emphasis that I expressed in "The Earliest Evidence of an Emerging Christian Material and Visual Culture: The Codex, the Nomina Sacra and the Staurogram," in Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson, ed. S. G. Wilson and M. Desjardins (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), 271-88, and I echo here a point made decades ago by Erich Dinkler, "Älteste Christliche Denkmäler," Signum Crucis (Tübingen: Mohr, 1967), 134-78, reprinted in Art, Archaeology and Architecture of Early Christianity, ed. P. C. Finney (New York/London: Garland Publishing,1993), 22-66.

[2] Dura-Europos was destroyed in 256 C.E.,, the latest possible date for the Christian church found there. The oldest Christian catacomb is within the Callixtus complex, and is probably to be dated in the early third century C.E., See, e.g., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. Everett Ferguson (2nd ed.; New York/London: Garland Publishing, 1998), L. M. White, "Dura-Europos," 352-53; P. C. Finney, "Catacombs," 220-23.

[3] For instance, two recent volumes (64 and 65) of the Oxyrhynchus papyri make public portions of eleven different Christian manuscripts of biblical texts paleographically dated to the second and third centuries C.E.,. See E. W. Handley, U. Wartenberg et al (eds.), The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXIV (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1997); M. W. Haslan, A. Jones, F. Maltomini (eds.), The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXV (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1998).

[4] Frederick Kenyon, The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri (12 vols.; London: Emery Walker, 1933-37). For basic information on these and other major biblical manuscripts, see, e.g., B. M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (3rd ed.; New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 36-92. In December 2000, the Chester Beatty Library held a public conference focused on their biblical papyri, particularly emphasizing the Gospels codex (P45). Papers from this conference appear in The Earliest Gospels, The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels. The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45, ed. by Charles Horton (JSNTSup 258; London: T&T Clark International, 2004.)

[5] P66 (Gospel of John) is dated ca. 200 C.E. and P75 (Luke and John) may be slightly earlier.

[6] A color image of this fragment with brief introduction is available from the John Rylands Library online: The widely-touted date of this fragment may now need to be adjusted a bit later, however.

[7] See, e.g., the quick survey of writings identified in the voluminous material from Oxyrhynchus in E. J. Epp, "The Oxyrhynchus New Testament Papyri: 'Not Without Honor Except in their Hometown?'" JBL 123 (2004)10-20 [5-55].

[8] E. J. Epp has been particularly active urging this. See his essay, "The New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts in Historical Perspective," in To Touch the Text: Biblical and Related Studies in Honor of Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., eds. Maurya P. Horgan and Paul J. Kobelski (New York: Crossroads, 1989), 261-88; and "The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission," in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, E. J. Epp and G. D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 274-97.

[9] An instructive exception is B. D. Ehrman, "The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and the Social History of Early Christianity," in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, ed. B. D. Ehrman and M. Holmes (SD 46; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 361-79.

[10] An insufficiently-noted exception is Colin Roberts' Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (The Schweich Lectures 1977; London: Oxford University Press, 1979).

[11] For students and scholars in New Testament and Christian origins, a useful place to start is given by Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981). [12] Commendably, the recent study by Robin Margaret Jensen takes account of this: Understanding Early Christian Art (London/New York: Routledge, 2000), 138.

[13] Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); Kim Hains-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[14] The Freer Greek biblical manuscripts include the fascinating fourth/fifth-century Freer Gospels codex, an early fifth-century codex of Deuteronomy and Joshua, a fifth-century Psalms codex, a sixth-century codex of Pauline epistles, and a third-century codex of the Minor Prophets. As well, there is a fifth-century Coptic Psalms codex. The SBL will publish the studies of these manuscripts being prepared by the scholarly team.

Citation: Larry W. Hurtado, " The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2004]. Online:


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