Monday, August 12, 2013

Irenaeus, Apostolic Testimony, and the "Original Text"

Michael J. Kruger, is professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (see his webpage here). In the recently publish work The Early Text of the New Testament, Dr. Kruger provided a chapter in which he examined early Christian attitudes towards reproducing their texts, that is, copying what they viewed as scripture. Kruger examined "how they would have understood the transmission and preservation of these texts, and how they would have responded to changes or alterations in the text" (Kruger, 63). In the chapter, several lines from the Old and New Testaments are discussed as well as the many statements in the writings of the Church fathers which might be viewed as warnings against altering the text while copying. On page 78, Kruger points to a colophon at the end of one of Irenaeus' letters which is mentioned by Eusebius in his Church history. Kruger only gives the colophon a passing mention. But what is interesting is that Eusebius happens to make mention of the colophon in context of a letter which Irenaeus wrote to a friend Florinus who lapsed into Valentinian Gnosticism (Hist. eccl. 5.20). I find it interesting that Eusebius appears to be connecting Irenaeus' appeal to eyewitness/apostolic testimony with altering the text during transmission. Therefore, it seems that Dr. Kruger's conclusions about early Christian attitude towards the copying of the text is shared, at least, by Eusebius. Here is the passage from Eusebius in full;
Irenaeus wrote several letters against those who were disturbing the sound ordinance of the Church at Rome. One of them was to Blastus On Schism; another to Florinus On Monarchy, or That God is not the Author of Evil. For Florinus seemed to be defending this opinion. And because he was being drawn away by the error of Valentinus, Irenæus wrote his work On the Ogdoad, in which he shows that he himself had been acquainted with the first successors of the apostles. 
2 At the close of the treatise we have found a most beautiful note which we are constrained to insert in this work. It runs as follows:
“I adjure thee who mayest copy this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by his glorious advent when he comes to judge the living and the dead, to compare what thou shalt write, and correct it carefully by this manuscript, and also to write this adjuration, and place it in the copy.” 
3 These things may be profitably read in his work, and related by us, that we may have those ancient and truly holy men as the best example of painstaking carefulness.
4 In the letter to Florinus, of which we have spoken, Irenæus mentions again his intimacy with Polycarp, saying:
“These doctrines, O Florinus, to speak mildly, are not of sound judgment. These doctrines disagree with the Church, and drive into the greatest impiety those who accept them. These doctrines, not even the heretics outside of the Church, have ever dared to publish. These doctrines, the presbyters who were before us, and who were companions of the apostles, did not deliver to thee. 
5 “For when I was a boy, I saw thee in lower Asia with Polycarp, moving in splendor in the royal court, and endeavoring to gain his approbation.
6 I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures.
7 These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God’s grace, I recall them faithfully. And I am able to bear witness before God that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter had heard any such thing, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and as was his custom, would have exclaimed, O good God, unto what times hast thou spared me that I should endure these things? And he would have fled from the place where, sitting or standing, he had heard such words.
8 And this can be shown plainly from the letters which he sent, either to the neighboring churches for their confirmation, or to some of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.”
Thus far Irenæus. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 1)
Kruger, Michael J. "Early Christian Attitudes Towards the Reproduction of Texts." Pages 63-80 in The Early Text of the New Testament. Edited by Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Gospel of Thomas and the Secret Jesus

In the introduction to the English translation of the gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Library edited by James M. Robinson, Helmut Koester wrote that "The Gospel of Thomas is more akin to one of the sources of the canonical gospels, namely the so-called Synoptic Sayings Source (often called "Q" from the German word Quelle, "source"), which was used by both Matthew and Luke" (Robinson, 125). A few paragraphs earlier in the the introduction Koester also wrote that,
The Nag Hammadi Codices
"If one considers the form and wording of the individual sayings in comparison with the form in which they are preserved in the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas almost
always appears to preserve a more original form of the traditional saying (in a few instances, where this is not the case, the Coptic translation seems to have been influenced by the translator's knowledge of the New Testament gospels), or presents versions which are independently based on more original forms." (Robinson, 125)
A superficial reading is enough to see that there is an underlining assumption made by Koester, that Thomas preserves primitive Jesus sayings when compared to the canonical gospels. How should one take this claim? Is Thomas an independent, reliable, extra-canonical source, for Jesus' sayings?

Synoptic Familiarity

In his recent work Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics, Mark Goodacre argued (as the title suggests) that the author of Thomas was familiar with the redacted, completed form of the synoptic gospels, see especially his chapter discussing saying 79 (Goodacre, 97-108). Goodacre spends considerable time working with the early Greek fragments of Thomas found at Oxyrhynchus as they predate the Coptic version found at Nag Hammadi by one hundred years or more and (most likely) represent an earlier form of the document. These are P. Oxy. 1 ca. 200 CE, P. Oxy. 655 ca. 200-250 CE, and P. Oxy. 654 ca. 250 CE (Ricchuiti, 196).
Goodacre points to several lines of evidence in order to draw attention to Thomas’s familiarity with the synoptics, but this post will highlight only two features in particular. First, there are several word-for-word agreements between the synoptics at several places suggesting that the author(s) of Thomas referenced the completed text of the gospels while writing (see especially saying 26, Goodacre, 30-33). And second, the author(s) of Thomas left out important elements of Jesus’ pericopes which indicates the author(s) had an intimate familiarity with the sayings as they appear in the synoptics (Goodacre, 109-127). For example, because everyone is familiar with the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” most anyone can simply say “When in Rome . . . “ with out finishing the sentence because most anyone will immediately recognize the saying and be able to finish it in their minds. The same can be said concerning the author(s) of Thomas and Jesus' sayings. They were so familiar to the author(s) that they attempted to make the saying more cryptic but failed to include important details that were essential to the story and plot of the pericope.

Scribal Alterations

A second major clue that testifies against the credibility of Thomas as a source concerns the transmission of its vorlage. Timothy Ricchuiti compared the earlier Greek fragments of Thomas with the much later (by one hundred years at least) Coptic translation of the gospel. He noted that at several places there were significant variations between them. Note especially a comparison of P. Oxy. 655 at logion 24, which reveals a very large section of the Greek text that has been edited out by the redactors of the Coptic Thomas for most likely theological reasons (Ricchuiti, 221-223). There are several other places that could be mentioned that involve theological redaction in the Coptic text when compared with the earlier Greek fragments, such as logion 2,3,5, and 6 (Ricchuiti, 210). Overall, Ricchuiti’s study concluded that “[i]t does indeed appear that the Coptic scribe altered Thomas in such a way as to make it more amenable to the community that eventually decided to include it in the Nag Hammadi writings” (Riccuiti, 228).

The Secret Jesus

Many scholars are eager to search Thomas for primitive material in reconstructing the historical Jesus because there are so many familiar sayings of Jesus intertwined throughout the work (Robinson, 124-125). It appears that the author(s) of Thomas were keen to present sayings of Jesus that were familiar to the readers of the canonical gospels. But why?

Mark Goodacre suggested that the most likely reason the author of Thomas used the synoptics in composing Thomas was to "authenticate" the "newer, stranger material" (Goodacre, 172). He continued:
"It is no accident, in other words, that Thomas interlaces Synoptic and non-Synoptic material, two or three sayings at a time, always keeping the sound of the Synoptic Jesus close at hand while interweaving sayings from Thomas's enigmatic, secret Jesus." (Goodacre, 172)
Therefore, it appears that the author(s) of Thomas were dependent on the synoptics in order to theologically alter the appearance of Jesus as an enigmatic Gnostic figure. Couple this with the apparent theologically motivated scribal alterations from the Greek to the Coptic version, and one must come to the conclusion that Thomas is not a reliable source for authentic sayings of Jesus.

Echoes of the Historical Jesus

Despite the apparent theological tampering by the author(s) of Thomas, there are clues that suggest Thomas contains echoes of extra-canonical Jesus sayings. One intriguing clue concerns saying 22 which is quoted (albeit loosely) in 2 Clement 12.2, a second century sermon, as well as several other early Christian sources (Holmes, 102).[1] Because there is wide and early attestation to logion 22, it is very likely that there are authentic echoes of Jesus contained in this saying.
Therefore it is not wise for scholars to dismiss Thomas out of hand, but rather, Thomas should be approached as any other ancient document, on its own terms as the author(s) originally intended the work to be read (Goodacre, 174).


[1] For an excellent summary of the ancient sources concerning this logion see

Goodacre, Mark. Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Holmes, Michael W. ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Updated Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.
Ricchuiti, Tim. “Tracking Thomas: A Text-Critical Look at the Transmission of the Gopel of Thomas.” Pages 189-228 in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence. ed. Daniel B. Wallace. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011.
Robinson, James M., and Richard Smith. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988.

This post was adapted from a response I made to a forum discussion question in one of my classes.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Talmud on Reading in the Synagogue

Fascinating insights into the way in which Torah scrolls were read in the ancient Synagogue can be found in the Talmud in Megillah (scroll) tractate of the Moed (Season) order. Following are taken from 31a and 32b, all of these English translations of the Talmud are from the Soncino Talmud. Each quote is followed by my own brief notes of interest.

Our Rabbis taught: The place [in the Torah] where they leave off in the morning service on Sabbath is the place where they begin at Minhah; the place where they leave off at Minhah [on Sabbath] is the place where they begin on Monday; the place where they leave off on Monday is the place where they begin on Thursday; the place where they leave off on Thursday is the place where they begin on the next Sabbath. This is the ruling of R. Meir. R. Judah, however, says that the place where they leave off in the morning service on Sabbath is the place where they begin on [Sabbath] Minah, on Monday, on Thursday, and on the next Sabbath. (b. Meg. 31b)

Most scholars believe that ancient Church reading practices of the Bible are sourced in the Jewish Synagogue. The above quotes gives insight into the practice of reading through the Hebrew Bible. This may be to ancient roots of the Christian liturgy.

Our Rabbis taught: [The one who reads] opens the scroll and sees [the place], then rolls it together and says the blessing, then opens it again and reads. So R. Meir. R. Judah says: He opens and looks and says the blessing, and reads. What is R. Meir's reason? — It is similar to that of ‘Ulla [in a parallel case]; for ‘Ulla said: Why did they lay down that he who reads from the Torah should not prompt the translator? So that people should not say that the translation is written in the Torah. So here [R. Meir's reason is], so that they should not say that the blessings are written in the Torah. And [what says] R. Judah [to this]? — With regard to translation a mistake might be made, but no mistake will be made with regard to the blessings. (b. Meg. 32a)

I am no Talmud scholar, so I am not exactly sure what is going on here. Either the reader is immediately translating the Hebrew into the vernacular, so that the reader looks at the scroll and reads the passage in Hebrew, looks away, closes the scroll and translates into the vernacular; or the reader is reciting some blessing that is not written in the Tanakh and does the same. Either way, there were strict reading practices and habits to insure the listeners were never confused as to what was being read to them.

R. Shefatiah said in the name of R. Johanan: When one rolls up a scroll of the Torah, he should make it close at a seam. R. Shefatiah further said in the name of R. Johanan: One who rolls together a Sefer Torah should roll it from without and should not roll it from within, and when he fastens it he should fasten it from within and should not fasten it from without. (b. Meg. 32a)

Not directly related to reading, but I find it interesting the great care with which their precious scrolls were treated at all times. Here in their Mishnaic teachings are directives on how to roll up the scroll, outside-in and not inside-out.

R. Shefatiah further said in the name of R. Johanan: If one reads the Scripture without a melody or repeats the Mishnah without a tune, of him the Scripture Says, Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, etc. Abaye strongly demurred to this, saying, Because he cannot sing agreeably, are you to apply to him the verse,‘ordinances whereby they shall not live’? No; this verse is to be applied as by R. Mesharshia, who said: If two scholars live in the same town and do not treat one another's Halachic pronouncements respectfully, of them the verse says, I gave them also statutes that were not good and ordinances whereby they should not live. (b. Meg. 32a)

A very interesting insight into the method of reading, it was in a cantillated tone. Not monotone and conversational like we read today (see Gamble, 225-226). Note especially how the manner of reading is associated with singing.

R. Parnak said in the name of R. Johanan: Whoever takes hold of a scroll of the Torah without a covering is buried without a covering. Without a covering, think you? — Say rather, without the covering protection of religious performances. Without religious performances, think you? — No, said Abaye; he is buried without the covering protection of that religious performance. (b. Meg. 32a)

Again, not specifically related to reading, but notice how the scrolls were to be kept in some type of covering at all times.

R. Jannai the son of the old R. Jannai said in the name of the great R. Jannai: It is better that the covering [of the scroll] should be rolled up [with the scroll] and not that the scroll of the Torah should be rolled up [inside the covering]. And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord. It is part of their observance that [the section relating to] each one of them should be read in its season. (b. Meg. 32a)

Again the mention of ensuring the scroll is covered. But also note that there is a "season" by which certain sections of the Tanakh are read. Again, this practice may be the source of the ancient Christian liturgy.


The Babylonian Talmud. Edited by I. Epstein. 35 vols. London: Soncino Press, 1938-52.

Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Irenaeus and Early Christian Reading

Proper pronunciation and inflection in reading ancient texts was very important for the listeners to understand the meaning. Lucian, a second century writer, criticized an "uneducated" Syrian who was attempting to pawn himself off as an elite intellectual but he did not “know how to read the texts so as to bring out their meaning” (Johnson, 276). The manner of reciting a text was a central part of sophisticated culture, as was “the ability to read performatively, with detailed, deep knowledge of the meaning, style, structure and conventions” (Johnson, 276).
Irenaeus of Lyons in the later part of the second century, made a similar statement when referring to how some confuse an ambiguous text in 2 Thessalonians 2:8;

If, then, one does not attend to the [proper] reading [of the passage], and if he does not exhibit the intervals of breathing as they occur, there shall be not only incongruities, but also, when reading, he will utter blasphemy, as if the advent of the Lord could take place according to the working of Satan. So therefore, in such passages, the hyperbaton must be exhibited by the reading, and the apostle’s meaning following on, preserved. (Haer. 3.7.2)

To help Christian readers not "utter blasphemy" by incorrectly reciting a text, many ancient manuscripts were equipped with marks of punctuation and spaces between words and sense units (Gamble, 229-230). One famous manuscript Codex Bezae is a fourth or fifth century codex of the gospels in Greek and Latin that has “each page written in thirty-three colometric lines” (Finegan, 40). Having the sense lines set out separately by spaces or into columns helps the reader sound out and properly parse the text for the audience.



Ante-Nicine Fathers vol. 1.

Finegan, Jack. Encountering New Testament Manuscripts: A Working Introduction to Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Gamble, Harry Y., Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Johnson, William A. “The Ancient Book.” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. ed. Roger S. Bagnall, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reading Aids in Early Christian Manuscripts

As already discussed in the previous post, the public reading of scripture was a needed, intricate part of early Christian worship. The evidence for this can be seen in the many references to public reading in the New Testament and early Christian apologists and theologians such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen, among many others. But there are also physical traces of this early reading practice that are left imprinted on the contemporary codexes and papyrus fragments from the early centuries of the Church. In our modern books, whether printed or digital, we have the benefit of punctuation, spaces between words, paragraphs and other visual cues that have become standard in our modern printed language. In antiquity, these markers were all but absent in many ancient literary book rolls or scrolls (Hurtado, 178). Christian manuscripts on the other hand show many signs of reading aids that would assist less than talented readers (which would be likely in early Christian circles) to publicly read Biblical texts.

A very old complete copy of the Greek New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, shows many signs of reader aids. One such feature is referred to as "ekthesis." A visual marker where the first sentence of a new paragraph or sense unit extends out into the left margin (Hurtado, 179). Codex Sinaiticus has many examples of this feature and in particular the story of Jesus' transfiguration in Mark 9 show extreme ekthesis (Head, 10). Here verses 9:4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 are each marked off with an extreme out-dented "ΚΑΙ" (Head, 10).

Here in the picture on the left can be seen the Greek "ΚΑΙ.......ΚΑΙ.......ΚΑΙ...etc" of each of these verses in the transfiguration out-dented. Perhaps this extreme "ekthesis" reveals how the early Christians viewed this part of the text? Peter Head noted that "this extreme paragraphing had an impact on the public reading of Mark using Sinaiticus, with much more regular and pronounced pauses and potentially the fragmentation of the connected narrative" (Head, 10). Though Dr. Head notes that we cannot know for sure why the scribe chose to use this unusually extreme paragraphing here, it does seem like it affected the way the early Christians would have read this text during gatherings!
Normal "Ekthesis"
Compare the extreme "ekthesis" at left with that more normal used at right. Note the "ΚΑΙ" and the "ΟΔΕ" four lines down, these only protrude into the left margin ever so slightly. Though they still signal the beginning of new paragraphs aiding the reader by giving a visual marker of a break in the flow of the story. Other, even older manuscripts of the New Testament show the use of "ekthesis." P75, a 2/3rd century papyrus codex of Luke and John also show the use of "ekthesis" marking paragraph units and changes in the narrative (Hurtado, 180).

A common feature in our modern printed and electronic text, spaces between words and sense units (sentences) were not so common in antiquity. Looking at the pictures above, one can see the use of spaces in marking the end of paragraphs just before the use of the "ekthesis." The use of spaces between words to mark punctuation can also be found in other manuscripts such as Codex W, a 4/5th century copy of the four gospels in Greek. Scholar Henry Sanders noticed the use of spaces to mark punctuation in Codex W and Codex Bezae, a 5th century copy of the New Testament in Greek (Hurtado, 180).

Many have taken to studying these traces of punctuation and paragraphing in these early manuscripts, to give our modern eyes a small picture into how these early Christians viewed, read and studied the New Testament in reading and worship.


Head, Peter. "The Gospel of Mark in Codex Sinaiticus: Textual and Reception-Historical Considerations." TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism. Vol. 13 (2008).

Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Early Christian Readers

The ability to read and write are much more widespread and common place today than they were in antiquity. The population of Rome during the Imperial age enjoyed a much lower level of literacy. After extensive research of ancient sources, William Harris estimated "that the overall level of literacy [in Rome was] likely to have been below 15%" (267). Consequently, the early Church would have followed closely the literacy levels of the surrounding culture of Rome. Harry Gamble compared Christian literacy with these figures concluding
"that not only the writing of Christian literature, but also the ability to read, criticize, and interpret it belonged to a small number of Christians in the first several centuries, ordinarily not more than 10 percent in any given setting, and perhaps fewer in the many small and provincial congregations that were characteristic of early Christianity. (5)"
 This culture of illiteracy can be seen throughout the New Testament. The early Church accommodated for this lack of reading ability by publicly reading scripture during their worship gatherings. Paul alludes to this practice when he wrote to the Colossians;
"And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea. (emphasis mine, NAS, Col 4:16)"
 Paul writes a similar command to the Thessalonians;
"I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren. (empahasis mine, NAS, 1 Thess 5:27)"
The apostle John assumes this type of reading practice when he penned Revelations;
"Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it. (emphasis mine, NAS, Rev 1:3)"
Notice that John mentions only one person reading and a plurality of people hearing the prophecy being read. John is obviously referring to a congregational or community setting in which Christians are gathered for a reading of the Apocalypse.

The earliest extra-biblical description of this Christian reading practice is given by Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century. Some time around 150 CE, Justin wrote an Apology of the Christian faith addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius. In it Justin wrote a detailed description of their Sunday worship;
"And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability. (emphasis mine, Apology, 1.67; ANF 1:186)"
Here Justin refers to the Gospels as "the memoirs of the apostles" and "the writings of the prophets" are a reference to the Old Testament writings. Because literate Christians took the time to use their gifts to read the letters of Paul, the Revelation of John, and the memoirs of the apostles (the gospels) a largely illiterate population could enjoy hearing and learning from the scriptures when they would not be able to otherwise!
Harry Gamble concluded his discussion of early Christian literacy by writing;
"In sum, the extent of literacy in the ancient church was limited. Only a small minority of Christians were able to read, surely no more than an average of 10-15 percent of the larger society and probably fewer. Thus only a small segment of the church was able to read Christian texts for themselves or to write them. Still, every Christian had the opportunity to become acquainted with Christian literature, especially the scriptures, through catechetical instruction and homiletical exposition of texts in the context of worship. (10)"
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.
Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.