Monday, August 16, 2021

Interview on The Hardcore Humanities Podcast

Released today is an interview I did with Jamie Tibke host of The Hardcore Humanities Podcast.  The interview can be found on Spotify and Apple ITunes. Link to Spotify posted below.

The Hardcore Humanities Podcast

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Aurelius of Carthage: The Illiterate Church Lector and Confessor


Add. 40165 A 
4th century fragments of Cyprians letters  
used as flyleaves for a 12th-century Latin manuscript

At around 250 CE Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote to his Church to inform them of the appointment of a young man named Aurelius to the office of lector. That is someone who read out the scriptures to the congregation at the time they were gathering for worship.

"In the ordinations of clerics, dearly beloved Brethren, we are accustomed to consult you in advance and in common council to weigh the characters and merits of each one." (Ep. 38)

Cyprian goes on to share in the letter that Aurelius was "twice confessed and twice glorious in the victory of his confession" (Ep. 38). It was during this time that Christians were under extreme pressure to make sacrifices to the God's or face repercussions. This was due to an imperial edict given by Emperor Decius in order to gain favor from the God's towards the troubled Roman Empire (see posts here and here). Apparently Aurelius had suffered under this edict but had remained firm in the faith and had not recanted belief; a confessor. Cyprian greatly admired Aurelius for his courage and because of this wanted to go ahead and ordain him to the office before he had consulted with the other leaders as was the custom.

"Such a one was deserving of the higher steps of clerical ordination and a greater promotion, not so considered for his years, but for his merits. But, in the meantime, it seemed right for him to start with the office of reading since nothing was more becoming also to the voice which confessed God with glorious praise than to sound Him forth through the celebrating of the divine readings, after the sublime words which bespoke martyrdom for Christ: to read the Gospel of Christ whence martyrs are made, to come to the pulpit after the scaffold; . . . Know, therefore, dearly beloved that he has been ordained by me and by colleagues who were present. . . . And since joy is always hastening, and rejoicing cannot brook delays, in the meantime, he reads for us on Sunday, that is, he is auspicious for peace while he dedicates the reading." (Ep. 38)

It is obvious that Aurelius is capable of reading out a text (presumably in Latin) because Cyprian is fully expecting him to do so the next Sunday after he sent this letter. What is strange however is that in a letter to the Church in Rome, Cyprian mentions that a certain Lucian (another confessor) had written many petitions in behalf of others who were imprisoned.

"Many petitions, written in the handwriting of this same Lucian, have also been given in the name of Aurelius, a youth who suffered tortures, because the latter did not know how to write." (Ep. 27).

This same Aurelius, who was perfectly capable at reading, did not know his letters and had to have a certain Lucian write a petition on his behalf. This does seem strange to us in the twenty-first century, accustomed to learning to read and write together. This was not the case in the ancient world. These two skills were often acquired separately and with varying degrees of competency (Cribiore, 9-10). Cyprian presents this information normally and does not indicate that this circumstance is exceptional. This might also help explain the kinds of features that we see in our earliest copies of the New Testament writings. These often exhibit reading aids, spaces between words, and other kinds of limited punctuation (see here). These may have been present to assist those who had limit education, who could read at a basic level, but had not received schooling in the ability to write, just like we see in the case of Aurelius of Carthage.


St. Cyprian, Letters 1-81The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Sister Rose Bernard Donna, trans. New York: Catholic University of America Press, 1964).

Cribiore, Rafaella. Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1996).

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Sunday, July 4, 2021

A Sacred Number in the Gospel of Mark?

The painstaking task of transcribing and collating Greek New Testament manuscripts will often bring to light many tantalizing features that have as of yet gone unnoticed. Mainly because so many of these manuscripts have not been studied in detail, or at all. Not only this, but also because transcription forces the scholar to slow down and compare the texts of the manuscripts being studied, highlighting any unique characteristics. Recently I came across an interesting feature in GA 989 which is a twelfth century Four Gospels minuscule manuscript with commentary bordering the biblical text. It has to do with the use of the numeral twelve. In Mark 6:7 Jesus commissions the twelve disciples to preach the gospel.

"And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits."

Mark 6:7 in GA 989 showing the number 12  Ι̅β̅ in Greek

A fascinating aspect is that in this verse the scribe chose to use the Greek numeral sign for the number twelve ( Ι̅β̅ ) rather than writing out the number in full (δωδεκα). Here also the word for "unclean" spirit is written in full (plene) rather than in the nomen sacrum form. No where else in the Gospel of Mark in GA 989 is the Greek numeral for twelve used. And there seems to be no differentiation in this manuscript in the use of nomen sacrum for the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirit. Thus it seems to be more than a coincidence that the scribe chose to use the abbreviated Greek numeral for twelve and unclean spirit is written out in full (πνευματων ακαθαρτων) in the context of this verse. It is certainly possible that there is nothing significant to this, a mere coincidence. It is also impossible to definitively know for certain. It could be, however, that the Greek numeral for twelve (Ι̅β̅ ) was used in a "sacred" sense like a nomen sacrum, preserved from an earlier tradition.

Zachary Cole recently published a monograph that discussed this topic.
Zachary Cole, Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts
Text-Critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies
. NTTSD 53 (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
In Chapter 7, pages 175-178, Cole discusses the possibility that the Greek number twelve ( Ι̅β̅ ) was used as a sacred number (numerus sacer) when referring to the twelve disciples in Codex Sinaiticus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Codex Sinaitcus Matt 10:5 [Q74-f.5v]

There is not enough data to draw any hard conclusions in GA 989. These tantalizing remnants of scribal activity, however, may be all that remains of an early tradition of representing the "twelve" disciples in a sacred sense.  

Friday, June 11, 2021

Ancient Tablets, Notebooks, and Speeches in the Writing of the Gospels

Roman scribe with his stylus and tablets on his tomb stele at Flavia Solva in Noricum

In Book 6, Letter 5 to his friend Ursus, Pliny the Younger (ca. 61-113 AD) vividly describes a senate hearing. He mentions that during the proceedings two figures were debating each other; Licinius Nepos and Juventius Celsus. Apparently, Nepos re-opened a case that had been previous resolved and gave an untimely speech dealing with the matter that those present considered to be a breach of protocol. This is when the Jurist Celsus stepped in.

“The praetor Juventius Celsus vehemently upbraided him in a long speech, in which he taunted him with seeking to reform the senate. Nepos replied; Celsus answered him back, and neither spared reproaches and insults. I do not wish to repeat the words which pained me when I heard them spoken, but I blame even more some of our number who kept running first to Celsus and then to Nepos, according as one or other was speaking, in their desire to hear every word. At one moment they seemed to be encouraging and inflaming their passions, at another to be seeking to reconcile them and smooth matters over, and then they kept on appealing to Caesar to take the side of each, or even of both, just as actors do in a farce. What annoyed me most of all was that each was told what his opponent was going to say, for Celsus replied to Nepos from his note-book, and Nepos answered Celsus from his tablets. The friends of each kept talking to such an extent that the two disputants knew exactly what each was going to say, as though it had all been arranged beforehand.” (Ep. 6.5)

What caught my interest was the reference to “note-book” and “tablets,” both figures were referencing notes that they had obviously prepared beforehand. Celsus is described as making his reply to Nepos from a “note-book” which is translated from the Latin word “libellus.” And Nepos is depicted as referencing his “tablet,” which is translated from the Latin word “pugillaris."

The term "libellus" in this context is likely referring to "a book written in pages, and not in long rolls," especially some kind of legal brief or case notes (From Lewis and Short). This could be either papyrus or parchment. Though if it was a parchment codex the Latin word "membranis" would have more likely been used (Quintilian, Ins. Or. 10.3.31). Therefore this is likely referring to individual sheets stacked together.

P.Oxy 3929 a third century libellus or certificate of sacrifice for the Decian persecution 

The word "pugillaris" is a reference to a type of smaller hand held writing surface that was made from thin board hollowed out and filled with wax. This could then be inscribed upon by a pointy stylus and then erased easily by smoothing out the wax.

Teacher's Example Above, Student's Writing Below. Wax Tablet, II CE. (British Museum MS. 34186)

I find it fascinating that Pliny specifically mentions that these two figures are making their speeches directly from notes on writing materials rather than from rote memorization. This made me think of the intersection of early Christian "preaching" and the giving of public speeches in the Roman Senate. Irenaeus tells us that the Gospels of Mark and Luke first began as preaching events.

"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia." (Haer. 3.1, ANF)

Also, Eusebius hands down to us a tradition that the Gospel of John also first began as the oral preaching of the Jesus story. Only after he was urged by the Christian community did he write down the gospel of John in his old age.

"For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence. And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.24.6-7, NPNF).

After thinking about the incident recounted by Pliny of Celsus and Nepos giving speeches while consulting their notebooks and tablets, I immediately thought about the apostles using notebooks and wax tablets as references and guides in their preaching. Perhaps these kinds of preaching notes were what was contained in Paul's mysterious "notebooks" (μεμβράνας, membranis) mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:13. If so, then perhaps some of these materials were in mind when Luke mentioned "many have undertaken to compile a narrative" (Luke 1:1-4). In the same way, perhaps some of Peter's preaching notes were used by Mark and arranged and ordered by him as Eusebius quotes Papias recounting (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15). John too may have had these types of written notes when he proclaimed the Gospel story orally (as Eusebius recounts) and could have used them in the composition of his Gospel as well.

Of course this is all wild speculation, and there is no way to explore this further. However, considering the few snapshots that we have from contemporaries of the Evangelists like Pliny the Younger, this type of speculative scenario is not outside the realm of possibility.


Latin text and English translation of Pliny’s Letter taken from Pliny: Letters - Book 6 (

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review of Abidan Paul Shah. Changing the Goalpost of New Testament Textual Criticism.

Changing the Goalpost of New Testament Textual Criticism. By Abidan Paul Shah. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2020, xi + 195 pp., $25.00 paper. 

The last several decades have brought sweeping changes in the way that New Testament textual criticism has been traditionally practiced. The advent of ever more powerful computing technology allows scholars to process an increasing amount of textual data. Web based tools allow images of manuscripts to be viewed almost anywhere in the world, transcriptions can be made from these images and their texts compared all through the convenience of the internet. 

 A recently released book, Changing the Goalpost of New Testament Textual Criticism, argues that these advancements in technology and method have resulted in a shifting of the ultimate "goalpost" of the discipline away from discovering the "original text" (p. 1). This work is the published dissertation from Abidan Paul Shah's doctoral studies at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina where he earned his PhD. 

This study contends that modern trends in textual criticism have shifted the goal of seeking an "original text" (p. 2). The book is divided into nine chapters that engage with scholars, trends and methods that are, in the author's eyes, instrumental in this change in goals. 

Chapter one, the introduction, makes clear the premise for this study, that "historic Christianity" has at its foundation a "first-century text" (p 2). Shah argues that without this text (what he refers to as the "original text") no "authoritative text" exists and, consequently, "there is no longer any distinct Christian faith and practice" (p. 2). 

Chapter two summarizes what is stated as the traditional goal of seeking out the "original text," which is defined as "the text that was penned by the author" (p. 10). This assertion is supported by briefly examining scholars who have declared this goal throughout the modern history of textual criticism.

Chapter three surveys the work of Bart Ehrman who, according to Shah, "has been the major challenger to the traditional goalpost in NTTC" (p. 28). The chapter focuses the bulk of its attention on Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture concluding that "Ehrman has popularized the new approach to the NT text more than any other proponent" (p.53). 

Chapter four engages with David C. Parker's seminal work The Living Text of the Gospels. Shah argues that Parker "is a leading proponent of the new approach to the NT text, and is a well-known figure in the field of NTTC" (p. 54). He concludes that Parker's thesis "undermines the concept of a single original text" (p. 77). 

Chapter five culls through Eldon J. Epp's publications in order to tease out his stance on textual criticism. After sifting through Epp's many essays it is noted that the most influential piece is his "The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ in New Testament Textual Criticism." It is surmised that his works are "repeatedly quoted in discussing the changing definition of the original text" (p. 102).

Chapter six presents the research of J. K. Elliott who, it is argued, is the most "vocal" critic of the traditional goals of textual criticism (p. 103-104). Shah highlights Elliott's shift in view, from being "optimistic" about recovering the "original text" (p. 104), to his lack of confidence in the "viability or necessity of trying to retrieve the original text of the NT" (p. 108). 

Chapter seven looks at the most recent advancement in New Testament textual criticism, the Coherence Based Genealogical Method as developed and implemented by the INTF in Muenster. The CBGM is presented as complicit in shifting the goal of New Testament textual criticism from pursuing the "original text" to pursuing an "initial text" (p. 124). It is concluded that much of the problem with the CBGM "is the difficulty in comprehending its description by its proponents" (p. 125). 

Chapter eight contains Shah's "Final Appeal and Critique" (p. 127), where he discusses and critiques four major premises of the new movement (p. 128). Among other criticisms, he argues that "proponents of the new approach in NTTC balk at any suggestion of inerrancy of the NT text" (p.159). 

Chapter nine is the conclusion and final thoughts of Shah's work where he contends that Christian scholars need to affirm the traditional goals of New Testament textual criticism (p. 172). This is to be done in order to uphold the "traditional evangelical view of Scripture" (p. 172). 

Those who come to Changing the Goalpost with the expectation that there would be a fresh and detailed discussion over the term "original text" will be disappointed. Chapter two does engage with some of the more recent objections to the pursuit of the "original text." Yet, a simple definition is given as the "traditional understanding of the original text, the text as penned by the original biblical author" (p. 11). Unfortunately, very little by way of a fresh explanation or interaction with primary source material is given in response to all of the modern objections.

Along with this, some of the interactions with scholarship might give the reader the mistaken impression that the goal was to hunt for juicy sounds bites. Of course, this would be a mistake and readers would do well to hear Shah's appeal. 

 Another small detail is that some of the incidental information in the book is incorrect in a few places and gives the impression that portions of it were written some time ago and have not been updated in the meantime. For example, David Parker is stated as being the "director of the Institute for the Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the university’s theology and religion department" (p. 54). Of course, Parker has not been the director of ITSEE for some years and has been retired since 2017. Shah's work, however, is current in other facets such as in reference to the ECM in Acts which was published in 2017. Though this is a minor oversight, it does make one wonder if other less obvious but more important technical matters are out of date or incorrect. 

 Despite the above minor criticisms, the value in Changing the Goalpost is it's assembling of modern trends in New Testament textual criticism in a handy reference. Shah's work is useful as a history of recent developments in the discipline. It would work well as a text book alongside other standard introductions to New Testament textual criticism, in order to give a more detailed treatment of modern developments. Even though the tone is overall negative, it is interesting to see how each of the recent trends can be linked by a common problem. The abundant manuscript evidence for the Greek New Testament, with its highly contaminated textual tradition, has proved challenging for scholars. For some, it has led to an abandonment of any attempt at reconstructing an early or "original" text. For others, it has driven the development of innovative methods such as the CBGM that, despite its potential drawbacks, will serve to propel the discipline well into the twenty-first century and beyond.

Overall, Changing the Goalpost of New Testament Textual Criticism is a helpful engagement with modern trends. It will be especially instructive for those new to the field or to those who wish to better understand recent developments in the discipline.