Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Book Review: Creating the Canon By Benjamin Laird

Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy, and the Authority of the New Testament. By Benjamin P. Laird. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2023, xiv, + 258 pp., $30.00 paperback.

The historical circumstances surrounding the writing, distribution, selection and gathering together of the New Testament documents continues to garner much scholarly attention. Yet, there are few books that attempt to condense the nuanced historical details into an easily digestible introduction. Creating the Canon is the latest in a steady stream of new books by Benjamin P. Laird and was written in order to fulfill this need. Laird earned his PhD at the University of Aberdeen and is an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
The book is segmented into three segments. Part one consists of three chapters and covers "Questions Relating to the Production of the New Testament Writings" (pp. 11-84). 
Chapter 1, "The Composition of the New Testament Writings," advances the notion that many of the writings of the New Testament were composed through the collaborative efforts of a team of secretaries, letter carriers, and others who took part in distributing the canonical writings.
Chapter 2, "The Original Autographs of the New Testament Writings," proposes that many of the New Testament writings had multiple autographs. It is argued that it is better to think of an "original edition" rather than an "original autograph" (p. 64).
Chapter 3, "The Original Readers of the New Testament Writings," articulates the idea that the canonical authors wrote with multiple communities in view rather than a single audience. This concept would mean that the New Testament writings were composed with a more universal message in mind.
Part two is the largest segment of the work and consists of three chapters, addressing "Questions Relating to the Formation of the New Testament Canon" (pp. 87-174).
Chapter 4, "Theological Controversies and the Formation of the New Testament Canon," engages with popular assumptions that are postulated as causing the formation of the New Testament Canon. The controversies surrounding Marcion, and the notion that early Church councils in the fourth century decided the canon, are discussed.
Chapter 5, "The Primary Witnesses to the Early State of the New Testament Canon," surveys the early patristic canonical lists and references to the canonical writings. The chapter also introduces the reader to some of the most important and early copies of the New Testament writings.
Chapter 6, "The Canonical Subcollections and the Formation of the New Testament Canon," highlights the influence that canonical "subcollections" had on the acceptance of the twenty seven books of the New Testament.
Part three is the shortest section of the book with only two chapters and engages with "Questions Relating to the Authority of the New Testament Canon" (p. 177-236).
Chapter 7, "Apostolicity and the Formation of the New Testament Canon," discusses the relationship of apostolic teaching and authority with the reception of many of the New Testament writings.
Chapter 8, "Apostolic Authorship and the Authority of the New Testament Canon," evaluates several modern scholarly perspectives on the foundations for the continuing authority of the New Testament writings.
Though the book functions as an introduction to the topic, it attempts to cover too many competing scholarly perspectives. Readers may find it difficult to find the common thread of thought through the various chapters. Related to this, many may have difficulty finding a clear thesis or main argument in the book.
Because the work attempts to engage with too many scholarly perspectives, often inadequate space is given when Laird supports a particular scholarly position. For example, because of the various textual problems surrounding the last chapters of Romans, Laird proposes that three copies of the "longer recension" of Romans were made, "one for the Romans, one for those in Corinth, and one for Paul and/or his associates" (pp. 61-62). Laird proposes that the secretaries or scribes of Paul (i.e. Tertius), in preparing a copy of Romans to be sent to the Corinthians, removed the irrelevant material at the end of Romans (p. 62). This would "explain both the origin of the shorter and longer recensions as well as the alternative locations of the doxology" (p. 62). Unfortunately, Laird does not expound on the reasons why a scribe such as Tertius would go to the trouble of removing irrelevant material at the end of Romans, but would retain the most irrelevant textual address, "to all those in Rome" (Rom. 1:7, 1:15), at the beginning of the letter. The fact that there are almost no Greek manuscripts that lack this address seems to be a significant hurdle to this explanation of the textual variation at the end of Romans.
Despite these criticisms, Creating the Canon would work well as a starting point for forays into the study of New Testament canon formation. Readers will be introduced to first century composition practices, the role of letter carriers, and the early process of gathering of these writings into subcollections. Chapter two, which discussed the issues surrounding the "autographs," and chapters seven and eight, concerning the issue of apostolic authority and canon formation, engaged with topics rarely seen in books on the New Testament canon. This work might prove useful as a textbook for a college or seminary class on the New Testament Canon.

Timothy N. Mitchell
PhD, University of Birmingham, UK

Saturday, September 9, 2023

How Marginal Comments Can Corrupt a Text in Transmission

A leaf from P.Mich.inv. 6238 (P46) showing the
end of Romans and the beginning and title of Hebrews

A number of years ago Michael W. Holmes wrote a book chapter in which he argued that several variations in the text of Romans in P46 were evidence of marginal comments entering into the body of text. This occurred, Holmes argued, when a copyist confused a marginal comment for a correction to be entered into the body of text (Holmes pg. 202-205).
"What now appear only as variant readings in the text originally were, I suggest, comments in the margins about the text—the earliest “commentary” (in the sense of activity, rather than genre) on the text of Romans." (Holmes pg. 205)
Though Holmes gave no examples from antiquity, there are two instances in which an ancient author mentions this phenomenon occurring during the copying of a text. 

The second century physician Galen in his commentary on Hippocrates "Epidemics" gives two explanations for a corruption in the text of Hippocrates. The first explanation Galen gives is that Hippocrates gave a parenthetical statement in order to point out the difference between two types of patients currently being discussed in the work. Galen makes the following comment for the second.
“The other explanation is something you often observe in many books: we sometimes write two expressions for the same thing, putting it in two different ways, and place one of them in the text body and the other in the margin of the book so as to pick the better of the two at leisure when we want to edit the book. It seems that Hippocrates did the same in this place. The first editor of this book then copied both expressions together into the book’s text. We then did not look at and consider it again, pause and fix this error. Many people passed on the copy of the book, and it remained uncorrected.” (In Hipp. epid. comm. I, 1.36) (Vagelpohl pg. 167)
Here Galen describes a practice in which the author of a work gives an explanatory note in the margin of their "autograph." When the text is initially edited and copied, the scribe would think that the marginal note was meant to be entered into the text as a correction. The result is that the book was then widely copied and circulated with the error uncorrected.

Another instance of this phenomenon is mentioned by Jerome. In about 403 CE Jerome received a letter from two men asking for an explanation as to why there were so many differences between the Septuagint LXX these men were using, and the Latin Psalter Jerome had produced many years before in about 383 CE. Along with this letter, these men sent a long list of passages where there were differences in the text between the LXX and the Latin Psalter. For one of the variations in the text, Jerome gave the following explanation.
"I wonder why some rash fellow has thought that the note: “the correct form is not καταπαύσωμεν, as some think, but κατακαύσωμεν, that is, incendamus,” which was placed by me for the guidance of the reader into the margin, should be put into the body of the text." (Ep. 106.46)
Apparently, in the first edition of Jerome's Psalter he had placed an explanatory comment in the margin. A later copyist confused this entry as a correction to be entered into the body of text. Thus, all subsequent copies of his Psalter had this variation transmitted in the text.


Corpus Medicorum Graecorum 5.10.1. English translation taken from, Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics Book I: Parts I-III (Translated by Uwe Vagelpohl. Corpus Medicrum Graecorum Supplementum Orientale V1. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2014).

Holmes, Michael W. “The Text of P46: Evidence of the Earliest ‘Commentary’ on Romans?” In New Testament Manuscripts: Their Text and Their World (ed. by Tobias Nicklas; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 189-206.

Translation of Jerome's Epistle 106 by Michael Metlen, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1937), pp. 515-542.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Book Review: The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity by Benjamin Laird

The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity: Its Formation, Publication, and Circulation. By Benjamin P. Laird. Peabody: Hendrickson Academic, 2022, xx + 371 pp., $59.99 hardback.

Investigations into the theology of the Pauline corpus abound, yet few studies have examined the historical circumstances that gave rise to the Pauline corpus as a letter collection. The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity is a fresh in-depth analysis of the historical evidence, both physical and literary, into the development of the Pauline letter collection. Benjamin P. Laird (PhD University of Aberdeen) is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

This book is an expanded and revised version of Laird's doctoral thesis. It is composed of an introduction, six chapters, and three appendices.

The introduction begins by highlighting the fact that Paul preferred personal interaction to letter writing, yet Paul is known today through his extant letters (pp. 1-3). Paul's epistles were likely the earliest Christian writings to be valued, circulated and collected (p. 3). After a summary of the contents (pp. 4-9), Laird concludes by discussing the challenges to this study (pp. 10-11) and the wider implications that this volume might have on Pauline scholarship (pp. 11-15).

Chapter 1 examines first century letter writing practices in the Greco-Roman world (pp. 19-31). This chapter advances the notion put forward by several recent studies that Paul worked with secretaries in the writing of his letters (pp. 31-34). Along with this, these secretaries made duplicate copies for Paul's personal collection or those of his associates (pp. 34-39). It is likely that these personal collections were the source from which an early edition of the Pauline corpus was produced.

Chapter 2 looks into the extant Greek textual witnesses (pp. 40-64) and ancient translations relating to the earliest state of the Pauline collection (pp. 89-101). As a corollary to the discussion, the advent of the codex book form and its rapid adoption within Christian communities (pp. 64-73), and the origin and use of the letter titles are examined (pp. 73-89). Along with this, early testimony from historical figures such as Marcion, Origen, Eusebius, Athenasius, the Muratorion Fragment, and Church councils are taken into account (pp. 101-112).

Chapter 3 delves into a diversity of writings written from the late-first through to the early-fifth centuries. The familiarity these authors had with the various Pauline epistles is ascertained and weighed (pp. 123-189). References from 1 Thess 5:27, Col 4:16, and 2 Peter 3:15-16 are analyzed for the light they might shed on the development of the Pauline canon (pp. 113-123). Most of the chapter is given up to culling through Patristic references to the Pauline writings (pp. 123-189).

Chapter 4 investigates the external evidence for the Pastoral Epistles and Hebrews. Laird wrestles with the various scholarly challenges to the authenticity of Hebrews (pp. 202-232) and the Pastorals (p. 190-202) and their canonical relationship to the undisputed letters. According to Laird, the Pastorals and Hebrews have a more tumultuous reception history when compared with the rest of the Pauline corpus. Larid proposes that "the text of Hebrews was a Pauline speech that was later produced as a literary document" (p. 233).

Chapter 5 surveys and evaluates the many influential scholarly theories that attempt to account for the initial development and acceptance of the Pauline canon. These theories are separated into four categories, The first includes those theories that propose a formation of the collection after long years of neglect or limited circulation (pp. 236-241). The second category includes theories that generally postulate that the collection developed gradually as new writings were produced and the writings became more well known (pp. 241-261). The third category contains theories that hold to a gradual development by a Pauline school that may have had a hand in writing pseudepigraphal letters in Paul's name (pp. 261-268). The fourth and final category includes theories that hold to an early development, circulation and collection of Paul's letters (268-278). This collection was initially organized by Paul himself shortly before his death or immediately after his death by his close associates.

Chapter 6 provides an overview of the formation, publication, and circulation of the Pauline letter collection. The chapter identifies the earliest editions of the corpus that circulated and standardized the letter titles and the orientation of the writings with reference to each other within the collection (pp. 280-317). The theory proposed in this chapter takes into account both the external and internal evidence laid out in the previous chapters. The main proposal is this,
"[A]t least three major archetypal editions of the corpus began to circulate as early as the first century or soon thereafter, each of which circulated for several decades until a fourteen-volume edition became widely recognized by the fourth century." (p. 9).
There are a few places where the discussion and evidence do not seem to support some of the conclusions. First is the idea that the letters must have by necessity been bound together in a type of edition for the Pauline epistles to have been recognized and the titles of the epistles to have been standardized. This does not actually accord with the manner in which books were conceptualized in antiquity. In the Greco-Roman world a written piece was often composed of separate and unbound rolls. It was not uncommon for a reader to possess only some of the bookrolls. Nevertheless, these other bookrolls were still conceptually linked in the mind of the reader as a complete work. This can be illustrated with P. Oxy 2192. In this papyrus fragment in a postscript the sender of the letter makes a request. 
"Have a copy made of books six and seven of Hypsicrates’ Men Who Appear in Commedies and send it to me. Harpocration says that Pollio has them among his books, and probably others may have them too. And he also has prose epitomes of Thersagorus’s Myths of Tragedy.” 
Here the writer of the postscript conceptually links all the books (i.e. separate bookrolls) of Hypsicrates’ Men Who Appear in Commedies even though they are not physically bound together with his own copies of books one through five (assuming he possessed them already). Another example are the titles to the canonical gospels. P.Bodmer II (P66) is a codex that only contains the Gospel of John and has ευαγγελιον κατα ιωαννην written at the top. This title conceptually links this gospel with the other three even though it is not physically bound together with the other three in a single codex. 

Further still, the titles themselves could have been standardized by use and convention organically through circulation without having to have been derived from a single official edition with the letters physically bound together. The titles could have been derived from the addressees written on the backs of the letters (see previous post). The titles might have derived from the letter carrier as directed by Paul himself, perhaps when it was read out before the congregation. In either case, none of this necessitates that the letters be physically bound within a single codex or edition for them to be conceptually linked by the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Just as the writer of the postscript in P.Oxy 2192 conceptually links all the separate bookrolls of Hypsicrate's woks, Peter could have conceptually linked all of the extant letters of Paul that were not physically bound together. These factors seem to nullify the need for postulating various bound editions with seven, ten, thirteen, or fourteen letters contained in a single codex. Despite this, Laird is careful to note that an officially published edition of Paul's epistle do not negate the fact that the letters also circulated amongst the various Christian communities for a time (p. 316).

Despite the criticisms noted above, Laird provides an exhaustive look into all the physical and literary evidence for the Pauline letter collection. Though there is disagreement with the necessity for an official edition of the Pauline epistles, it is likely that such an edition did arise. The most compelling argument made in the book is the notion that Hebrews was likely an oral speech by Paul that was taken down and prepared for publication by Luke or another of Paul's associates (pp. 225-234). This appears to take into account all of the available evidence and best explains the early acceptance of Hebrews and its close connection with Paul from an early period. Despite some minor criticisms mentioned above, Laird's monograph is an excellent resource that contains all of the evidence for the circulation of the Pauline canon in a ready handbook.

Timothy N. Mitchell
PhD, University of Birmingham, UK

Saturday, August 5, 2023

The Editio Critica Maior of Mark (the Critical Text) and the Majority Text

The Editio Critica Maior of the Gospel of Mark was published in 2021 and with it an online toolset that allows the user to examine the data in more detail. This toolset is referred to as the Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) and is hosted on the INTF's University of Münster webpage.

These CBGM tools are powerful and facilitate the comparison of any of the 209 manuscripts (referred to as witnesses) utilized in the edition and the examination of the readings in the whole of Mark. The methods and tools used for this edition have come a long way since Wescott and Hort's edition of 1881. Yet many interested in the textual history of the New Testament are unaware of these developments and trends, two of which are of great importance.

First, the editors of the ECM of Mark have abandoned the theory of text types as unsupportable by the evidence (See Klaus Wachtel "On the Relationship of the "Western Text" and the Byzantine Tradition of Acts: A Plea Against the Text-Type Concept" in the "Studies" volume of the ECM ACTS). As a result, this frees up the editors to mine other manuscripts for older readings.

Second, readings found only in the Byzantine tradition are given greater weight than before (see Klaus Wachtel "Notes on the Text of Mark" in the "Studies" volume of the ECM Mark). In the Gospel of Mark Wachtel notes this trend.
"In the 33 passages where the ECM now differs from NA28/UBS5, the editors opted for the MT in 20 cases. In only six cases the decision was against the MT, mostly where the Byzantine reading is bracketed in NA28/UBS5. In 107 out of the 126 passages with a split guiding line, one of the alternative guiding lines is the MT reading. Only 15 of these 107 MT readings agree with the text of NA28/UBS5." (Wachtel "Notes on the Text of Mark," page 1).
These two developments, the abandonment of the theory of text types, and the greater weight given to the Byzantine tradition reveal how far modern reasoned eclecticism has left Wescott and Hort behind. Using the witness comparison tool helps to illustrate this trend of greater respect for the Byzantine tradition.

First, the initial text is designated by a capital A (for ausgangstext German for initial text) which is what the editors call the earliest attainable text closest to what the authors wrote. When an A is entered in the "Witness 1" box and MT (for Majority Text, i.e. basically the Byzantine tradition) is entered into the "Witness 2" box the CBGM indicates that they agree 88.71%, nearly 89%!

If the same comparison is made between 03 (Codex Vaticanus) and the MT, and between 01 (Codex Sinaiticus) and the MT the results reveal that 03 agrees with the MT only 84% and that 01 agrees with the MT at 83%. These results indicate that the editor's reconstructed A text, the text that they see as the oldest form of the text, does not look exactly like the text of 01 and 03 and where they differ, the difference moves the A text towards the Majority Text and away from the text of 01 and 03.

Another indication of the greater respect is the number of Majority Text readings that the editors mark as preceding the readings found in 01 and 03. This can be seen by using the same comparison tool. When 01 is compared with the MT, out of the 741 variants that the editors made a decision, at 254 variants (34%) the variant found in the Majority Text is seen as preceding (older than) the reading found in 01! The same phenomenon can be seen with regard to the text of 03. The comparison tool indicates that when 03 is compared with the MT, out of the 684 variants that the editors made a decision, at 138 variants (20%) the variant found in the Majority Text is seen as preceding (older than) the reading found in 03!

These simple queries using the CBGM of Mark witness comparison tool indicate that the editors of the leading critical editions of the Greek New Testament have come a long way from the theories utilized by Wescott and Hort and popular among reasoned eclectics in the 20th century. No longer do textual critics slavishly follow the text found in either 01 or 03 or any other witness traditionally attributed to the so-called Alexandrian Text. In fact at many variants the editors believe that the Majority Text preserves the older text over against the text found in 01 and 03.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

An Autograph Diptych from Roman Britain

While visiting the British Museum I always enjoy viewing the Roman Britain room where the Vindolanda Tablets are on display. While browsing and snapping pictures with my phone I noticed that one of the tablets, Tab.Vindol 182, has several lines with a strikethrough. This indicates that this wooden notebook was actively used and edited as a working list. As the museum description indicates, the tablet contains a working list of accounts due. Presumably, as the accountant worked through the various accounts listed and collected what was due, the particular account was lined through. I found this fascinating because it is these strikethroughs that reveal that this was a working text, an autograph. Most likely the accountant that is lining through the text was the one who wrote the list as well.


Friday, July 7, 2023

The Path from Textual Doubt to Textual Confidence

I was recently in Bellingham, WA for helicopter maintenance business and had the opportunity to meet up with Mark Ward who is a philologist with Faithlife/Logos Bible Software. I was able to tour the Faithlife headquarters and Mark asked to interview me about my recently completed PhD. He asked me about my faith journey from doubt in the text of the New Testament to confidence. 

I also mention my plans to move to Ukraine and teach at Kyiv Theological Seminary. For more information see

I did make one error during the interview, I mentioned Hesiod as being banished but actually meant to say Ovid. You can listen/watch the interview here

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Libanius of Antioch and His Letter Carriers

I am currently reading the book "The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch" by Raffaella Cribiore. It features the life and work of Libanius of Antioch who taught rhetoric in Constantinople and Nicomedia but settled in Antioch when he accepted a chair of rhetoric. Though Libanius was a pagan, he taught several notable Christian scholars including John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and had some dealings with Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. Another famous student of his was Julian who became Emperor, better known as Julian the Apostate. I find it fascinating that both Christian and pagan alike had the same educational background at the time. Apparently, John Chrysostom despised his formal teacher and openly mocked him in his work "On Babylas" (Cribiore, 140). There are a significant number of his letters that survive to this day. There are a few interesting details in the book that I find tantalizing. One is that Libanius would write letters that would give reports of his student's progress to their parents or guardians. These reports were often summarized by the letter carriers. One such letter Cribiore translates in the book.
(ca. 355 CE)
To Eupator,
Your children are enduring in Daphne the work that ends in summer. They have our permission so that the trees, the waters, and the breezes may make their task more palatable. If someone criticizes them on account of the place, let it be known that he is, in truth, a false accuser.
The bearer of this letter will tell you what I think about both of them. I consider both you and your sons blessed because of him: Olympius, the best of men on earth, cares about your family. (Cribiore, 262)
Several of Libanius's students were from outside Antioch and were sent there to study under Libanius along with their slave, a pedagogue, that was entrusted with their learning. These pedagogues were often tasked by the parent or guardian of the student with giving regular updates and progress reports. In one of Libanius's progress reports, he mentions that the student's pedagogue is the letter carrier and is tasked with giving greater details of the students progress once he arrives.
(ca. 359/360 CE)
To Letoius iii
When you participated in the meeting concerning important matters that was called in the presence of a friend of ours, you said that your nephew was with us and that you intended to write to him and to me about him, but you did not do either. We, however, are writing and are sending the pedagogue, who does not allow us to write a long letter. If I praised this young man at length, he is the one you would ask if my words were true, so it is better to give my report about these things to him. (Cribiore, 290)
That Libanius relies not only on a trusted letter carrier to deliver his message, but to elaborate on it has several parallels in the New Testament. For example, in Ephesians 6:21, Paul relies on Tychicus to not only bear his letter but to give a more detailed report as well. 
So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts. (Ephesians 6:21-22)

Raffaella Cribiore, "The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007)