Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Publication and Circulation of Early Christian Writings

P. Oxy 405
The previous post discussed the culture of publication and circulation of literature in Greco-Roman antiquity. The early Christians were no different in their methods of copying, distributing, and publishing their own writings. There are several pieces of evidence that suggest an early and fairly wide distribution of Christian writings in the first few centuries of the Christian era. First we will look at some fragments of early Christian papyri, then we will turn to the testimony of the early Church fathers, and finally we will look at the testimony of Paul.

Early Christian Papyri
The table on the left gives a small sampling of various fragments of Christian writings discovered in Egypt and in Duro-Europos located in modern day Syria. When the date of these fragments are compared with the location of their composition (probable for some), a picture of early Christian publication emerges.
For example, the Shepherd of Hermas was likely composed in Rome early in the 2nd century, and must have been immensely popular (as the Church fathers also reveal) as fragments of the Shepherd were found in Egypt that date to the end of the second century (P. Oxy. 4706 and P. I and 1.4 among others). This reveals the wide and fairly rapid distribution of the Shepherd at an early date.
Also note that the canonical Gospels were written all across the Roman Empire in the 1st century; from Rome where Mark and Luke were most likely composed all the way to Ephesus in Asia Minor where John was most likely written to Antioch where Matthew may have been composed. By the end of the 2nd century these four canonical Gospels had been circulated and distributed as far as the eastern edges of the Roman Empire. A 2nd century fragment of Tatian's Diatessaron, a harmony of the four canonical Gospels, was found all the way in Syria at Duro-Europos (P. Dura 10).
Most revealing of the rapid interchange between the Christian communities of the 2nd century is P. Oxy 405, a fragment of Irenaeus' Against Heresies (see map below). This copy of Against Heresies dates to within Irenaeus' lifetime and at the latest within fifty years after his death. When taking into to account Greco-Roman publication practices discussed in the previous post, the news that Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies would have had to travel these 1,600 miles within twenty years or so, in order for a copy of it to be made and discarded in the sands of Egypt (P. Oxy 405).
These few papyrus fragments suggest a lively christian community that traveled and communicated, corresponded, and circulated its writings widely.

Polycarp and Hermas on Circulation and Copying
The Shepherd of Hermas was a very popular non-canonical Christian writing of the second century (see discussion above). It consists of a long series of "visions", "mandates", and "parables." Within the section of "visions", the author described the distribution and publication of the work;
“Therefore you will write two little books, and you will send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Then Clement will send it to the cities abroad, because that is his job. But Grapte will instruct the widows and orphans. But you yourself will read it to this city, along with the elders who preside over the Church.” (Herm. Vis. 2.4)
It appears that there would have been two different Church figures, Clement and Grapte, who would have been responsible for getting the word out about the Shepherd and would have functioned as the contact points for those wishing to obtain a copy of the work. Also note that in the same way Pliny increased awareness of his poetry and speeches through public reading (see previous post), Hermas would have increased awareness of the Shepherd through public reading.

Polycarp bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor (just north of Ephesus) has left some tantalizing fragments of information that may shed light on the way in which the letters of Ignatius of Antioch were disseminated very soon after he penned them. There are seven letters that survive from the hand of Ignatius as he was imprisoned on his way to Rome. He had wrote several of the Churches that were on his traveling route. Scholars place the time of Ignatius' arrest and the date of his letters early in the second century (ca. 110 CE).
There is only one letter of Polycarp that is preserved today and that is his letter to the Philippian Church. At the end of this letter, Polycarp answers a request that he had received from the Philippians;
“Both you and Ignatius have written me that if anyone is traveling to Syria, he should take your letter along also. This I will do, if I get an opportunity, either myself or the one whom I will send as my representative, on your behalf as well as ours. We are sending to you the letters of Ignatius that were sent to us by him together with any others that we have in our possession, just as you requested. They are appended to this letter. . . As for Ignatius himself and those with him, if you learn anything more definite, let us know.” (Poly. Phil. 13.1-2)
There would have had to have been close and fairly rapid communication between these communities for these exchanges to have taken place so quickly. Polycarp would have already received several letters from Ignatius. We know that it could only have been a year at most since Ignatius had passed through the area as the Philippians where still asking as to his whereabouts.
The letters that are mentioned here, that were sent to Polycarp at Smyrna, would very likely have been the letter Ignatius wrote to the Church at Smyrna and the personal letter that Ignatius wrote Polycarp.
Therefore, Polycarp reveals to us that within a short period of time, letters had been received and sent, and a collection process of Ignatius’ letters had already begun as they were beginning to be widely circulated.

Paul on Circulation and Copying
Even as early as the mid-to-late first century there appears to have been a fairly rapid interchange between Christian communities. Paul alludes to this in some of his concluding comments to the Christians at Colossi;

“Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. . . . I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts. . . Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” (Col. 4:7-16 ESV)

When Paul wrote these words, he appears to have expect a close knit Christian community that interacted and exchanged letters, and that would circulate and copy his letters to other Christian communities. This is a similar process to what we see fifty years later with Polycarp and Smryna in Polycarp's letter above. In Col 4:16 especially, we can see the beginnings of the Pauline letter collection that would most likely lead to the gathering of Paul's letters into a single codex just as we see in P46 at the end of the second century.

[update: 0212 (P.Dura 24), Tatian's Gospel Harmony has been largely accepted by scholars to not be a copy of Tatian's Gospel Harmony but some other harmony. This does not really change the discussion or arguments that much. See (D. C. Parker, D. G. K Taylor and M. S. Goodacre, The Dura-Europos Gospel Harmony, in: D. G. K. Taylor, Studies in the Early Text of the Gospels and Acts, SBL Text-Critical Studies 1 (Atlanta, GA 1999), pp. 192-228)]


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

Holmes, Michael W., ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

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

Roberts, Colin H. Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.


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