Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Cassiodorus On Papyrus Paper

A leaf from P46, an early copy of Paul's epistles on papyrus.

During his service as a Praetorian Praefect under Theodoric The Great (ca. 533-538 CE), Cassiodorus maintained an extensive official correspondence. In a letter to Joannes, Canonicarius of Thuscia, Cassiodorus extensively praised papyrus paper;
"A wonderful product in truth is this wherewith ingenious Memphis has supplied all the offices in the world. The plants of Nile arise, a wood without leaves or branches, a harvest of the waters, the fair tresses of the marshes, plants full of emptiness, spongy, thirsty, having all their strength in their outer rind, tall and light, the fairest fruit of a foul inundation. 
Before Paper was discovered, all the sayings of the wise, all the thoughts of the ancients, were in danger of perishing. Who could write fluently or pleasantly on the rough bark of trees, though it is from that practice that we call a book Liber ? While the scribe was laboriously cutting his letters on the sordid material, his very thought grew cold: a rude contrivance assuredly, and only fit for the beginnings of the world. 
Then was paper discovered, and therewith was eloquence made possible. Paper, so smooth and so continuous, the snowy entrails of a green herb; paper which can be spread out to such a vast extent, and yet be folded up into such a little space; paper, on whose white expanse the black characters look beautiful; paper which keeps the sweet harvest of the mind, and restores it to the reader whenever he chooses to consult it; paper which is the faithful witness of all human actions, eloquent of the past, a sworn foe to oblivion." (Letters 11.38)
The popularity and utility of papyrus is also reflected in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament writings. A significant portion of New Testament manuscripts that date to the time of Cassiodorus and earlier are preserved on papyrus. Therefore, in the case of the New Testament writings, we can agree with Cassiodorus that "Before Paper was discovered, all the sayings of the wise, all the thoughts of the ancients, were in danger of perishing."
Hodgkin, Thomas, trans. The Letters of Cassiodorus. London: Henry Frowde, 1886. (pg. 483)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Galen's Rules of Textual Alteration

While reading through Eric W. Scherbenske's "Canonizing Paul: Ancient Editorial Practice and the Corpus Paulinum," I came across a fascinating discussion over Galen's (129 - 216 CE) scholarship on the text of the Hippocratic corpus. In the midst of analyzing the textual work and editions of two former Hippocratic scholars who were active in the first part of the second century, Galen wrote;
"A second book written in place of one formerly written is said to be revised (επιδιεσκευασθαι), when it has the same 'hypothesis' (υποθεσις) and most of the same words; some (of the words) taken out from the former work; some added; some altered. If you want an example of this for the sake of clarity, you have the second Autolycus of Eupolis revised from the former. Thus the doctors from Cnidus published the second 'Cnidian Opinions' in place of the former ones; some having the same in every way; but some added; some taken away; just as some altered. This then is the second book of Hippocrates which they say is more medical than the former." (Hipp. vict. acut. 120.5-14; Scherbenske's translation)
Galen sets limits on the amount of textual tampering an ancient Hippocratic scholar should perform on the text by defining an 'edition' of an ancient work. The original author's "hypothesis," that is, the foundational concept or idea written by the author (in this case, Hippocrates), should not be altered in any way. When a scholar in Galen's time was preparing an edition of an ancient work, the scholar was "revising" the text when it had the same "hypothesis" and "most of the same words." These words could be altered, however, by the scholar, as long as "most of the same words' were retained.

A similar mentality can be detected in much of the transmission history of the New Testament writings, especially the Gospels. Michael W. Holmes noted that the fluidity of movement in the words at the sentence or verse level in the manuscript tradition is "remarkable." Despite this, the overall structure of the Gospels in the manuscript tradition is very stable. Holmes wrote;

"No matter how fluid the text of a particular verse or episode maybe, the overall narrative structure is extremely stable. The circumstances of Luke and Acts are very similar to those of Matthew, John, and Mark. In short, a very high percentage of the variation evident in the text of the Four Gospels and Acts affects a verse or less of the text. On this level, the fluidity of wording within a verse, sentence, or paragraph is sometimes remarkable. At the same time, however, in terms of overall structure, arrangement, and content, these five documents are remarkably stable. They display simultaneously, in other words, what one may term micro level fluidity and macro level stability." (Holmes, 674)
It seems then, that as in the case of Galen's criteria, the overall "hypothesis" of the Gospels remains unaltered. The wording of the Gospels was merely shifted and the order of words altered slightly, with some words added and removed. Perhaps Galen's understanding of textual alteration and "edition" was more widely held by scribes in the ancient and medieval world.

Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Royal MS 14 E III c. 1315 – 1325 AD)

Holmes, Michael W. “From ‘Original Text’ to ‘Initial Text’: The Traditional Goal of New Testament Textual Criticism in Contemporary Discussion.” Pages 637-681 in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis. Second Edition. Edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes. New Testament, Tools, Studies and Documents 42. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Scherbenske, Eric W. Canonizing Paul: Ancient Editorial Practice and the Corpus Paulinum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 39.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Quintilian on The Critical Skills Grammarians Teach (ca. 95 CE)

While reading through Eric W. Scherbenske's "Canonizing Paul: Ancient Editorial Practice and the Corpus Paulinum," I came across a reference from Quintilian. He was sketching the critical skills taught as part of the standard literary education given by the Greek and Latin Grammarians (teachers); 
"As soon as the boy has learned to read and write without difficulty, it is the turn for the teacher of literature (grammatici). My words apply equally to Greek and Latin masters, though I prefer that a start should be made with a Greek: in either case the method is the same. This profession may be most briefly considered under two heads, the art of speaking correctly and the interpretation of poets; but there is more beneath the surface than meets the eye. For the art of writing is combined with that of speaking, and correct reading precedes interpretation, while in each of these criticism has work to perform. The old school of teachers (veteras grammatici) carried their criticism so far that they were not content with obelizing lines [marking for deletion] or rejecting books whose titles they regarded as spurious, as though they were expelling a supposititious child from the family circle, but also drew up a canon of authors, from which some were omitted altogether." (Inst. or. 1.4.1-3)
Quintilian notes here that it was customary for Grammarians to teach the art of analyzing a piece of literature for a correct textual reading as well as determining its authenticity in relation to an author's other writings. Of course, Quintilian is describing the ideal Greco-Roman education. It may have been uncommon for literates (of lesser or greater ability) to acquire this level of analytical skill. Nevertheless, the teaching of these critical skills appears to occur early in a child's literary education (soon after acquiring an adequate level of reading and writing ability). Thus, most literates may have had at least a rudimentary understanding of recognizing textual/transmission issues as well as the problems associated with authorship.  

Apostles, disciples, and other early Christian leaders who were literate, may have had at least some ability in analyzing and evaluating a particular writing's textual character or authorship claims.  This can be seen in Peter's assessment of those who have miss-interpreted and possibly textually altered Paul's epistles in 2 Peter 3:16, and Luke's evaluation of previous Gospel writings in 1:1-4. Similar parallels could be made with regard to the collecting of Ignatius's letters in Poly. Phil. 13.1-2.

Mosaic of Plato's academy (Pompeii)
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria (trans. H. E. Butler; LCL; London: William Heinman, 1920), 61-63.

Scherbenske, Eric W. Canonizing Paul: Ancient Editorial Practice and the Corpus Paulinum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 16.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Testament Authors, Autographs, and Elitist Romans

An article published in a recent issue of JETS explored the definition of "autograph" as it related to the composition of the New Testament writings and Greco-Roman publication practices;
 "What are the NT Autographs? An Examination of the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy in Light of Greco-Roman Publication." JETS 59/2 (June 2016): 287-308.
The paper posited that, "in reference to the NT, the 'autograph,' as often discussed in biblical inerrancy doctrinal statements, should be defined as the completed authorial work which was released by the author for circulation and copying, not earlier draft versions or layers of composition."
The article seemed to garner a positive response from readers as well as questions regarding the applicability of the thesis to the Pauline corpus. Another line of feedback questioned the validity of applying the composition practices of Roman elites with the authors of the New Testament documents, who may have been from humble uneducated backgrounds.

Other than Paul (and possibly Luke), we have very little knowledge of the social status and education levels of the authors of the New Testament writings. Despite this, much has been made of the statement in Acts 4:13;
"Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus."
This verse has often been used to show that Peter and John could not read or write (whether in Greek or Aramaic), were from the lower level of the social strata, and thus, could not have authored any of the New Testament writings (Ehrman, 75). However, this appears to be going too far with this statement in Acts. The context of the passage has to do with a meeting of the Sanhedrin examining the teaching of Peter and John with regard to Jesus. Because ἀγράμματοί (uneducated) is used along with ἰδιῶται (laymen) it seems more likely that the Sanhedrin were astonished because they thought (or knew, see below) that Peter and John had no legal training in biblical interpretation and rabbinical law and did not hold an official position in the Temple. Similar statements were made in John 7:15 with regard to Jesus; "How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?" The astonishment is expressed over Jesus showing such learning in biblical interpretation and his followers addressing him as 'Rabbi' when he had no formal rabbinical training. It seems then that Acts 4:13 has little to do with Peter and John's ability to read and write and their education in general (Bruce, 102;cf. Kraus, 439-440).

In contrast, it may be that some of the disciples, namely John, walked in the elite social strata of Judean society. If we take the statements in the Gospels at face value (we have very little else to go on), then it may be that John came from an elite family. If one compares Matthew 27:56, Mark 16:1, and John 19:25, it may be that John's mother was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke indicates that Mary was related (ἡ συγγενίς) to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). Elizabeth was from the Aaronic line and was married to Zacharias, a priest (Luke 1:5). Therefore, the apostle John may have been distantly related to the Priestly family through his mother, even though John himself did not hold an office in the Temple worship.

Further clues indicate that John may have moved in the elite class of Judean society. The author of the Gospel of John (if taken at face-value, the apostle John) is known for referencing himself anonymously (compare John 1:35-40) and is most likely the anonymous disciple mentioned in John 18:15;
"Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest"
John is known well enough by the High Priest Caiaphas that he is allowed to enter into the "elite" areas of the Temple complex. If John was known to the High Priest, then this might shed some light on Acts 4:13 because the Priest overseeing the Sanhedrin would have known personally that John had received no formal rabbinical or legal training and therefore "that they were uneducated, common men."

Coupled with this, if one looks at the use of ἀγράμματοί in the papyri, then it becomes clear that being ἀγράμματοί does not automatically classify one as coming from the lower strata of society. A well know example comes from the Fayum in Greco-Roman Egypt. Petaus (2nd century AD), even though he was ἀγράμματοί this did not prevent him from operating in the upper strata of society and holding a position of status as a village scribe. One had to own a great deal of property to be considered for the position of village scribe (Kraus, 443: Harris, 278-279).

Of course, none of the above is meant as an apologetic defending traditional authorship of the Gospel of John or the veracity of the New Testament. Rather, it is only meant to emphasize the uncertainty of the education levels of the apostles and followers of Jesus. It is a mistake to assume that all of the apostles and disciples (who later authored New Testament writings) were uneducated and illiterate, and/or from the lower social strata. Of the authors of the New Testament writings, John at least may have been a member of the Judean elite society and therefore may have shared in similar Greco-Roman attitudes towards literary composition discussed in the JETS article. Explicit examples of John's careful consideration could be gleaned from his writings, but will have to wait for another time.

Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Book of Acts: The English Translation with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Ehrman, Bart D. Forged: Writing in the Name of God : Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Kraus, Thomas J. "'Uneducated', 'Ignorant', or Even 'Illiterate'? Aspects and Background for an Understanding of AΓPAMMATOI (and IΔIΩTAI) in Acts 4.13." NTS 43.3 (1999); 434-449.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Lucian on Christians and Their Books (165 CE)

Lucian (125-180 CE) was a Syrian satirist and author who wrote his works in Greek and was from the Roman city of Samosata on the banks of the Euphrates river. In one particular work, Lucian wrote about a Cynic philosopher named Peregrinus who had converted over to Christianity in his early years and was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his older years, Peregrinus converted back over to Cynicism and later cremated himself at the Olympic games in 165 CE. Lucian's work is of interest as it is one of the earliest references to Christians by a Roman author. One especially interesting and lengthy description reads;
"It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be ?—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. Then at length [Peregrinus] Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of. Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him. Then, as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way but with assiduity; and from the very break of day aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison, while their officials even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud, and excellent Peregrinus—for he still went by that name—was called by them 'the new Socrates.'" (Peregr. 11-12)
Of course, Lucian is most likely exaggerating or caricaturing some of the more prominent features of the Christian communities known to him. Even so, Lucian expects his readers to pick up on these salient aspects of Christians in order for the satirical humor to be effective. These features are;
  • The community leaders are the priests, scribes, prophets and interpreters of their sacred books.
  • Christians were meeting in a particular location; referenced as a "synagogue" by Lucian.
  • The centrality of the Christian's worship of the crucified Jesus.
  • The imprisonment and persecution of Christians for their beliefs.
  • Orphans and widows were a large component of the Christian community.
  • Christians visited prisoners and were doing all they could to help them.
One interesting feature of Lucian's description, however, is the prominence given to sacred writings and books. At one point Lucian draws attention to Peregrinus' facility in composing religious writings; no doubt a reference to the prolific output of Christian writings in the first and second centuries. Lucian also highlights the reading-out of sacred books in their community gatherings around Peregrinus while he was imprisoned. Overall, Christians of the second century were recognized by the importance they placed upon their sacred books; studying and interpreting them as well as publicly reading them in their worship gatherings.
Portrait of Lucian from an Early Translation of his Writings

Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus. A. M. Harmon (trans.). Vol. V. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Augustine On Learning Greek

In the midst of Augustine's "Confessions" (ca. 400 CE) he complains of the difficulty in learning Greek and wrestling with the language of Homer and other Greek classics.
"I sinned, then, when as a boy I preferred those empty to those more profitable studies, or rather loved the one and hated the other. "One and one, two"; "two and two, four"; this was to me a hateful singsong: "the wooden horse lined with armed men," and "the burning of Troy," and "Creusa's shade and sad similitude," were the choice spectacle of my vanity. Why then did I hate the Greek classics, which have the like tales? For Homer also curiously wove the like fictions, and is most sweetly vain, yet was he bitter to my boyish taste. And so I suppose would Virgil be to Grecian children, when forced to learn him as I was Homer. Difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of a foreign tongue, dashed, as it were, with gall all the sweetness of Grecian fable. For not one word of it did I understand, and to make me understand I was urged vehemently with cruel threats and punishments." (Confessions 1.13-14)
Though he apparently was forced to read Greek and difficult classical texts, he notes that "not one word of it did I understand." Even threats and punishments did not help him in navigating a foreign tongue. Nevertheless, looking back in the maturity of his adult years, he now regrets that he did not spend more time studying and learning Greek and reading the classics. 
Those of you who are either attempting to learn the elements of the Greek language, or (like myself) are doing their best to stay disciplined in reading the Greek New Testament every day and further advance their knowledge, take heart from Augustine, you will not regret studying Greek, but you may, later in your life, look back and regret that you had not stayed disciplined in your studies.

Translation taken from;

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Scripture For Sale in 4th Century North Africa

Hugh Houghton, in his monograph "Augustine's Text of John: Patristic Citations and Latin Gospel Manuscripts" (p. 23-24), brought attention to several quotations from the writings of Augustine that illustrate the sale of biblical manuscripts. (The following English translations are taken from Houghton's book)
"The Lord’s manuscripts are daily on sale, and readers read them; buy one for yourself and read it when you have time—in fact, make time for it: it is better to have time for this than for trifles." (Sermo 114B.15)
"Let someone complain, let him grumble, if this Scripture is not proclaimed and chanted throughout the world, if it should even stop being available to buy in public." (Enarratio in Psalmos 36.s1.2)
"Our writings reveal our religion to them, but we are not afraid. Our manuscripts are put on sale in public: the daylight does not blush for shame. Let them buy them, read them and believe them; or let them buy them, read them and laugh at them. Scripture knows how to call to account those who read and do not believe. A manuscript is carried around for sale, but the one whom its pages proclaim is not for sale...Buy a manuscript and read it: we are not ashamed." (Sermo 198.20)
These comments by Augustine are striking and indicate a flourishing time in North Africa when the scriptures were widely available and literacy was more wide spread than in previous centuries of the Roman imperial age.
For more fascinating insight into the production of books and manuscripts during this time, read Chapter 2 "The Use of the Bible and the Production of Books in the Time of Augustine" (p. 22-43) in Houghton's monograph. The chapter is filled with quotations from Augustine, Jerome and other contemporary figures that paint a picture of rich scholarship and free flow of ideas and books across the Mediterranean region during this time.

Houghton, Hugh. Augustine's Text of John: Patristic Citations and Latin Gospel Manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Bursting Church Libraries in Fourth Century North Africa

While reading through Hugh Houghton's new volume The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its History Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts (p.21), I came across an interesting quotation from Optatus of Milevis in North Africa (ca. mid 4th cen. CE);
“The libraries are filled with books. Nothing is wanting to the Church. In different places the divine praises are everywhere proclaimed. The mouths of the lectors keep not silence. The hands of all are full of volumes [of Scripture]. Nothing is lacking to the people who wish to be taught” (Contra Donat. 7.1)
It is fascinating to read Optatus' description of Church libraries in North Africa as "filled with books" and that the "hands of all are full of volumes." The abundant number of manuscripts available certainly speaks to the wealth of Christians in this area and the popularity of Christianity. There must have been a ready market for those who wished to study the scriptures for themselves. This comment also serves as a contrast to the generally low literacy rates in antiquity. Even though very few people could read, there were enough literates attending Churches that it warranted large collections of volumes.


Houghton, Hugh. The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its History Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Optatus of Milevis. Against the Donatists. O. R. Vassall-Phillips, trans. London: Longmans, Green, and CO, 1917.