Monday, November 30, 2020

Seneca: The Fate of an Unused Bookroll

There has been a lot of talk in recent years on the length of time an ancient book, or even "autograph" may have been in use. I briefly addressed this topic in "Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism," Chapter two "Myths About Autographs." In that chapter I cite a comment from the second century physician Galen where he mentions that some of the bookrolls were in an unusable state of decay (even while being stored in a Roman library).
"These (books), then, did not cause me a small pain when copying them. As it is, the papyri are completely useless, not even able to be un-rolled because they have been glued together by decomposition, since the region is both marshy and low-lying, and, during the summer, is stifling." (De indolentia 19).
This passaing comment by Galen is remarkably similar to Seneca the Younger's comments over one hundred years previously (ca. 60s CE). When writing to his friend Lucilius, Seneca attempted to answer a previous question and his response is telling.
"The subject concerning which you question me was once clear to my mind, and required no thought, so thoroughly had I mastered it. But I have not tested my memory of it for some time, and therefore it does not readily come back to me. I feel that I have suffered the fate of a book whose rolls have stuck together by disuse; my mind needs to be unrolled, and whatever has been stored away there ought to be examined from time to time, so that it may be ready for use when occasion demands." (Seneca, Ep. 72).
Though made in passing, Seneca's comments reveal that more is at stake for a book to be usable than merely lasting for many years. Even if a book remains on a shelf in a library, it can become unusable or, at best, very difficult to use because the roll will stick together from lack of use. It would be important then for those who cared for books in collections to exercise these rolls periodically in order to help prevent them from sticking together and decaying as both Seneca and Galen mention.


Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson, "Galen:'On the Avoidance of Grief,'" EC 2.1 (2011): 110-129.

Seneca. Epistles, Volume II: Epistles 66-92. Translated by Richard M. Gummere. Loeb Classical Library 76. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Paul's Preaching of God's Word and the Corinthian Community

In a recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament is published a new article which is freely available as Open Access.

Timothy Mitchell, “Exposing Textual Corruption: Community as a Stabilizing Aspect in the Circulation of the New Testament Writings during the Greco-Roman Era.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 43. 2 (December 2020): 266–298.

In this paper I look at the publication and distribution practices of the first few centuries of the Christian era. I argue that because books were copied and circulated primarily through social networks in a community, this naturally created an environment where any macro-level changes to the text, literary theft, and plagiarism of these writings was exposed through these same social networks.

In the article I give examples of this phenomena from pagan and Christian sources. Some of the examples are taken from the New Testament. Though these examples from the New Testament discuss communities of Christians that are in a position to expose doctrinal corruption rather than being explicit references to revealing textual corruption. 

One such example that I did not include in the article is found in the Christian Community of Corinth. Paul wrote to the Corinthian community concerning his ministry of preaching and teaching;

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." (2 Corinthians 4:1-2; ESV)

Here Paul is declaring that he did not twist or "tamper" with God's word. They simply declared the truth and this was done "to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." Because he taught openly the word of God, the community could see for themselves that he was not twisting God's word.

Paul is here referring most likely to the "exegetical" or "interpretational" tampering of God's word and not to the physical tampering of their copies of the scriptures. This same community would be able, in the same way, to detect where Paul would tamper with the "text" if his ministry ever attempted to do so.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review of Sabine R. Huebner. Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament


In the September issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society has published a fresh review from me of 

Sabine R. Huebner's, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 

Though I have some criticisms of the book, mainly her view of early Christianity in Egypt, overall, the book is very good and is chock full of interesting insights. Especially refreshing is Huebner's treatment of the problems in the census of Luke 2:1-3 which are original and appear to satisfactorily reconcile the chronological problems of this census with other known imperial censuses mentioned in the ancient writings.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Exposing Textual Corruption at JSNT

 I just received the proofs from JSNT for my article, "Exposing Textual Corruption", which will be appearing in the December 2020 issue of Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Another exciting development about the article is that it is to be made available Open Access and thus it will not be behind any paywalls.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Burning Magical Books in Ephesus

In Brian J. Wright's excellent book "Communial Reading in the Time of Jesus" he mentions an account found in Acts 19:11-20 that is set in Ephesus (p. 150-151). As many can recall, Paul was ministering in Ephesus, preaching the Gospel and performing many miracles and casting out demons. After a local group of Jewish excorists failed to excise a demon they were attacked and the excorcists fled (Acts 19:16). This sparked a huge revival as the populace began to denounce their magical practices and instead beleive in the Gospel message Paul was preaching. As a result of their coversion, Luke tells us,

"And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily." (Acts 19:19-20; ESV)

In this account, Wright teases out some interesting conclusions. He draws attention to the book burning event, that a significant number of books were burned (worth 50,000 silver coins), and that the burning of these magical texts was set in counter distinction with the the Gospel message in verse 20: "the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily" (ESV). Because of the book burning event recounted in v 19, Wright proposes that, "[t]he 'word of the Lord'  here probably refers to written texts and not merely to oral proclamation, in light of this explicit comparison" (p. 151).

If Wright's interpretation of this text is correct, it would imply that not just Old Testament texts are in view here, but more specifically written texts that include some type of Gospel proclamation. In light of the timing of the composition of Paul's epistles in the Acts narrative, if Wright is correct here, then Luke might include the idea of the circulation of some of Paul's epistles when he wrote that "the word of the Lord continued to increase" (19:20). To be clear, Wright is not specific as to what texts may be in circulation. Because the "word of the Lord" here is referring to the Gospel being spread as a result of Paul's ministry, I wonder if this verse might include the concept of some of Paul's epistles. According to the more common accepted timeline of the composition of Paul's epistles, at this time in the narrative, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians would likely have been written and dispatched, and possibly 1st Corinthians as well while Paul was at Ephesus. Paul at the very least may have begun the process of writing Romans during his three year stay in Ephesus (Acts 19:10; 20:31). The letter to the Galatians may have been written by this time in Acts as well. Therefore, since epistolary writing was a integral part of Paul's ministry, and this reference in Acts 19:20 is speaking specifically about the results of Paul's ministry, it may include the idea of widespread circulation of at least some of the Pauline epistles that had been written at this time and to their reading out to the Church communities as a means by which "the word of the Lord" increased. Especially considering the epistles would have been read out in the Churches as is mentioned in 1 Thess 5:27 (which was written before this time in Acts 19). Edit: I re-wrote the last segment to hopefully better express what ideas I am adding to Wright's proposal and to be more nuanced as to what "the word of the Lord" might be referring to more specifically.

Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Vitruvius on the Properly Situated Villa Library

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80-15 BCE) was a Roman architect and military engineer that lived during the fall of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the imperial era. He is best known for his work "On Architecture" which influenced many great writers and thinkers over the centuries. Vitruvius dedicated Book 6 of this work to the topic of planning a Roman Villa. In one section he discussed the importance of orienting certain rooms towards the sunlight.
"I shall now describe how the different sorts of buildings are placed as regards their aspects. Winter triclinia and baths are to face the winter west, because the afternoon light is wanted in them; and not less so because the setting sun casts its rays upon them, and but its heat warms the aspect towards the evening hours. Bed chambers and libraries should be towards the east, for their purposes require the morning light: in libraries the books are in this aspect preserved from decay; those that are towards the south and west are injured by the worm and by the damp, which the moist winds generate and nourish, and spreading the damp, make the books mouldy." (De Arch., 6.4.1)
It is notable that Vitruvius includes a "library" with all the rooms that make up an ideal Roman Villa. 
The other interesting facet are the effects that solar heat, moisture, and airflow have upon the proper storage and preservation of the books. He indicates that libraries that face away from the morning sun (to the south and west) are in danger of becoming worm eaten and moldy, and decayed with moisture.
Though this is a passing statement by Vitruvius, I gather that it reflects an observed (and perhaps calculated) reality of the preservation and decay of books. Even when stored within a personal library (thus the owner would have vested interest its maintenance and preservation) books could still be subjected to decay and damage. This is not unlike the comments made by Galen that some of books he encountered in the Roman libraries were often in an almost unusable state due to decay and moisture (Peri Alupias 19)
These factors affected the longevity and useful life of books, even when stored within a personal library.

Vitruvius, De Architectura. (Joseph Gwilt, translator. London: Priestley and Weale, 1826).

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Quintilian on Writing Well and Quickly

Ivory relief from the cover of a sacramentary, 10th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

While reading through Raffaella Cribiore's excellent work "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt" I came across an interesting reference by Quintilian (ca. 35-100 CE) on the necessity of writing legibly. In his magnum opus, "The Institutes of Oratory" Quintilian was writing on the the art of educating and transforming a young boy into a rhetorician worthy of the Roman courts. In book one Quintilian writes about the necessity of teaching to write legibly.
"The art of writing well and quickly is not unimportant for our purpose, though it is generally disregarded by persons of quality. Writing is of the utmost importance in the study which we have under consideration and by its means alone can true and deeply rooted proficiency be obtained. But a sluggish pen delays our thoughts, while an unformed and illiterate hand cannot be deciphered, a circumstance which necessitates another wearisome task, namely the dictation of what we have written to a copyist. We shall therefore at all times and in all places, and above all when we are writing private letters to our friends, find a gratification in the thought that we have not neglected even this accomplishment." (Inst. Or. 1.1.28-29; )
There are a few elements of Quintilian's comments that relate to New Testament letter writing, in particular, Paul's use of a secretary to write his letters (see discussion here). It is fascinating that Quintilian makes the point that "writing well and quickly" is actually "disregarded by persons of quality"! Thus, the ability to write well was not a marker of high social status.
Despite this, Quintilian emphasizes the importance of clear writing, especially in personal letters, but not at the expense of an inordinate amount of time to write out one's thoughts. He notes especially that one may write out a letter in a less-than-legible hand, but then this eligibility requires the extra step of dictating this out to a copyist for better clarity in writing. Perhaps this is the case with Paul, for example, with regard to his letter to the Romans. He might have written it out himself and then, due to poor handwriting, dictated it out to Tertius (Rom. 16:22) for a more clear and practice hand. Of course this is pure speculation, but this possibility may be added to the list of reasons as to why the authors of the New Testament writings used secretaries and copyists. Also, their inability to write legibly would not have been a marker of low social status. 

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

Quintilian, "Institutes of Oratory," (Harold Edgeworth Butler, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922).

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Written Gospel and the Epistle of Diognetus

In his excellent book "The Gospel as Manuscript," Chris Keith makes reference to a passage in The Epistle of Diognetus in the midst of a discussion over when the transition occurred from a "primarily" oral proclamation of the Jesus tradition to written texts.
"Often overlooked in this debate is the occurrence of εὐαγγέλια in the Epistle of Diognetus, where the term is paired with the law and the prophets and thus likely assumes a "book" meaning."
The passage Keith is referring to is the following;
"Ίhen the reverence of the law is praised in song, and the grace of the prophets is recognized, and the faith of the gospels is established, and the tradition of the apostles is preserved, and the joy of the church exults." (Diogn. 11.6)
"εῖ̓τα φόβος νόμου ἄδεται καὶ προφητῶν χάρις γιςώσκεται καὶ εὐαγγελίων πίστις ἵδρυται καὶ ἀποστόλων παράδοσις φυλάσσεται καὶ ἐκκλεησίας <χαρὰ> σκιρτᾷ." (Diogn. 11.6; Holmes, 714-715)
The date of composition for Diognetus is rather an open question, but somewhere around 150-225 is likely (according to Holmes, 689). Though proposals have been made that it was written by either Quadtratus (an early apologist, ca. 130 CE), or Polycarp (ca. 69-155 CE) (Holmes, 688-689). Either way the writing is generally accepted as being early and Diognetus appears to be referring to written material designated as "Gospels" (εὐαγγελίων) along side references to the Law and to the Prophets (obviously written material). 

Added to this, I find it interesting that in the very next chapter the author of Diognetus is referring to its audience as "listening" to the contents of the epistle being read out (Diogn. 12.1). Thus, the immediate context is referring to the reading out of texts.
Chris Keith, "The Gospel as Manuscript: An Early History of the Jesus Tradition as Material Artifact" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Michael W. Holmes, "The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations" (3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Long-Lasting Autographs of the Bible

I sometimes enjoy looking at older evangelical theological and apologetic arguments (from the 19th and early 20th centuries) concerning the veracity of the Christian scriptures (whether the Old Testament or the New Testament). I find it fascinating when I discover that many arguments for and criticisms against the trustworthiness of the various aspects of the scriptures are not as recent as I had once thought. One such example I discovered while flipping through the old "The Fundamentals of the Faith" volumes. These were originally published as ninety or so articles in a twelve-volume pamphlet series known as the "Fundamentals of the Faith," which appeared from 1910 to 1915. R. A. Torrey then collected these articles and republished them in a four-volume set in 1917 entitled, "The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth." Over one million volumes of these republished articles were distributed and they became widely influential.

In the fourth volume appears an article by A. C. Dixon, "The Scriptures" where the author first attempts to define the term "scriptures" and then proceeds to argue for the preservation of the Torah manuscript that Moses was commanded to write after his encounter with God (Exodus 17:14, Deutoronomy 31:9; Dixon, "The Scriptures," p. 264). I quote the relevant passage at length below,

"The Bible is literature written by the command of God, under the guidance of God, and preserved by the providential care of God. Moses commanded that the book of the law should be placed by the side of the Ark. No safer place could have been found, and the more I study the history of the Bible the more profoundly am I convinced that God has kept His book by the side of some ark all through the ages. As the Church has been under His care and protection, so has the Book.
It is not difficult for me to believe that the manuscript which Hilkiah found in the Temple [that Josiah commanded to read out] was the identical book which Moses wrote in the wilderness, and that this very manuscript was in the hands of Ezra on the pulpit of wood as he preached in the open air [Nehemia 8]. It is only one thousand years from Joshua to Josiah and only one hundred and seventy-five years from Josiah to Ezra. There are now in our libraries scores of manuscripts which we know to be over a thousand years old, and two or three which have certainly been preserved more than fourteen hundred years. With the kindly oriental climate and the care which the Jewish reverence for the book would naturally lead them to have, it is not at all improbable that the manuscript of Moses should have been preserved for more than a thousand years. And the history of the Bible from the time of Christ to the present confirms the proposition that it has been preserved by the providential care of God." (Dixon, "The Scriptures," p. 266)

Here Dixon uses the (modern) phenomena of manuscripts that are over a thousand years old surviving in libraries as support for his proposition that the physical autograph of the Torah from the hand of Moses must have also survived for over 1,000 years.

In it's basic sense, Dixon's argument is strikingly similar to other arguments put forward in more recent times with regard to the autographs of the New Testament. This arguement goes like this, if some ancient manuscripts could last X years, then Biblical autograph(s) must have lasted X years too.


A. C. Dixon, "The Scriptures," pages 264-272 in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (Volume IV. R. A Torrey, et. al. eds. 1917. Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008)

Friday, May 8, 2020

Plague and Palaeography

The effects of the Antonine plague in the later half of the second century (ca. 165-190s CE) were far reaching. It is commonly accepted that the outbreak was some form of the Smallpox virus (Harper, 102). Scholars estimate anywhere from 1.5 to 25 million dead throughout the empire over the course of the plague (Harper, 108). This, and many other concomitant factors brought in its aftermath great economic and social upheaval in the later half of the second and long into the third century. The large death toll caused a slackening of the many social and class restrictions due to depopulation. For example, in 174-175 CE, emperor Marcus Aurelius loosened his own requirements for holding office in the city of Athens, that is, membership in the Areopagus. This was because there just wasn't enough "well-born" candidates to fill the ranks and Marcus mentions that this shortage was due to the "disasters" that had occurred in the cities (Duncan-Jones, 134).

Partly due to personell shortages across the empire and partly due to increasing inflation, wage hikes lead to an increasing cost of labor in the third century. The labor shortage and inflation also caused a large increase in the price of commodities from the second to the third centuries (Scheidel, 103-104). The papyrological record from Egypt reveals this increase in wages showing that the cost of rural labor at least doubled from the second to the third centuries (Scheidel, 104-105).

This level of economic and social change should be visible within the material and literary remains of Roman writing and book culture. Already in the third century the writing of Roman law changed quite drastically due to the Constitutio Antoniniana, that is the declaration by Emperor Caracalla of all peoples within the bounds of the empire as Roman citizens around the year 212 CE (Zwalve, 367). There was also a drastic decrease in the number documentary records produced during the last half of the second century (Duncan-Jones, 124-125).

It appears then that the economic decline did indeed leave it's traces in Roman literary and book culture. Raffaella Cribiore, in her work, "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt," which focused on the material remains of teacher and student writing samples, noted that the quality of papyrus used in student exercises dropped off after the third century (Cribiore, 58). This corresponds with Turner's observations who noted that the quality of papyrus declined after the third centur, describing it as "resembling cardboard" (Turner, 2). This decline in quality coincides with the drastic increase in labor and material costs mentioned above. For Pliny the Elder in the first century wrote that papyrus paper was manufactured in varying levels of quality and Cicero gives hints that these differing qualities had a proportionate level of cost (see earlier post here).

Though Scheidel's study of Roman-Egypt wage increases specifically did not include the wage of scribes (Scheidel, 105), the cost of hiring a scribe must have continued to increase along with the price of commodities for the Emperor Diocletian in 301 CE gave an edict capping the price on commodities and wages for different services (for an English translation of the edict see, here). The price that could be charged by both a scribe and a notary are listed as follows.
Scribe, for the best writing, for 100 lines, 25.
Scribe, for writing of the second quality, for 100 lines, 20.
Notary, for writing petitions or legal documents, for 100 lines, 10.
(English translation of edict)
It is apparent that during the third century and into the fourth century, the cost of employing a scribe increased enough so that the cost of producing a high quality book by hand would have increased as well. This cost increase might be reflected in the popularity of certain styles of writing used in the third century and beyond. Cribiore noted that decorated and serifed styles in Greek are found in school hands from the second century BCE into the third century CE in Roman Egypt with only a few examples found after this time (Cribiore, 115). This style of handwriting was referred to as "Zierstil" by palaeographer Wilhelm Schubart and was the subject of a thorough study by Giovanni Menci (see also Turner and Parsons, 21). Menci noted that these types of serifs were used across different handwriting styles and were added to several different hands across the centuries (Menci, 48-50). Menci also mentions that the first and second centuries CE were the high point in serifed writing and notes that the hands that became dominate in the later centuries do not exhibit the "decorated style" (Menci, 49-51). In support of this observation, Turner noted (before Menci's study) that there where few securely dated examples of serifed writing in this "informal round" style found in the third century noting two in the first half of the third century at the extreme end of a four hundred year life, P.Oxy 42.3030 and P.Oxy 43.3093.

P.Oxy 42.3030

P.Oxy 43.3093

Without knowing for sure what Diocletian's "best writing" is referring to, it might be that, due to the ever increasing cost in paying a scribe to copy out a book, more serifed writing styles ("Diocletian's "best writing") may have dropped out of vogue due to pressures of economy.


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

Duncan-Jones, R.P., "The Impact of the Antonine Plague," in Journal of Roman Archaeology 9 (1996): 108-136.

Harper, Kyle, "The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Menci, Giovanni, "Scritture greche librarie con apici ornamentali," in Scrittura e Civilta 3 (1979): 23-53.

Scheidel, Walter, "A Model of Demographic and Economic Change in Roman Egypt After the Antonine Plague" in the Journal of Roman Archaeology 15: 97-114.

Turner, E. G. Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World. 2nd edition. Edited by P. J. Parsons. (London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1987).

Turner, E.G, "Greek Papyri: An Introduction" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

Zwalve, Willem, "Codex Justinianus 6.21.1: Florus's Case," pg. 367-378 in "Crises and the Roman Empire" (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

Monday, April 13, 2020

Did the New Testament Autographs Wear Out?

P.Fam.Tebt. 15. British Library Papyrus 1885 (ca. 114 CE)
It has been a common statement for scholars to claim that the autographs of the New Testament writings would have worn out quickly through their frequent use. Metzger's comments in his The Text of The New Testament are representative;
"Their [the autographs] early loss is not surprising, for during persecutions the toll taken by imperial edicts aiming to destroy all copies of the sacred books of Christians must have been heavy. Furthermore, simply the ordinary wear and tear of the fragile papyus, on which at least the shorter Epistles of the New Testament had been written (see the reference to χαρτης in 2 John, verse 12), would account for their early dissolution. It is not difficult to imagine what would happen in the course of time to one much-handled manuscript, passing from reader to reader, perhaps from church to church (see Col. 4.16) and suffering damage from the fingers of eager, if devout readers as well as from climatic changes." Metzger and Erhman, p. 266, footnote 20)
Though these kinds of statements about the autographs appear reasonable, they are rarely supported by any actual evidence.
A recent issue of Mnemosyne highlights some documentary evidence that might shed light on these common claims of the New Testament autographs wearing out.
Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2288 and Ancient Reinforcements of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne (2020):1-34.
This article discusses in detail a fragment of Sappho's Ode to Aphrodite with an underlying layer of papyrus used as a repair to the Sappho roll. It is section 4 of the article that is relevant to the New Testament autographs, "Papyri Repaired or Reinforced in Antiquity." This is a brilliant discussion of the remains of two papyri that were part of a family archive in Tebtunis Egypt. There was a dispute regarding the poor state of the documents found in the public archives of the Arisinoites. The first papyrus P.Fam.Tebt. 15 dates to ca. 114 CE, and the second, P.Fam.Tebt. 24 dates to 124 CE.

The court case involved the terrible state the public archived documents were in. Accusations arose between clerks charged with the care of the archival rolls and there were disputes as to whom the responsibility of repairing the documents fell. It is apparent that the records were in disrepair for some years as the earliest reference to the poor state of the archive was made in 71 CE (Jennifer Cromwell, "Law and the Art of Bookroll Maintenance," Papyrus Stories). The disputes between clerks in taking responsibility in repairing the damaged rolls continued into the ensuing decades with the clerks' heirs. Eventually the Prefect steps in to settle the argument (for a summary of the entire dispute spanning decades and involving the heirs see P.Fam.Tebt 24).

The relevance to the longevity of New Testament autographs can be found in the description of the state of the papyrus documents;
"The documents shown to me by the clerk Leonidas … were in some cases deprived of their beginning, or damaged, or moth-eaten, and do not allow an estimation of the cost of the διακόλησις." (P.Fam.Tebt. 15, ll. 35-37. transl. by the authors)
The beginning and end of these documents were missing and other damage such as by moths is mentioned. The explanation as to why these records were in such a poor state comes later;
"Since the books have been hastily moved from one place to another, repeatedly, lying on top of each other and unattached, due to the quantity, since the nome is so large, and since they are being handled daily, and their material is brittle, it happened that some were destroyed in parts, some others were without beginnings, and some had even fallen apart." (P.Fam.Tebt. 15, lines 68-71. transl. by the authors)
It is this description of the worn papyrus rolls and other documents that sheds some light on the autographs of the New Testaments writings. If the New Testament writings began to be copied and distributed rapidly (within a few years) throughout the first century Mediterranean world, then it is possible that the "autographs" (however one may define this) would have been subjected to similar miss-handling and damage through frequent use.
It is difficult to know precisely how long these official archival records were in a bad state, though it is clear that they were in a poor condition for at least forty years. Significant portions of these documents had to be reconstructed from duplicate archives.
"And Mettius wrote to Archelaus, sometime strategos, to make sure that we copied the missing parts from the documents entered at Alexandria and completed those rolls in the archive that are without beginnings." (P.Fam.Tebt. 15, ll. 83-85. transl. by the authors)
It is important to note here that there was text missing from these documents that had to be compared with duplicate copies in Alexandria for the missing text to be restored. Thus, if the state of these records can be compared with the "original" copies (however one may define this) of the New Testament writings, then their ability to be used by scribes as master copies in order to transcribe new copies would greatly diminish at a rapid rate. Using the example of the archival documents, within a period of 50 years the "autographs" of some of the New Testament writings could have been in an almost unusable state of preservation.



Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2288 and Ancient Reinforcements of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne (2020): 1-34.

Metzger, Bruce Manning, and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Origen: Comparing his Manuscripts to Jewish Copies

In the midst of discussing a textual reading at John 1:28 in his "Commentary on John" Origen of Caesarea (ca. 184 - 253 CE) waxed long on the various place names found in the Gospel accounts and the variations in spelling that can be seen in the manuscript tradition.
“We are aware of the reading which is found in almost all the copies, "These things were done in Bethany." This appears, moreover, to have been the reading at an earlier time; and in Heracleon we read "Bethany." We are convinced, however, that we should not read "Bethany," but "Bethabara." We have visited the places to enquire as to the footsteps of Jesus and His disciples, and of the prophets. Now, Bethany, as the same evangelist tells us, was the town of Lazarus, and of Martha and Mary; it is fifteen stadia from Jerusalem, and the river Jordan is about a hundred and eighty stadia distant from it. Nor is there any other place of the same name in the neighbourhood of the Jordan, but they say that Bethabara is pointed out on the banks of the Jordan, and that John is said to have baptized there." (Comm.  Jo. 6.24)
I find it fascinating that Origen is validating the proper spelling, and ultimately, the location of these various places with his own first hand knowledge of the geography of Palestine. He talks of having walked in some of the regions discussed and even gives some distances between locations. Origen places greater confidence in his first hand knowledge rather than the manuscripts in his possesion because he states that,
"In the matter of proper names the Greek copies are often incorrect." (Comm. Jo. 6.24)
The inaccuracies of the Greek copies as to place names is not not limited to the Gospels alone. Origen laments that certain Greek translations of the Old Testament are also allegedly filled with errors. Origen goes on to say,
"The same inaccuracy with regard to proper names is also to be observed in many passages of the law and the prophets, as we have been at pains to learn from the Hebrews, comparing our own copies with theirs which have the confirmation of the versions, never subjected to corruption, of Aquila and Theodotion and Symmachus." (Comm. Jo. 6.24)
Origen is in the habit of comparing his copies of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament  ("the law and the prophets") with the copies in the posession of the local Jewish community. Apparently Origen had a good working relationship with these local Jewish scholars and was able to cross check his own copies of the scriptures with those in the posession of the Jewish community. 


Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, translators. Ante-Nicene Fathers The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Volume 9, the Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Vision of Paul. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Seneca the Younger on Quality Texts

Brian J. Wright has published an excellent book that covers, quite exhaustively, communal reading events in the first century; Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). The work is a gold mine of references to little known primary source materials relating to communal reading. One particular nugget that Wright mentions is in reference to Seneca the Younger (4 BCE - 65 CE: p. 99-100). In his famous work, "On Anger" (De Ira), Seneca analyses circumstances that can lead to anger. In one such passage he discusses a poorly copied book.

"We are angry, either with those who can, or with those who cannot do us an injury. To the latter class belong some inanimate things, such as a book, which we often throw away when it is written in letters too small for us to read, or tear up when it is full of mistakes, or clothes which we destroy because we do not like them. How foolish to be angry with such things as these, which neither deserve nor feel our anger! "But of course it is their makers who really affront us." I answer that, in the first place, we often become angry before making this distinction clear in our minds, and secondly, perhaps even the makers might put forward some reasonable excuses: one of them, it may be, could not make them any better than he did, and it is not through any disrespect to you that he was unskilled in his trade: another may have done his work so without any intention of insulting you: and, finally, what can be more crazy than to discharge upon things the ill-feeling which one has accumulated against persons?" (Ira 2.26)

As many know, in the trash mounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus were found many discarded books, Christian and non-Christian works. Many of them appear to have been torn-up before they were cast into the garbage dump (see Anne Marie Luijendijk on this phenomena). Of course we can never know for certain, yet Seneca's comments may apply to some of the fragments of books discovered in places like Oxyrhynchus. Perhaps their owners were disgusted with the perceived poor quality of the text or the style of writing employed. Considering the cost of making a book at this time, Seneca's comments reflect the vain anger of a member of Rome's wealthy elite who can afford to throw something as costly as a book away simply because they do not like it.


Anne Marie Luijendijk, “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.” Vigiliae Christianae 64:3 (2010): 217-54.

Aubrey Stewart, trans. L. Annaeus Seneca, Minor Dialogs Together with the Dialog "On Clemency" (Bohn's Classical Library Edition; London, George Bell and Sons, 1900)