Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Upcoming Event, Text and Manuscript Conference: Pen, Print, and Pixels

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has launched a new biannual Text and Manuscript Conference. Executive Director Daniel Wallace announced,

"This conference will be held on even-numbered years as a North American reflection of the Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, which is itself held on odd-numbered years in the United Kingdom."
The inaugural conference is slated for May 19th - 20th, 2022 and is themed Pen, Print, and Pixels. Follow the hyperlink, or go to the following link, https://conference.csntm.org/

There is a great line-up of main speakers.

Hugh Houghton
Kathleen Maxwell
Holger Strutwolf
Dirk Yongkind
Jan Krans

There is also a great selection of breakout session speakers.

Keith Elliot
Jeremiah Coogan
Juan Hernandez
Edgar Ebojo
Craig Evans
Georgi Parpulov
Christian Askeland
Timothy Mitchell
Peter Montro
Ryan Griffin
William Warren
Grant Edwards
James Prothro

I don't know what all of the session speakers will be presenting on, but my own presentation will be the following;

Exposing Textual Corruption in the Wider Circulation of the New Testament Writings During the Greco-Roman Era

In a recent publication I argued that the primary means by which books were circulated was through social networks. A natural consequence of this was that macro-level changes (to use the terminology of Michael W. Holmes) to a text within circulation would become known within that same community.
In this paper I will present further evidence that the avenues for exposing textual corruption were present even when a writing circulated more broadly. In the wider Greco-Roman culture, literature would often be circulated through booksellers allowing the work to be accessed by more extensive reading communities farther removed from the author(s) and their followers. References from Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and Galen will be explored.
In the case of the New Testament writings, evidence for those outside of the Christian community having contact with and reading scriptural books will be examined. Figures such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and many others will be explored.
I will be arguing from this evidence that these wider pathways of book distribution also presented opportunities for exposing the macro-level corruption of texts in circulation, specifically with regard to the New Testament writings.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Interview on The Hardcore Humanities Podcast

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

The Hardcore Humanities Podcast https://open.spotify.com/episode/2480jEi5oxaKZxaRMUsEXb

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Aurelius of Carthage: The Illiterate Church Lector and Confessor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Sunday, July 4, 2021

A Sacred Number in the Gospel of Mark?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, May 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Augustine's Letter to Firmus

I have recently been reading through Augustine's "City of God" again. It is a fascinating work. In reading a few secondary sources I rediscovered a letter written by Augistine to a man named Firmus. One can find a nice English translation on Roger Pearse's blog and from which I quote in full here. One can glean some interesting insights with regard to the late antique publication and distribution of a Christian writing.

"To Firmus, My Distinguished and Deservedly Honored Lord, and My Cherished Son, Augustine Sends Greeting in the Lord.

The books on the City of God which you most eagerly requested I have sent you as I promised, having also reread them myself. That this, with God’s help, should be done has been urged by my son and your brother, Cyprian, who has furnished just that insistence I hoped would be forthcoming.

There are twenty-two sections. To put all these into one whole would be cumbersome. If you wish that two volumes be made of them, they should be so apportioned that one volume contain ten books, the other twelve. For, in those ten, the empty teachings of the pagans have been refuted, and, in the remainder, our own religion has been demonstrated and defended—though, to be sure, in the former books the latter subject has been dealt with when it was more suitable to do so, and in the latter, the former.

If, however, you should prefer that there be more than two volumes, you should make as many as five. The first of these would contain the first five books, where argument has been advanced against those who contend that the worship, not indeed of gods, but of demons, is of profit for happiness in this present life. The second volume would contain the next five books, where [a stand has been taken against those] who think that, for the sake of the life which is to come after death, worship should be paid, through rites and sacrifices, whether to these divinities or to any plurality of gods what­ever. The next three volumes ought to embrace four books each; for this part of our work has been so divided that four books set forth the origin of that City, a second four its prog­ress—or, as we might choose to say, its development,—the final four its appointed ends.

If the diligence you have shown for procuring these books will be matched by diligence in reading them, it is rather from your testing than from my promises that you will learn how far they will help you. As for those books belonging to this work on the City of God which our brothers there in Carthage do not yet have, I ask that you graciously and will­ingly acceed to their requests to have copies made. You will not grant this favor to many, but to one or two at most, and they themselves will grant it to others. Among your friends, some, within the body of Christian folk, may desire instruc­tion; in the case of others, bound by some superstition, it may appear that this labor of ours can, through God’s grace, be used to liberate them. How you are to share it with them you must yourself decide.

For my part I shall take care to make frequent inquiry, God willing, what progress you are making in my writings as you read them. Surely, you cannot fail to know how much a man of education is helped toward understanding the written word by repeated reading. No difficulty in understanding occurs (or, if any, very little) where there is facility in reading, and this gains in scope with successive repetitions. Constant appli­cation [brings to fruition] what [through inattention] would have remained immature.

In earlier letters, my distinguished and deservedly honored lord and my son Firmus, you have shown acquaintance with the books on the Academics that I composed when my con­version was yet fresh. Please write in reply how you came to this knowledge.

The range of subject matter comprised in the twenty-two books of my composition is shown in the epitome that I send you." (Augustine, ep. 1A)

In response to Pearse's blog post, Dirk Jongkind of Tyndale house had made some observations over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog (I made a  couple of comments there myself referring to Gamble). There he notes that Augustine is likely referring to unbound loose leaves of an already written book that could then be assembled in the various orders as Augustine instructs Firmus.

It is of course impossible to know how common this practice was, but Augustine's letter may be evidence that authors (at least late antique authors) had some input over the paratextual features of a work. Not just the titles, but even the physical format of it's publication.

Also, what we have here is another, very common example of books being distributed through private networks. In this case the author is giving advice as to what form the book should take. Notice also that Firmus is to be sending out copies of the book to those in Firmus's network.

"As for those books belonging to this work on the City of God which our brothers there in Carthage do not yet have, I ask that you graciously and will­ingly acceed to their requests to have copies made. You will not grant this favor to many, but to one or two at most, and they themselves will grant it to others."

It is note worthy that Augustine does not want many copies to be made by Firmus, "only one or two at most." Any other copies should be made by those who receive the books from Firmus. Those in Carthage should then distribute copies as they see fit. 

One can see in this description the ever widening and broadening circles of distribution for the "City of God" as people in Carthage and beyond request and circulate copies.

Of course, this same network would inadvertently provide a means by which textual alteration of the work would be made known. Notice how Augustine had been informed that there were those who had already received and read portions of the "City of God." In a similar way, he could be made known if readers misunderstood his work, misrepresenting it, or even if they were plagiarizing or altering it.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Cicero: Making Duplicates of Letters

Scholars have often recognized the ancient practice of writers keeping copies of their own letters. One example from Cicero (54 BC), illuminates the many difficulties that arise out of the practice of communicating through letters. Writing to his brother Quintus,
"I forgot to write to you about Caesar; for I see what sort of a letter you have been expecting. But he wrote to Balbus and told him that the whole packet of letters, in which were mine and Balbus's, was so soaked with water when he received it that he did not even know there was any letter from me. He had, however, made out a few words in Balbus's letter, to which he replied in the following words : "I see that you have written something about Cicero, which I could not understand, but as far as I could conjecture, it was the sort of thing that I thought more to be desired than hoped for." So later on I sent Caesar an exact duplicate of my letter." (Ep. ad Quint. Frat. 2.12)
There are a few interesting incidental details that reveal the problems associated with letter writing. First, there was an entire packet of letters delivered to Caesar all at once. The phrase in Latin here is "fasciculum ilium epistularium," which is just referring to a packet or parcel of letters. It seems to imply a loose bundle of individual leaves rather than anything that was bound together like a codex. One can infer that these letters, though written likely over a span of several days, were delivered to Caesar at one time, indicating that it may have taken some time to deliver them.
Second, the material, either papyrus or parchment, was damaged by inclement weather. Either the pages were so stuck together that they couldn't be separated and the writing made out, or the ink had been completely washed away by the rain (or likely both). This reveals the precarious nature of the material written upon. It is a miracle that there are any documents that have survived from the ancient world at all.
Third, this side note by Cicero reveals that a common practice was for letter writers to keep a duplicate copy of their correspondence on file for just such a circumstance. Cicero was able to make another copy of the letter and re-send it to Caesar.
Finally, this anecdote presents an example of social networks preventing the loss or corruption of texts. In this instance, it was not the deliberate alteration or misuse of a written text that was being guarded against, but the loss of text through damage by rain and moisture. It looks like Balbus, upon receiving his reply from Caesar, notified Cicero that his letter to Caesar had been damaged and lost and Cicero was able to re-write the letter and thus allowing the transmission of the message or information to be completed.

This example brings together a few themes from the ancient world that often surface. First, that the written material was highly volatile and susceptible to environmental damage or loss (such as this example from Arsinoites in Egypt during the first and second centuries AD). As in the story of the worn archival documents at Arsinoites, the only insurance against the loss of these documents was in having duplicates of these texts, in this case, the duplicates of Cicero's letters. And second, one aspect of this preservation against the loss or corruption of texts was through social networks guarding against this loss.


Cicero, Letters to his Friends. M. Cary trans. LCL. Vol 3. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960. Page 523.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Philosopher and the Tightly Wound Bookroll

My father, who has been reading through the moral letters of Seneca the Younger, alerted me to an interesting passage in Seneca's Letter 95 (ca. 65 AD). In this epistle Seneca is trying to explain a particular aspect of philosophy that Lucilius, the recipient of the work, had asked Seneca to expound upon. He begins the epistle with tongue-in-cheek that Lucilius may be requesting something that he does not really want. To illustrate this Seneca gives an example he thought that Lucilius could relate with (and probably many educated Romans at the time).

"There are many things that we would have men think that we wish, but that we really do not wish. A lecturer sometimes brings upon the platform a huge work of research, written in the tiniest hand and very closely folded; after reading off a large portion, he says: "I shall stop if you wish;" and a shout arises: "Read on, read on!" from the lips of those who are anxious for the speaker to hold his peace then and there." (Ep. 95.2)

The portion of the illustration that I zeroed in upon had to do with the description of the "research" that was being read by the lecturer. I give it in English and in the Latin below.

"A lecturer sometimes brings upon the platform a huge work of research, written in the tiniest hand and very closely folded"
"Recitator historiam ingentem attulit minutissime scriptam, artissime plicatam."

When I first read this reference I immediately wondered if Seneca could be describing a codex. The English translation states that the book was "closely folded," which gives the impression of folded pages. At first glance, this wording gives the impression of a compact, tightly folded codex that was written in a small script. This English translation is not unlike the phrase Martial uses to describe a codex.

"You who wish my poems should be everywhere with you, and look to have them as companions on a long journey, buy these which the parchment confines in small pages. Assign your book-boxes to the great; this copy of me one hand can grasp."
"Et comites longae quaeris habere viae, Hos eme, quos artat brevibus membrane tabellis: Scrinia da magnis, me manus una capit." (Epigr. 1.2)
It is pretty clear that Martial is referring to a parchment codex that is compact in size and contains a great deal of written material. His use of "brevibus membrane tabellis" makes this explicit as "membrana" is referring specifically to it's material, animal skin, and also it's form. Quintilian, uses the same word for his obvious description of a parchment codex in Institutio Oratoria 10.3.31. Martial also employs the word "tabellis" which was a common term for the ancient writing tablet.

On a closer examination however, it appears that Seneca does have a Roman bookroll in view. He uses the term "historiam," which is obviously the classic term used for a work of history and this type of work would have been more at home in the Roman bookroll in the first century. Most interesting is that Seneca is attempting to describe the density and detail of this work of literature.

First, by noting that the script is written in a small hand, "minutissime scriptam," which means that more written material could fit in the physical medium of the book.

Second, he indicates that the book is, "artissime plicatam." The adverb "artissime" is the superlative form of "artus," having the meaning of; close, strait, narrow, confined, short, brief. Together with the verb, "plicatam," the perfect passive participle of "plico"; to fold, to lay or wind together, to fold up, double up. The translator chose to use the sense of "folding," yet the verb can also have the sense of "coiling" or "winding" like a snake. Thus the verb can be used to described the coiling up action of winding a bookroll.

These descriptors help to paint the picture of a very large quantity of research material almost forcefully confined within a single bookroll by using very small handwriting, and tightly winding the parchment into a compact bookroll. When compared with the description Martial gives for the codex, this history looks to have been an unwieldy object!


Martial, Epigrams (Walter C. A. Ker, trans. Vol. 1. LCL. London: William Heinemann, 1919).

Seneca the Younger, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales (Richard M. Gummere, trans. Vol. 3. LCL. London: William Heinemann, 1925).

The Latin definitions are derived from;

A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1879.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Elijah Hixson and P50 as A Possible Forgery

Here is a fantastic presentation by Dr. Elijah Hixson of CSNTM arguing that Papyrus 50 is likely a forgery by Kirsopp Lake.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

3,000 Year old Egyptian Papyrus Bookroll

Recently archaeologistst in Egypt uncovered a Funerary Temple in Saqqara that belonged to Queen Nearit wife of pharaoh Teti who reigned from circa 2323 B.C. to 2291 B.C. Close by the pyramid of Teti, where the Temple was discovered, several burial shafts were uncovered that contained the remains of people who lived from circa 1550 B.C. to 1186 B.C. Many coffins were found in these shafts that belonged to a Pharoah worshiping cult. Amongst these coffins was one that belonged to Pwkhaef, along with four figurines meant to help the person in the afterlife. One of the more fascinating finds was the remains of a thirteen foot long papyrus bookroll that contained what looks to be chapter seventeen of the well known "Book of the Dead" and this roll also has the name Pwkhaef inscribed upon it. Though a precise date is uncertain as of now, it was most likely placed in the burial shaft along with the coffin and other artifacts during the period from circa 1550 B.C. to 1186 B.C. That means that this papyrus book is well over 3,000 years old. Judging by the press release images, the roll is very fragmentary, yet this bookroll is an example of the incredible length of time papyrus books could last (though in an extrememly fragmentary state) for hundreds of years in the right conditions.

Egyptian Antiquities Ministry Press Release http://www.antiquities.gov.eg/DefaultAr/pages/NewsDetails.aspx?newsid=2420 

Live Science Press Release 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Christian Networks and the Circulation of Christian Books


Sailing ship, 1st cen. AD (Pompeian tomb of Naevoleia Tyche Museo Della Civiltà Romana)

I recently learned of a fascinating account of Christians responding in various ways to Roman Imperial persecution in an excellent chapter by Jakob Engberg in a recent work.

"Caring for African Confessors in Exile: the Ministry of Numeria and Candida during the Decian Persecution (Cyprian, Epistulae 21-22)," pages 267-293 in Carmen Angela Cvetković and Peter Gemeinhardt, eds, Episcopal Networks in Late Antiquity: Connection and Communication Across Bounderies (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte vol. 137. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019)

After a military coup, Decius became the new Caesar of the Roman Empire in 249 CE. During this time, there were a series of revolts across the Empire and the Goths invaded Moesia and Thrace. In response to the unrest Decius issued an edict requiring all those in the Empire (not to include the Jewish people) to make sacrifices to the Gods in order to bring their favor on the troubled Empire (Engberg, 267). Decius set up an entire bureaucratic infrastructure to oversee this requirement and would issue certificates of compliance to those who would render the honor to the Gods. There are several of these certificates, or libelli, extant on papyrus (see here). Christians responded in different ways as Cyprian informs us in his treatise "On the Lapsed "(he was bishop of Carthage at the time); from actually performing the sacrifices, to bribery, having a certificate forged, or having another person perform the sacrifices in the Christian's place.

The pressures that Christians endured during this time must have been intense. Cyprian preserves a series of letters (Ep 20 and 21) that give a contemporary account of three African siblings caught up in this difficulty. They concern a man named Celerinus, who has two sisters that, at that time (ca. 250 CE), were living in Rome. In Cyprian's epistle 20 is preserved a letter from Celerinus to a Christian named Lucian who had been imprisoned after confessing himself a Christian and refusing to sacrifice to the Gods.

"Celerinus to Lucian, greeting. In writing this letter to you, my lord and brother, I have been rejoicing and sorrowful — rejoicing in that I had heard that you had been tried on behalf of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour, and had confessed His name in the presence of the magistrates of the world; but sorrowful, in that from the time when I was in your company I have never been able to receive your letters."

Celerinus entreats Lucian to pray for God's forgiveness on behalf of his two sisters currently living in Rome; Numeria who gave in and sacrificed to the God's but had since repented; and Candida who bribed her way out of the sacrifice (or possibly payed to have a libelli forged). In order to give proof of his sister's repentance, Celerinus informs Lucian of their recent service to a group of persecuted Christians.

"For this, my lord and brother, you ought to know, that it is not I alone who ask this on their behalf, but also Statius and Severianus, and all the confessors who have come thence hither from you; to whom these very sisters went down to the harbour and took them up into the city, and they have ministered to sixty-five, and even to this day have tended them in all things, For all are with them. But I ought not to burden that sacred heart of yours any more, since I know that you will labour with a ready will."

Apparently, there was a group of 65 Christians who were likely Africans themselves, some of them Lucian knew, that had travelled by ship to Rome in order to escape persecution, or because they were formally exiled (Engberg, 271).

The letter from Lucian to Celerius in response is preserved in Cyprian's epistle 21. Lucian agreed to grant this request.

"And therefore, beloved brother, greet Numeria and Candida, who (shall have peace ) according to the precept of Paulus, and the rest of the martyrs whose names I subjoin."
Lucian also mentions some of the tortures that he and his other fellow Christian prisoners endured.
"[B]y the command of the emperor we were ordered to be put to death by hunger and thirst, and were shut up in two cells, that so they might weaken us by hunger and thirst. Moreover, the fire from the effect of our torture was so intolerable that nobody could bear it. But now we have attained the brightness itself. . . . Bassus in the dungeon of the perjured, Mappalicus at the torture, Fortunio in prison, Paulus after torture, Fortunata, Victorinus, Victor, Herennius, Julia, Martial, and Aristo, who by God's will were put to death in the prison by hunger, of whom in a few days you will hear of me as a companion. For now there are eight days, from the day in which I was shut up again, to the day in which I wrote my letter to you. For before these eight days, for five intervening days, I received a morsel of bread and water by measure."
Lucian's letter is ended by a long list of names to whom Celerinus was to greet on Lucian's behalf. This reveals that there was a large network of Christians in North Africa and in Rome that know each other and communicate regularly through letters. Celerinus mentions his letters several times,
". . . and I took notice of them in my letters . . . before my letters find you in this world . . ."
Celerinus also mentions that he has written letters to other mutual Christian brethren.
"Your brethren Calphurnius and Maria, and all the holy brethren, salute you. For you ought to know this too, that I have written also to my lords your brethren letters. which I request that you will deign to read to them."
These letters he must have appended to the letter he wrote to Lucian and he expected Lucian to read these out to them.

Lucian makes mention of letters that he and his fellow Christian prisoners wrote and sent out to the community in order encourage fellow believers.
"Moreover, all of us whom the Lord has condescended in such tribulation to call away, by our letters, by mutual agreement, have given peace to all."
These social networks that spanned the Mediterranean and two major Roman city centers (Rome and Carthage) were in constant communication with each other through the exchange of letters, word of mouth, and through acts of service and hospitality. These networks could very easily be avenues by which copies of the Christian scriptures were distributed and disseminated readily and broadly throughout the Roman Empire as Christians fled persecution, were exiled, and visited each other. Not only would this ensure the continued spread and dissemination of the New Testament writings, but it would also provide a check against the "macro-level" alteration of the text of these documents as I argued in my recent article.

"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 (2020): 266-298