Over on his blog, Larry Hurtado has posted a link to his list of “Christian Literary Texts in Manuscripts of Second & Third Centuries.” When he first published a version of this list in his 2006 book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, it provided a much needed succinct listing of the earliest surviving Christian texts and made it a lot easier to think about this entire corpus of material. That said, there are some features of the list that are worth pondering further. Whenever we try to distil information in a list like this, we make all kinds of choices that have benefits and drawbacks (for my own forthcoming book, I had to think through a number of these issues, so I’m especially attuned to these complexities right now). None of what follows here will be news to Larry, I suspect. It’s just a matter of points we choose to emphasize differently.
Texts vs. Artifacts
Larry is clear that his inventory is a list of texts and not artifacts. My own preference is to think in terms of complete manuscripts rather than isolated texts, especially when we’re talking about numbers. An inattentive reader of Larry’s list might get the mistaken impression that we have 257 Christian manuscripts surviving from the second and third centuries. So, a list of artifacts would look a little different (i.e., considerably shorter). To take just a couple examples, items 105, 106, 109, 131, and 132, are all part of a single book, Codex I of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri (P45). So also, Codex II of the Beatty Biblical Papyri (P46) accounts for 9 individual items in the list (139, 145, 147, 148, 151, 152, 153, 155, and 161).
“Christian” and “Jewish”
When these papyri started turning up in relatively large numbers in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it was already difficult to identify some of the Greek copies of the Hebrew scriptures as either “Christian” or “Jewish.” This task has only become harder in recent years as we have come to appreciate the variety and complexity of these ancient identities. So, the “Jewish” or “Christian” character of some of these items is really challenging to determine with any certainty. There are, however, a number of items on the list that almost no scholar would designate as Christian, namely, the Qumran material (items 14, 19, 20, 25, 31, and 84) and pieces clearly datable to the period prior to the first century CE (such as item 28). Again, I hasten to add that Larry is well aware of this, makes the point explicitly in the introduction to his list, and clearly identifies the almost certainly “Jewish” pieces in his list with an asterisk *. I only want to emphasize that had an alternative decision been made (i.e. just leaving such items out of a list titled “Christian Texts”), the list would look different. Again, for one thing, it would be shorter.
The fluctuation of dates
As Larry notes in his aforementioned book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (p. 16), palaeography is an imprecise undertaking. Thus, almost none of the items in the list have a date that we are really certain about. And scholarly opinion is always changing. So, for instance, item 245 (P.Oxy. 60.4009), a papyrus fragment of an unknown gospel from Oxyrhynchus appears on Larry’s list with a date of “AD2.” This is a fair statement of scholarly opinion. But, a visitor to the entry for this piece on Leuven Database today will find that it has now been assigned by the reputable palaeographer Pasquale Orsini to the fourth century, rather than the second. Because of the subjective nature palaeographic decisions, these dates are always subject to change, sometimes dramatically.
The ranges of proposed dates
For most of the items in the list, the date range given is representative of the breadth of scholarly opinion. For some items, though, that range is actually quite a bit wider. So, for instance, items 83, 87, and 171 are all part of what we now call Schøyen MS 193, a small codex of Coptic literature. Larry’s list represents the date of this codex as AD3. In fact, a spectrum of dates has been proposed: late second or early third century (C.H. Roberts), third or fourth century (Eric Turner), fifth or sixth century (tentatively by Tito Orlandi). All these dates are reported in J.E. Goehring, The Crosby-Schøyen Codex MS 193 (Louvain: Peeters, 1993), p. xxxiii. So also item 175 (P.Ant. 1.12), a parchment fragment containing 2 John. On the list, it is dated “AD3?” The range of opinion is broader: “not much later than the middle of the [third] century” (C.H. Roberts, in the editio princeps) to “first half or middle of fifth century” (Cavallo and Maehler, in their palaeographic handbook).
The bottom line is that a list like this is a good starting point, but it’s not the last word (nor would Larry claim that it is). Gathering the data gives us a basis for further discussion in an effort to reach the most reasonable conclusions.