Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 1

Recently on his blog Larry Hurtado has been reflecting on issues of textual stability and fluidity of early Christian manuscripts. It’s an interesting question to ponder, but as Larry notes, assertions in either direction are tricky because just about everyone agrees that when it comes to the documents of the New Testament, we simply don’t have manuscripts from the very earliest period of transmission. Larry mentions a recently published doctoral dissertation that approaches the problem in relation to the Gospel According to John by comparing the texts of manuscripts that have traditionally been thought to be the earliest extensive manuscripts of this gospel, such as P.Bodmer II and P.Bodmer XIV-XV. It has been claimed that both of these manuscripts could date from as early as the second century, although I’ve argued there are good reasons to suspect that they are instead products of the fourth century. So that would still place us at a distance of some two to three centuries from the time when most scholars think the documents that would become the New Testament were likely written. Until the question of the dates of the manuscripts is placed on firmer grounds, it seems to me that this type of inquiry will have limited validity in helping us think about the earliest period of textual transmission.

So, in what other ways might we shed light on the question? I’d like to bring a couple additional pieces of data into the discussion. One has to do with the transmission of some classical texts, but I’ll tackle that in another post. The point I want to address here is what is meant by “redaction” in these discussions. Take the opening quote from Frederik Wisse that Larry cites: “It is widely taken for granted in biblical scholarship that early Christian texts were extensively redacted during the first century of their transmission…” Is this point really “taken for granted”? It seems to me to have been extensively argued by scholars who have worked on, e.g., the synoptic problem. These scholars have demonstrated exhaustively to the satisfaction of most sober observers that the writers of the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke “redacted” the Gospel According to Mark. And this “redaction” is generally agreed to have taken place not just in the second century but already in the first century (at least in the case of the Gospel According to Matthew).

But I would guess that this is not exactly what Wisse meant in speaking of “redaction” in this context. I suspect he was speaking more specifically about manuscripts of a particular work being shortened, supplemented, or otherwise edited (although it’s interesting that he used the word “texts” rather than “manuscripts” in the quotation). But I actually think this ambiguity helps us sharpen the question of textual stability. It forces us to decide when something counts as “a text” and how we discern a copy of this same text on the one hand from what we judge to be a different work that has incorporated this text on the other hand. In the 2017 Journal for the Study of the New Testament, there was a highly stimulating article by Matthew Larsen that addressed exactly this point, “Accidental Publication, Unfinished Texts and the Traditional Goals of New Testament Textual Criticism.” Larsen surveyed a wide range of ancient evidence to show that in the age before the printing press, texts became public in a variety of ways, and the notion of the “final” or “authoritative” version of a text is actually surprisingly tough to pin down. This observation has important consequences: “The prevalence of accidental publication, stolen texts and author variants simultaneously identifies and destabilizes one of the foundational assumptions of traditional textual criticism: without the assumption of a text existing in a final form, the boundaries between text, form and redaction criticism fall apart.” It’s a jarring statement, but when I pause to consider it, it makes a great deal of sense, especially when thinking about the gospels. Other ancient texts bearing a level of similarity equal to that between the Gospel According to Mark and the Gospel According to Matthew would in all likelihood probably just be called the Short Recension of X and the Long Recension of X. Larsen’s work has made me rethink a number of my own assumptions about early Christian textual transmission, and so, I am inclined to agree with Larry that a paradigm shift is in the works, but I think I see this shift happening in a somewhat different way from what Larry envisions.

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12 Responses to Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 1

  1. Geoff Hudson says:

    Brent, I think you are getting there in the right direction.

  2. pgurry says:

    Brent, thanks for this. I didn’t find Larsen’s article too convincing partly because of the comparanda used. That said, I like the question about how we discern when two manuscripts are texts of the same work. I like to ask people: aside from the title, what makes a manuscripts of Mark a manuscript of Mark and not Matthew?

  3. cseglenieks says:

    Would one of the important factors in seeing Matthew and Mark as distinct texts as opposed to recensions of the same text be that there are early external sources (Papias, Irenaues) which see them as distinct?

    • It’s an interesting question. Irenaeus does seem to mark a turning point. But when we go back to Papias, things are less clear. The composition by Matthew (“in the Hebrew tongue”) mentioned by Papias doesn’t really sound like the Gospel According to Matthew that has reached us. And, as Larsen points out in the article I mentioned, Papias characterizes what Mark wrote as a kind of “rough draft”–“not in order,” “from memory” (ου μεντοι ταξει, ως απεμνημονευσεν).

  4. Pingback: Which New Paradigm? | Larry Hurtado's Blog

  5. Geoff Hudson says:

    Brent, what evidence would you give for there being any early transmission of Christain texts?

  6. Pingback: Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 2 | Variant Readings

  7. Pingback: Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 3 | Variant Readings

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