Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 2

POxy 57 3890

P.Oxy. 57.3890, title from a papyrus roll containing Book 2 of Thucydides’ History; image source: POxy Oxyrhynchus Online

I posted yesterday some initial thoughts about questions of textual fluidity and stability in early Christian manuscripts generated in conversation with a post by Larry Hurtado. Larry has responded in a lengthy post here. I’ll take up some his points in a later post. For now, I want to follow through on my original line of thought: Is there non-Christian (in this case, classical) material that we can look at for the sake of comparing how other literature was published and transmitted in Greek and Roman antiquity?


P.Hamb. 2.163 (→), a Ptolemaic papyrus of Thucydides; image source: Cavallo and Maehler, Hellenistic Bookhands (De Gruyter, 2008), 51

In the Roman period, the first thing that comes to mind are fragments of Plutarch that are judged by some to be nearly contemporary with the career of Plutarch himself (such as LDAB 171902 and 10254), but here we’re dealing with quite small fragments. We’re in a little better position (although chronologically more distant from the early Christian period) with the early papyri of Thucydides’ History. They offer some interesting points of comparison. We appear to have some reasonably early papyrus fragments of Thucydides. For instance, Eric Turner has assigned P.Hamb. 2.163 (LDAB 4117) to the third century BCE. Its original editors in 1954 had assigned the piece to the first century CE, but I don’t think anyone today doubts that the piece is Ptolemaic. Cavallo and Maehler assign the piece to the second half of the third century BCE, and the presence of another Ptolemaic literary hand on the back (↓) of the papyrus raises confidence that the dating is at least roughly correct. So, we’re talking about a papyrus that was probably copied between a century and two centuries after Thucydides is supposed to have written his History. This is, in my estimation anyway, basically equivalent to the situation with our surviving early Christian manuscripts (justification of that view will have to wait a few months until my book on the topic is published in August).

But I digress. What was surprising about P.Hamb. 2.163 was that the text on the front (→) of the papyrus was definitely recognizable as coming from the first book of Thucydides’ History, but it failed to show the same level of similarity to the “textus receptus” of Thucydides as did the previously published papyri of Thucydides dating from the Roman era. Here is Turner’s summary of the situation:

“The papyrus is of interest, not for the text it presents, which is clearly ‘wild’ and erratic, but for two questions it raises about the tradition. It illustrates forcibly what every editor knows, that Thucydides’ text was peculiarly liable to early corruption. Remembering that the unknown and uncontrollable period for the textual critic is the fourth century B.C., can we dare to hope that better scribes than ours showed greater reverence for their author’s words or be confident that corruptions which may have arisen at this time have been detected? Should we, for instance, in the light of our scribe’s failure, ruthlessly restore a misplaced τε to its proper grammatical place? Secondly, the papyrus poses afresh the question of ancient editions. There is no ancient evidence as to whether the Alexandrians ever worked on the text of Thucydides. …Now the number of variant readings found in these scraps in less than eighty words of Greek contrasts strikingly with the much closer conformity to the manuscript tradition found in the papyri of Roman date. Is it likely that this conformity came about without deliberate editing?”

There are a lot of noteworthy aspects of this quotation (I wonder how Turner understands “peculiarly” in the second sentence, and I especially enjoy the British classicist’s hesitation to “ruthlessly restore” a misplaced τε). But for now, I want to focus on the question of early fluidity of the text and and a later organized editing to bring about conformity with an emerging consensus text. A more recently published “early” fragment of Thucydides (P.CtYBR inv. 4601, LDAB 10615, extracted from mummy cartonnage and assigned to the third or second century BCE) also deviates from the “textus receptus” in curious ways and, in the words of its editor, “strengthens the claim that the text of Thucydides was standardized in antiquity, perhaps in the second century BCE.”

Thus, the situation with the early papyri of Thucydides seems to mirror what Hurtado characterizes as the “old” paradigm for the transmission of early Christian literature: a “wild” period followed by later standardization. But I stress again that we’re talking about a different time period–the third and second centuries BCE rather than the second and third centuries CE, which are the period of interest for early Christian textual transmission. But again, my point is that I would like to think about other possibilities. When comparing these fairly fragmentary papyri of Thucydides to the “textus receptus,” at what point do cumulative differences mean we might just be dealing with “different texts” rather than different “copies” of the “same text”?

The problem is all the more interesting in light of the compositional theories that classicists have generated regarding Thucydides’ History. Anyone who has studied the preface to the Gospel According to Luke is likely familiar with the introduction to Thucydides’ History:

“Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out (ἀρξάμενος εὐθὺς καθισταμένου), and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.” 

But it is less frequently pointed out (at least in discussions of Luke) that there is a second “introduction” midway through the work at 5.26:

“The history of this period has been also written by the same Thucydides, an Athenian, in the chronological order of events by summers and winters, to the time when the Lacedaemonians and their allies put an end to the Athenian empire, and took the Long Walls and Piraeus. The war had then lasted for twenty-seven years in all (ἔτη δὲ ἐς τοῦτο τὰ ξύμπαντα ἐγένετο τῷ πολέμῳ ἑπτὰ καὶ εἴκοσι).”

This and other features of the narrative of Thucydides have prompted classical historians to offer different accounts of the composition and “publication” of the History.  Some scholars of Thucydides do not hesitate at all in speaking about “an editor” who was responsible for shaping the text. And this was true in antiquity as well. In his Lives of Eminent Philosophers (2.57), Diogenes Laertius appears to claim that Xenophon may have produced an edition of Thucydides (here in the Loeb translation): “There is a tradition that [Xenophon] made Thucydides famous by publishing his history, which was unknown, and which he might have appropriated to his own use ( λέγεται δ᾽ ὅτι καὶτὰ Θουκυδίδου βιβλία λανθάνοντα ὑφελέσθαι δυνάμενος αὐτὸς εἰς δόξανἤγαγεν).” Again, it seems to me that the blurring of textual criticism and redaction criticism that Larsen commends is an idea worth exploring further.


Cavallo, Guglielmo and Herwig Maehler. Hellenistic Bookhands. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008.

Turner, Eric G. “Two Unrecognized Ptolemaic Papyri.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 76 (1956), 95-98.

Wilkinson, Kevin W. “Fragments of a Ptolemaic Thucydides Roll in the Beinecke Library.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 153 (2005), 69-74.



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4 Responses to Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 2

  1. Geoff Hudson says:

    Brent, I think you are ‘beating about the bush’. In a Christian context, there is no text but what comes from authority.

  2. Geoff Hudson says:

    Brent, instead of looking back why not look forward to the time of Ptolemy who in the second century wrote the Ptolemaic System of the World. This, with the authority of the Christian church, was to dominate astronomical thinking for the next 1500 years. In this system the earth was supposed to be the centre of the universe.

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

  4. Pingback: Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 1 | Variant Readings

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