Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 3

In my first posting prompted by Larry Hurtado’s reflections on textual transmission, I brought up a recent article by Matthew Larsen, “Accidental Publication, Unfinished Texts and the Traditional Goals of New Testament Textual Criticism.” In a response (here), Hurtado has offered a critical reading of Larsen’s article.

Hurtado writes that “Nongbri seems to think that [Larsen’s article] points persuasively in the direction of a very different paradigm” (He’s right; I do think that), but for his part, Hurtado is “not so sure.” The overall impression Hurtado gives is that the substance of Larsen’s article consists of material that should really already be familiar to those of us working on ancient texts:

The first (and major) portions of the article are given over to a survey of textual practices that I should have thought were already familiar to scholars in ancient textual studies.  Some Roman-era authors alleged unauthorized publication of their works by others (which may or may not be a literary topos used by some authors of the day).  We also knew that some authors and groups produced revised versions of their literary works.

Indeed, in NT studies these ideas have been drawn upon, for example, in proposals about a “proto-Mark” or “proto-Luke.”  Likewise, it is pretty clear that two or three editions of Paul’s epistle to the Romans circulated (Harry Y. Gamble, The Textual History of the Letter to the Romans, SD 42 [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977]).  In short, I don’t think that NT textual critics are quite as naive in these matters as Larsen seems to allege.

Hurtado is certainly more experienced and widely read than I am, so I can only speak from my own point of view in encountering the article. I was indeed familiar with some of the examples Larsen cited while others were entirely new to me (such as the delightful episode of Cicero trying, and failing, to get someone else to polish and publish the commentarius that he wrote about his own consulship). But part of what appeals to me about Larsen’s article is that it defamiliarized some of those passages that I did think I knew reasonably well. It allowed me to see them in a different light and read them in a way that might accord better with ancient writing practices.

I think a helpful way to dig in to this issue is to start off with one of Hurtado’s critiques of Larsen’s article:

Larsen makes much of early references to the Gospel of Mark as hypomnemata and apomnemoneumata, which he urges should be taken as “disorderly or unpolished notes” (377).  Larsen proposes that Matthew be seen, not as “a separate piece of literature from Mark,” but, instead, as giving “alterations of Mark” that are “fairly minor” (378).  I leave it for others to judge whether this characterization of either writing fits.  But, given that GMatthew is some 65% again larger than GMark, it seems to me a bit of a stretch to characterize GMatthew as a “fairly minor” alteration. Moreover, Justin Martyr refers to all the Gospels as apomnemoneumata (1 Apology 66.3; 67.3), and in contexts that hardly were intended to represent the Gospels as simply “disorderly or unpolished notes.”  So I think Larsen may make too much rest on this term.

This assessment brings up a couple interesting points. To characterize the differences between the Gospel According to Mark and the Gospel According to Matthew as “fairly minor” raises a methodological question that I want to get back to: How do we judge sameness and difference in textual matters? But for now I want to focus on the writings of Justin. In the quotation above, Hurtado writes that “Justin Martyr refers to all the Gospels as apomnemoneumata (1 Apology 66.3; 67.3).” Hurtado can correct me if I’m wrong, but I take it that by “all the Gospels” he means texts that closely resemble Nestle-Aland’s texts of the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and maybe even John (this is the way this language normally functions in discussions of Justin’s writings, but it could be taken in different ways). Over the years, different studies have sought to demonstrate that Justin definitely knew all four canonical gospels (e.g. Stanton), while others have emphasized instead the handful of examples in which Justin’s quotations don’t match up well with any of the canonical gospels (e.g. Koester). But I think what Larsen’s work allows us to see is that all these studies are asking a very modern question of the ancient texts. We see notices of written sources for the words of Jesus or narratives about Jesus in early Christian writings, and we ask “Which specific text is the source of this?” We seek to associate the quotation either with one of the four canonical gospels or with some other extra-canonical, but still discreet, finished, authored text. The point that Larsen raises is that this is not how Justin and other early Christian authors characterize the gospel(s). And this isn’t an oral vs. written issue; it’s about how Justin characterizes gospel writings.

In his preserved works, Justin doesn’t mention the “Gospel According to” any author. Now, I have no reason to doubt that Justin was familiar with texts very much like what we call the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (John is trickier). But the issue Larsen’s work raises is that Justin isn’t talking about the gospel(s) in that way. Justin is not distinguishing between discreet, independent writings, with individual attributed authors (it’s the “apomnemoneumata of the apostles“), and this point is what should be catching our attention.

To put it in more imaginative terms: I could be confronted today in 2018 with an ancient sheet of papyrus with Greek writing, recognize passages that are unique to what I know as the Gospel according to Mark, and therefore identify the manuscript (correctly, in our terms) as a copy of the Gospel According to Mark. Imagine Justin was confronted with that very same papyrus in the year 140. How would he have characterized it? A gospel? The gospel? An apomnemoneuma of the apostles? Or just the apomnemoneumata of the apostles? Would Justin, or other Christian writers prior to him, have at all differentiated between a copy of the Gospel According to Matthew and a copy of the Gospel According to Mark in the way that Irenaeus did a few decades later? (The question of titles is important here, but that will need to be a different post.)

But now what does all this have to do with the question of textual transmission of early Christian literature? On the one hand, there is the position (the view that Hurtado characterizes the “old paradigm”) that early Christian writings, including those that would come to be regarded as “the New Testament,” were transmitted in their earliest years with a relatively high degree of fluidity. And then there is the position that the transmission of early Christian manuscripts, or at least the transmission of New Testament manuscripts, was instead characterized by “impressive stability” (what Hurtado calls a “new paradigm”). What I like about Larsen’s work is that is suggests (to me, anyway) that both these approaches are missing out on a genuinely interesting and important question: How are we defining “transmission” as opposed to “redaction”?  Doesn’t the assumption of a sharp differentiation between the two require a notion of a “finished,” authored text that isn’t quite appropriate when talking about at least some ancient writings? At what point, exactly, does someone stop being a copyist and start to be an editor or an independent author? (I tried to get at this issue from a different angle in a discussion of early papyri of Thucydides.)

It would appear to be a matter of not only the number of differences and the types of differences between two manuscripts/texts but also the self presentation of the copyist/appropriator (that is to say, does the producer of the later text make a differentiation between itself and “source” material?). The preface to the Gospel According to Luke comes to mind as a good example of a work separating itself from its sources. The relationship between what we call the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Mark is less clear-cut to me. How long of an ending or an introduction would we have to add to the Gospel According to Mark to make it stop being the Gospel According to Mark and start being a new text? And how do these questions affect the traditional goals of textual criticism? On my reading of the discipline, such questions constitute a fresh way of approaching early Christian evidence and thinking in new and challenging ways about our methodologies. A new paradigm, one might say.

This entry was posted in Justin Martyr, Textual criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Early Christian Textual Transmission, Part 3

  1. David Inglis says:

    Very well put Brent. For the reasons you discuss here I think we should question our characterization of the very fragmentary new testament papyii as being part of a larger whole that we know from later more complete mss. For example, P1 contains only material what we know as Matthew 1, but to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence that it originally contained other chapters of Matthew. Could it not therefore be evidence of a free-standing birth narrative that the author of Matthew grafted on to material he took from Mark? How would we know?

  2. Pingback: Justin Martyr and the Gospels | Larry Hurtado's Blog

  3. Dr. Griffin Gaddie says:

    Hurtado is trying to suggest that early text transmission was as stable and reliable as “copyists’ copies. I’ve responded that actually, a Jewish “scribe,” a “grammaticus,” sometimes copied dutifully. But sometimes was more of a writer or editor. Who felt free to add new material.

  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.

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

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