Reviews of

Texts and Artefacts

In Bloomsbury, Dustin Rigsby, Larry HURTADO, Manuscript Studies, Manuscripts, Textual Criticism on June 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm


2020.06.10 | Larry W. Hurtado. Texts and Artefacts: Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts. LNTS 584. London: T&T Clark, 2019. XX + 231 pp. ISBN 978-0-567-68882-8.

Review by Dustin Rigsby, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Larry Hurtado was an exceptional biblical scholar and a well-known advocate of studying early Christian manuscripts as artefacts that are relevant for historical studies of early Christianity. In other words, Hurtado believed that the physical features of manuscripts contained often neglected evidence necessary for understanding early Christianity better. This book advances Hurtado’s significant research in this area, consisting particularly of a collection of essays originally published over a period of about twenty years and categorized under two general parts. The first part, entitled “Text-Critical and Text-Historical Studies,” consists of four essays and focuses on the questions concerning the textual transmission of the writings in the NT. The second part, entitled “Manuscripts as Artefacts,” shifts from the focus on the texts of manuscripts to the physical and visual features of the manuscripts themselves.

In the introduction, Hurtado outlines two intentions for his book. In addition to the hope that the publication would make the articles more easily available, Hurtado expresses his desire that the book would “encourage others, particularly younger colleagues, to take account of manuscripts as witnesses to the texts that they bear, and as invaluable artefacts of early Christianity” (p. xx). As already noted, the first four chapters concern primarily textual questions. Chapter one (“The New Testament in the Second Century: Text, Collections and Canon”) addresses the transmission of the New Testament in the second century, which Hurtado identifies as “a (perhaps the) crucial period in the development of the NT” (p. 4). He evaluates the evidence with relation to three “crucial processes” in the second century: (1) NT textual transmission, (2) early collections of writings (e.g., the Gospels and Pauline letters), and (3) the development of the canon. The second chapter (“The Early New Testament Papyri: A Survey of Their Significance”) covers the significance of the earliest NT papyri. While Hurtado did not expect all NT scholars to become papyrologists or text critics, he contends that they must become aware of the importance of these early manuscripts for research on the history of NT textual transmission and Christian origins (p. 47).

Chapter three (“New Testament Scholarship and the Dating of New Testament Papyri”) focuses on the dating of NT papyri and related issues. After discussing the importance of dating manuscripts for NT scholarship, Hurtado interacts with several generalized critiques concerning the apparent tendency of NT scholars to favor earlier dates for the NT papyri. Many of the critiques were unfounded, he says, although he also concludes with an exhortation to treat cautiously any attempts to date NT papyri earlier than most papyrologists and paleographers have been willing to date them. Chapter four (“God or Jesus? Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts of the Apostles”) addresses the issue of ambiguous references in the book of Acts that appear to conflate both God and Jesus. Hurtado surveys the manuscript evidence revealing the tendency of ancient readers to clarify these passages by supplying a more specific referent. Early readers addressed ambiguities on a case-by-case basis, “simply seeking to grasp what they thought the text meant” (p. 80). While Hurtado concedes that doctrinal issues may account for some variations, he explains that the evidence for this tendency is sparse.

The remaining chapters comprise the second section of Hurtado’s book, consisting of articles written on the physical and visual features of manuscripts as artifactual evidence for early Christianity. In chapter five (“The ‘Meta-Data’ of Earliest Christian Manuscripts”), Hurtado outlines various features of manuscripts that provide frequently underappreciated witnesses to early Christianity. These sorts of features include the codex format, the nomina sacra, the staurogram, and other features. Hurtado argues that these features benefit research on canon formation, second-century Christian group-identity, and the relationship of Christianity to Judaism (p. 98). In chapter six (“Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading”), Hurtado focuses on the reading culture of early Christianity, building on the previous work of William Johnson in this area related to reading cultures in early antiquity. Hurtado argues that a distinguishable reading culture existed within the first three centuries of Christianity, from which the early Christian manuscripts must be considered “direct artifacts” (p. 99). Rather than an elite reading culture, Hurtado notes a much more inclusive reading culture among the early Christians, in which a much broader social context of public reading was in focus.

Chapters seven (“The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal”) and eight (“The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus?”) focus on the nomina sacra and the staurogram, respectively, as early features of Christian manuscripts. In both cases, these features represent early developments in copying practices that reflect a particular Christian piety among the users of these texts. Hurtado’s chapter on nomina sacra contains a particularly interesting argument in which he suggested that the nomen sacrum for Jesus represents the earliest or most initial of all the nomina sacra. Hurtado notes the accompanying overline, which resembles the overline for numerals. Essentially, he theorizes that the abbreviation for Jesus originated as an example of gematria, related to an early Christian exegesis of Gen 14:14. However, once other terms began to be added to the list of nomina sacra, this numerical overline lost significance. In the case of the staurogram, he argues that this feature classifies as early Christian art, preceding the earliest recognized Christian visual depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion by about 150 to 200 years.

Chapters nine (“A Fresh Analysis of Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1228 [P22]”) and ten (“The Greek Fragments of the Gospel of Thomas as Artefacts: Papyrological Observations on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654, and Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 655”) contain discussions of specific manuscripts for the purpose of drawing historical implications from them as early Christian artifacts. In chapter nine, Hurtado discusses P.Oxyrhynchus 1228 (P22). The discussion included basic components, including descriptions of the manuscript, the hand, and the text. Hurtado concludes both that the manuscript reflects an informal copy of John intended for personal use and that the lower quality reflects an original owner of limited resources. Hurtado therefore concludes that this manuscript points to a demand for the text of John among those who were not part of the elite. Hurtado also determines that the text’s generally faithful transmission refutes common assumptions that early non-elite Christians were unconcerned with textual accuracy. In chapter ten, Hurtado considers three manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas as artifacts of early Christianity. Hurtado mentioned several conclusions based on his analysis, though he particularly noted the informal and personal nature of the manuscripts, indicating their private, rather than liturgical, uses. Furthermore, he observes that the form and apparent function of the three manuscripts in particular do not indicate an attitude toward the Gospel of Thomas as constituting Scripture.

Chapter eleven (“Who Read Early Christian Apocrypha”) answers the question of who read early Christian apocryphal texts. Disputing theories that these texts necessarily reflect audiences comprising particular groups, Hurtado maintained rather that many of these apocryphal texts circulated largely among individuals of varying groups, regardless of class, wealth, gender, or even orthodoxy. Finally, chapter twelve (“P45 As an Early Christian Artefact: What It Reflects about Early Christianity”) regards P45 as another artifact of early Christianity. One of Hurtado’s conclusions concerned P45 as evidence for the development and preference for the book-form for early Christian manuscripts. P45 “bears witness to the freedom that some early Christians felt to alter their wording, but also the limits of that freedom” (p. 219). Consequently, this final chapter provides another example of the evidence of early Christianity found among the artefactual features of early Christian manuscripts.

Hurtado’s style is moderate, though appropriately decisive and well-reasoned. As a result, each chapter is particularly engaging and persuasive. Ultimately, they are argued competently and convincingly for the importance of increased scholarly engagement with the physical and visual features of manuscripts for the purpose of developing a greater understanding of early Christianity and its texts. Since the book represents a collection of separately written articles, a certain consistent progression or flow is lacking; nevertheless, the contributions of Hurtado’s many years of scholarship and the reasonable placements of the chapters compensate for this minor shortcoming. In any case, Hurtado thoroughly and competently demonstrated his larger argument, namely that early Christian manuscripts provide widely neglected artefactual evidence with significance for historical research on early Christianity.

Dustin Rigsby
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
dmrigsby91 [at]

  1. […] via Texts and Artifacts — Biblical and Early Christian Studies […]

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