Texts and Artefacts

Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts

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Larry W. Hurtado
The Library of New Testament Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What was the process for creating and diffusing Christian manuscripts across the Mediterranean basin? How can we determine the earliest dating for a manuscript or papyrus fragment and what are the arguments for such determination? How does the study of this material (and visual) “Christian culture” help to illuminate the earliest Christian communities beyond textual criticism and theological development (i.e., liturgy and practice)? These are the questions addressed by Larry Hurtado in Texts and Artefacts: Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts.

This volume is dedicated to Hurtado’s mentor and friend, Eldon Jay Epp (Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, Eerdmans, 1993), who introduced him to the world of ancient Christian manuscripts. It is a collection of lectures and papers presented over several years, although edited and updated with more recent references. 

Hurtado presents “three crucial processes” for scholarly inquiry: (1) the textual transmission of the New Testament writings; (2) the phenomenon of early collections of writings (especially the Gospels and Pauline epistles); and (3) certain writings coming to enjoy a special status, authority, and usage. Several themes are prevalent in each chapter: (1) there is credible evidence that copyists (scribes?) often attempted to harmonize variants for various (and sometimes unknown) reasons (this is particularly evident in attempts to clarify material in Acts); and (2) almost all of the 2nd century manuscripts/fragments contain earlier material that may be traced to 1st-century documents. Attempts to analyze all of the known manuscripts have now been fortified and aided by the publication of the various Oxyrhynchus fragments from Egypt. Hurtado details many of these fragments, emphasizing that they should be analyzed “among themselves and in comparison with one another” (41).

Chapter 5, “The ‘Meta-Data’ of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts,” outlines specific elements of the manuscripts that should be the focus of scholarly investigation: the Christian preference for the codex over the scroll; the use of the nomina sacra (key words such as theoskyrios, and Christos written in abbreviated form by scribes); and the use of the staurogram (the abbreviated letters that were applied as a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus). The codices support the long-attested claim that a portion of the Christian assemblies were devoted to public reading. Nomina sacra and the staurogram may have served as visual codes for early Christian devotion.

Do you have to be an expert on paleography or ancient scribal methods to appreciate this book? Yes and no. Yes, if the reader wants to fully judge Hurtado’s arguments on the merits of his detailed analysis of a particular codex or fragment, which also relies upon Greek usage found in other contemporary writings. A familiarity with the known manuscripts (especially their coded abbreviations) would be very useful (Hurtado does provide a chart for the Western text of Acts). But no, philological and paleographical expertise is not required if one is more interested in Hurtado’s broader applications and conclusions.

The consistent theme throughout the book is “early.” Hurtado argues for earlier dates for some of the manuscripts (or evidence that earlier manuscripts existed) than those traditionally proposed. He critiques the studies of early Christianity that emphasize the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries for the roots of Christian theology (creedal concepts) and liturgy (worship). He finds many of the later creedal concepts and rites of worship already at play in earlier documents.

Hurtado claims that while textual criticism is important, scholars have neglected the clues in manuscripts (copying and alterations) that could lead to better reconstructions of the sociological elements of early Christianity (chapter 6). For example, some of the manuscripts show more concern for content, but “less concern to produce a copy with strong aesthetic qualities” (110). This may indicate diverse (and sometimes lower) class inclusion (the uneducated) in the Christian assemblies.

In chapter 11, “Who Read Early Christian Apocrypha?” Hurtado discusses the problem of trying to reconstruct the historical context behind the writings of Christian Apocrypha. Earlier theories posited specific communities (such as Gnostic texts directed solely to Gnostic Christians or Jewish-Christian texts directed to those groups). In other words, taking what a text says as a way in which to define a community remains problematic when other factors remain unknown. It also assumes a particular antithetical position to what has only been assumed to be a consensus of opinions that did not exist at the time.

In a detailed study of manuscript evidence for the Gospel of Peter, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary, Hurtado points out that many of these writings were found together with collections of what became canonical texts. Without being able to directly answer the question, Hurtado concludes that all we can determine is that there appears to be “a variety of people who took an interest in these diverse texts for a diversity of reasons” (199).    

Better editing would have eliminated the repeated overlaps of Hurtado’s arguments. Almost very chapter contains a recap of his views on the Christian use of the codex, the nomina sacra, earlier dating for the texts, and speculation on the sociological make-up of early Christian communities. Of course, all of that is aligned with the purpose of the book, but it could have been summarized in either the introduction or a concluding chapter. The repetition is quite distracting and the reader is tempted to skim through much of it. 

There is no general bibliography, but the references are found in the individual footnotes of each chapter. Hurtado does list the various sites for tracking down manuscripts and fragments, such as the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB) and others. Individual notes supply a phenomenal resource for both the history of scholarly theories and analyses on the extant manuscripts and fragments of ancient Christianity.

Hurtado clearly outlines his position in relation to the work of other scholars and paleographers. With years of studying the ancient manuscripts as well as social theory in relation to the earliest Christian assemblies, I found his arguments persuasive. 

The manuscripts represent diversity and continuity simultaneously. At the same time, the study of early manuscripts provides clues that reveal items relative to the writers, their audiences, and perhaps the historical contexts of individual communities. This takes us beyond textual criticism as an intellectual enterprise to the issues important to the daily lives of average Christians. Archaeological excavations do not often directly reveal what participants were thinking; the manuscripts provide such clues.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Denova is Senior Lecturer in the History of Early Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Larry W. Hurtado is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology, University of Edinburgh.


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