Textual Evidence

Hurtado: the Newly
Published Papyri

Excerpt for review from: L. W. Hurtado, "The NT in the 2nd Century",
Transmission and Reception:..., (Brill, 2006), p.5 fwd

Page Index

Hurtado: - The Newly Published Papyri:
    The Previous Papyri - a summary
    Newly Published MSS - still 2nd century and later
    Uncial Readings - 4th cent. texts supported
    Early Corrections - a rich source of information
    Sacred Names - practice of abbreviation ancient
    Breathing Marks - reading marks and liturgical use
    The Book Format - early adoption of Codex
    Public Reading - tradition of use in worship
    Liturgical Use - its effect on the Text
    Summary - wild generalizations about wild texts

Return to Index

Hurtado on
the New Papyri


Excerpt for review purposes from:
L. W. Hurtado, "The NT in the 2nd Century",
Transmission and Reception:..., (Brill, 2006), p.5 fwd

Headings have been added for clarity and navigation purposes.

The NT in the 2nd Century


...Let us look briefly at the latest developments in these bodies of evidence [early MSS etc.].

As for the manuscripts (MSS) of the NT writings, there is both bad news and good news. THe well-known bad news is that the extant (surviving) MSS that can plausibly be dated to the 2nd century [100-200 A.D.] are lamentably few in number, and none of them gives us a complete text of any NT writing. In fact, the extant 2nd cent. manuscript (MS) evidence consists largely in a handful of MSS.

Even if we accept Skeat's argument that P4-P64-P67 all represent the same multi-gospel MS from the late 2nd century, the amount of text preserved in the total body of 2nd cent. MS material is still frustratingly small.
[See T.C. Skeat, "The Oldest MS of the 4 Gospels?"NTS 43 (1997), 1-34, repr.in Collected Bib.Writ. of TC Skeat, Brill 2004), but cf. P.M.Head, "Is P4,P64 & P67 the Oldest MS of the 4 gospels?...", NTS 51 (2005),450-57]

The earliest MSS that give us substantial portions of texts are dated paleographically to the early 3rd cent or thereabouts.

P45 (Gospels & Acts) from c.a. 200-250 CE;
P46 (Pauline Epist.) date from c.a. 200-250 CE;
P66 (Gospels) from ca. 200 CE;
P75 (Gospels) from c.a. 200-250 CE;
P47 (Rev.) ca. 250-300 CE; and
P72 (Jude/1,2Pet) 3rd to 4th cent. CE.

Newly Published

On the other hand, the good news is that the small fund of 2nd cent. and/or early 3rd cent. MS witnesses has been enriched with the publication of three recent volumes of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Volumes 64-66 give us previously unknown NT papyrus materials that comprise leaves from 7 MSS of Matthew, 4 of John, 2 of Rev., and 1 each of Luke, Acts, Romans, Hebrews, & James, the dates ranging from the 2nd to the 5ht/6th century CE. 5

The earliest are leaevs of 3 MSS of Matthew dated to the 2nd or early 3rd cent:
P.Oxy. 4405 (a new portion of P77, w. Matt. 23:30-34; 35-39, 2nd/3rd cent.),
P.Oxy. 4403 (P103, Matt. 13:55-56; 14:3-5, 2nd/3rd cent.),
P.Oxy. 4404 (P104, Matt. 21:34-37, 43, 45 late 2nd cent.).

Prior to the publication of these fragments, per NA27, the only 2nd cent. MSS avail. were the famous:
P52 (P.Ryl.457, John 18:31-33,37-38),
P90 (P.Oxy. 3523, Jn 18:36-19:1; 19:2-7), and
P98 (P.IFAO 237b, Rev.1:13-20).

Even if we add in the recently posited MS combination of P4-P64-P67 mentioned already, and grant the proposal that the MS dates from the late 2nd cent., and if we also add NT pap. usually dated ca. 200 CE, such as P66, P46, P75, it is still clear that the very recent Oxyrhynchus fragments add significantly to a very limited body of MS material for the 2nd century.

Moreover it is further good news that, although comprising a small amount of the text of NT writings, these fragments are actually rich with data.

From my own consultation of the relevant Oxy. volumes and from Peter Head's valuable survey of these fragments, I mention a few illustrative matters.

Uncial Readings Found
in Early Papyri

First, although we have in each case only a small sample of the MS from which they come, in general these fragments "confirm the text of the great uncials which forms the basis of the modern critical editions." (- P. Head, "Some Recent Publ. NT Pap.from Oxy.", 16).

In the main, they provide us with earlier attestation of variants that we already knew of from later witnesses. In some cases, however, these are variants previously attested only in the versions, which warns us that in a good many other cases as well readings presently supported only in the versions may well reflect very early readings that simply happen not to have survived in the extant Greek witnesses.7

But the larger point is that these fragments further encourage us to think that the more substantial witnesses from the 3rd century and later are (contra Koester) probably not the results of some supposed major recension of the NT writings initiated toward the end of the 2nd cent. 8

Instead, the Oxy fragments further justify the view that the more substantial early 3rd cent. papyri are reliable witnesses of the text of the writings that they contain, as these writings had been transmitted across the 2nd century.

Careful Scribes too, alongside the Careless

Second, these fragments also reinforce the impression given by the NT papyri from 200 CE and a bit later that there were varying scribal tendencies operative in the textual transmission of the NT in the 2nd century. 9

That is, the recently-published evidence is consistent with the view that the 2nd century was a time of somewhat diverse textual dynamics. To quote from Head's survey,

...the fragments "illustrate various points along the spectrum from more controlled texts (with corrections, literary features, etc.) to comparatively more free or careless copying." 10

We are thereby further warned against over-simplifications about the textual transmission of NT writings in the 2nd century.

Instead, with enhanced confidence we may take up Epp's proposal that the early NT papyri can be placed in several early "clusters" or "textual groups", and that these represent different "textual complexions" already operative in the 2nd century.

Some of the newly publ. fragments reflect a concern for "a high degree of accuracy", and others indicate a freer readiness to adapt the text, exhibited especially in stylistic changes, harmonizations, higher numbers of accidental changes, and even occasional changes motivated by doctrinal concerns. 11.

To avoid misunderstanding in this controversial matter, I emphasize my point. I do not deny at all that there was (perhaps considerable) fluidity in the transmission of the NT writings in the 2nd century. 12 I simply stress that along with a readiness of some (perhaps even most) scribes to introduce variants intended to harmonize the Gospels, remove ambiguities, affirm doctrinal concerns, and even introduce new material intended as edifying, in at least some circles there also appears to have been a somewhat more conservative copying attitude.

Other Matters of Importance:
Early Corrections

In addition to their readings, however, the small but fascinating body of early papyri gives us other valuable evidence that should not be overlooked. NT scholars, including text-critics, have tended to comb early MSS for readings; but we also must learn to harvest the fuller and more diverse data that lie in these valuable artefacts. For example, the corrections in P.Oxy 4403 (P103) and P.Oxy 4405 (P77) are noteworthy. The quality of the hands suggests that these MSS were not produced by professional calligraphers such as those who made expensive copies of literary texts. Nevertheless, along with some other features, these corrections reflect the sort of mentality (though not the fully developed scribal skills) that we associate with a scriptorium.

In particular, the corrections show a concern for what those correcting the copies regarded as accurate copying. Of course, we must be careful to avoid anachronism in positing too confidently formal scriptoria early in the 2nd century., at least in the sense of the sort of physical settings in which multiple copies of Christian writings were prepared in later centuries. 14

Nevertheless, there are various indications that the copying of early Christian texts in the 2nd century involved emergent scribal conventions that quickly obtained impressive influence, and, at least in some cases and settings, there was a concern for careful copying. 15

Abbreviation of
Sacred Names

To cite one particular matter, where these new fragments preserve the words known to us as Nomina Sacra, particularly the four words, θεος, κυριος, χριστος, Ιησους; these words were written in the sorts of abbreviated forms that we already know from other ancient Christian MSS. 16

The minor variations in the precise spelling of the abbreviations do not rightly count against the conclusion that there was a widely attested convention among CHristian scribes that certain religiously "loaded" words were to be written in a distinctive manner. 17

Insofar as the earliest Christian MSS were not copied by "professional" scribes (or at least often do not exhibit the kind of calligraphy more characteristic of professionally produced literary MSS of the period), such widespread and distinctive scribal conventions are all the more notable.

It is also significant that all of these fragments come from codices (books, not scrolls).

Thus, they collectively reinforce the conclusions drawn from previously known evidence that, by sometime early in the 2nd century at the latest, Christians overwhelmingly had come to prefer the codex, especially, it appears, for their scriptures (OT) and the Christian writings that were coming to be treated widely as scripture. 18

The only extant examples of Christian texts written on unused rolls (as distinguished from re-used rolls, "opisthographs") are theological tractates (e.g, Irenaeus' Adversus haereses). And writings that mayh have been regarded as edifying in some circles but did not gain acceptance as part of the emergent NT canon. 19

Special Breathing Marks
and Reading Aids

These new Oxy fragments of the NT writings also exhibit various aids to reading, such as rough-breathing marks, punctuation, and, a matter of practical significance, occasional spacing at the ends of sentences and perhaps paragraphs. 20

These readers' aids are very unusual for literary texts of the period, but ther are some similarities to pre-Christian Jewish MSS of the OT writings (e.g. P.Ryl. 458). The mose cogent inference ks that the Christian MSS with these various scribal devices were prepared for case of public reading in churches.

That is, the small fragments probably give us further important artefactual evidence confirming 2nd cent. reports (e.g. Justin Martyr) of the liturgical practice of reading these NT writings. 21

Though inadequately noticed, such evidence was already provided in previously avail. fragments such as the famous frag. of John, P52 (P.Ryl.457), which exhibits diacresis and curious spaces that seem to register clauses, places where the "public" readers were possibly intended to make small pauses. 22

It is an unfortunate weakness in Kim Haines-Eitzen's recent (and in a number of other matters very helpful) study of early Christian scribal practice that she rather too simply assumes the general literary practice of making private copies for personal usage as the operative setting and model for the production of all early Christian manuscripts.

I think she gives inadequate attention to strong indications that a good many Christian manuscripts were prepared for groups and for reading out as liturgical texts. 23

The Adoption of
the Book Format (vs. Scroll)

In the following paragraphs, I cite briefly the important matters.

Already by the date of our earliest extant evidence, Christians had come to prefer a distinguishable book-form (the codex) over against the wider preference of their culture for the book-roll period.

The Christian preference for the codex seems to have been especially strong in copying their most revered writings, those that were regarded as Scripture and/or were coming to be so regarded.

Public Reading
in Worship

As we have noted, Christians also developed distinctive scribal practices, among which the nomina sacrae are the most striking, but including also the richer use of punctuation and spacing.

They read texts, not simply privately or in the sort of reading circles of the cultured elite, but also, very importantly and characteristically, as a regular part of their liturgical practice and thus as a feature of their gathered worship. In this they differed from the literary and religious practices of the larger culture.

Reading texts does not typically feature in cultic practices/settings, and, in any case, literary texts did not get this kind of usage. The only precedent and analogy for the early Christian religious usage of texts was in the reading of Scripture as part of a Jewish synagogue practice.

All this cumulatively signals what must be seen as the emergence of an identifiably and somewhat distinctive Christian literary ethos.

Indeed, in an essay in the Peter Richardson Festschrift I have proposed that the early Christian manuscripts offer us our earliest indications of an emergent Christian "material culture". 24

The Effect of Liturgical Use
on the Text

The reason I underscore these matters is that there is increasing recognition that the repeated liturgical reading of NT writings is an important factor in the textual transmission of the text.

It certainly helps to account for the obviously frequent copying and wide dissemination of these writings, which goes far beyond anything else in antiquity.

Furthermore, liturgical usage is one of the factors that would have helped to prompt the sort of small stylistic "improvements" intended to make texts clearer and easier to understand that are so well known in Christian manuscripts. The regular liturgical reading of the 4 canonical gospels also helps to account for the abundance of harmonizing variants, especially frequent in Mark.

But repeated public reading of NT writings would also have set real limits on how much a writing could be changed, at least in a given circle, without people noticing (and probably objecting), as anyone familiar with what happens when liturgical changes are introduced can attest.

It is thus, likely not a coincidence that Mark, which appears to have been the least widely and frequently used in liturgical reading, also exhibits the largest number and the most salient variations (especially, of course, the several Endings). By contrast, the Gospel most widely read in the early Church, Matthew, has probably the most stable and fixed text.


That is, the practice of repeated liturgical reading of NT writings is yet another factor that ought to lead us to hesitate to characterize the 2nd century as basically a period of "wild" textual tendencies.

Along with the surprisingly well attested preference for the codex and ubiquitous scribal treatment of the nomina sacrae, the practice of liturgical reading of writings provides us with indications of conventionalization of practice with regard to these writings at a chronological state of early Christianity to which we are otherwise accustomed to attributing great diversity.

It is certainly the case, however, that we have not adequately mined all that is provided to us in the early papyri, whether those that have been known for some time, or those newly published.

There are some valuable research projects here. For example, Harry Sanders noticed long ago that Codex W (the four Gospels) exhibited a system of spacing of sense-units that corresponded with versional evidence and proposed that this might reflect "an ancient system of phrasing, used in reading the Scriptures in church service", whose origin, "must have been as early as the 2nd century." 25

The spacing found in early papyri that have appeared subsequently seems to support Sanders' suggestion. Already in the 2nd century there appears to have been an embryonic system of subdivision of the text of the Gospels that probably reflected and supported the practice of Gospel reading as part of Christian worship gatherings. 26

But it remains for us to mine the relevant material on this and other intriguing matters. Prospective doctorial students take note! 27

Return to Index