BMCR 2001.09.31

Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature

, Guardians of letters : literacy, power, and the transmitters of early Christian literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (x, 212 pages). ISBN 142376059X. $49.95.

“The contours of the present analysis are shaped by two central questions: who were the scribes that copied Christian literature during the second and third centuries? And what role(s) did these scribes play in the (re)production, transmission, and interpretation of these texts?” (6) Thus Kim Haines-Eitzen (hereafter H-E) describes her project in the opening pages of Guardians of Letters. Her supervisor, Bart Ehrman, reeled off a marvellously suggestive set of questions about scribes towards the end of his great work on The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (New York/Oxford 1993; 280 n.1); and H-E, though she does not say so, seems to have risen to this scholarly bait.

The examination of scribes’ involvement in the transmission of texts—scribes as people, historically situated and committed, knowledgeable yet errant, not merely ‘mechanical … replicators’ (129)—is surely part of the project of recovery which began with the feminist project to seek out ‘women’s voices’ and has expanded (via cultural studies, generously conceived) into an extraordinarily important project in the rewriting of cultural and intellectual history. Once again, H-E does not explicitly situate herself within this cultural matrix; but her book is an enlightening addition to such projects.

Chapters 1 and 2 emphasize the diversity—in terms of class, gender, and ‘multi-functionality’—of the scribes copying Christian texts; Chapter 3 repeats this emphasis with reference to education and literacy. Chapter 4 deals with the mechanics of transmission of Christian literature; while Chapter 5, the most exciting, is really (despite its position) the kernel of the book, asking the crucial questions: did Christian scribes really change readings? and how ‘authoritative’ were the texts they produced? H-E concludes that scribes were indeed deeply implicated in the discursive controversies of the early church.

Methodologically, H-E makes much play with the notions of ‘continuum’ and ‘spectrum’: thus, she insists on the fact that there is no sharp opposition between documentary and book hands, between professional and private copyists, between educated and uneducated, upper- and lower-class, and so on; no sharp opposition, even, between writers and readers—see the colophons (101-2), and statement that there was no distinction between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of these texts (130). Scribes transmitting early Christian texts, she argues, are in every case to be found somewhere on the continuum between two given extremes—and, typically, near the middle. Connected with this is the notion of ‘multifunctionality’: H-E points out that there is no reason to suppose that scribes copied only one sort of text. Why not posit, for example, a scribe who was employed for documentary work but copied Christian texts for his (or her—see Chapter 2) personal use? Occasionally, H-E seems to betray her own model—for example, assuming (67) the ‘professional’ copying may necessarily be equated with a neat, regular hand, and ‘non-professional’ with calligraphic irregularities—but in general, it seems an excellent way of complicating simplistic dichotomies and recovering a sense of scribes as agents in a way that is extremely important for the latter part of the book (Chapters 4-5).

The notions of ‘continuum’ and of ‘multifunctionality’ are supported with passages of extremely close readings of the evidence from papyri. H-E seems diffident about this, going so far as to apologize (98) that her close reading ‘may seem tedious’. Far from it: it is the stuff from which her study could and should develop in future. (It is a pity, therefore, that, with reference to the Bodmer codex, she does not pursue explicitly the aside on ‘miscellany’ [104]—except for the footnote [n.107]: more well-grounded speculation on the Christian collators and readers of the codex would be most welcome.) Again, the section on ‘singular readings indicating ideological modifications’ (113-24) represents H-E at her best—giving detailed proofs, based on close textual readings, of Christologically-oriented changes. This is riveting (and again recalls Ehrman’s work in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.) By this point, she can with justification conclude that “deliberate modification of texts stemmed from ideological concerns”(123).

So well, in fact, does H-E complicate simplistic prejudices about scribal practice that by the time we reach the statement of Hort (112) that “even among the numerous unquestionably spurious readings of the New Testament there are no signs of deliberate falsification of the text for dogmatic purposes”, it seems simply risible: how could there not have been? (Of course, this turns partly round the difficult content of ‘deliberate’—on which, see the discussion of ‘harmonizations’ below.)

However, when we come (124) to a section on ‘the authority of texts in early Christianity’, is it not a bit late in the day? It seems rather an instance of hysteron-proteron now to argue for the significance of the emendations which H-E has been mapping—never mind to restrict their impact to “at least a small portion of the Christian population” (125). Should this material not have been included in the book’s preliminaries?

There are other, more pressing questions. H-E introduces the term (and notion of) ‘(re)production’, unglossed, on p. 6; it is echoed on p. 9 (and see also 106, 126-7, 130). In a way, of course, the entire book is a gloss on the tensions and ambiguities hinted at in the use of this transitional, semi-bracketed term; but it would be helpful to have this discussed explicitly at some stage.

Similarly, could the notions round ‘harmonization’ perhaps have been more fully explored? There is a discussion of the conventional definition of ‘harmonization’ (69); and later, H-E appeals to harmonization of concepts as a general principle: “it is unlikely that a scribe inserted this passage” (123). But in the context of her general thesis about scribes’ ability to exert control over texts, it is a pity that she couldn’t push her reasoning a little further: criteria for assessing ‘deliberate’ emendation, in particular, might be more fully explored.

Again, H-E states that “the fact that we do not have prescriptive texts for scribal practices [until Cassiodorus in the sixth century] may in itself be a clue to the acceptance of the flexibility of texts” (108-9). Maybe; but it may also indicate a tacit faith, in the earlier texts, in the educational process, and the scribes’ ability to make their own criteria and corrections. Indeed, H-E goes on to say, “…we do find implied in the copies that scribes produced an awareness of certain standards of text reproduction” (109).

H-E concludes, “nowhere … have we found ecclesiastically organized and hierarchically maintained efforts to control the process of text transmission” (126). But the Serapion anecdote a little higher up the page seems to suggest exactly the opposite. This begs a final, and more important, question: to what degree do we have a vision of a two-tier system—where the scribes appropriate power (both consciously and unconsciously) on a micro-level, the ecclesiastically powerful on a macro-level—choosing which texts the scribes are to copy, and (as with Serapion) prohibiting others? Obviously the private transmission of texts—which H-E has documented so well earlier in the book—will subvert this picture to some degree, but not entirely; and it begs, in any case, the further question: how vivid was the threat of charges of heresy for those who copied the ‘wrong’ texts (even only for private, domestic use)? or the ‘right’ texts in the ‘wrong’ way? However, that such questions should suddenly seem so pressing is testament to the interest and cogency of H-E’s narrative—and to its potential as a teaching tool.

(I am, indeed, indebted to H-E for sending me to the John Rylands Library to compare scripts in ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ papyri. Do the hands reveal more or less education? more or less care in the execution? The sample is, of course, minute—too small to be statistically significant; but of four papyrus fragments datable to the third century—two orthodox [Ryl.P.Gk. 5 and 656], two apocryphal [Ryl.P.Gk. 463 and 464]—while they are clearly in different hands, those hands evince no significant qualitative difference. Where an astonishing qualitative difference does reside, however, is in the comments of the cataloguers: thus, while Ryl.P.Gk.5 [a fragment of Titus] is simply described as in a ’round and rather large uncial hand’, Ryl.P.Gk.463 [a significant fragment of the Gospel of Mary] has the misfortune to be written in a hand which ‘if clear and upright, is also ugly and ill-proportioned, and shows considerable cursive influence’. Meanwhile, the fragment of Deuteronomy [Ryl.P.Gk.458] from the second century BCE is described by the same cataloguer, C.H. Roberts, as “written in a stylized and formal hand, carefully executed and of considerable elegance”! Potential here, surely, for a study of latter-day vilification of scribal heresy.)

This is a thoughtful, judicious book, and I enjoyed reading it. That it raises so many questions is testimony not to its limitations but to its scope.

As a coda, however, I must record serious doubts about the standard of production of the book (from the New York branch of OUP). This is disappointing because this book could make a marvellous teaching tool. Its emphasis on the scribes as people, their lives as lived, implicated in social and religious networks and exerting power over their texts accordingly, is both engaging and memorable. But the reference apparatus is sorely lacking. There is no specific primary source bibliography; extraordinary, in a work concerned with the close reading of primary sources. If we comb through the general ‘Selected Bibliography’—which is, I might add, excellent for secondary sources—we eventually find, for example, that the Bodmer papyri edited by Testuz are under his name; likewise for the Chester Beatty papyri edited by Kenyon. No doubt these are so familiar to New Testament scholars as to require, in the old cliche, no introduction; but those from outside the discipline who use this book—and one hopes there will be many—would benefit from some sort of list of the papyri referred to and where to find them. Meanwhile, we find Eusebius under his own name; so too Epiphanius and Pachomius; but where, for example, is Cicero? Where the Shepherd of Hermas, of which H-E makes considerable use? or the Contra Celsum ?

This problem could be ameliorated by an Index Locorum; but there is none, and the Index itself is too attenuated to be much help.

Finally, there is a troublingly high number of typesetting errors. It is tempting to see this as a wittily ironic self-referentiality, an exposition of the power of the scribe in action—for are not typesetters our modern scribes? But few seem to be ‘deliberate changes’ (69), as far as one can tell; and in the second edition (and I hope there is one) H-E should, in addition to expanding her indices, reassert the auctoritas of the author.

To help readers, I list the errors which I have noted pertinent to the Latin or Greek texts. p.12 (text) basilikos grammateis : should be basilikos grammateus. p.21 (Auct. Her.) ‘luta’: should be ‘multa’. p.23 (Catullus) ‘etsacrum’ needs to be separated as ‘et sacrum’. p.26 (Lucian) text and translation don’t match: Greek text starts at English “Why, how can you tell…”. p.30 (Cic. Att. 13.25): in English, ‘Spintharo’ should be ‘Spintharus’ (as on p. 31); in Latin, ‘se’ should be ‘sed’. p.49 ‘Vita Caesarius’: should be ‘Vita Caesarii’. p.50 “sed memoria et traditio recens observat”: should be “but memory and ongoing tradition preserve it” [the name of Thecla]. (Also, the force of the preceding sentence seems to be “the books of the Christians are in disrepair too [just like the Christians themselves!]”.) p.57 Here, it would be helpful to know in which edition H-E is reading the Contra Celsum. (C. Cels. 3.55): SChr (ed. Bonnet) has αὐτῶν after παίδων in l.1, though PG does not; both texts, however, have καὶ τοὺς μέν γε after the ellipsis in l.3, instead of καὶ τοῦ μέν τε (and H-E’s translation implies that she is in fact reading the former of these). (C.Cels. 3.58): a number of words have been omitted from the Greek text, though they are translated in the English. In the first line, τὰ ἰάμβων should in fact read (using Bonnet’s edition) τὰ ἄσεμνα τῆς κωμῳδίας καὶ τοὺς ἀκολάστους τῶν ἰάμβων. p.79 (Phil. 14.1) ‘commando’: should be ‘commendo’. p.80 (HE 5.20) ‘sat and disputed’: not in Greek text here. p.80-1 (Mart. Poly.) If the Greek text is correct, this should be ‘according to a vision of the blessed Polycarp appearing to me’. p.107 (Rev. 22:18-19) In l.3, βιβλίῳ and βιβλίου have been transposed: it should read ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τούτῳ … ἀπο τῶν λόγων τοῦ βιβλίου.. p.108 (Ruf. Peri Archon) ‘uellecturus’ should be ‘uel lecturus’; and the English translation stops at ‘ne immutet’ (a pity, as the last, untranslated, section is relevant to the discussion in hand). p.110: (Hebr. 1:3b) ῤήματα should be ῤήματι. p.111: (Codex Vaticanus reading) We need φανερῶν, not φέρων ! p.115: (Paralipomena) Is translation of διὰ τὸ ἴδιον πλάσμα assimilated into ‘the human race’? A fuller version would read, “…become man for the sake of his own creation, the human race”. (Again, which text is H-E using?) p.118: ‘Adversos Judaeos’—should be ‘Adversus Judaeos’. p.119: (Lk. 23:34) ο ἴδασιν should be one word, and the ‘movable nu’ omitted: οἴδασι. p.130: περὶ τὴν Παλαιστίνην omitted in translation.

Similarly, there is a rather high incidence of type-setting errors in the bibliography, including the record of a Festschrift apparently offered on the tenth birthday of a precocious Professor (see under Kilpatrick, George), and an article by H.-I. Marrou whose title is entirely unaccented.