BMCR 2007.06.39

The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins

Larry W. Hurtado, The earliest Christian artifacts : manuscripts and Christian origins. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2006. xiv, 248 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0802828957 $20.00.

Table of Contents

Larry Hurtado’s Earliest Christian Artifacts urges those studying the New Testament and early Christianity to consider the manuscripts produced in the early church as historical objects in their own right. This might seem like a modest undertaking, but, for students trained to see these documents as nothing more than witnesses to texts, this idea is potentially revolutionary. Most students know these manuscripts from the critical apparatus in their Greek New Testament, the mysteries of which might have been explained in a crash course on textual criticism.1 H.’s book introduces these manuscripts as particular historical artifacts. Beyond their importance as witnesses to Christian writings, they contain significant physical and visual features. Each manuscript tells the historian something about those who produced and read it. When taken together, these data begin to illuminate neglected corners of this period of church history. The Earliest Christian Artifacts aims to show how careful attention to these manuscripts can broaden the horizons of historical inquiries into early Christianity.

In the first chapter, H. introduces his reader to the literary texts found in second- and third-century Christian manuscripts. These include “Old Testament,” “New Testament,” and “apocryphal” texts. While these titles are anachronistic when referring to this early period, they remain convenient since they reflect the way in which the Christian canon was to develop. The range of writings found in these early manuscripts highlights the important role that texts played within early Christianity.

The presence of Old Testament texts within this collection raises the question as to how one might distinguish between Jewish and Christian manuscripts from this period. This distinction is central to a number of the arguments found in the book and to the debates between H. and his interlocutors. Throughout, H. contends that the existence of certain ambiguous manuscripts (i.e., those which cannot be classified with any certainty as being either Jewish or Christian) should not be allowed to overshadow the overwhelming evidence of those that are unambiguous.

In chapter 2 H. quantifies “The Early Christian Preference for the Codex” through an analysis of the Leuven Database of Ancient Books. The results, presented graphically in twelve charts on pp. 90-93, confirm that Christians had a clear preference for the codex, while rolls continued to be the dominant book form for non-Christian literary texts during the second and third centuries. The remainder of the chapter is taken up with exploring the possible origin and/or reasons for this preference.

Kurt Treu and, more recently, Robert Kraft have argued that the codex and nomina sacra (discussed in the following chapter) were adopted from Jewish scribal practices. Although admitting the possibility of Jewish influence, H. argues that there are no unambiguous examples of first-century Greek Jewish manuscripts that employ either the codex form or nomina sacra. H. reviews arguments that codices held various practical advantages over rolls, but maintains that none of these is strong enough to explain the overwhelming Christian preference for the codex.2 Rather, ‘the wholesale Christian preference for the codex’ can most likely be explained by some prior Christian use ‘that carried sufficient precedent-setting force’ (70). In searching for the most likely candidate for this ‘precedent-setting force’ H. follows Harry Gamble3 in suggesting that an early collection of some of Paul’s epistles in codex form would provide just such an impetus.

The third chapter of the book is concerned with nomina sacra — abbreviations typically consisting of the first and last letters of a particular word and identified by a horizontal line above the abbreviation. By the Byzantine period fifteen words were regularly written in this form, but the earliest common nomina sacra are those for Θεός, Κύριος, Χριστός and Ἰησοῦς.

While accepting that the phenomenon of nomina sacra originated in the same intellectual milieu as certain Jewish practices (that of reverence for the divine name and concomitant scribal practices), H. argues that the data do not allow for Greek-speaking Jewish practices to have been the origin of the Christian use of nomina sacra. There is no unambiguous evidence of Greek Jewish texts that use NS before the practice is established by Christian scribes. The handful of ambiguous manuscripts that do exhibit these phenomena are not sufficient to contradict the overwhelming number which do not. Rather, H. contends that these data reflect a possible “cross-fertilization” between Jewish and Christian scribes (110).

In attempting to explain the origin of the nomina sacra H. reminds the reader that the horizontal stroke above the nomina sacra was originally used to indicate Greek letters that were to be read as numerals. Furthermore, certain first- and second-century Christian texts suggest that Christians were familiar with the use of gematria (an exegetical practice in which numbers are associated with certain words on the basis of the value of their letters). The Epistle of Barnabas, for instance, associates the number 318 in Genesis 14:14 with the cross ( Τ = 300) and Jesus ( ΙΗ = 18) since the Greek letter tau looks like the cross and 18 is the numerical value of the first two letters of ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. H. sees in this text an already- formed association between Jesus’ name and the abbreviation ΙΗ. He sees a connection between this and the Hebrew word for “life” which also has a value of 18. The combination of the supralinear stroke with this unusual form is sufficient to suggest this as the origin for all Christian nomina sacra. “Jesus’ name is an unsurpassed candidate in early Christian piety as a factor capable of generating the sort of special treatment that is represented in the scribal practice that we call nomina sacra” (117).

When turning to the significance of the nomina sacra, H. contends that they indicate “a striking expression of the binitarian shape of early Christian devotion” (121) and, as such, must also be understood as textually and visually significant. Here H. is in discussion with Christopher Tuckett’s thesis that initially the nomina sacra represented reading aids for those unable to read texts fluently. Part of Tuckett’s argument rests on the inconsistent way in which the nomina sacra appear in early manuscripts. For H., however, these inconsistencies are not enough to negate what he sees as a significant scribal practice. As with the Christian use of the codex, the data suggest a substantial initial movement towards this practice, rather than a gradual acceptance of certain habits. H. maintains that this is better explained by his thesis than by Tuckett’s.

In the fourth chapter, H. examines “Christograms” and “staurograms” — monograms constructed by superimposing the Greek letter-combinations Χ and Τ, respectively. The latter are used in an especially striking way in a number of early papyri 4 when referring to Jesus’ cross or crucifixion. In keeping with the main theme of his book, H. argues that these need not only to be seen within their textual setting but should also be understood as visual references to the cross. These are therefore the earliest visual representations of Jesus’ crucifixion and, significantly, predate the Constantinian period.

The final chapter discusses “Other Scribal Features” of early Christian manuscripts. H. contends that the physical features of a codex (e.g., size, number of columns, size of margins, lines per page) all tell the careful reader something more about the person or community responsible for the production of that particular codex. Of special interest are the “readers’ aids” found in certain Christian manuscripts. These include breathing marks, punctuation and various other devices indicating sense units in the text, probably used to assist those tasked with reading the manuscripts aloud in public/liturgical settings. The division of a text into sense units reflects something of the interpretive process and these devices thus provide insight into early Christian exegesis.

H. concludes this final chapter by focusing on what the presence of corrections in early Christian manuscripts might indicate about the scribes that produced them, their attitude to the texts they were copying, and the processes involved in this production. Despite recent arguments to the contrary, H. observes that corrections made by the scribe or a contemporary indicate that care was taken to reproduce texts accurately. Furthermore, these corrections possibly point to work done in early scriptoria. This conclusion depends on how broadly one defines a scriptorium.

The book concludes with two appendices. The first comprises a table listing second- and third-century manuscripts containing Christian literary texts (both canonical and extracanonical). The extent of each text is identified and standard reference numbers are provided, along with other information for each manuscript (such as date, material, form). This table, together with the index of manuscripts, allows the reader to form a fairly good impression of the particularities that a manuscript under discussion displays. The second appendix consists of nine photographic plates of selected manuscripts that illustrate the physical and visual phenomena discussed in the book. Even though high-resolution, colour images of papyri are now readily available on the internet (H. provides a useful set of links on pp. 207-208), this appendix provides the uninitiated reader with convenient access to examples of the scribal features under discussion.

H.’s book is aimed primarily at readers with an interest in the New Testament and early Christianity but who have only a passing knowledge of the manuscripts produced by the movement. Technical terms are explained throughout and bibliographic guidance is given as his arguments proceed. Many of the ideas in this book will not be new to papyrologists or palaeographers, but to others it will provide an impetus to take note of and examine these artifacts more carefully.5 Those who teach introductory courses on the New Testament or early Christianity will want to put this book on their students’ reading lists.


1. The standard introductory textbooks for this subject remain B. M. Metzger and B. D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4 ed.; New York / Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), and K. Aland and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions (trans. E. F. Rhodes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leiden: Brill, 1987).

2. Don C. Barker (“Codex, Roll, and Libraries in Oxyrhynchus,” Tyndale Bulletin 57.1 (2006), 131-148) has recently suggested that the codex might have been used to protect the text it contained from tampering.

3. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

4. P.Chester Beatty ι; π.Bodmer ιι, χι Gregory-Aland P45, P66, P75).

5. The convening of a special session at the 2006 meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature to discuss H.’s book illustrates the growing interest in this and cognate fields.