BMCR 2010.02.10

Early Christian Books in Egypt

, Early Christian Books in Egypt. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. xv, 100. ISBN 9780691140261. $29.95.

Roger Bagnall is one of the foremost authorities on the written remains of Roman Egypt and the evidence they offer us for a lost world, but in this slender volume he wears his formidable learning lightly. The four essays that make up the book are adapted from lectures he gave at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in 2006. They offer engaging and approachable insights into a field of research in which even professional classicists are compelled to defer to the training and experience of experts, but which remains of interest to many. With a sweeping breadth that sacrifices remarkably little in the way of convincing depth, Bagnall makes an up-to-date survey of the topic of early Christian books in Egypt, indicates where (and why) research may have gone astray in the past, and points the way forward for future work.

The first chapter deals with the dating of the remains of the first Christian books in Egypt. Bagnall begins by drawing out the implications of his eventual conclusions. For the history of the Church in Egypt before the episcopate of Demetrios (189-231) as bishop of Alexandria we have only scrappy evidence in much later texts. This ignorance has led to the suggestion that before the third century there were no bishops in the see apart from the bishop of Alexandria, but that presbyters filled the role bishops had elsewhere, and even that there were practically no Christians in the chora outside of Alexandria. It has, furthermore, led to an earnest desire to uncover some evidence for the early Egyptian church in the papyri. There is, however, no reason for Christians to be identified as such in the documentary papyri, and, on account of the difficulty of dating epistolary hands and identifying letter-writing conventions, the private letters which can definitely be assigned to the second century are not necessarily Christian and none of the letters which are clearly Christian can be dated with certainty to the second century. That leaves literary papyri. Bagnall identifies the papyrus book fragments which have been dated to the second century or its margins, noting the opinions of prominent scholars and associations made among them. Then he draws the reader’s attention to the question of proportions. If the factors of lower odds of survival and preferential publication are taken to cancel each other out, what proportion of our literary papyri should we expect to be Christian? On the basis of two different models of the growth of the Christian population of Egypt Bagnall works out a table of the percentages Christians should represent at various dates from 100 to 250. Whatever opinion one may hold of attempts to reconstruct populations in the ancient world, it must be conceded that the proportion of the population we imagine to be represented by Christians has a direct bearing on the number of their papyri we expect to find at different times if we assume the same functional literacy for Christians as for non-Christians. Bagnall concludes that the number of early Christian literary papyri we are supposed to have as a percentage of all literary papyri greatly exceeds what might be expected from the Christians as a percentage of the population. Rather than insisting on a radical redating of the papyri in question, however, Bagnall merely suggests that scholars should feel themselves under no undue pressure to push back the date of a Christian papyrus because we should not really expect to find them at all from the crucial period of the second century.

Bagnall follows his argument for the paucity of Christian literary remains we should expect before the turn of the second century with a pair of case studies. The first concerns Carsten Peter Thiede’s attempt to date the Magdalen papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Matthew to the first century and support his overall contention that the Gospel was composed before the fall of Jerusalem in 71. I can only imagine that it was the notoriety of this case which suggested it as an example of a private or partisan agenda skewing the scholarship of early Christian papyri toward an early date. It certainly required no subtlety for Bagnall to demolish Thiede’s claims for the benefit of the reader. Indeed, it might be considered a mean-spirited exaggeration to describe an affair which might have been dismissed with a shrug as “gruesome” and “horrifying” and to characterize Thiede’s ZPE article as a parody of academic form with none of its substance, particularly in light of his recent death. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, after all. Without lash in hand Bagnall seems, by contrast, inconclusive in his treatment of Antonio Carlini’s suggestion that a fragment of the Shepherd of Hermas might belong to the first half of the second century. Carlini himself concedes that the palaeographic evidence is at odds with the testimony of the Muratorian Canon (dated to near the end of the second century) that the Shepherd was written during the episcopate of Pius in Rome (142-55). Bagnall offers a generous hearing to Carlini’s resolution of the problem with reference to the composite nature of the Shepherd and the possibility that we might find remains of its independently circulating parts. The Hermas fragments highlight the complications of serious and disinterested scholarship. The contrasting examples of early dating might have played well to the audience of a lecture, but are perhaps not so instructive in the less ephemeral format of a written essay.

The next chapter deals with the economic aspects of book production and ownership. Bagnall leads his readers through a dense thicket of figures and calculations specifying the cost of making books, including the relative prices of parchment versus papyrus, scribal fees for work in various hands, and the size of codices or rolls containing the whole Bible or portions thereof; he finally arrives at a clearing in the form of a neat and tidy chart indicating the cost of a Bible if it were produced on different materials or with different hands. From the figures in the chart he demonstrates that a book in the best calligraphic hand would be only marginally cheaper on papyrus than on parchment, but using parchment would double the price of a papyrus book in an ordinary documentary hand. Bagnall’s marshalling of the evidence confirms the prices for books noted in our literary sources. He also notes that while cheaper than parchment, papyrus was still valuable enough to be recycled and that there is no evidence that the monasteries reduced the price of manuscripts.

Bagnall’s examination of the problem of book ownership tends to confirm his hypothesis that we should not hope to find any signs of Christian books from second-century Egypt. Using sixth-century sources for ecclesiastical income and wages, he suggests that book ownership was beyond the reach of any clergy but the bishops. Estimating the income of a reader, a functionary on the lowest rung of the ecclesiastical ladder, to be 10 solidi a year and a papyrus copy of even a single gospel to cost a third of a solidus, he likens such a purchase to a $1,000 outlay for a person making $35,000 a year. “People at that sort of income level do not buy books at that price. Even the best-paid of academics do not buy many books at that price.” Bagnall does not take the question of priorities into account. There are plenty of people in that unenviable income bracket who have spent in excess of $1,000 on a television or stereo. What was the cachet of Scripture of your very own? Nevertheless, complete Bibles, perhaps most books, must have been prohibitively expensive for the majority. And so Bagnall returns to his observation that we find more papyrus fragments of Christian books from the late second or early third century than we should expect. On the basis of Chester Beatty Papyrus VII, from a codex of Isaiah with glosses in a primitive form of Coptic, he speculates that this phenomenon is related to the creation of civic councils in the nome capitals after 200. Books might have been commissioned, he suggests, by the wealthy but socially uncertain class of bilingual native Egyptians who were recruited as councilors. Bagnall admits how speculative his suggestions are on this front, and his readers may hope for a more thorough treatment of the matter.

The fourth and final chapter offers an accessible survey of the evidence for the replacement of the book roll with the codex in Egypt. Scholars and interested laymen alike have traditionally held the assumption that the codex form was especially popular amongst Christians and that the eventual predominance of the Church was somehow linked with the eventual prevalence of the codex. Bagnall shows that this cannot really be demonstrated from a statistical analysis of the data. The use of the codex by Christians seems to be proportionally consistent with its use over time in other circles, with the exception of devotees of classical Greek literature. Exploiting the evidence of the so-called Theban Magical Library he suggests, moreover, that the influence of Christianity cannot account for the rise of the codex. What is remarkable is the regular preference of Christians for the codex for the copying of scriptural texts. With very few exceptions the books of the Bible, as well as extra-canonical books which Bagnall describes as “also rans”, are preserved in codices. Bagnall dismisses some of the current explanations of this phenomenon in favour of what seems a compelling solution to the problem. The codex probably comes from Rome, originating with a number of tablets strung together. Bagnall suggests that we consider the spread of the codex an example of Romanization in the eastern Mediterranean world. The resistance to this thesis, he proposes, stems from a desire to see Christianity as a counter-cultural resistance movement, deeply antipathetic to Roman imperial power. The idea of the Christians exploiting a distinctly Roman artefact to preserve their Scriptures does not sit well with such a presumption.

And here we return to one of the themes that unites Bagnall’s remarkably wide-ranging little book. To what extent have researchers’ often unstated assumptions, or perhaps aspirations, their deeply held sympathies and loyalties determined the course and the findings of the study of ancient Christian books? This recurring question and Bagnall’s astute answers make these essays more than a survey or a ‘state of the scholarship’. They offer a healthy corrective to the potential contamination of research by preconceived ideas and ideological commitments, and not only in the author’s chosen subject, but in our field generally.