BMCR 2022.02.32

Bodmer Papyri, scribal culture, and textual transmission: collected works on New Testament textual criticism

, Bodmer Papyri, scribal culture, and textual transmission: collected works on New Testament textual criticism. New Testament tools, studies and documents. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. 382, xviii. ISBN 9789004311411 €154,00.

When the Bodmer Papyri began to be published in the 1950s, they created a sensation. P.Bodmer 2 and P.Bodmer 14-15, the manuscripts that form the focal point of the collection under review, were especially exciting for scholars of ancient Christianity. P.Bodmer 2, a papyrus codex containing the Gospel According to John in Greek, and P.Bodmer 14-15, a papyrus codex containing the Gospel According to Luke and the Gospel According to John in Greek, were in an excellent state of preservation relative to most known Christian papyri. The early dates assigned to the manuscripts by their editors (“around the year 200” for P.Bodmer 2 and “between 175 and 225” for P.Bodmer 14-15) added to the excitement.

This volume brings together a number of previously published works by Gordon D. Fee relating to the textual criticism of the New Testament. Most of the studies collected here involve one or both of the celebrated gospel manuscripts associated with the Bodmer collection.[1] Fee’s contributions to the study of these manuscripts have long been considered essential reading, and New Testament scholars will welcome this convenient collection.

In a somewhat unusual arrangement, the essays have been selected and edited by Fee’s doctoral supervisor, Eldon J. Epp. About one third of the volume consists of a reprint of the published version of Fee’s doctoral dissertation, Papyrus Bodmer II (P66): Its Textual Relationships and Scribal Characteristics (1968).[2] The remainder of the book falls into two sections. The first part contains ten essays published by Fee between 1965 and 1992, several of which can justifiably be called “classics” in spite of their often highly technical nature. A list of these chapters along with their original publication data is appended to the end of this review. The second part is a set of bibliographic resources that includes a list of Fee’s publications relating to the textual criticism of the New Testament and a lightly annotated bibliography of editions and studies on P.Bodmer 2 and P.Bodmer 14-15 current up to 2017 prepared by Epp. The whole collection is preceded by a brief (four-page) preface by Epp.

Both Epp and Fee have well-earned reputations for meticulous scholarship, and this volume continues to enhance that standing. The essays have been edited with care. The pagination of the original publications is provided in the outer margins of each page, and cross-references to material that is included in the volume have been supplemented within brackets in the footnotes. Several helpful indices make for easy navigation of the volume.

When the first part of P.Bodmer 2 was published in 1956 by Victor Martin just months after Martin Bodmer bought it, scholars universally applauded the editor’s speedy publication. New Testament textual critics, however, lamented Martin’s inattention to the distinction between the text as originally copied and the many corrections in the manuscript, as well as his reliance upon an outdated edition of the Greek New Testament for his textual commentary.[3] Martin’s judgements about unique readings in the manuscript and textual relationships with other manuscripts could not be trusted. The publication of a revised text of P.Bodmer 2 along with photographic plates of the entire manuscript in 1962 vastly improved the situation.

Fee’s dissertation and early articles exploited the newly available photographs to the fullest and provided detailed discussions of the text of the manuscript and its roughly 450 corrections. Fee characterized the text of P.Bodmer 2 as “mixed,” within the standard framework of New Testament text types. He determined that “the large number of corrections…involving variants which are widely attested in other early MSS, means that we may conclude quite positively that the scribe…, after copying from one MS, had opportunity at a later time to check his copy against another MS, with the result that in a number of instances he chose one reading over another and changed his own MS” (61). This subset of significant corrections thus provided a glimpse of textual revision in action at the end of the second century (more on the question of dating below). Fee noted that the copyist’s revisions did not meet the standards of modern text critical principles. That is to say, the copyist’s corrections were not directed toward recovering an earlier form of the text. Rather, these revisions were aimed at producing a smoother and more readable text, the kind of text generally associated with the so-called “Byzantine type” that began to emerge in the fourth century. As Fee somewhat provocatively put it, the scribe of P.Bodmer 2, “if one may be allowed an anachronism, is a ‘Byzantine’ copyist at work in the second century” (163).

The situation with P.Bodmer 14-15 was quite different. Published in 1961 by Victor Martin and Rodolphe Kasser, the text of P.Bodmer 14-15 showed a very high level of agreement with the text of Codex Vaticanus. So strong was the resemblance that Fee concluded “the discovery of [P.Bodmer 14-15] now makes it certain that the text of [Codex Vaticanus] existed in the second century” (259).

In some respects, Fee’s work has aged quite well. His cautious approach to comparing the texts of individual manuscripts and to weighing the importance of different kinds of variants remains a useful guide. His special interest in corrections anticipated the close attention to “scribal habits” that has occupied more recent generations of textual critics, whose studies have often been published in the same New Testament Tools, Studies, and Documents series in which this volume appears.

Indeed, one of the ways in which Fee’s work shows its age most clearly is in its differences from these more recent studies of “scribal habits” of early Christian manuscripts. These latter analyses usually include detailed discussions of the materiality of the manuscripts such as issues of codicology, provenance, and dating in addition to the type of careful assessments of textual variants and corrections that characterize Fee’s work.[4] Fee generally avoided questions relating to the material aspects of manuscripts. A programmatic statement at the beginning of his dissertation is informative: “When a new MS of the New Testament is discovered, there are at least three tasks which, ideally, those who analyze its text should undertake: to describe the find and determine its date and provenance, to locate it in the existing MS tradition, and to evaluate its role in the search for the ‘original’ text of the New Testament” (3). Fee was clear that his own work involved only the second and third tasks (“It has been assumed that the work of task one has been done”). While that assumption may have been safe in the 1960s, it is clear in retrospect that the physical aspects of many manuscripts published in the twentieth century were inadequately treated. Issues of provenance, codicology, and dating in fact require the same kind of scrutiny that scholars like Fee applied to the texts inscribed on the manuscripts.

In this connection, it is worth noting an omission from Epp’s bibliography on the Bodmer Papyri at the end of the volume. In 2015, the journal Adamantius published several articles detailing recent developments in the study of the Bodmer Papyri, including a reassessment of the dates of the manuscripts by the noted palaeographer Pasquale Orisini. Orsini assigned P.Bodmer 2 to the period from the “middle of the third century to the middle of the fourth century” and P.Bodmer 14-15 to the period from “the end of the third century to the beginning of the fourth century.”[5] If this assessment of the dates of these codices is correct, then much of Fee’s extremely detailed textual work needs to be seen in a different light. Fee applied his textual conclusions to the historical context of the second century and early third century. It is possible now that his conclusions should be applied to the state of the text in the later third century or (more likely in my view) the fourth century, during and after the time of Constantine.

Another indication of the ways that scholarship has changed since the writing of these essays is evident in Fee’s regular reference to the different “text types” of New Testament manuscripts (Western, Byzantine, Neutral, etc.). The mainstream of New Testament textual criticism appears to be progressively moving away from both this terminology and the conceptual framework that underlies it.[6] It should be noted, however, that some of Fee’s own publications (especially his analysis of the “mixed” character of the text of P.Bodmer 2) can be seen as anticipating this turn in scholarship.

Even if the field has shifted considerably since the time when these chapters were written, Fee’s dissertation and essays provide a snapshot of some of the most important and innovative anglophone text critical work of the twentieth century.

Original publication data for material reprinted in this volume:

Papyrus Bodmer II (P66): Its Textual Relationships and Scribal Characteristics (Studies and Documents, 34; Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1968).

“Corrections of Papyrus Bodmer II and the Nestle Greek New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965), 66-72.

“The Corrections of Papyrus Bodmer II and Early Textual Transmission,” Novum Testamentum 7 (1965), 247-257.

“Codex Sinaiticus in the Gospel of John: A Contribution to Methodology in Establishing Textual Relationships,” New Testament Studies 15 (1968/1969), 23-44. Also reprinted in Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Studies and Documents, 45; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 221-243.

“The Use of the Definite Article with Personal Names in the Gospel of John,” New Testament Studies 17 (1970/1971), 168-183.

“The Text of John in Origen and Cyril of Alexandria: A Contribution to Methodology in the Recovery and Analysis of Patristic Citations,” Biblica 52 (1971) 357-394. Also reprinted in Epp and Fee, Studies in Theory and Method, 301-334.

“The Lemma of Origen’s Commentary on John, Book X—An Independent Witness to the Egyptian Tradition?” New Testament Studies 20 (1973/1974), 78-81.

“P75, P66, and Origen: The Myth of Early Textual Recension in Alexandria,” in Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (eds.), New Dimensions in New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 19-45. Also reprinted in Epp and Fee, Studies in Theory and Method, 247-273.

“The Text of John and Mark in the Writings of Chrysostom,” New Testament Studies 26 (1979/1980) 525-547.

“On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4,” Evangelical Quarterly 54 (1982), 207-218. Also reprinted in Gordon D. Fee, To What End Exegesis? Essays Textual, Exegetical, and Theological (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 17-28.

“On the Text and Meaning of John 20:30-31,” in F. Van Segbroeck et al. (eds.), The Four Gospels, 1992: Festschrift Frans Neirynck (3 vols.;  Leuven: Leuven University Press; Peeters, 1992) 3:2193-2205.


[1] Available records indicate that Martin Bodmer purchased P.Bodmer 2 and P.Bodmer 14-15 in a series of transactions between 1955 and 1956. Small parts of P.Bodmer 2 were also purchased by Chester Beatty and the University of Cologne. The bulk of P.Bodmer 2 remains at the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Cologny, but the Fondation sold P.Bodmer 14-15 in 2006. The purchaser donated it to the Vatican Library, where it currently resides. Some small fragments of P.Bodmer 14-15 have since been identified in the Bodmer collection, and these remain in Cologny. See Brent Nongbri and Daniel B. Sharp, “Four Newly Identified Fragments P.Bodmer 14-15 (P75),” Novum Testamentum 62 (2020), 99-106.

[2] The published version differs substantially from the version Fee submitted for the degree. The latter treated the texts of both P.Bodmer 2 and P.Bodmer 14-15. See Gordon D. Fee, The Significance of Papyrus Bodmer II and Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV for Methodology in New Testament Textual Criticism (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1966).

[3] See, for example, Kurt Aland, “Das Johannesevangelium auf Papyrus,” Forschungen und Fortschritte 31 (1957), 50-55 along with Howard M. Teeple and F. Allyn Walker, “Notes on the Plates in Papyrus Bodmer II,” Journal of Biblical Literature 78 (1959), 148-152.

[4] For a recent example, see Peter Malik, P.Beatty II (P47): The Codex, Its Scribe, and Its Text, New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents 52 (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 21-71.

[5] Pasquale Orsini, “I papiri Bodmer: scritture e libri,” Adamantius 21 (2015), 60-78. See especially the chart on 77.

[6] For a concise statement of the reasons behind this shift, see David C. Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 171-174.