SBL Presentation, Toronto, 25 November 2002
It has become a widely held opinion in discussions of ancient Greek literature that two of the main criteria for distinguishing "Christian" from "Jewish" scriptural fragments are (1) mega-format -- Christians tended to use the newly developed codex technology while Jews used scrolls -- and (2) treatment of nomina sacra -- while Jews had special ways of representing the tetragrammaton, Christians developed an entire system for abbreviating special words and names. Martin Hengel's recently translated book on The Septuagint as Christian Scripture (Clark 2002; with a long prehistory), which probably will attain wide usage in such circles as ours, states this position succinctly: "Long before there was a 'New Testament,' the Christian LXX was distinguished by the use of the codex rather than the Jewish scroll. Further, the tetragrammaton, as a rule continued in use in Greek scrolls of Jewish provenance, but in the Christian codices it was replaced by ku/riov, which was now written , like xristo/v and other nomina sacra, for emphasis with only the initial and final letters and a line above (KS, XS, etc.). This distinction must reach back into the first century and thus makes it possible to distinguish between Jewish and Christian manuscripts practically from the very beginning" (41). My presentation attempts to call such conclusions, which have now become widespread assumptions, into question by reexamining the ancient evidence now available.
Scholarly Context: The idea that Christians popularized the use of the codex has a long history in modern scholarship, and is probably most closely argued in the essay on "The Birth of the Codex" by the late Colin H. Roberts (Proceedings of the British Academy 40  169-204), revised and supplemented by Theodore C. Skeat into a small monograph (The British Academy and Oxford University Press  1987). In discussing, and rejecting, various theories for why Christians so quickly adopted the codex format (cheaper, more compact, easier to use), Roberts and Skeat rather casually and without further discussion allude to the dilemma that I wish to explore more closely: "We would have expected the earliest Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, to be strongly prejudiced in favour of the roll by upbringing, education and environment" (53). That there was no appropriate first century CE codex environment for early Christians is simply assumed, and possible supporting evidence for the use of codices in Jewish contexts at that time is dismissed or ignored on the principle that "Jews used scrolls, Christians used codices" -- supported by the further assumption that only Christians used nomina sacra representations. Then they provide two alternate hypotheses to explain the virutally immediate adoption of the codex by Christians: (1) the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome where we know that the codex format was being experimented with for literature, was transported to Alexandria, and from there set a pattern for other early Christian writings [Roberts' original suggestion], and (2) the sayings of Jesus were transcribed on tablets (on the model of law codes in Jewish contexts in Jerusalem and/or Antioch) that came to constitute a proto-Gospel in codex form, and thence to be imitated from Antioch [Skeat's revision].
Socio-Religious Context: It should be noted that questions about Jewish scribal practices and bookmaking techniques are never thoroughly discussed. Indeed, it is assumed (1) that later rabbinic Jewish evidence about the use of scrolls and other media is immediately applicable to the first century Greek Jewish situation, and (2) that in the matter of literary production, as in some other areas, Christians were anxious to differentiate themselves from Jews. Note the following statements: "It may be further noted that, whether or not this was the intention, nomina sacra share the same characteristic with the codex of differentiating Christian from both Jewish and pagan books" (57). "The [Christian] missionaries to the Gentiles would have needed Greek manuscripts, initially perhaps only of the Septuagint, [which] ... cannot have made use of the Hebrew tetragram for the Name of God, and the necessity to find an alternative may have led to the invention of the nomina sacra" (59; what did Jewish Greek speakers use among Gentiles, we might ask?). "Jewish children, like Gentile children, started their education on tablets and continued to use them for memoranda. ... Tablets of the kinds just mentioned [for recording isolated rabbinic sayings of "Oral Law"], including tablets of papyrus, would have been in common use amongst the Jews there [in Antioch]" (59). "It could be argued that the Jews equally used tablets for recording the Oral Law, but in no case did this usage develop into the codex. ... The use of the roll in Judaism was so rooted in tradition and prescribed by the Law [sic!] that such a development would have been impossible. The Christians, however, would have had no such inhibitions, and to them the adoption of a form of book which like the nomina sacra would have differentiated them from both Jews and pagans, as already noted, might have constituted an additional attraction" (60).
Ambiguous Evidence: The admixture of "social history" and "material remains" in such an argument is obvious. But does it make sense? To deny that Jews could or would have used codices under similar conditions is simply to beg the question. Indeed, even Roberts and Skeat admit to the existence of a Jewish codex of Genesis around the end of the second century (POxy 656 -- "in spite of the codex form we consider it to be of Jewish origin"  -- presumably because QEOS and KURIOS are written in full by the original hand?). But other codex fragments of Greek Jewish scriptures from the same period they automatically classify as "Christian," without discussion:
Strangely, a couple of other codex fragments for which a Jewish origin seems quite possible are not included in this discussion, perhaps because they are dated slightly later -- Roberts did comment on them briefly in his 1977 Schweich Lectures on Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (British Academy and Oxford University Press 1979):
Of course, if Jews were producing and using biblical codices in the late 2nd and into the 3rd centuries, the argument/assumption that "if it's a codex, it's Christian" is seriously jeapordized, and the unasked question of when Jews began to use codices becomes even more relevant. And the appearance of simple nomina sacra (for QEOS and perhaps also KURIOS) in these possibly Jewish codices is equally intriguiging.
Christian Scribal Activities: Furthermore, Roberts and Skeat admit that "The Christian manuscripts of the second century, although not reaching a high standard of calligraphy, generally exhibit a competent style of writing which has been called 'reformed documentary' [quote from Roberts] and which is likely to be the work of experienced scribes, whether Christian or not. ... It is therefore a reasonable assumption that the scribes of the Christian texts received pay for their work" (46). Apart from what we can infer from the extant remnants, we know very little about Jewish or Christian scribal practices including training and "commercial" production of texts in these early centuries, but it is an area that deserves some reflection. Were there Jewish booksellers and professional copyists who would make copies for paying customers? Was Jewish literature available through the non-Jewish book trade? Would professional copyists attempt to emulate formatting features in their exemplars? To what extent might "educated" early Jewish followers of Jesus such as Paul have made their own copies of materials useful to them? At what point might (non-Jewish) Christian leaders employ their own copyists, and how would they be trained (and/or religiously oriented)? When did an independent and selfconsciously "Christian" booktrade develop, and how did it operate?
These questions are basic to treatments of textuality, transmission, technique, and technology in the world in which early Christianity developed, yet are seldom even imagined, much less discussed. Since we have a growing body of relevant evidence, both Jewish pre-Christian in date, on the one side, and certifiably "Christian" by the 2nd century CE, on the other, it is possible to attempt to investigate details regarding possible continuities, and discontinuities, between these chronological and community poles. The evidence is not very widely distributed geographically -- north-central Egypt (Fayyum, Oxyrhynchos) and the Judean caves bear most of the weight. Nevertheless, some of the scribal phenomena are suggestive.
Unambiguously Jewish Fragments: Pre-Christian fragments of Greek Jewish scriptures and related literature:
Features of note:
General Observations: It seems safe to speak of the existence of professionally prepared copies of Greek Jewish scriptures, surviving from a few locations in Egypt and Judea. There are scribal features in many of these fragments that are not typical, although perhaps not unique, in contemporary non-Jewish literary texts (especially the use of spacing, sometimes in conjunction with marginal sectioning markers). The special four-lettered name of deity receives a variety of special treatments, suggesting that perhaps no single or even relatively restricted Jewish scribal convention had been developed for that feature. If these generalizations are correct, it would seem presumptuous to ascribe similar features in "early Christian" manuscripts (e.g. use of spacing, marginal section markup) to "documentry" influence, as has sometimes been done, or even to consider special treatment of names associated with deity to be original or special to Christians. Quite the contrary, I would argue that the presence of such features in manuscripts of Christian date and/or provenance indicates continuity in scribal practice, if not misidentification or confusion of "Christian" and "Jewish" products and procedures. It is doubtful that in general "Christians" dissociated themselves from their "Jewish" predecessors in the production of manuscripts, or at least of copies of Greek Jewish scriptures.
Conclusions: Christians did, it is clear, develop their own scribal conventions as time went on. Even if Jewish practice gave impetus to the compression and/or abbreviation of special names, Christian scribes gradually created much more extensive and detailed "systems," tending to de facto standardization of nomina sacra in later generations. Even though the practice of marking blocks of text and/or of spacing between some sub-units is evidenced in some early Christian materials, Christian scribes also seem to have tended to employ the "scriptio continua" (uninterrupted flow of letters) format more common in the surrounding literary worlds, sometimes in combination with blocked format. But "Christian" scribal practice did not originate de novo with the emergence of selfconscious followers of Jesus who did not consider themselves "Jewish." It seems to have inherited, probably in a gradual and natural transition (as with many other areas of early Christian development!), features that already existed in pre-Christian Jewish circles. And I can't help but wonder whether the preference for the codex format may not also be attributed to the same process.
Appendix: Pre-notes to SBL 2002 presentation (Nov 2002)
I hardly know where to begin. The larger context of much of my scholarly career has been the appropriation and adaptation of Jewish materials by early Christians, especially with reference to literature and traditions known to us from literary evidence. I've tended to look at texts, and the way they have been interpreted and repurposed. I've wondered about how such stories, teachings, and instructions passed from individual to individual, generation to generation, usually contenting myself with general assumptions about "preaching" and "teaching" in religio-social contexts (communities) and/or more explicitly "educational" settings -- with occasional reference, especially in recent years, to the role grandparents play in transmitting information and values!
When I began my study of these things, the newly discovered DSS were creating a stir that challenged many of the older assumptions and "firm" conclusions of scholarship. I learned to ask questions -- many of them old, but also some new and even impertinent questions. Not only about how "they" obtained and transmitted what was important to them in antiquity, but how we "knew" what we claimed to know. The remnants of the past fascinated me, of whatever sort (I confess to being a closet archaeologist), but the often fragmentary texts, relatively more accessible as it seemed, really captured my interest -- but mostly for their contents.
I'm a nosy sort of person with antiquarian and technological inclinations. I like to rummage, to check out what's stored in attics, to figure out what makes a mechanism work, and how to fix it if it's broken. I like puzzles, especially jigsaw and crossword. So examining and trying to reassemble broken pieces of ancient documents held great appeal for me, and I got into that game quite early in my career, but without the benefit of formal training. Even before computers came along, much could be done by using photographs and graph paper. With the development of computer techniques, and now internet imaging, much more became possible.
Early Christianity provided my entry point for the study of antiquity. I knew about Judaism and its scriptures through the filters of mid-20th century protestant scholarship. I soaked up the new information on "Judaism" in the period that gave rise to "Christianity," and the emerging new information on early Christian varieties, thanks to the twin contributions of the DSS and the Nag Hammadi codices. The inability to fit everything together neatly provided a challenge, but was not itself a deterrant or disappointment. Discovering variety and loose ends had its own rewards.
It became clear that early Christianity, in its various forms, owed more to Judaism, in its various forms, that was often recognized. And that some forms of Judaism -- not to speak of Jewish individuals -- had adapted more to the Greco-Roman surroundings than was often acknowledged. The supposed borders between "Judaism" and the hellenistic worlds were quite porous. And similarly, in many contexts the borders between "Judaism" and early "Christianity" were also quite blurred, and perhaps made sense only retrospectively.
Early Christians adopted and adapted Jewish scriptures. That is easy to say and, in general as well as in particular instances, easy to see, despite -- or perhaps also because of -- the exceptions. I knew that; didn't we all? But what did that mean at the "real life" level? Where did the actual objects, presumably initially scrolls of these scriptures come from? Jews who became adherents of the Jesus-Messiah movements presumably brought such objects with them, if they were already owners, or perhaps purchased or copied them through private transactions or on the open market. Of course, once a person or group was in possession of a desired copy, it could be recopied and distributed further, by private or by professional means. But we have very little evidence, even in the form of cryptic clues, as to how this was all done.
We know there were bookshops and booksellers in that larger world into which early Christianity emerged. Could one obtain a copy of, say, Deuteronomy from one of them? Were there specifically Jewish booksellers? If someone commissioned a professional copyist (e.g. through a bookshop) to make a copy of Deuteronomy, where would the copyist obtain the text to copy? Would a synagogue or proseuche permit copies to be made of their scriptural scrolls? By whom? Under what conditions? Where did the copies owned such an institution originate? Did they have any distinguishing features, of accuracy or format or whatever? Would the Temple in Jerusalem (or in Heliopolis, for that matter) have especially valuable copies that served as models?
The questions multiply, but clear answers are not to be had. Might it be possible to make a small dent in the large pile by looking closely at the expanding body of actual manuscript fragments that preserve materials from immediately before and during the earliest period of Christian emergence? The research on which this presentation reports attempts to make a start at such an approach.
1. Thanks largely to the DJD, we now have a significant number of fragments from pre-Christian Jewish scriptures on which to evaluate old theories and propose new ones.
2. The identified fragments that we have are largely from the books of the Pentateuch, and nicely written.
3. Features of special note [mega = scroll/codex, size; text block = cols, dividers, style; line/letter = letter formation, punct and spacing, abbrevs, etc.] include:
4. The earliest fragments of such Jewish scriptural materials after the emergence of Christianity
5. The undocumented process of acquisition, adaptation, development by "Christian" scribes
Conclusion: seldom a matter of "innovation," but rather "tendencies." The "Christian" evidence is not incompatible with what the "Jewish" evidence shows, and in some details suggests strong continuities. Clearly Christians developed more elaborate schemes for nomina sacra, but even those can be understood out of a backrgound of Jewish treatments of the tetragrammaton.
//end of prenotes//