In Search of Jewish Greek Scriptures: Exposing the Obvious?
by Robert A. Kraft [31oc07 draft] [#01]
for Toronto conference on "Editorial Problems" (1-4 November 2007)

Abstract: Jesus and his earliest followers apparently were Semitic speaking Jews living in Roman Palestine, but their messages quickly spread into the Greek speaking worlds in which Jews had been quite active for centuries. The Greek sources left to us by the early Christian authors, compilers, and copyists include Jewish writings and traditions of various sorts, especially those that later became "canonized." Greek speaking Jews tend to disappear from our preserved sources in the second century CE, leaving the impression that the gradually dominating Semitic Judaism of the Rabbis has displaced most other Jewish representatives. This paper will challenge that simplistic assessment by drawing together evidence from and about Jewish scriptures in Greek throughout the Greco-Roman period. 

The surviving examples [#02] of Greco-Roman literature from the period that covers Christian origins (i.e. through the 3nd century ce, for present purposes) were predominantly written on scrolls (not codices) in "continuous writing" (scripta continuo) without much indication of sense units (paragraphs, phrases, punctuation) or inclusion of  pronunciation aids (rough breathings, disambiguation of consecutive vowels) and without any significant use of abbreviations, whether of names or of frequently used words or of numbers. Thus past generations of scholars could claim that certain characteristics of early Christian books pointed to Christian innovation or at least to specifically Christian exploitation of relatively new bookmaking practices. At the most obvious level, the Christian use of the codex [#03] rather than the scroll was heralded, and the employment of special abbreviated forms of certain names and words ("nomina sacra") [#04]. Other less obvious editorial features also received attention, such as page formatting with paragraphs and sense units demarcated by various means [#05] (paragraphoi, ekthesis, horizontal strokes, spacing) and more detailed "inner text" reading aids such as punctuation and diacritics (rough breathing markers, dieresis to separate adjacent vowels, similar markings when certain consecutive consonants occurred) [#06].  Various explanations were offered, sometimes emphasizing Christian self-definition over against other groups (especially Judaism), often pointing to similarities with scribal practices more common in the worlds that produced "documents" of various sorts (laws and edicts, contracts and deeds, petitions, tax records, receipts) and ephemeral communications (personal notes, invitations) or even memory aids (memos, school exercises) [#07]  than in the world of "high literature" and its dissemenation -- thus supporting ideas about the lower social status of early Christians and their scribes.

There has been a spate of recent studies, both in hard copy and online [#08], that provide new information relevant to this discussion of the production of written materials in this early period. At the very technical level, for example, Emanuel Tov has presented a detailed analysis of scribal techniques evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls and associated materials (2004) [#09]. In a survey aimed at a more general audience, Larry Hurtado deals with most of the relevant evidence in his recent book on The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (2006) [#10]. My own online investigations can be most easily accessed through an online index page [#11]. At the methodological level -- how do we know what we claim to know and what have we assumed in order to draw  our conclusions? -- the door through which I want to take you was actually opened by the late Kurt Treu, in his groundbreaking but often overlooked essay [#12] on the significance of Greek for the Jews in the Roman Empire (1973).

My aim is to expose the debt that early Christian scribes owed to their Jewish Greek predecessors [#13]. The main corpus of surviving evidence that can be interrogated consists of fragments of works that came to be considered "scriptural" within Jewish circles and subsequently by Christians as well, and some closely associated materials. The corpus continues to grow as new discoveries are made either in the field or in the accumulated collections of papyri and related materials in our museums and libraries or in private hands.  The interpretations and theories that I'm challenging were developed at a time when this corpus was relatively small and when few certifiably pre-Christian Jewish texts were available. [#14] Now we have about 20 such items, plus some 30 more from the period before Christianity received official recognition and protection under Constantine (early 4th century) [#15].

The easiest place to begin is with those little details that Hurtado calls "readers' aids" -- the use of spacing within the text to mark out sense units, marginal markings for similar purposes, punctuation, rough breating marks, dieresis, and the like -- "scribal devices that reflect a concern to guide and facilitate reading of the texts" (177) [#16]. Although Hurtado wants to argue, in accord with the rest of his book, that "in their time the earliest Christian manuscripts represented the leading edge of such developments in book practices" (179), the appearance of Tov's close study of Jewish scribal practices forces Hurtado to concede that "we can probably assume influence of some scribal features found in Jewish biblical manuscripts upon early Christian copying practices such as the practice of signaling at least major sense units of the texts" (185) [#17]. Since the early Christians certainly obtained their copies of Jewish scriptural books from Jewish sources, probably directly, or at least indirectly through booksellers, it should occasion no surprise that the Christian scribal practices reflect continuity with Jewish practices. And the explanation that these features "facilitate reading of the texts" works equally well for synagogue oriented Judaism as for Christian liturgical contexts.

But having said that much, it is a short step to exploring Christian uses of special abbreviations [#18]. The early Jewish texts clearly deal with divine names, especially the tetragrammaton or "four lettered" designation of deity, in special ways, including abbreviation, both in the Semitic language materials from the Judean desert and in surviving Greek fragments. This phenomenon is known to later Christian authors who continue to have contact with Jewish manuscript sources, including Origen and Jerome [#19]. We may titter a bit when we hear of the PIPI manuscripts, where the square Hebrew representation of the tetragrammaton is rendered as exactly as Greek orthography allows into the similar looking sequence PIPI. But strictly speaking, that is not an abbreviation. The Greek IAW, known not only from a Greek Judean Desert manuscript but from onomastic lists (on the meanings of Hebrew terms) and the world of gems and amulets [#20], is such an abbreviation. And the frequent double or triple archaic Hebrew yod, with a line through or over it, is also such. The failure of our sources thus far to preserve an unambiguously Jewish example of an abbreviation of the Greek term usually used to represent the tetragrammaton, KURIOS ("LORD"), is extremely weak evidence for arguing  that this is a Christian development. All indications suggest that it makes more sense as another carryover from Greek Jewish scribal practice [#21].

The abbreviation of names and common words [#22], normally by "suspension" (omitting the final letters) rather than by "contraction" (omitting letters between the beginning and ending) is widely used in the surviving "documentary" texts from the Greco-Roman world.  Early Christian abbreviation techniques vary, but there are interesting examples of both procedures, although contraction tends to predominate as time goes on. While I would expect to find similar practices in early Jewish Greek texts, I can offer no hard evidence, although why it should be considered a Christian innovation baffles me.

Which brings us to the larger format question, on the Christian use of the codex. Christians certainly did not invent the codex as a vehicle for their literature, and Christians continued to use scrolls as well [#23]. Our earliest evidence for codex technology used for literature in public distribution comes from the Latin poet Martial in the city of Rome around the year 80 ce (and pertains to Latin literature) [#24]. Our earliest preserved piece of a codex containing specifically Christian material is the Rylands fragment of the John 18 material, usually dated no later than the mid 2nd century [#25]. The earliest Jewish and Christian sources do not discuss or even mention any of the aforementioned developments. Jews do not accuse Christians of introducing new scribal features or formats and Christians do not mention these sorts of things in relation  to Judaism. Probably this is largely due to the paucity of surviving sources, especially for Greek speaking Judaism, and the nature of those sources that have survived. Still, there are a few passages [#26] that do dispute textual and translational differences that had developed (e.g. in Justin and Irenaeus), and we find no hint in those passages that Jewish and Christian copyists handled these transcriptional and format details differently. Book terminology is fairly consistent, with βίβλος and βιβλίον applied to Jewish scriptural works as well as to other writings (e.g. Irenaeus refers frequently to his own "books" as he writes them [#27], presumably scroll by scroll) and surprisingly only occasionally to what became Christian scriptural writings. Justin does introduce a different designation for the writings attributed to Peter and the apostles [#28] -- apomnhmoneumataἀπομνημονεύματα) or "memoirs" -- but that is a title already used centuries earlier by Xenophon ("Memorabilia") and by and of other authors, especially for "historical" types of texts [#29]. It would be quite a stretch to think that Justin uses it to indicate a different format such as the codex  (perhaps building on the practice of using small wax on wood notebooks [ὑπομνημονεύματα] or the like).

The earliest passage of which I am aware that might shed some light on the subject comes from around the end of the first century and is itself fraught with editorial problems at both the textual and the interpretational levels [#30]. In Luke 4.17 (but not in the parallel passages in Mark and Matthew), Jesus is described as accessing a passage in the book (βιβλίον) of Isaiah to read from it in a synagogue in Nazareth, after which he "closes" the book (literally, "folds" it up -- πτύξας, Latin vg plicuisset). Modern editors of the Greek text are not in agreement as to which verb for opening the book is the preferred reading -- anoigein (so Aland's Synopsis) or anaptussein (Huck-Lietzmann, UBS\4 category "B" = "the text is almost certain") [#31].  As Roger Bagnall has argued, neither of these words has the primary meaning of "unroll" as we might expect in this context -- and as the old Latin, Jerome, and many modern translators render it -- but the latter usually means "to unfold" (as a letter) while the former is simply "to open" (as a codex notebook) [#32]. To later readers, the Lukan author and/or early copyists convey the image of opening a codex rather than unrolling a scroll. Bagnall suggest that this is possibly "an early reflection of the adoption of the codex as the standard form for Christian scriptures" on the part of the author of Luke and/or some early copyist-editors (to explain the alternative readings) -- or, I dare to add, perhaps even of an early perception that codices of scriptural writings (here Isaiah is in view) were used in some Jewish synagogues!  But this is only a "foot in the door" sort of passage; it is suggestive, but far from conclusive. It is a long trip from the perceptions of an author and copyists in the late first and early second centuries (and the ambiguities of  their language) to firm historical realities.
[#33] In the fragments of the 30 Greek Jewish scriptural texts from the mid first to the early 4th century ce mentioned above, two thirds are from codices. The older scholarly approach has been to judge them to be "Christian" productions, lagely due to their codex format. Even then, a couple of them are admitted to possibly be from Jewish copyists (e.g. the Genesis fragments POxy 656 and POxy 1007; so even C.H.Roberts [#34].   Obviously I'm arguing that the old criteria, including the codex format, are misguided or at least undemonstrated. There is no reason to doubt that just as in numerous other areas, Christian scribal habits and the codex format itself were derived from the Jewish manuscripts that delivered these Jewish materials into Christian hands and reflect the training early Christian copyists and scribes received from their predecessors.

So far so good. Clearly there seem to be continuities between the "certifiably Jewish" use of certain "lectional signs" and their presence in early Christian manuscripts, which at one level "exposes the obvious." It is no longer useful to characterize early Christian scribal practices as emerging rather ad hoc among relatively untrained, in a sophisticated literary sense, and impecunious copyists who sort of made things up as they went along.  But there is more to be said. A closer examination of the non Jewish and non Christian Greco-Roman evidence is now possible through online sites [#35] such as the "Catalogue of Paraliterary Papyri" from Leuven. Rather than confirming that the early Jewish and early Christian scribal practices were relatively unusual in relation to the broader Greco-Roman world, study of this wider context suggests that the early Jewish scribes and their early Christian successors may have been following well-worn procedures used in the production of commentarial and related "paraliterary" material from pre-Christian times onward! This additional "obvious" direction calls for further exploration in detail.

While it does not change the fact  that early Christians adopted texts from their Jewish predecessors and contemporaries, and that early Jewish and early Christian manuscripts share certain scribal features, it does suggest that there may have been continuity with the techniques used in the copying of other literate manuscripts from that period. [#36] Especially in the production of "commentaries," one might even expect to find most of these features. Of course, we must also ask what types of writing were not affected by these practices, in order to proceed to more responsible conclusions. In any event, the older approaches that ascribed a significant degree of uniqueness to the early Christian scribal practices and book format require careful reevaluation, along with the attendant explanations. [#37]

-- [end shorter presentation]