Were Early Christian Scribes Untrained Amateurs?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

December 2, 2020

In the ongoing debates about the reliability of early Christian manuscripts, and whether they have been transmitted with fidelity, it is often claimed that early Christian scribes were amateurs, unprofessional, and some probably couldn’t even read.

In Michael Satlow’s book, How the Bible Became Holy (Yale, 2014), this same sort of argument appears (for my full review, see here).  Satlow’s book argues that both the OT and NT canons were late bloomers, and that they bore no real authority until the third or fourth century CE.  And part of the evidence for this claim comes from Satlow’s assessment of the NT manuscripts.  He states:

The copies of early Christian manuscripts from around the second century CE were utilitarian. They were generally on papyrus rather than the more expensive and durable parchment. They lack the signs both of being written by a professional scribe and of being intended for public recitation (255).

There are a lot of claims in this brief couple of sentences.  Unfortunately, virtually every one of them is mistaken. Let’s take them one at a time:

1. Early NT Manuscripts were unprofessional/utilitarian.  This claim, though widespread, has been seriously questioned in recent years. Although some of the earliest Christian papyri (second and third centuries) were not characterized by the formal bookhand that was common among Jewish scriptural books or Greco-Roman literary texts, others were much closer to the literary end of the scale than is often realized. In fact, many second/third century Christian texts do exhibit a more refined hand and literary style, such as P77 (Matthew), P46 (Paul’s letters), P4-P64-P67 (Luke and Matthew), and P66 (John).

Such evidence led Graham Stanton to declare, “The oft-repeated claim that the gospels were considered at first to be utilitarian handbooks needs to be modified” (Jesus and Gospel, 206).  Likewise, Kim Haines-Eitzen directly states, “The earliest copyists of Christian literature were trained professional scribes” (Guardians of Letters, 68, emphasis mine).

2. Serious manuscripts were on parchment, not papyrus.  This, again, is a bit misleading.  For the first four centuries, most Christian manuscripts were on papyrus but this does not mean they were valued less or regarded as something other than Scripture.  Indeed, the Gospels were on papyrus during this time period, but Justin Martyr tells us they were read as Scripture alongside OT books (1 Apol. 67.3). Moreover, many OT manuscripts were on papyrus during this time period! And this certainly doesn’t suggest their authority should be lessened.

In addition, the idea that parchment is more durable than papyrus has been challenged by both T.C. Skeat (“Early Christian Book Production,” 59-60) and Harry Gamble (Books and Readers, 45). See also comments on papyrus by Pliny the Elder (Nat. 13.74-82).

3. NT manuscripts were not intended for public reading.  This idea, again, has been seriously challenged by a number of modern scholars.  Larry Hurtado and Scott Charlesworth have both observed that NT manuscripts, compared to elite literary texts in the Greco-Roman world, have an inordinate number of reader’s aids, more generous spacing between lines, and fewer characters per line–all designed to help in the public reading of these books.  This also seems to fit Justin Martyr’s statement noted above that early Christian texts were being read publicly in worship.

On top of all of this, one might add that Christian scribal practice of abbreviating key words such as God, Lord, Christ, and Jesus–called the nomina sacra (“sacred names”)–indicates a substantially well-organized and developed book/scribal culture.

The nomina sacra were not only widespread among early Christian manuscripts (we can hardly find a text without them), but they also have deep roots that go well into the first century.

How does such an early, widespread scribal convention emerge out of a scribal culture that is supposedly amateurish and disorganized?  In short, they don’t.  On the contrary, Skeat argues that the nomina sacra “indicate a degree of organization, of conscious planning, and uniformity of practice among the Christian communities which we have hitherto had little reason to suspect” (73).

In sum, the oft-repeated claim that early Christian scribes were unprofessional and untrained simply does not fit with what we know about early Christian manuscripts nor about early Christian literary culture.  Loveday Alexander provides a perfect summary,

It is clear that we are dealing with a group [early Christians] that used books intensively and professionally from very early on in its existence. The evidence of the papyri from the second century onwards suggests . . . the early development of a technically sophisticated and distinctive book technology (“Ancient Book Production and the Circulation of the Gospels,” 85).


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