Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 1.

Roger S. Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi + 110, incl. 16 halftones and 10 tables. ISBN 978-0-691- 14026-1. US$29.95/UK£20.95.

Jonathan More
University of Stellenbosch / George Whitefield College, South Africa

Christian manuscripts discovered in the Egyptian desert have supplied students of early Christianity with previously unknown texts. They have also attracted the attention of those concerned with establishing the original text of the canonical New Testament as accurately as possible. But these manuscripts have increasingly been recognised as artefacts in their own right and scholars have turned to them to understand more about the social and economic life of the communities for which they were produced. It is to this field that Roger Bagnall, doyen of things papyrological and Egyptian (and, since 2007, Director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, where he is also Professor of Ancient History), has contributed a series of four provocative studies addressing some disputed issues surrounding early Christian manuscripts. The four chapters of the book are based on lectures delivered by Bagnall at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in May 2006.

Current knowledge of second-century Egyptian Christianity is based almost exclusively on various literary traditions, with very little documentary and archaeological evidence surviving. The first chapter of this book, 'The Dating of the Earliest Christian Books in Egypt' (pp. 1-24), examines this problem more closely. Bagnall begins by noting that the only non-literary evidence of Christianity outside of Alexandria during the episcopate of Demetrius (189-231 CE) comes from Christian papyri recovered from the Egyptian countryside. While one group of scholars dates some of these papyri to the second century, another group places them in the first half of the third century or later. This discrepancy is created through the difficulties inherent in palaeographic dating. Drawing on Rodney Stark’s model of the growth of early Christianity,[[1]] and assuming that the proportion of Christian to non-Christian manuscripts recovered should match the proportion of Christians to non-Christians within the broader population, Bagnall argues that too many Christian papyri have been dated to the second century. At most, scholars should expect to find one or two Christian manuscripts from that period and not eight to ten as some catalogues would suggest. However, many of the assumptions underlying this argument are open to critique. While the author provides a defense for his assumptions, I, for one, am not convinced that they can all bear the weight of the evidence they are called upon to support. For instance, the assumption that Christians were no more likely to own books than their non-Christian counterparts might be challenged on the basis of the importance that the Christian scriptures played within Christian communities, as reflected in the literary tradition. One might also question the assumption that Stark’s estimates for the size of the Christian population in the empire can be scaled down to the local level in the way Bagnall seems to have done. If Stark’s description of the process whereby early Christianity spread is accepted together with his demographic model, one would expect to find unusually high concentrations of Christians in certain areas. In light of these and other problematic assumptions, palaeographic arguments must still enjoy primacy when it comes to matters of dating. The demographic argument proposed by Bagnall is not sufficient to negate the considered opinions of a cohort of respected papyrologists.

In the second chapter (pp. 25-49) Bagnall presents two case studies that address the dating of papyri. The first has to do with Carsten Peter Thiede’s controversial claim[[2]] that two fragments of Matthew (Gregory-Aland P64+P67) might be dated as early as the late first century. The second case study describes the scholarly discussions of the date and form of the Shepherd of Hermas that are raised by P.Iand. I 4. In both cases the original editors of the papyri assigned relatively late dates to them which were subsequently challenged. It is here that the parallels end. Bagnall suggests that 'Thiede’s argument in his article is a kind of burlesque of a normal scholarly presentation,' while the debate around Hermas is characterised as 'a discussion among colleagues' consisting of carefully weighed and qualified opinions (pp. 48f.). While Bagnall’s account of Thiede’s scholarship highlights a number of shortcomings, it is unfortunate that he fails to mention the prompt responses to Thiede’s paper by P. M. Head, D. C. Parker and T. C. Skeat -- the first two of which were published in the same year as Thiede’s paper. Many in the academic world will agree with Bagnall’s critique of Thiede, but Bagnall’s concern that scholarship within the fields associated with the study of early Christianity exhibits an 'excessively self-enclosed character and absence of self- awareness' (p. 1) seems overstated in the light of the vigorous dialogue that followed Thiede’s claims.

In the third section of the book Bagnall brings his expertise in Roman and Byzantine Egyptian economics to bear on the question of 'The Economics of Book Production' (pp. 50- 69). He shows that the price advantage of papyrus over parchment was negligible for high-quality copies because of the high cost of labour. For scribal services of a lower standard, however, the decision to have the Bible copied on parchment instead of papyrus could add 50% to the total cost of the book. Furthermore, the fact that papyrus was recycled in various ways confirms that even its cost was not negligible. Would Egyptian Christians been able to afford to purchase copies of their sacred texts? After arguing that most clergy in the third and fourth centuries (the most likely owners of biblical texts) would probably not have been able to afford Bibles and perhaps not even large portions of the Christian scriptures, Bagnall identifies one group of Christians that might account for some of the early Christian manuscripts. On the basis of Coptic marginalia in a codex of Isaiah (LDAB 3108), he argues that a newly created urban elite consisting of hellenised Egyptians matches the sociological description of early Christian converts provided by Wayne Meeks.[[3]] This provides 'the beginnings of a hypothesis about how a body of Greek-reading, educated, well-to-do, book-owning Christians could have come into being' in the first half of the third century (p. 69). If this group also formed a large part of the clergy then it is quite possible that the percentage of clergy who could afford biblical manuscripts would have been higher than previously estimated.

The uniform adoption by Christians of the codex in place of the roll for copies of their scriptures has long been noted by scholars. In the final chapter, 'The Spread of the Codex' (pp. 70-90), Bagnall suggests that the use of the codex was adopted from Rome and was driven by the changing contents of books as well as changes in the way in which books were read. This thesis presents a plausible description of how the codex might have penetrated Egyptian culture -- both non-Christian and Christian -- but does not explain why Christians made exclusive use of the codex for their scriptures.[[4]]

As the author himself readily admits, this book does not present any novel theses on the subject of early Christian manuscripts. Rather, these four chapters allow the reader to observe a seasoned historian and papyrologist discuss some of the perennial questions pertaining to this field of study. Seasoned scholars will find their thinking provoked and challenged by Bagnall’s sometimes sharp critique, and his sensitive analysis and imaginative use of the data provides a model for prospective students to learn from and imitate.


[[1]] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco 1997).

[[2]] Thiede’s initial study was published as 'Papyrus Magdalen Greek 17 (Gregory-Aland P64): A Reappraisal,' Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 105 (1995) 13- 20, and expanded in a book co-authored with journalist Matthew D’Ancona (Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin of the Gospels [New York 1996]). Thiede’s article was reprinted with minor corrections in Tyndale Bulletin 46 (1995) 29-42, and was followed by a critical response from Peter M. Head, 'The Date of the Magdalen Papyrus of Matthew (P. Magd. Gr. 16 = P64): A Response to C.P. Thiede,' Tyndale Bulletin 46 (1995) 251-85.

[[3]] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven 1983).

[[4]] T. C. Skeat, 'The Origin of the Christian Codex', Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 102 (1994) 263- 68, argues that the codex was adopted to allow the four canonical Gospels to be produced together but he also sees Rome as playing an important role in this process. For further discussion see Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artefacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids / Cambridge 2006) 43-89.