Were Early Christian Scribes Untrained Amateurs?

It is often claimed that early Christian scribes were amateurs, unprofessional, and some probably couldn’t even read.

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).

 

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 recent book,How the Bible Became Holy (Yale, 2014), this same sort of argument appears.  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 theme 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).

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