Review of Hurtado, Earliest Christian Artifacts

Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. 248pp. $22.00, paper.

Larry Hurtado is on a mission to help Christians know their own treasures. In this book Hurtado makes pertinent observations on what can be known from the earliest Christian manuscripts. The five chapters of this volume are on The Texts, The Early Christian Preference for the Codex, The Nomina Sacra, The Staurogram, and Other Scribal Features.

Hurtado argues that the physical features of these earliest Christian artifacts—the manuscripts themselves—have wider significance. For instance, from the sheer number of Christian texts that have survived from the second and third centuries, he infers that “early Christianity represented a religious movement in which texts played a large role” (24). Moreover, these texts appear to be “artifacts of Christians of recognizably mainstream, ‘orthodox’ stance” (29), which is not an insignificant point in view of the modern day champions of various heresies arguing that there was no mainstream, orthodox stance. From the fact that the only Gospels that were linked and copied together in one manuscript were those that became part of the New Testament canon, Hurtado concludes that “those Gospel texts that were copied together were regarded as in some way complementary and sufficiently compatible with one another to be so linked” (37). Notably, texts such as the Gospel of Thomas were not so treated. The manuscripts evidence that Paul’s letters were copied together and treated as a collection by the second century and perhaps late in the first, and similar evidence from the late third to early fourth century points to a Johannine corpus consisting of the letters of John, Gospel of John, and Revelation (39). This is important evidence on second and third century Christianity, and it indicates a wide use of the Old Testament and most of what was eventually recognized as the New. The “translocal” evidence from these texts indicates that the earliest Christian artifacts do not support hypothetical reconstructions of isolated “communities.”

Having described the making of a codex, Hurtado shows that the wide early Christian use of this format was a marked departure from the trend in the culture at large, which maintained a heavy preference for the roll/scroll. The manuscript evidence leads him to conclude that while “The roll seems to have been reasonably acceptable for some Christian texts,” “it appears that Christians strongly preferred the codex for those writings that they regarded as scripture . . .” (57). Having showing the weaknesses of other suggested explanations for this reality, such as the supposed practical advantages of the codex or the socioeconomic background it may reflect, Hurtado suggests that the early Christian use of the codex would have differentiated copies of Christian scripture from other writings. He is attracted to Gamble’s proposal that an early edition of Paul’s epistles in codex form set an influential precedent (80).

From there Hurtado discusses the scribal practice of abbreviating the nomina sacra (sacred names). He highlights the four most regularly abbreviated terms: God, Lord, Christ, and Jesus, noting that gradually other terms also came to be abbreviated as well. The wide margins, generous line spacing, and usual letter size in Christian manuscripts indicates that these terms were not abbreviated for space-saving considerations. He contends that the “Jewish reverential attitude reflected in the scribal handling of the Tetragrammaton and key related designations of God has a counterpart in the early prominence of the four nomina divina [divine names] . . . in the early Christian manuscripts” (104–105, 121). Hurtado notes that this is physical evidence in support of his suggestions regarding the “‘binitarian shape’ of earliest Christian piety and devotion,” since the name of Jesus is given the same treatment as names of God (105–106). Commendably, Hurtado models courteous, logical, convincing engagement with and against the proposals of others, giving several pages to Christopher Tuckett’s challenges to the consensus of opinion.

Hurtado then takes up the scribal practice of writing a rho upon a tau to create a “staurogram,” which appears to be an early abbreviation for the terms “cross” and “crucify” (stauros/stauroo). This monogram apparently gave rise to others, such as the chi-rho (Christos), the iota-chi (Iesous Christos), and the iota-eta (Iesous). Here we have a fascinating discussion of where this early pictogram appears and how it arose. Hurtado is keen to the notion that “the tau-rho device was appropriated initially because it could serve as a stylized reference to (and visual representation of) Jesus on the cross” (151). The “t” shape of the tau with the superimposed “P” shape of the rho presenting a simple picture of a man on a cross. This is powerful physical evidence against claims that “visual references to Jesus’ crucifixion do not predate the fourth century” and the idea that “there was ‘no place in the third century [or earlier] for a crucified Christ . . .’” (153). The textual evidence comes from manuscripts “at least as early as the late second century” (154).

Hurtado’s final chapter explores “what the sizes and dimensions of early Christian codices may tell us about their intended readers and uses” (156–57). From these realities it is possible to conclude that many features of surviving manuscripts indicate that they were prepared for public reading. Others appear to have been prepared for private study. Moreover, from the early scribal corrections we can deduce a high degree of concern for an accurate text, indicating that the tradition was not fluid (186–87).

This fascinating book should command the attention of all who are interested in questions of how the New Testament came into being, when the documents began to be recognized as Scripture, and what can and cannot be maintained on the basis of the actual manuscript evidence. This book deserves wide reading among those with a high view of Scripture, and we can hope that it will spur students to access the manuscripts directly and thereby to know the treasures these texts contain. We can thank Prof. Hurtado for his service in calling attention to the riches of these manuscripts. May he be rewarded with droves of students who turn their attention to the direct study of these “earliest Christian artifacts.”

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  1. Thank you for the rather helpful review. I must admit that Prof Larry Hurtado’s book is a splendid academic assessment and examination of the physical features of the earliest available Christian manuscripts – works that are pieces in the narrative and ultimately form an integral part of our understanding of the Christian faith.

    We know for a fact that earliest extant Christian artefacts are indeed manuscripts, but so many who engage in archaeological work / exploration simply choose to ignore this, favouring instead, an endless search for physical remnants in the historical quest for Christian origins. This can undeniably lead to a neglect in the consideration of these early Christian manuscripts.

    Being an accomplished scholar and professor (University of Edinburgh) of New Testament language, literature and theology, his proficiency in the area of New Testament textual criticism as well as the study of early Christianity is exceptional. This book is a fine read indeed…

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