‘Catholicity’ in early Gospel MSS: A case for early canonization of the Gospels

Early Text

The Early Text of the New Testament, edited by Charles Hill and Michael Kruger, as I have said previously, is going to be a textual source of extreme value. In “‘Catholicity’ in Early Gospel Manuscripts”, Scott Charlesworth’s tentative textual conclusions matched with early patristic writings provide, with high probability, early (i.e. up to third/forth century) textual and historical evidence of circulating orthodox Gospel codices for public and private use.

This chapter by Charlesworth has provided a shift and confirmation in some of my thinking about early canonization of the Gospels. “Scribal conventions,” Charlesworth concludes, “in second- and second/third-century gospel papyri are indicative of ‘catholic’ collaboration and consensus, presumably among the ‘orthodox’ [Gospels].”[1]

Scribal Tendencies and Manuscript Aesthetics

Early Christian communities prefered codices of the Gospels; all, besides two manuscripts (one roll P22 and one parchment codex 0171) come in papyrus codices.[2] These early manuscripts, as Charlesworth records, can be placed into two types of categories. There are 29 early papyri codices[3]; 16 early papyri[4] have uniform elements and another group of 13[5] having semi-uniformity.

Charlesworth’s premise can be summed up under two lines of argumentation: the abbreviation of the nomina sacra and the internal, objective, style of the manuscripts. Early scribes had the propensity to abbreviate divine names. For example Χριστος was abbreviated to xc (with its various case endings); θεος was abbreviated θc (with its various case endings). These abbreviations appeared with more consistency in clearer sacred and mundane contexts. Charlesworth distinguishes two types of categorical distinction of manuscripts by the amount of consistency applied to abbreviating the nomina sacra; thereby demonstrating purposeful abbreviations made by the scribe.

The second form of evidence involved the internal style of the manuscript. The first group of manuscripts have clear literary style and coherent handwriting, the document size has uniformity between manuscripts, and there are reader aids. These aids contain text divisions, possible spacing between words, and some punctuation. Conversely, these characteristics are pitted against the second group of manuscripts. These manuscripts are less elegant in handwriting, manuscript sizes are larger (e.g. P52 and P45) and varied, and as a whole, lack uniformity in text size and punctuation.

This cumulative evidence, as Charlesworth concludes, provides reasons to affirm manuscripts for public readings and private readings. The public readings are more “controlled”, whereas, manuscripts for private are not as designed for oratory purposes. But regardless of these public and private manuscripts, the continuity of characteristics and portions of each gospel appearing together argue for early distributive Gospel codices, used for public and private use.

Patristic Evidence

Charlesworth is purely writing with text critical concerns. To further bolster his supposition, an evaluation of Patristic writings may argue for a similar thesis, and, consequently, affirm, with high probability, the circulation of orthodox Gospels as a codex. As patristic writings describe Gospel composition, they are sprinkled with hints of organization. Patristic tradition, as early as mid-2nd century, places gospel composition in the following order:

– Gospels with genealogies were written first (Matthew and Luke).[6]

– Luke’s gospel is composed as a historical document with dependence upon oral traditions, other written sources (possibly Matthew and others; Luke 1:1–4), and Paul.[7]

– Mark’s gospel is a non-historical order of Peter’s itinerate preaching.[8]

Patristic evidence of gospel composition offers great insight to the early tradition of Christian communities. Assuming Matthean priority, the Patristics offer a line of traditional thought stemming from John, the disciple of Christ. The common tradition, provided by John and others, provides detailed Gospel composition and a history of transmission.

With this synoptic testimony, the tradition of John’s Gospel may provide corroborating evidence for Charlesworth’s thesis. John is unanimously declared to have written his Gospel after the composition of the other three orthodox Gospels. Ireneaus (115–202) is the first to demonstrate when John composed his gospel. “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”[9] Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria (150–215) demonstrates John’s awareness of the other three gospels. His gospel is clearly different than the synoptic Gospels; and is purposely composed as such. “But that John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”[10]

As a historian of early Christian thought, Eusebius (263–339) makes plain the clearest early Patristic description of John’s composition. It was said that John had in his possession all three gospels at the time he composed his own.

“John, it is said, used all the time a message which was not written down, and at last took to writing for the following cause. The three gospels which had been written down before were distributed to all including himself; it is said that he welcomed them and testified to their truth but said that there was only lacking to the narrative the account of what was done by Christ at first and at the beginning of the preaching.”[11]

Patristic evidence may further substantiate Charlesworth’s thesis by affirming the presence of all four gospels during the time of John. Though an argument by silence, the first Gospel codex may have resided in the hands of John. Other Patristic evidence speaks into a clear denial of various gospels and affirmation of the four orthodox and Ireneaus provides the order of the early Latin order as early as late 1st century.[12]

Concluding thoughts and further areas of study

Combining the evidence of early Patristic testimony alongside Charlesworth’s manuscript evidence, this may provide, with high probability, an early codex (codices) of the orthodox Gospels. Early evidence may provide further impetus to pursue the idea of a spoken or cultural assumption of copying manuscripts for public or private use due to the wide-range of categorical agreement between manuscripts in visual style, similar punctuation, and spacing. Furthermore, this external evidence and wide range of testimony provides higher confidence in the canonization of the early text. It may be helpful to observe how this evidence assists in the canonization process of the Gospels. Lastly, and outside the scope of this analysis, this position may provide a conservative counter to Ehrman’s skepticism of an early text as argued in The Reliability of the New Testament. All of these ideas call for further research and analysis of early canonization, but nonetheless, are products of Charlesworth’s evidence and conclusions.

[1] Charlesworth, “Early Gospel Manuscripts,” 47.

[2] Charlesworth, “Early Gospel Manuscripts,” 37.

[3] Five other manuscripts are left out from evaluation; Charlesworth provides reasons 43nd.

[4] 2nd Century P103, 77, 90, 104, 64, 67; 2nd/3rd Century P4, 66; 3rd Century P108, 75, 121, 95, 70, 5, 39; 3rd/4th Century P102

[5] 2nd Century P52; 3rd Century P101, 69, 53, 107, 106, 109, 1, 28, 111, 119, 45, 37; 3rd/4th Century P37

[6] According to Clement of Alexandria (150–215): Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, VI.XIV.5–7.

[7] According to Eusebius (263–339): Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III.IV.6–7.

[8] According to Papias (70–155 or 160): Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III.XXXIX.15.

[9] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.1.1.

[10] Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, VI.XIV.5–7.

[11] Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III.XXIV.5–7.

[12] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.1.1.


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