The Social Setting of Textual Transmission

Garrick V. Allen reviews Alan Mugridge’s study of early papyri to determine if aspects of the setting can found in the production of these copies. Mugridge’s work and Allen’s review highlight for the non-specialist the various areas under examination. Transmission studies have always fascinated and confirmed the historicity of the text for me.


Alan Mugridge. Copying Early Christian Texts: A Study of Scribal Practice. WUNT 362. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016. xx + 558 pages. ISBN: 9783161546884.

Review by Garrick V. Allen, Dublin City University.

In this valuable resource, Alan Mugridge examines the codicological features of 548 early papyri originating from before the fourth century CE in an effort to be understand the social setting of their production. He is particularly interested to ascertain whether the copyists of the early Greek papyri transmitting early Christian works were ‘Christians’ (not necessarily professional scribes), or if communities hired professional copyists outside their immediate social context. The entirety of this detailed volume is devoted to the argument that “the copyists of the majority of Christian texts were trained scribes, probably working in a variety of settings, and that there is no firm evidence that the copyists were generally Christian” (p. 2). This argument has drastic implications for how we understand the textual transmission and variation of early Christian documents.

In his first chapter (“The Papyri and their Handwriting”) Mugridge lays the foundation for this study by defining “Christian Papyri” (pp. 2–5). He also identifies a small control group of non-Christian papyri (pp. 5–6). He examines the date, languages, the writing material used in the example documents (papyrus, parchment, wood), the presence of non-Christian material among Christian documents, and the provenance of the material (heavily weighted toward Egypt). Mugridge also clears the ground by providing a taxonomy of writing activity in this period, which proves essential to his evaluation of the “professionalism” of particular manuscripts (pp. 11–22).

The second chapter (pp. 26–50) examines the features of the papyri identified in its title: “context, material, form and size.” Mugridge examines the correlation between the quality of a manuscript’s palaeographic profile and its other features. He notes that most literary or sacred works tend to have a higher quality producer and that of other types of works. Additionally, multilingual features of a papyrus indicate a learned producer, and Mugridge notes examples of Coptic glosses, Latin translations, and the presence of other languages among the Greek exemplars (e.g. Syriac, Demotic, Hebrew onomastica). However, he argues that the form of a manuscript (codex, roll, sheet, or wood) does not necessarily correlate to the quality of writing. He concludes by comparing the palaeographic profiles of his corpus against the size of the exemplars, noting that the professionalism of the copy does not necessarily have any relationship to its size. The producers of Christian papyri fit into the overall trend of the corpus, with some exceptions (p. 49).

Next, the layout of the corpus is compared to the skill of the palaeography in an effort to divine a relationship between the two (pp. 51–70). Mugridge concludes that the wide margins, narrow columns, and wide inter-columnar spaces generally correspond to well-trained hand (esp. in rolls), but that these features are not absolutely correlated to scribal expertise. The most prescient feature is the consistency of margin sizes, which closely corresponds to the quality of the hand.

The next chapter (pp. 71–91) examines the presence of reading aids in his corpus to explore the relationship between the level of professionalism in palaeography and the presence of these aids. Mugridge explores a number of paratexts, including pagination, titles and headings, section markers, sense units, stichometry, punctuation, and a series lectional notations. He concludes that there is no difference in the deployment of these paratexts in skilled or unskilled copies, and “Christian” and “non-Christian” copies.

The final substantial analytical chapter – “Writing the Text” – explores a variety of scribal habits and copying mechanics preserved in the corpus (pp. 92–143). Again, the analysis of these features is correlated to the quality of an exemplar’s palaeography to explore the relationship between “skilled” scribes and the mechanics of a manuscript’s production. Especially in his discussion of nomina sacra (pp. 121–37), Mugridge is keen to argue that the personal convictions of a scribe are not necessarily borne out by the content or features of their copy. We need not think that the copyist of a manuscript with nomina sacra was a Christian.

The last chapter of the book (pp. 144–54) is a summary of Mugridge’s conclusions, in which he argues that the level of professionalism in Christian papyri through the fourth century was relatively high and that the format and size of manuscript bearing Christian works are commensurate to the broader textual culture. From this, he concludes that “most copyists were not simply occasional writers who turned their hand to copy manuscripts of personal value to themselves or to friends” (p. 148). Early Christian works were produced like all other works in the Roman world at the time – primarily by trained professionals (p. 149). Here, Mugridge comes to his underlying contention: because it is not possible to identify the scribes of Christian works as Christian themselves, one cannot ascribe perceived theological changes in texts to scribes. Also, the use of professional scribes ensures the accuracy of copying, indicating that the early Christian papyri offer a special insight into the text of the works they contain. The analysis portion of this work is supported further by twelve tables of data, ranging from the content of the papyri to various marginal measurements to the presence of nomina sacra, that serve as the foundation for Mugridge’s conclusions (pp.  445–517).

Following the conclusion, Mugridge includes a “Catalogue of Papyri” (pp. 155–413), which is by far the most valuable aspect of the volume. For each papyrus in his corpus, he provides the date, provenance, publication information, contents, location, various catalogue numbers, a brief bibliography, locations of plates, a terse description, and comment on the hand. This vast aggregation of data should prove beneficial for future papyrological studies on early Christian artefacts. The book also necessarily includes a concordance that compares Mugridge’s numeration system to the systems of the Leuven Database of Ancient Books, Rahlfs, Turner, van Haelst, the Repertorium, and Gregory-Aland (pp. 518–36).

All in all, this thick volume represents an arduous and prodigious effort on the part of the author. Its organization, scope, and methodological tenacity are characteristics to which studies of this type should aspire. I am convinced by Mugridge’s argument that early Christian manuscripts are not of a lesser quality or different nature to exemplars that transmit non-Christian works. Careful craftsmanship and an appreciation for the norms of production are the markers of the majority of these early exemplars. It would, in fact, be strange to imagine that early Christianity possessed a textual culture devoid of any influence from contemporary practices of artefact production.

However, I am less convinced by Mugridge’s conclusion that, because these manuscripts show signs of professionalism, they were likely produced by non-Christian professionals responsible also for the production of pagan literature and documentary material. In all probability, some early Christian manuscripts were produced by those outside the community, but the evidence remains ambiguous. The material evidence that Mugridge musters fails to conclusively point in either direction. The rarity of stichometric notations would seem to indicate that very few of the remnant manuscripts, as far as we can tell, were produced for a profit. Also, while he asserts that by the fourth century many scribes were Christians, he assumes that professional scribes in an earlier period were not. He insinuates that professional copies mean that they were produced by non-Christians for profit. In fact, the underlying argument of the book seems to be that, because early Christian literature was copied by non-Christian professionals, then the reliability of the text of these exemplars is very high for two reasons: (1) professionals generally copied more accurately that non-experts, and (2) non-Christians would have no reason to alter the wording of a text for theological reasons. If this is Mugridge’s underlying argument (a sort of anti-Ehrman polemic), a textual analysis of this corpus would seem more appropriate than a material one, since the best way to observe the religious conviction of a copyist is to judge the textual changes made to a copy, especially when those changes are exegetically motivated or show a level of awareness of remote parallels. Although, even then, it is difficult to distinguish between the work of the scribe, his or her copy, and an antecedent exegete or exegetical tradition.

Garrick V. Allen
Dublin City University
garrick.allen [at]

Author: Alex the Less

B.A. (1976), M.Div. (1983), Journeyman Carpenter (1991), B.B.A. (2009)

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