Table of Contents of Latest Issue
Index of All Issues
Index of Book Reviews
Instructions for Contributors
Subscribe to
Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

L. W. HURTADO, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). Pp. xiv + 248. Paper. $US20.00.

L. W. Hurtado is concerned to show that “manuscripts are artefacts” (1, n. 1) and not just the means of transmitting a text. Although he gives no definition of “artefact,” the basic concept of a manufactured object may be taken for granted, and in the course of the book, various aspects of manuscripts indicate why they deserve to be treated as artefacts. In their “physical and visual” characteristics they provide “historical” evidence for the development of early Christianity. In particular, manuscripts of the second century are the earliest of any Christian artefacts and already Christians preferred the codex to the scroll. In the third century, P45 containing four Gospels and Acts is an innovation as a “result” of their popularity, not a “vehicle” to achieve it (73). To accommodate more writings in one codex, scribes used smaller letters but with careful orthography and spacing. Small codices may be intended for private reading, and imply the owners’ ability to pay for them.

Variations in the number of sheets in each gathering (quire) and in the number of gatherings in each codex show that in the second and third centuries Christians were still experimenting. Their purpose “was probably to find the best way(s) to construct codices of sufficient size to accommodate progressively larger bodies of texts” (88). However, economy of space and materials seems not to have been an issue. For, in general, handwriting is not smaller on codices than on contemporary scrolls, and margins and line spaces are wide.

Nomina sacra (abbreviations of sacred names or terms) are distinctive of early Christian, especially biblical, texts. Somewhat different is the tau-rho pictograph. It first appears, independently in P45, P66 and P75, as an abbreviation for the middle component of stauros (“cross”) and stauroun (“to crucify”). It must, therefore, have originated before the end of the second century. Hurtado’s preferred rationale is that it represented a human figure on a cross. As such, it would be the earliest piece of Christian iconography.

Wider spacing of lines and letters and the use of larger letters (even apart from page size) allows the possibility that a particular manuscript was intended for liturgical use. Sometimes scribes, realising that they would run out of pages, increased the number of lines per page and letters per line. Some early Christian manuscripts go beyond contemporary practice in using markings or spacing for words, clauses, sentences and paragraphs. Such devices would again facilitate public reading, but they also involve implicit exegesis.

Textual corrections made by the original scribe generally indicate a basic concern for accuracy. Contemporary corrections by a second hand imply supervision. The proportion of errors and corrections may reflect a theological tendency. Moreover, the varying ability of the scribes “suggests something of the varying economic and cultural levels of those for whom texts were copied” (189).

The choice of two or more works included in one manuscript reflects the interests of the readers. Hurtado mentions the contents of P45 but does not explain the order (Matt, John, Luke, Mark, Acts). He does note that the position of Hebrews after Romans in P46 implies a view of Pauline authorship. After a comparison of scrolls and codices, Hurtado concludes that Christians preferred the codex for writings which were (or “were coming to be”) “regarded as scripture” (57). More cautiously, one might say that the more popular writings were preserved in the more popular form of book.

All the earliest Christian manuscripts derive from Egypt. Remnants of Old Testament, (future) New Testament and early patristic writings show that Egyptian Christianity was predominantly “orthodox.” Papyrus discoveries suggest that “apocryphal” writings were read along with orthodox ones. The balance of discoveries means that Egypt was not particularly “Gnostic.” Moreover, quotation of a text from Rome (Hermas) by writers from Carthage, Gaul and Egypt exemplifies the wide spread, if not “exchange” (41), of early Christian texts.

Hurtado has provided an illuminating account of how early Christian manuscripts were produced and inscribed, and has drawn inferences about the significance of their physical features for the history of Christianity. Along the way he has argued politely with other scholars about particular issues. He presents charts for the discussion of the codex, a lengthy tabulation of early Christian manuscripts, photographs of selected manuscripts, and a bibliography. There are indexes of modern scholars and of manuscripts, but not of topics. Hurtado’s style makes it easy to read a book that is well worth reading.

Review by
Darryl W. Palmer
Centre for Classics and Archaeology
The University of Melbourne VIC 3010