Early Christian Books in Egypt by Roger S. Bagnall is a small 110 page volume; however, don’t let the size of this little ditty fool you—or else you’ll find yourself left behind at the bus stop as advancements in papyrology and codicology pass you by.
The claim of the first chapter, which is entitled “The Dating of the Earliest Christian Books in Egypt, seeks to set the scholar free “from the struggle to push the dates of manuscripts back into the second century, or even into the first” (23–24). Bagnall builds a strong case that Christianity in Egypt during the first and second centuries (i.e., pre-Demetrian Christianity) was not as prominent as sometimes thought. Oftentimes, it is the early dating of the New Testament papyri discovered in Egypt that forces the issue.
Perhaps equally problematic, it shows just how vital the existence and early dating of the papyri are to the entire conception of the development of Christianity in Egypt and how much is at stake in such datings. Without these early datings of papyri, we have no contemporary witnesses to pre-Demetrian Christianity to provide a background for his era. It is worth the trouble at least to consider the consequences that would follow from taking a different view (5).
The first pillar of Bagnall’s presentation is that the episcopal network of Egypt developed late. Bagnall (and Wypszycka) paints the Egyptian episcopate as an underdeveloped program best described as a “monarchic structure” with the Alexandrian see at its head. Thus, the oversight of the church in Egypt came from the see of Alexandria as opposed to a matured multilevel hierarchy of bishops spread out across various regions. This underdeveloped episcopate is presented as possible evidence for a small representation of Christianity in the first and second centuries in Egypt.
Wypszycka holds that the underdeveloped episcopate of Egypt was due to an inability to bring about development because of resistance from “provincial clergy” (7). Bagnall highlights an assumption at this point. It may not be that there was a lack of desire to develop the episcopate or that there was opposition to doing so. It may very well be that the presence of Christians in Egypt was not widespread in the first and second centuries. The relation of New Testament papyri to the presence of Christianity in Egypt prior to the third century all of a sudden becomes quite important. Documentary papyri prove to be of no help because it is not until much later that Rome began to document religious affiliation, and even then it is questionable that early Christians or Christian clergy would have thought of themselves in the same way that, say, an Egyptian priest would have (8). Bagnall shuts the door firmly on the notion of gaining information about the presence of second century Christianity in Egypt from documentary papyri.It should be noted, however, that this argument only establishes a lack of documentation of Christian presence in Alexandria in the second century not necessarily a lack of Christian presence in Egypt at this time. Thus, the significance of literary Christian papyri (e.g., from the NT) discovered in the Egyptian countryside (e.g., Oxyrhyncus and elsewhere) is magnified.
After an evaluation of the Christian (and in some cases possibly Jewish) literary papyri dated to the II or III centuries by the Leuven Database of Ancient Books, Bagnall concludes that there are 29 total papyri to consider—8 of which are dated to the II/III century and 21 of which are dated to the early III century. Bagnall admits that there remains much editing work to be done regarding papyri discoveries from Egypt; however, it is at this point that he begins to develop a proper numerical expectation of Christian literary papyri in Egypt (primarily in Alexandria and its surrounding nomes) based upon an understanding of the proportion of population in Egypt that may have been Christian (18ff.). By means of statistical analysis, figures are proposed for Christians in Egypt up until the end of Demetrios’ possession of the “episcopal throne in Alexandria” and the beginning of the episcopate of Heraklas. By 250 C.E., Bagnall suggests that 116,849 Christians were in Egypt, which made up 2.120% of the population. From this statistic and the knowledge we have of extant book fragments from Egypt, Bagnall estimates the probable number of Christian books by II/III century to be 12.
There is, to judge by the figures in this table, only one chance in eighteen that any Christian book of the late first or early second century would survive. That is, the odds are seventeen to one that we would have zero such books. We should have just one or two Christian fragments from the second century as a whole. On any reckoning, the number of published fragments of Christian character usually assigned to these early periods considerably exceeds the expected number (21).
Bagnall goes on to urge the reader that, “It is time to let go of the idea that Christian literature is somehow underrepresented in the papyri before the later third century” (21). Prior to concluding the chapter, he discusses the ownership of books among lay Christians and Christian clergy. He emphasizes that the possession of books in ancient cultures cannot be separated from education and social status. Therefore, with the underdeveloped clergy situation and lay people who were no doubt spread across the social spectrum (although perhaps there existed a more centralized mass in one class or another), one can easily grasp Bagnall’s point—there weren’t very many Christian books in Egypt during the first and second centuries, and we should stop expecting the alternative.
He closes the first chapter of this powerful little book by offering liberation to papyrologists. While admitting that agreement with this theory is in one sense a defeat, it also strikes Bagnall as,
a welcome liberation, which papyrologists should embrace, because it is only with the pre-occupation with origins set aside that the interest and original contribution of the few genuinely early texts can be assessed properly (24).
I think that Bagnall raises significant considerations for those interested in the manuscripts accredited to early Christianity. However, I also feel that there are some considerations left out of his discussion regarding, (1) the presence of Christianity in Northern Africa via key figures from Cyrenaica, (2) Coptic traditions concerning the development of Christianity in Egypt, and (3) the possible statistical anomaly created by the Jewish Christian presence in Egypt.
Thomas Oden, professor of Theology Emeritus at Drew University, delivered a series of lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary’s W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectureship. The topic of the series was Libyan Christianity (Libya is Egypt’s neighbor to the west) as established by messianic Jews from Cyrenaica. I remember being intrigued by these lectures and by the possibility of Christianity having early (first century) roots in Libya. If Christianity indeed has first and second century roots in Libya, what might this mean for the development of Christianity in Egypt?
Oden also alluded to the Coptic tradition in his lectures. The Coptic tradition holds that Mark (the author of the canonical gospel bearing his name) served as the first bishop of Alexandria and was later martyred there around 68 C.E. When the presence of such an influential figure (an author of one of the New Testament books nonetheless) serving in Alexandria is combined with possible connections between the Alexandrian see and the development of Christianity in Libya (as suggested by Oden), it is possible that a lack in Christian documentation or publicized Christianity does not necessitate a lack in Christian representation and presence in Alexandria and the surrounding regions.
Lastly, Bagnall closes his chapter with a suggestion that some books that have been considered Christian may indeed be Jewish in origin. Thus, the evidence for early Christian literature in Egypt declines even further, if such a thing it true. He (and Oden) references the Jewish revolt that ended at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign (117). Bagnall states that a significant lack of “documentary evidence for a Jewish population” is observable between 117 and the later part of the third century. However, I would like to see some statistical estimations regarding the population of Jews in Egypt during the first, second and third centuries. I do not think it is enough to evaluate “Christian” population alone. For we must remember that the first few centuries of “Christianity” might be described as such for a Gentile convert. However, to the Jew who embraced Christ, this movement was merely an advancement and reform of their existing Jewish faith. Thus, I would be interested in seeing how large a Jewish representation existed in Egypt and an estimated figure on how many of these Jews may have indeed been reformed Jews (i.e., followers of the Messiah, Jesus). Would these numbers drastically increase the number of expected “Christian” books in Egypt? Maybe, maybe not.
While I would like to see these last three issues addressed by Bagnall, his reasoning in the first chapter is still strong. An explosion of Christian writings in Egypt during the first two centuries is perhaps an unreal expectation. What do you think?