Review #2 of Roger Bagnall’s Early Christian Books In Egypt (2009)

After reading chapter one, I felt like I had sat through a sporting event where my team had won in overtime or extra innings. It left me excited and with high expectations for game two of the series. However, I must say that I was a bit disappointed with the content of chapter two in Early Christian Books In Egypt. I am still trying to figure out whether it was a necessary means to an end.

Prior to diving into new material, Bagnall does offer a helpful summary of chapter one:

I suggested that a realistic assessment of the probable size and character of the Christian communities in Egypt in the second century of our era would lead us to see how unlikely it is that we would possess more than one or two pieces of Christian text from any time before the Severan period (193-235), when Demetrios was bishop of Alexandria and the construction of a network of bishops outside Alexandria, in the nome capitals, had its first, hesitant beginnings (25).

He picks up here to offer two case studies that serve as examples of the perils of allowing the quest or passion for early dating of manuscripts from Egypt to override evidence and truth that might lead to a more realistic but uncomfortable conclusion. The two examples have a primary difference, but they also share something in common, which is where Bagnall unloads. The two differ in the quality of their scholarship.

 The first case study concerns the questionable scholarship of C. P. Thiede and his desire to re-date several papyri to the first century (25-6). Bagnall, like many others, rails on the poor method and integrity of Thiede’s work, especially the duplicity regarding his publications to scholarly and public audiences. Reason and good scholarship became secondary to the quest for early dating.

 The second case study concerns the quality scholarship of Nikolaos Gonis with reference to three previously unpublished papyri of the Shepherd of Hermas (read it here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0201.htm or here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/shepherd-lightfoot.html) available in volume 69 of the Oxyrhyncus Papyri. Bagnall praises the scholarship of Gonis. The extant manuscripts of Hermas consist of a unique collection. Four of them are written on scrolls, and two of these are written on the recto (inside part) side of new scrolls, with the verso side left blank. Such witnesses testify to the significance of the Shepherd to the early Christian community, which can also be observed in Codex Sinaiticus. The particular controversy in this case study has to do with P. Iand I 4 (42, figure 2.7). Dates from the middle of the second century to the beginning of the third century have been proposed for the manuscript fragments (see the work of Gronewald and Lenaerts, Carlini and Cavallo). Carlini writes concerning this early date for the Hermas manuscript,

An insurmountable difficulty to a date in the first half of the second century for a papyrus of the Shepherd arises at once from the traditional information concerning the composition of Hermas’s work: according to the detailed notice contained in the Muratorian Canon, the date of composition should fall between 142-155, when Pius, the brother of Hermas, occupied the [episcopal] seat of the Church of Rome (43).

The Muratorian Canon has traditionally been viewed with authority. The exact quote from the Canon concerning the Shepherd is offered here from the translation of Bruce M. Metzger:

(73) But Hermas wrote the Shepherd (74) very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, (75) while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the [episcopal] chair (76) of the church of the city of Rome. (77) And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but (78) it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among (79) the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among (80) the Apostles, for it is after [their] time.

The date of Pius’ possession of the episcopate is not a matter of controversy or debate. Thus, to have a manuscript of the Shepherd in Egypt that dates to the middle of the second century to the beginning of the third century (i.e., P. Iand I 4), but the original draft of the document to have been created between 142-155 begs the question: does this leave enough time for the work to have made its way to Egypt? The result is that scholars involved in the discussion take what Bagnall calls “exit routes” to avoid the problem. For example, one scholar suggest that the Shepherd existed as two separate works early on and only later became a unified work. Bagnall clarifies the this position,

If two parts of the Shepherd circulated separately, it becomes possible to interpret the notice of the Muratorian Canon about the publication of the work under Pius as a reference to the publication of an edition of the two parts in a single book, a hypothesis that would permit the circulation of the individual components in separate editions before 155 (47).

Bangall criticizes such a position of interpreting the Muratorian Canon tendentiously in order to rescue “the palaeographic date given to the papyrus fragment” (47). These two case studies magnify the weight given to palaeographic dating, and this is Bagnall’s point. He is teasing a bit. All reason can be thrown to the curb in order to maintain a date. It is important to be reminded at this point that Bagnall is applying this to papyrus books in Egypt, where he has gone to great lengths to show the disparity of Christian population during the first and second centuries and further the expectation of a sparse Christian literary presence.

Perhaps these examples are more necessary than I originally thought. After typing this out and laboring through the chapter, I think Bagnall’s point resonates a bit more with me. Maybe game two of the series wasn’t so bad after all. It is my hope to have a review of chapter three available in the next couple days. God bless.

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