|May 12, 2010
Two Sobering Thoughts
Here is a sobering thought: there are no physical artifacts attesting to the existence of Jesus, his life and teachings, or evidence for his original associates and later followers in the first century! In fact, it is only in the late second century that cultural artifacts identifiable as “Christian” begin to emerge from the fog of history—virtually all of them toward the end of the second century (Snyder, Ante Pacem). Even the manuscripts of the important Christian writers of the second century exist only in late copies. The Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament (the language in which scholars presume the texts were originally composed) do not survive in any number until the beginning of the 3rd century, and in the third century the manuscripts are fragmentary and incomplete. Complete manuscripts of certain New Testament manuscripts cannot be found until the 4th and 5th centuries and later, and there are not many of these in any case.
Here is the problem with the New Testament: third-century fragments of New Testament manuscripts and the later complete manuscripts, do not agree alike in all particulars, but it is the stunning accomplishment of New Testament scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries to have worked through these many differences in the manuscripts and produced a more or less agreed upon critical text of the New Testament. The scholars’ critical text is a modern reconstruction of the original autographs, which are now no longer extant.
Here is another sobering thought: current theories of Christian origins may have been subtly influenced by Eusebius (ca. 260-337), a historian and Christian bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius wrote a history of early Christianity (The Ecclesiastical History) covering the first three centuries of the Christian period extending from Jesus to the early years of the fourth century. This work is the only surviving ancient account of the formative period of Christian origins, including the first century for which no physical evidence is extant. Eusebius’ historical reconstruction represents early Christian history from the perspective of a fourth-century Christian bishop, and like the New Testament it too is preserved in later manuscripts (Greek, x-xii; Syriac and Latin versions, early 5th century).
I wonder how Christian origins might appear if one were to begin with the earliest datable artifacts. In other words, redefine the nature of primary source material by limiting it to physical artifacts, which become evidence for the period in which they are dated, and secondary evidence for other periods. Random artifacts are the raw data of history and historical constructs rely on the disciplined imagination of the historian. Recognizing the difference between physical data and imaginary construct is the methodological justification for calling any historical construct into question.
Fortunately, eight manuscripts dated in the second century have survived (I include those dated 200, as well), all of which describe aspects of Jesus life, his associates, and later followers. The original place of the discovery of these manuscripts is associated with Egypt. I have not included manuscripts whose dates are given as 2nd/3rd century or manuscripts whose date in the 2nd century is questioned (only one fragment [P98] of the Apocalypse [Rev 1:13-20] is listed that way in the 9th revised edition of the Greek New Testament of Nestle-Aland). These manuscripts are dated on the basis of their handwriting. None of these manuscripts are included in Ante Pacem because Snyder excludes literary data (p. 163).
P52 (ca. 100-150): consists of John 18:31-33, 37-38
The manuscripts above are primary evidence for “Christianity” in the second century. I am not certain what “no Christian artifacts” till the middle second century might mean for the historical reconstruction of Christian origins in the first century, but “no Christian artifacts” should be a sobering thought for those of us who dabble in Christian origins in the first century.
Kirsopp Lake, Eusebius. The Ecclesiastical History (2 vols.; Cambridge and London: Harvard and William Heinemann, 1965)
Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels. Anotated Scholars Version (Rev. and expanded ed.; Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994)
Eberhard Nestle, Erwin Nestle, Barbara Aland and Kurt Aland, et al., eds., Greek-English New Testament (9th rev. ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001)
Graydon Snyder, Ante Pacem. Archaeological Evidence for Church Life Before Constantine (Atlanta: Mercer University Press, 1985).
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:35am
Hi, Dr. Hedrick,