May 12, 2010

Two Sobering Thoughts

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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

Egerton Gospel (ca. 150): consists of five small fragments recounting several incidents in the life of Jesus: a dialogue with legal experts, healing of a leper, debate over what to pay the civil authorities, miracle at the Jordan river, and an apparent attempt at stoning Jesus.

P90 (late 2nd century): consists of John 18:36-19:1, 19:2-7

P104 (late 2nd century): consists of Matthew 21:34-37, 43-45 (?)

P64 (ca. 200) consists of Matthew 3:9, 15; 5:20-22, 25-28; 26:7-8, 10. 14-15, 22-23, 31-33

P66 (ca. 200): consists of John 1:1-6:11; 6:35-14:26, 29-30; 15:2-26; 16:2-4, 6-7; 16:10-20, 22-23; 20:25-21:9

P46 (200): consists of Romans 5:17-6:3, 5-14; 8:15-25, 27-35; 8:37-9:32; 10:1-11:22, 24-33; 11:35-15:9; 15:11-16:27. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9:2; 9:4-14:14; 14:16-15:15; 15:17-16:22. 2 Corinthians 1:11-11:10, 12-21; 11:23-13:13. Galatians 1:1-8; 1:10-2:9, 12-21; 3:2-29; 4:2-18; 4:20-5:17; 5:20-6:8, 10-18. Ephesians 1:1-2:7; 2:10-5:6; 5:8-6:6, 8-18, 20-24. Philippians 1:1, 5-15, 17-28; 1:30-2:12, 14-27; 2:29-3:8, 10-21; 4:2-12, 14-23. Colossians 1:1-2, 5-13, 16-24; 1:27-2:19; 2:23-3:11, 13-24; 4:3-12, 16-18. 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 1:9-2:3; 5:5-9, 23-28. Hebrews 1:1-9:16; 9:18-10:20, 22-30; 10:32-13:25

Gospel of Thomas (ca. 200): consists of several sayings of Jesus (corresponding to sayings 26-29, 30+77b, 31-33 in the Coptic version).

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
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:35am

Hi, Dr. Hedrick,

What I thought I might say in defense of Eusebius is that there were probably a number of things that he knew and recorded that have been lost through time--similar to St. Jerome and a number of the manuscripts used for the Latin Vulgate. I think that if Eusebius was trying to re-create history to serve his purpose someone would have protested, and I don't see the protest against him.

Posted by Cody Hayes on 5/13/2010 at 10:52am

Hi Cody,

I wasn’t trying to suggest that Eusebius was deliberately trying to mislead. But I do suggest that Eusebius did not know much more than we know now. All of his information about the earliest “Christians” and Jesus come from the four canonical gospels. I am not through his second book (reading it again) and it appears what he is passing on is “tradition” some of which is clearly not historical—for example the Abgar story, which he says is part of the record in the city of Edessa, but it does not appear that he himself saw it.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 5/13/2010 at 3:29pm