Backlog – Gamble’s Books and Readers In the Early Church

I have gotten behind in summarizing my reading. So, without further ado…

Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers In the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts has filled a considerable gap in my knowledge. I can now talk intelligently about how early Christians went about physically making their works and distributing them. It makes an nice bookend to Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul the Letter-Writer.

Probably the most compelling conclusion Gamble makes – well, he makes two big ones and defends both well. One is that the early Christians favored the codex over the scroll. They were 200 years ahead of the Greek-Roman vogue, with the papyrus scroll being the standard for ‘literature’ of the time. Second, as there was nothing like a modern publisher available, any classical or early Christian author was dependent on a patron to not only copy but distribute texts via a minature army of scribes. There is a strong possiblity, for example, that the most excellent Theophilus in Luke 1:1 functioned as Luke’s publisher/agent/patron.

Now by the late 2nd century the proto-orthodox church was getting strong enough to build its own libraries and scriptoriums, which could produce and distribute, say, copies of gospels where they were needed in outlying areas. But publication was still to some great extant dependant on well-connected private individuals. It is no great surprise, then, that the New Testament we have is more or less what it looked like around 200 CE.

This system raises some troubling questions. Many of the early scribes copying gospels, epistles, etc were Christians, most Jews which may or may have not known Greek that well, and other were less personally invested folk, hired by these patrons. Which would have done a better job copying the texts? You could argue either way, I suppose. Regardless, any kind of mass copying would have been next to impossible. Couple that with the occasional Roman purge and the usual vaguries of transmission, and it’s fortunate we have any texts at all.

This does explain how we ended up with four Gospels. By Eusebius’ time their origin is more or less legendary – I am not quite through his History of the Church yet, but I’ve gotten to where he relates the gospel authorship traditions. With all this private copying going on without any rhyme or reason, and noting Eusebius’s tendency to judge whether a work was scripture by its popularity of use in church services (what a strange method, no?) it would remarkably easy to write gospels in direct response to other gospels, and thus revise the portrait of Jesus. Mark leds to Matthew, Matthew leads to Luke, John responds to Mark or any combination of the others. By the time the dust cleared from the back and forth, Christians were left with four complete gospels that mostly but not completely agreed with each other. Trying to tell which was the first or the most correct one was impossible. What’s the solution for a church in need of standardization and centralization?

Why, declare them all to be true! There must have been a great controversy that has mostly disappeared from the record, in the first half of the 2nd century, at all these gospels cropping up – the kind that would quickly fuel the rise of Marconism. The defense of the 4 gospels in Ireneus as being necessary just as there are four winds… well, they couldn’t admit to the real reason – they couldn’t tell which was authentic because of the obscure, private publication process. There was no path back to the author. Anyone could have written and distributed a gospel in the midst of the Christians. They were, for all intents and purposes, anonymous broadsides.

Ignatius’ letters, spurious or not, show there is no consensus yet on any gospel being scripture in the early 1st – he feels no need to quote any by name, though he must have been exposed to M and L material. We can only imagine the debates that resulted. True, the pious authorship attributed to the gospels must have quelled a lot of discussion, but folks like Celsus, on the sidelines, were not that slow.

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