Professor of Religious Studies,a leading authority on the Bible and the life of Jesus,author Bart D.Ehrman discusses his books and public debates, responds to criticisms from other scholars, and answers questions raised by readers.The History & Literature of Early Christianity provides Bart’s insights and opinions on important issues related to the New Testament and early Christianity.
Most people on the planet simply are not interested in history. I’d say that’s true of most American high school and college students. History classes can be dreadfully boring, especially with the wrong teacher — and it is very hard to be a good teacher of history. In high school, I had almost no interest in my history classes. Names, dates, things that happened that had no relevance to anything I was interested in or what I felt like doing day to day. Ugh.
But a good history teacher is a marvel to behold. There is so much about the past that is fascinating, and, of course relevant. And so, as it turns out, I’ve turned into a professional historian. Go figure.
I’ve been thinking about this because of that debate I had on Monday with Peter Williams, a very bright evangelical Christian and a fine scholar of ancient Semitic languages who firmly believes that the Bible conveys God’s Truth, in every way, so that there are no mistakes of any kind in it.
I don’t see this as a historical approach to the Bible but a religious/theological one. Christians who take this view are not interested in studying the Bible the way other ancient books would be studied. For them it is given by God, and so it’s different, and a “historical” approach is in fact inimical to a “true” understanding of it.
Peter – at least as I was hearing him – seemed to me to affirm that view whole heartedly. The “discussion” we had (the moderator didn’t want to call it a debate) will be posted online sometime in the fall, not sure when, and so you can see for yourself if my assessment is right. But it did seem to me that Peter thought/thinks that “history” is a four-letter word.
He contrasted his approach to the Bible with how historians in “university history departments” (the term he used with a bit of disdain) approach their texts. In making the differentiation he actually did make an extremely good point. He indicated that…
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Two things have happened to me this week that have made me think rather intensely about the path I’ve taken in life, and how radically it has swerved from the paths of others who were like me at the age of 20. I emphasize “who were like me.” The reality is that the path I was on already at 20 was (now I see) extremely weird, and to outsiders looks more than a little bizarre. I was a hard-core evangelical Christian dedicated to ministry for the sake of the gospel. Not exactly what most 20-year olds (including any of my many high school friends) were doing at the time. If ever I want a conversation-stopper at a cocktail party, all I need do is say something about my past.
Still, given that as my starting point, what happened next is even more highly unusual. And I was abruptly reminded it of it this week, twice. First, on Monday I had a radio/podcast debate here in London on “Premier Christian Radio” (it is the leading Christian radio station in England) (not that it has a lot of competition, but it is indeed a high class operation) with another scholar of the New Testament, Peter Williams, one of the world’s experts on ancient Syriac as it relates to the Bible (both OT and NT), former professor at the University of Aberdeen and current head of Tyndale House in Cambridge: http://legacy.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/peter-williams.
I have known Pete for years; he is a committed evangelical Christian with a view of the infallibility of the Bible. Our debate was on the question of whether the Gospels are historically reliable (a topic of frequent recurrence on this blog, obviously) (some bloggers may think “interminable” recurrence). He thinks there is not a single mistake in the Gospels, of any kind. I think there are. You’ve heard this kind of debate before, so I won’t be recounting the ins and outs (although they were quite different from those you’ve seen before; still, it won’t matter for this post).
The second thing that happened is that I received a Facebook post from a former friend (I emphasize “former” since we apparently are no longer friendly) and classmate of mine from my Moody Bible Institute days (mid 70s), in which he lambasted the fellow alumni from my graduating class for holding me in any kind of esteem. The implication of his lambast was that I’m the enemy of the truth and no one should respect me or my views. I haven’t talked with this fellow for over 40 years, but last I knew we were friends, on the same floor in the dorm and the same basketball team. OK, I couldn’t hit a jump shot, but still, is that reason to be upset four decades later?
In any event, these two events made me think hard about one issue in particular, one that I keep coming back to in my head, in my life, and, occasionally, on this blog: why is it that some people are willing to change their minds about what they hold most dear and important in their lives and other people retain their same views, come hell or high water? Why do some people explore options and think about whether they were originally “right” or not (about religion, personal ethics, social issues, politics, etc.), and other people cling tenaciously to the views they were given when they were 14 years old? It’s an interesting question.
Because I changed my views on something near and dear to me and my then-friends, I’m a persona non grata in the circles I used to run around in. And granted, I have zero desire (OK, far less than zero) to run around in them now. But I don’t feel any animosity toward my former friends, or think they’re going to roast in hell because of their views, and wish that torment would begin sooner than later. I understand why they do (toward me), but it’s sad and disheartening.
Let me be clear, my (current) scholar-friend Peter Williams and I are on very good terms (after our debate he bought me lunch and we had a lovely talk about his current research projects): there’s no animosity there or wish for me to speed the process of passing off my mortal coil, at all. Though I bet if you press him he would regretfully inform you that I probably will be roasting in hell. Still, that’s OK; it’s what he thinks.
What I’m more interested in is why I would have changed my mind and others like him absolutely don’t. Even scholars. Their views significantly deepen, become more sophisticated, more nuanced – but the views don’t change. (My sense of my former classmates at Moody – at least the ones I hear about – is that their views don’t even deepen or grow more sophisticated; they literally think pretty much the same thing as they did when they were mid-teenagers, only now with more conviction and passion).
The reason I find the whole matter sad is almost entirely personal (I guess sadness by definition is). My former evangelical friends and current evangelical debate partners think I’m an enemy of the truth, when I’ve spent almost my entire weird journey trying to come to the truth. And so far as I can tell, they haven’t. I’m not trying to be ungenerous, but it does seem to me to be the reality.
I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here: how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right? The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right? The problem with these particular views (of evangelical Christianity) is that if they are indeed right, everyone else in the known universe is wrong and going to be tormented forever because of it.
I know most Christians don’t think this: I’m just talking about this particular type of Christian. And they don’t seem to see how strange it is that they are right because they agree with what they were taught as young children. Yes, they don’t see it that way. They think they are right because they agree with the Bible which comes from God so they agree with God and I (and everyone else on the planet) disagree with God. But the reality is that this is the view they were handed as young kids.
I realize these are very old questions. When we were evangelicals we puzzled over the question of how God could punish people for eternity for not “accepting Christ” when they had never even heard of him. Unfortunately, we concluded that we weren’t sure how he would do that, but we were pretty sure he would.
Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous. But what I’m puzzled by is not *that*, but by the fact that thinking human beings (as opposed to non-thinking ones) can actually still subscribe to such nonsense. And it’s a troubling idea to me precisely because those are the roots I come from.
This is not an issue for most blog members, but possibly for some. I have a few more reflections on it – specifically with respect to my debate – that I think I’ll reflect on in the next post. (I’ll get back to the authorship of the letter of James! But for now this is on my mind.)
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One of my most accomplished former students is Stephanie Cobb, now the George and Sallie Cutchin Camp Professor of Bible in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond. While doing her PhD at UNC, Stephanie became deeply interested in the accounts of martyrdom in early Christianity, leading to a dissertation with one of the best titles ever (it really does describe the book but it’s unusually clever): Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts.
Stephanie has become one of the leading experts in this field, backed up now with an intriguing and important second book on the martyr texts. It will be of particular interest to members of the blog and so I’ve asked Stephanie to make some guest posts about it. Here is the first.
Bart recently asked if I would be interested in writing a few posts about my latest book, Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts. But before diving into Divine Deliverance itself, I want to back up for a moment to talk a bit about what I love so much about early Christian martyr texts. I became fascinated by these (mostly 2nd and 3rd cen. ce) accounts in grad school. My first sustained study of them—Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts—looked at the ways martyr texts utilized gendered language to make arguments about Christian superiority over against pagans and Jews, on the one hand, and to dictate a normative gendered hierarchy within the Christian community, on the other hand. As I worked on this book, scouring the Greek and Latin texts carefully for gendered language and allusions, I stumbled upon another sort of language that I wasn’t expecting and that, to be honest, confounded me: over and over again, in a variety of different ways, these texts claimed that the martyrs did not feel pain when they were tortured!
And so, Divine Deliverance, at its core, asks a rather simple question: “Does martyrdom hurt?” The answer may seem so obvious as to make the question ridiculous. These texts talk about Christians being burned alive, thrown into the amphitheater to face gladiators or beasts, being hanged by their thumbs, and a wide assortment of other kinds of tortures that I’m fairly certain hurt a lot. The point of torture was to entice Christians to deny their faith and return to the traditional religions of the Roman empire. Pain was a judicial tool used by the Roman government. Pain not only worked to push individuals to deny their faith, since it was typically publicly inflicted, it served as a deterrent for others. Every tool in the prosecutors’ tool bag inflicted some sort of pain—whether psychological, physiological, or emotional. So, martyrdom must hurt.
Theologically speaking, moreover, the point of these narratives must surely be—right?—to communicate to audiences the details of the torture and execution of these exceptional Christians. For most of us, I think, the martyrs stand as exemplary individuals who withstood excruciating pain in order to faithfully witness to Jesus. (The term “martyr,” by the way means “to witness” in Greek; it is judicial language that Christians appropriated and eventually applied to those who testified in court and were executed for doing so.) When we hear about their travails, we might wince and wonder whether we have what it takes to do what they did. They are the superheroes of Christianity: they have powers that we can’t imagine having ourselves, and they use them to build up the faith. As the third-century North African Christian, Tertullian, famously said: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Indeed, it is precisely the detailed descriptions of the dissolution of bodies that has led scholars to the consensus that Christian authors of this period specifically focused on Christian suffering. This interest was part and parcel of a larger social movement—as Judith Perkins argues in her wonderful analysis of Christianity of this period in The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era—that acknowledged, for the first time, bodies that feel pain and experience suffering. She calls this new cultural representation the “suffering self.” Authors of this period—Roman, Jewish, and Christian—began discussing in some detail the experiences of the suffering body: twisted ankles, intestinal distresses, fevers, disembowelment. Christian writings of the period, it could be argued, are all concerned—at some level—about persecution/prosecution, suffering, and their effects on the faith. Perkins rightly notes that stories of individuals in Christian literature have a social function much larger than communicating one person’s experience: they simultaneously describe the individual and social body. If the second century bishop, Ignatius, anticipated he would face “fire and cross, packs of beasts, dissections, divisions, scattering of bones, chopping up of limbs, grinding up of the entire body,” he was also describing what Christianity at large should expect. To be a Christian, Perkins argues, is to suffer.
Didn’t Jesus and Paul, after all, teach that their followers should expect rejection and suffering? In Matthew 5, Jesus tells his followers to pray for those who persecute them. They should expect, that is, to suffer. In Luke 14, Jesus teaches that only those who “take up the cross” are his disciples. In Mark 13, Jesus followers are told they will be hated by everyone. In Matthew 23, Jesus predicts that some of those listening to him will be crucified. Paul speaks often of his own imprisonment and torture. (2 Cor 11; 1 Thess 2; Rom 8; Gal 6). He recites this history as a way of authenticating his faith. As heirs of these texts and traditions, then, surely the martyr texts anticipate and value bodily suffering. It fulfills Jesus’ prophecies and, like Paul’s, differentiates true from false Christians. This understanding of Christian pain is not only biblical, though. Pope Benedict XVI taught that true Christian love entails suffering. “The cross,” he explained, “reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, there is no gift without pain.” (https://zenit.org/articles/benedict-xvi-no-suffering-no-love/) Christian identity—both individually and corporately—seems inextricably connected with bodily pain.
Does martyrdom hurt? Despite all that I’ve said above. Despite the sensibleness of these arguments and the obviousness of the answer “yes,” in Divine Deliverance I argue that the martyr texts reflect a very different approach to the question. These ancient discussions of Christian martyrdom reveal an abiding interest in the insensitivity of the Christian body during torture and martyrdom. Claims to painlessness are crucial to the texts’ work of (re-)defining Christianity in the ancient world: while Christians could not deny the reality that they were subject to state violence, they could argue that they were not ultimately vulnerable to its painful effects. Thus early Christian texts distinguish categories that modern readers tend to collapse: torture and suffering, injury and pain. The martyrs are tortured and injured but they do not experience suffering and pain. Texts produced between the second and fourth centuries reflect Christian communities’ interactions with their contemporaries—pagans, Jews, and other Christians—and the development of their belief systems. The martyr texts’ claims to impassibility (the martyrs’ inability to feel pain) and/or impassivity (the martyrs’ lack of response to pain) have repercussions not only for the power structures undergirding Roman violence but also for the development of Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. And that will be the subject of my next post.
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I’ve started talking about the epistle of James, first in relation to Paul (yesterday) and then in relation to … James, the man himself, Jesus’ brother (today). My ultimate goal is to explain why I’m sure James himself did not write the letter (later). But in the meantime I’ve received a question that I should probably address first: did Jesus really have a brother named James? Uh… don’t a lot of Christians think that Jesus never had any siblings (since his mother remained a virgin)? How do you explain him having a brother?
I’ve talked about this on the blog before, but in the current context, it’s worth talking about again. Here’s the question and my response:
In what way was the James you are talking about here, the “brother” of Jesus? Was he another one of Mary’s sons from Joseph? Was he another one of Joseph’s sons from a previous relationship?
One of the non-canonical books from early Christianity that I regularly teach is called the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi — a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….). It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels. Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; it is interested in explaining who she was. Why was *she* the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God? What made her so special? How did she come into the world? What made her more holy than any other woman? Etc. These questions drive the narrative, and make it our earliest surviving instance of the adoration of Mary.
On the legends found here was built an entire superstructure of Marian tradition. Most of the book deals with the question of how Mary was conceived (miraculously, but not virginally), what her early years were like (highly sanctified; her youth up to twelve (lived in the temple, fed every day by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, an elderly widower with sons from a previous marriage, the discovery of her pregnancy and the “proof” that she (and Joseph) were both pure from any “sin” (such as, well, sex).
The book was originally composed in the second Christian century and it became very popular in Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity throughout the Ages, down to modern times. A version of it was produced – with serious additions and changes – in Latin, that was even more influential in Western Christianity (a book now known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew). In some times and places, these books were the main source of “information” that people had for knowing about Jesus’ birth and family – more so than the NT Gospels. (If you’re interest in reading them, I’ve translated both versions – the Greek proto-Gospel and the Latin Pseudo-Matthew, in my book, The Other Gospels, co-produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše).
How influential? The idea that Joseph was an old man and Mary was a young girl? Comes from the Proto-Gospel (not the NT!). The view that Jesus was born in a cave? Proto-Gospel. The notion that at the nativity there was an ox and a donkey? Pseudo-Matthew. And there were lots of other stories familiar to Christians in the Middle Ages not so familiar to people today, all from these books – for example, a spectacular account (in Pseudo-Matthew) of Jesus as an infant, en route to Egypt, helping out his very-hungry mother Mary who was eyeing with longing some fruit at the top of a palm tree, by ordering the tree to bend down and yield its produce to her. It does, and Jesus blesses the tree and guarantees that one of its branches will be taken to Paradise.
The Proto-Gospel was also responsible for the popularity of one particular view of Jesus’ brothers.
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Yesterday I began answering a question about the New Testament book of James. The most interesting thing about the book, for most readers, is that it *seems* at least to be attacking a view vigorously espoused by the apostle Paul. Are these authors at odds with each other? Here is where I pick up on that discussion in my book Forged. My sense is that a lot of readers of the blog will not anticipate where I stand on the issue.
There is one issue that the author is particularly concerned with, however. It is an issue that reflects a bone of contention with other Christians. There are some Christians who are evidently saying that to be right with God, all one needs is faith; for them, doing “good works” is irrelevant to salvation, so long as you believe. James thinks this is precisely wrong, that if you do not do good deeds, then you obviously don’t have faith.
What use is it, my brothers, if a person says he has faith but has no works? Is faith able to save him? If a brother or sister is naked and has no daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and be filled,” without giving them what their bodies need, what use is that? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:14-17)
The author goes on to argue that having faith apart from works cannot bring salvation, and in fact is worthless. This is shown above all by the example of Abraham, father of the Jews, who was saved by what he did, not just by what he believed.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one? You do well: even the demons believe, and they shudder. But do you wish to know, O shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works and faith was completed by the works. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” And he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone. (James 2:18-24)
Here then is a sharp invective against anyone who maintains that it is faith alone that can put a person into a right standing before God (in James’s words, that can “justify” a person). His evidence is Abraham, and the Scripture he quotes in support is Genesis 15:6: “And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
One of the reasons this passage is significant is that it sounds almost like a parody of something that Paul himself wrote, earlier, in his letter to the Galatians, when he …
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Sometimes the questions I get from readers are short and to the point, but require long answers over a number of posts. Here’s one of the recent ones:
Could you write a blog on the book of James and why it is considered a forgery?
I think this question deserves an entire thread of responses. I haven’t talked much about the letter of James on the blog (at least so far as I can remember and tell!). So why not? It’s a short “book” – just five brief chapters. You can read it in fifteen minutes. Go ahead! What I say about it will then make better sense.
The best known feature of the letter is that it *seems* to be opposing the writings and teachings of Paul. But does it? Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, thought so. He included the book only as an appendix to the New Testament.
I talk about the letter, and the reasons I don’t think it was actually written by James, the brother of Jesus, in both my popular book, Forged, and my longer scholarly book Forgery and Counterforgery. There are indeed a lot of scholars today who think that James actually did write it. I used to think so myself! But when I started looking deeply into the matter, I came away thinking “no way.” I’ll explain why in later posts.
For now, I’ll start the discussion by saying a few words about the book itself, apart from the question of who wrote it. This post and the next come from Forged.
In the New Testament we find at least one book that appears to attack Paul’s teachings, or at least a later misinterpretation of Paul’s teachings. This is a letter that claims to be written by someone named James. In the early church it was widely assumed that this James was the brother of Jesus.
(This) James was known throughout the history of the early church to have been …
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Many readers on the blog will know of Larry Hurtado, a prominent New Testament scholar who has been influential as one of the most regular and reliable bloggers on issues of relevance to the study of early Christianity. Larry has announced that he is very ill and will no longer be able to participate in either scholarship or the promotion of early Christians studies to a broader reading audience. This is very sad, especially for us who know him. (I will give his announcement about his illness and the prospects at the end of this post.)
I have known Larry for over thirty years. He started out as a New Testament textual critic, with his first book a published version of his dissertation: Hurtado, Larry W. (1981). Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark. Studies and Documents. 43. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. It’s not something you will want to try to reading, unless you’re an expert on Greek and the Greek manuscript tradition of the NT. Trust me. But I used it when writing my dissertation four years later on a not-altogether dissimilar (and equally unreadable) topic.
I would venture to say that the book he is best known for was his next: (1988). One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press. This book is very much accessible to the non-expert and deals with an even more important topic: how Christ was worshiped as God very early in the Christian tradition by followers who nonetheless insisted there was only one God (and who believed Christ was not the same being as the Father). This book was an intervention in the claims of others that the deity of Christ was a *later* development in the early Christian tradition. Rather than simply look at doctrinal statements about Christ, Larry realized the solution to understanding how Christian views was to see how they *worshiped*. If they worshiped Christ as God then, well, you can’t very well say they didn’t see him as God. Yet they remained monotheists. How’d they do that? Read the book and see!
Larry later wrote a more scholarly and far more sophisticated and much longer assessment of the same phenomenon, in many ways his magnum opus. This is probably still accessible to lay folk, but it is very serious scholarship all the same and is not for the casual reader: (2003). Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Larry never abandoned his passion for the study of early Christian manuscripts and very helpfully turned to the question of how the surviving texts of the New Testament can help us understand better the *social* history of Christianity at different periods. This led to a book that possibly most readers of this blog would be particularly interested in: (2006). The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. If you had to pick one of his books to read, I would say this is it.
Larry wrote a number of other books and articles, especially on another of his long-term interests, the Gospel of Mark. You can get an idea of the oeuvre from the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Hurtado
I first met Larry when he was a professor of the University of Manitoba in Canada; he later moved to a senior position at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland; he retired eight years ago as a Professor Emeritus from there, but has remained active academically since. But that appears now to be coming to an end. Here is the post from several days ago in which he announces the health issues, to which he will now need to be devoting his attention, full time:
The leukemia (AML) for which I was treated here last summer has reactivated, after some 9 months of remission. The further treatment options are quite limited, and may only be palliative care of various sorts. In any case, I am now fully occupied with exploring various arrangements for the situation and aftermath of my death on my wife and others. So, I shall have no time for blogging or my scholarly work. Signing off unless further notice. I hope that the archives on the site will continue to prove useful to interested readers.
Here is the final part of Jennifer’s Knust’s quest to trace the history of an intriguing Christian manuscript she came across, suspecting it had come to Duke ultimately as a result of Nazi looting decades earlier. Now she details how she tried to track it down.
The entire episode leads her, then to reflect on the Green Family Collection, a group of manuscripts and antiquities purchased by the owners of the Hobby Lobby and the basis of the “Museum of the Bible” in Washington D.C. Any visitor to the museum might assume that acquiring such treasures would be relatively simple and involve no issues of legality, morality, and scandal. On the contrary….
Part III: Manuscripts are Commodities
The Antiquariat was (and is) a bookstore. Günther Koch was a bookseller. Indeed, in a counter-claim filed against the Rosenthals in the 1950s, he described himself as uniquely qualified for the position he undertook during and after the war. He reminded the Wiedergutmachungsbehörde I, Oberbayern (Upper Bavarian Restitution Agency I) that he is the author of Kunstwerke und Bücher am Markte (“Works of Art and Books on the Market,” Eßlingen a. N. Paul Neff, 1915), fluent in thirteen languages, more capable than the Rosenthals of assessing the true value and significance of their collection, and a “Philosemite” to boot. From his perspective, both the Rosenthals and the German government owed him compensation for his troubles. Such a self-serving, self-important, and demonstrably false counter-claim — it was recognized as such by the German court — seems stunning now, more than fifty years later. Yet Koch’s lack of regret should serve as a warning to all of us: dripping condescension and an over-active sense of entitlement are professional hazards for those of us with access to the training, institutional support, and privilege that expertise in rare books requires. In Koch’s case, his access to the Antiquariat’s books came at significant human as well as financial cost: Norbert and his son Paul were murdered in the concentration camps. Norbert’s wife Johanna, mother of Ernst, Fritz, and Paul, died as the result of illness, also in the camps (For more information, see ….
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This now is the second of Jennifer Knust’s three posts on her current project, tracing the history of a Christian manuscript she came upon from the rare book collection at Duke University. Her research led her to booksellers in London, Munich, and Amsterdamn, and implicates the Aryanization policies of the Nazis. Who knew New Testament scholarship could be so interesting? Here is what she has to say:
Part II: Nazi Loot?
My own project began when Aaron Ebert, a doctoral student at Duke University, noticed that the manuscript he was studying was one of three purchased by Duke from the London bookseller Raphael King in the 1950s. Very little information about Mr. King is available, so Aaron reached out to the Ludwig Rosenthal Antiquariaat, a venerable antiquarian bookstore now located in the Netherlands that once owned another of Duke’s manuscripts also sold by King, Greek MS 018. According to an important volume on Byzantine hagiography, this manuscript, a twelfth-century collection of saints’ lives for the month of December, was in the possession of the Antiquariat in Munich sometime before 1938 (Albert Ehrhard, Überlieferung und Bestand der hagiographischen und homiletischen Literatur der griechischen Kirche von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 165. Jahrhunderts, vol. 2, Leipzig, J. C. Hinrichs, 1938, 483-84). The current owner, Mrs. Edith Petten-Rosenthal, kindly replied to Aaron, noting that any manuscript sold from the Munich shop after 1938 was …
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I have asked my friend and colleague Jennifer Knust (Professor of early Christianity at Duke) to write some guest posts for us on the blog. Jenny has recently published the definitive study of the famous passage of the “Woman Taken in Adultery” (containing the line “Let the one without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her” – a passage not originally in the New Testament), a long, sophisticated, and learned book (co-authored with Tommy Wasserman), called To Cast the First Stone; and I had suggested she write about that for us. Maybe she will later. But for now she has decided to post about some very exciting current research she’s doing, as we speak: tracking down the history of a Christian manuscript that was plundered by the Nazis. Intriguing stuff. This will take several posts.
“In this kind of world no blueprint instructs us how to house
what we love against the winds of loss.”
Alice Fogel, “Which Way the Winds Blow”
Part I: Manuscripts Present Good Opportunities
I suspect that many who read this blog are like me, eager to know the full story of a now notorious ancient papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark, once again in the news. you follow Bart, you are probably already aware of Dan Wallace’s announcement in a public debate in 2012 that a first-century fragment of Mark is in the possession of the Green family, the owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores who, at that time, were busily amassing a collection of biblically related artifacts and manuscripts to be held in what would eventually become the Museum of the Bible (MOTB). This fragment, Wallace proposed, had the potential to certify an early date for Mark and, perhaps more importantly, to demonstrate that the followers of Jesus regarded the Gospels as “sacred scripture” within a few decades after their composition. In 2018, however, this papyrus was published not by the MOTB’s Scholars Initiative but in volume 83 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Editors Daniela Colomo and Dirk Obbink dated the document to the second or third centuries rather than the first, making it quite a rare find but incapable of substantiating Wallace’s claims, at least not to the degree that he had hoped. (In response to this revelation, Wallace apologized for his earlier statements: https://danielbwallace.com/2018/05/23/first-century-mark-fragment-update/.)
I am not directly involved in this particular case — I am tracking the story like everyone else — but, as it happens, I was busily researching another possible manuscript theft when this story broke. The two episodes — so-called “first-century Mark” and the one I am studying — are very different. “First-century Mark” is a fragment of an ancient papyrus codex that was discarded in the rubbish heaps in and around late antique Oxyrhynchus (now Bahnasa), Egypt, a once-thriving metropolis. It was excavated by British archaeologists at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries and brought to England for further study (https://www.ees.ac.uk/papyri). Duke’s Greek manuscript 018 is a twelfth-century “menologion,” a collection of saints’ lives organized calendrically so that they can be read on the appropriate day (https://repository.duke.edu/dc/earlymss/emsgk01013). Duke’s copy is a beautiful example of a menologion for the month of December, as prepared by a Byzantine scholar known as “Symeon Metaphrastes” (“Symeon the Editor”) in the tenth century. A full set of the Menaphrastian menologion customarily includes ten volumes designed for devotional reading over the course of the church year. Duke’s is volume five, covering December 4-13 and telling the stories of Saints Barbara (December 4), Sabas (December 5), Nicholas (December 6), Ambrose (December 7), Patapias (December 8), Menas, Hermogenes, and Eugraphos (December 10), Daniel the Stylite (December 11), Spyridon (December 12), and Eustratios, Auxentios, Eugenios, Mardarios, and Orestes (the “five holy martyrs,” December 12). This manuscript traveled by some unknown (and likely circuitous route) from a location where it was employed in a Greek Christian liturgy to somewhere in Germany, then to a bookshop in Munich, and, ultimately, to Duke.
Clearly, the parties involved, their circumstances, and the manuscripts in question share little in common. Nevertheless, investigating one possible conspiracy while another unfolds has highlighted for me an oft unspoken truth of book collecting and collections: manuscripts are commodities preserved not only for the texts they contain, the wisdom they impart, and the histories they preserve but also for what they authorize and what they can buy. Manuscripts are grounds upon which contested cultural, religious, and theological knowledges have been established and demolished. They demand experts capable of reading and interpreting them; careers as well as fortunes are built by those capable of unlocking their secrets. They are also rare: papyrus rots away, parchment wears out, pages are damaged and lost, ink is rubbed off, natural and man-made disasters happen, and once valuable books are discarded or forgotten, only to be re-discovered again in some later age. Those who trade in and study these prized remainders are not disinterested, altruistic heroes but flawed human beings as tempted by greed, selfishness, self-justification, and self-aggrandizement as anyone else. The capacity of people to behave in less than salutary, even noxious ways when money, reputations, careers, and manuscripts are at stake is therefore not surprising.
Yet this is why on-going histories of ancient and medieval books are as worthy of attention as the manuscripts themselves: the way objects are treated mirrors the way people are treated, and vice-versa. When institutions, policies, and procedures condone or even simply overlook manuscript theft, such thefts will occur. When the lives and livelihoods of those who own treasured objects are de-valued, discounted, or disparaged, their objects become vulnerable to seizure and are in fact often seized. If those who long to own fragments of papyri, moldy parchment manuscripts, and dusty old books are willing to look the other way (as they often are), histories of theft, plunder, confiscation, and abduction are covered over, lost, and forgotten. If institutions and governments set out to obfuscate — rather than make plain — the means by which objects are attained and retained, individual actors will not be held to account. If individual actors do not ask questions, query their own motives, and behave like responsible citizens — obliged to the care about the fate and lives of others beside themselves and not just to investigate their chosen objects of study — then these kinds of stories will be endlessly repeated. It is therefore up to all of us to ask: What are costs of what we want and who is paying those costs? The second part of this three-part series will begin to address these questions.