Athenagoras on Christians

November 24, 2011

I’m been reading Athenagoras’ "A Plea for the Christians" in my free time. It’s excellent. Athenagoras, who lived in around 133-190, is writing in defense of Christians who are under the hammer. Apparently at the time, even being called a Christian was enough to get you punished. He rejects the unfounded charges of cannibalism, atheism and sexual immorality. Among other things:

  • He gives rational arguments for accepting Christianity, and rejecting paganism.
  • He repeatedly espouses the trinity as basic Christian doctrine, even though the Nicene council would only convene some 200 years later.

But perhaps my favourite passage so far is the description he gives of Christians:

But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.

Muratorian Fragment

February 3, 2011

Pius I

The Muratorian fragment is perhaps the earliest list we have of books from the New Testament. It was probably written approximately 180-200 AD, because it refers to Pius I of Rome as being "recent". The document itself, however, dates to the 8th century. It was rediscovered and republished by Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1740. These days it finds its home in Milan.

The beginning of the fragment is missing, but it continues with:

  • Luke
  • John
  • Acts
  • Paul’s letters (the letters to the Laodocians and Alexandrians are rejected)
  • Jude
  • Two letters from John

Also commented on in the list are:

  • Apocalypses of John and Peter (which may not be read in church)
  • Shepherd of Hermas

The full text can be read online.

Here are a couple of Old Testament sources collected together for your browsing pleasure.

(1) Masoretic text

The Masoretic Text (MT) is regarded as the authoritative texts of the Old Testament. Most of our Bibles are based on these texts. These date back only to 7th to 11th centuries. During this time, the non-semitic “Masorites of Tiberias” created a school on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and carefully standardised and preserved copies of the Old Testament.

Particularly important was the work of the Ben Asher family, several generations of whom worked on preserving the Tanakh. The oldest surviving copy of these is Codex Cairensis, written in 895, which contains a complete set of the prophets, along with Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The Codex can be found (as a poor quality PDF) online here.

Another ancient Masoretic text is the Aleppo Codex (Deuteronomy above, Joshua 1 below) was written in the 10th century. It contains the entire old testament – or at least it did until it was burnt during riots directed against Jewish property in Aleppo in 1947. Only 294 of the original 487 pages remain. The entire text is available online.

A third Masoretic text is the Leningrad Codex (title page shown below) was written in 1008. After the burning of the Aleppo Codex, it is now the oldest complete Masoretic text known today. It has been the basis the of Biblia Hebraica (1937) and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1977).

(2) Dead Sea Scrolls

The dead sea scrolls were discovered in caves near the ancient town of Qumran, 20 kilometres east of Jerusalem, between 1947 and 1956. They contain the oldest known Hebrew text of the Old Testament, written between 150 BC and 70 AD. More that 15,000 fragments and 500 manuscripts have been found from around 900 separate scrolls. They contain every book of the Old Testament with the exception of Ester, including 19 copies of Isaiah (shown below), 25 of Deuteronomy, and 30 of the Psalms (shown above).

(3) Septuagint (LXX)

The Septuagint (LXX) is the name for the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was translated between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, and this is the version quoted by the New Testament and by early church fathers. It was used as the basis for Old Latin versions, Slavonic, Syriac, Old Armenian, Old Georgian and Coptic translations. Remarkably there some early fragments of the LXX dating back to the second and third centuries BC, such as this one from the Rylands Library, containing parts of Deuteronomy 23-38:

An important version of LXX is recorded by Origen, known as the “Hexapla“. Taking him 28 years, he collected together six main Old Testament texts of his time. Origen arranged his six texts side by side: Hebrew, Hebrew in Greek characters, Septuagint and the early Greek translations – Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion. His original version has now been lost, although it is quoted in early Christian literature. Fortunately however the LXX portion was preserved, transcribed by Eusebius and Pamphilus, and was widely circulated. Manuscripts of the LXX are the oldest surviving nearly-complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language: Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus come from the 4th century and Codex Alexandrinus from the 5th century (below).


(4) Nash Papyrus

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, the oldest known Hebrew text was in the Nash Papyrus. It dates approximately 150-100 BC and was housed at Cambridge University. It contains the text of the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21

(5) Cairo Geniza Fragments

A geniza is a storeroom. Although many texts were thrown out, if a piece of writing contained the name of God, they were to be treated with respect, and even given a burial. Before they were buried, they were stored, meaning that we now have almost 300,000 fragments dating from 870 through to the late 1800’s.

(6) Syriac Peshitta

The Syriac bible, the Peshitta, was translated during the second century. The Old Testament of this Bible was translated directly from the Hebrew into Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Peshitta means “simple” or “direct” translation. One example is manuscript 14,425, (below) dating from the fifth century and contains Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is housed in the British Library, London. A complete manuscript is B. 21 inf housed in Milan, which dates from the sixth or seventh century, and a text held in Paris, Syr. 341, dates from the eighth century. A fascinating interlinear version is online here.

(7) Vulgate

Finally, the Vulgate is a Latin translation of the Bible thanks to the labour of Jerome. Jerome translation came independly from the Hebrew, with the exception of Psalms. His translation was completed in 405 AD. The Codex Amiatinus is the earliest surviving nearly complete Vulgate Bible, dating from the start of the 8th century.

I love old maps. The second most expensive map ever was recently sold and has gone on display in the United States. Like something out of “Pirates of the Caribbean” the map’s name is the impossible black tulip. It is a map of the world – but unlike other maps in the era of exploration, this map is in Chinese. The impossible map was created by the missionary Matteo Ricci, at the request of the Ming dynasty emperor, Wanli.

Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy, in 1552, where he studied theology and law. Graduating in 1571 six years later he applied to go on a missionary trip to India. He set out from Lisbon and arrived in Goa in September, 1578. In India he studied Chinese and became an ordained priest, before moving further East, to Macao, in 1582.

One year later, the governor of Zhaoqing (in Guangzhou) invited Ricci to take up residence in his city after hearing of his skill in mathematics and cartography. In taking up the offer Ricci, together with Michele Ruggieri, established the first Jesuit mission in China outside  Macau. A small western Western map of the world on display in the Jesuit mission. At the request of the governor, Ricci translated the European place names into Chinese. In 1584 Ricci created the first ever Chinese map of the world – the rare, important and exotic “impossible black tulip”. No copies of the original 1584 map are still in existence today, only later editions. This map served to open Chinese (and subsequently Japanese eyes) to the world.

Ricci moved from Zhaoqing to Shaozhou, Nanjing and Nanchang. In 1601 he became one of the first Westerners ever to enter the Ming capital, Beijing. Here he sought, and obtained permission to preach Christianity. His atlases of Europe and the West revealed areas of the world that were unknown to the educated Chinese in Beijing. In turn, Chinese scholars had maps of the East unfamiliar to him. Together Ricci and Chinese scholars including Zhong Wentao worked together and created “A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World”.

But maps were not Ricci’s only contribution. Chinese is a difficult language for Europeans, particularly because it had (at the time  of Ricci at least) no Romanicized text, and also has four  different tones. From 1584-1588 Ricci and fellow missionary Michele Ruggieri created the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, complete with a consistent system for transcribing Chinese  words. By 1598 they had completed the reverse, a Chinese-Portuguese dictionary.

Ricci astounded Chinese scholars by mastering the Chinese language, but also knowing their culture and philosophy. There are “four books” of Confucian teaching: Great LearningDoctrine of the Mean, Analects of Confucius, Mencius. These works were considered essential for aspiring Chinese scholars to know. Ricci along with Xu Guangqi translated them, among other classic works, into Latin for the first time. They also translated several classic European works from Latin into Chinese, such as Euclid’s elements.

Matteo Ricci was a missionary but he not a cultural imperialist. He spread knowledge both East and West. Last Tuesday, May 11 was exactly 400 years exactly since this man, Matteo Ricci, died.

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Here is an example of why I have trouble taking “Jesus myth” people seriously.

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Emperor Taizong

We often think of Christian missionaries as Europeans, having and promoting European culture. The first recorded “Christian” missionary to China was not European, but Persian. His name was Alopen (阿罗本).

In 1623, digging in the ancient Chinese capital Chang-An (near present day Xian) workmen unearthed a monument written almost 1000 years before European missionaries arrived. It recorded Alopen’s journey across the silk road:

When the accomplished Emperor Taizong began his magnificent career in glory and splendour… there was a highly virtuous man name Alopen in the Kingdom on Ta-chin. Auguring from the azure sky he decided to carry the true scriptures with him, and observing the course of the winds, he made his way through difficulties and perils. Thus, in the ninth year of Chen-Kuan [635 AD] he arrived at Chang-An [Xian].

Alopen was not an orthodox Christian, or a European, but a Syriac speaking Nestorian who came from Persia. In his homeland of Sassanid Persia Christians were an often persecuted minority, under the ruling Zoroastrians. However, the Persian empire was fading, allowing Christians more freedom, and was soon to be swallowed by a rampant Islam in 644.

When Alopen arrived in China he was warmly received,

The Emperor dispatched his Minister, Duke Fang Hsuan-ling, with a guard of honour, to the western suburb to meet the visitor and conduct him to the Palace. The sutras were translated in the Imperial Library. [The Emperor] investigated “the way” in his own forbidden apartments, and being deeply convinced of its correctness and truth, gave special orders for its propagation.

The Tang dynasty that welcomed Alopen was itself new. Although the previous Sui dynasty managed to unify China for the first time in 400 years, it had quickly collapsed. When, in 613, Emperor Yang of Sui had chosen to launch a series of unpopular campaigns against Goguryeo, sections of the army deserted and farmers revolted. In 628, seven years before Alopen arrived, China was once again united by Emperor Gaozu and his son Emperor Taizong – the founders of the T’ang dynasty.

This T’ang welcome of Christianity did not last long. In 649, Emperor Taizong died. One of his widowed concubines, beguilingly beautiful Wu Zetian, would normally be expected to spend the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. Instead this ambitious woman worked her way back into the ruling family. After killing her own baby to frame the existing Empress, the new Emperor Gaozong took her (his own father’s concubine) as his wife. When the Emperor died, she deposed two sons from the throne and in 690 set herself up as the founder of a new dynasty. She remained fanatically pro-Buddhist, even taking a Buddhist monk as a lover, and declared Buddhism the state religion in 691. Persecution of Nestorian Christians began in 698, when mobs sacked the first ever church in the historic capital of Luoyang.

There were many ups and downs, but the first taste that China had of Nestorian Christianity lasted until the fall of the T’ang dynasty in 907. As the Tang empire fell, the ensuing violence was not kind to religious minorities. One traveller (Abu Zeid) reported that as many as 120,000 Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were put to the sword. Eighty years later, the Nestorians were all but gone.

In the year 377 [987 AD], in the Christian quarter [of Baghdad] behind the church, I met a monk from Najran, who seven years before had been sent by the Catholicos to China with five other clergy to set in order the affairs of the Christian church… I asked him for some information about his journey and he told me that Christianity was just extinct in China; the native Christians had perished in one way or another; the church which they used had been destroyed and there not one Christian left in the land. (Abdu’l Faraj)

China’s next taste of Christianity would be another 300 years later, also from a non-European source – this time from the Monguls.

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I didn’t know much about the earliest sources for the New Testament, and so I went to find out. Here are a quick ten:

1. Rylands Library Papyrus I: P52 (117-138AD)

This is the earliest fragment from the New Testament. It is named P52, and dates back to 117-138 AD. It contains parts of John 18:31-33 and John 18:37-38 on the back, which talk about Jesus trial.

2. A few verses of Philemon: P87 (125 AD)

P87 is dated by at around 125AD. It contains Philemon 13-15 (of Paul saying that he is sending back the former slave Onesimus as a brother) as well as the epilogue (v24-25).

Papyrus 87, recto

3. Oxyrhynchus papyrus 2683: P77 (150 AD)

This papyrus is named P77 and contains Matthew 23:30-39.

4. Chester Beatty Papyrus I: P45 (150 AD)

This manuscript, known as P45, contains sections of all four gospels and also Acts. including Matthew 20-21 and 25-26; Mark 4-9 and 11-12; Luke 6-7 and 9-14; John 4-5 and 10-11; and Acts 4-17.

You might be wondering why a papyrus is named ‘Chester Beatty’. Apparently these were purchased from a dealer in Egypt by Chester Beatty in the 1930’s. There’s three of these papyri: P45, P46 (below) and P47 (containing Revelations 9-17) .

5. Chester Beatty Papyrus II: P46 (150 AD)

This manuscript, P46, contains most Paul’s letters: the majority of Romans; Hebrews; 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians; and two chapters of 1 Thessalonians. Although usually dated around 150-200 AD, it is written in a handwriting which has only ever been found in first century manuscripts, and so some people (eg. Young Kyu Kim) suggest it could be much earlier.

A folio from P46 containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9

6. The Magdalen papyrus: P4/P64/P67 (175 AD)

These papyri apparently go together, and contain portions of Matthew and Luke. Their name, ‘Magdalen’ is from an Oxford college that they originally lived, even though they were discovered in Luxor, Egypt. Apparently P4 was found stuffed in the binding of a codex of Philo.

7. Bodmer Papyrus II: P66 (175 AD)

P66 contains a nearly complete gospel of John. It is the oldest of the Bodmer papyri, a set of 22 papyri which were discovered in Egypt in 1952. Buying New Testament papyri seems a good way to become famous, because they are named after Martin Bodmer who originally purchased them.

8. Bodmer XIV and XV: P75 (200 AD)

This early third century manuscript contains almost all of Luke, and also of John. You can find almost 100 images of it online.

9. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2: P1 (200 AD)

P1, fittingly contains Matthew 1. This is one of many parchments which have been found in the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhychus, Egypt. Their discovery began in 1898, uncovering not only early Christian text, but all sorts of ancient literature. Now there are over 50 New Testament manuscripts from this site.

10. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 4446: P104 (125-150 AD)

And last but not least, P104, was another Oxyrhynchus piece of rubbish, which is now one of the more valuable pieces of rubbish in the world, because contains part of Jesus parable in Matthew 21.

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