What Did Early Christians Read?

P.Oxy. 63.4365 (transcription, images) is a letter from one woman to another regarding lending books to each other. The letter, albeit short, indicates that both women were Christian and familiar with reading Christian manuscripts.

P.Oxy. 63.4365

The letter author requests “the Ezra” (likely the pseudepigraphal 4 Ezra) and reminds the recipient that she was lent the “Little Genesis” (another way to refer to the pseudepigraphal book of Jubilees). The entire text is as follows:

To my dearest lady sister in the Lord, greetings. Lend the Ezra, since I lent you the Little Genesis. Farewell from us in God.

AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Harvard Theological Studies vol. 60. Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 2008, p. 71.

This letter, dated to the early fourth century, was discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. It indicates that there were literate people at that time and in that place who had experience reading Christian manuscripts to the point of owning manuscripts and lending them to others. The letter itself uses two different nomina sacra (a Christian practice of abbreviating sacred names), typically found in larger manuscripts. This is a clue that the writer of the letter was familiar with nomina sacra, most likely from experience reading them in various manuscripts.

Interestingly, these literate Christian ladies were borrowing each other’s pseudepigraphal literature. But all sorts of literature has been retrieved from Oxyrhynchus: writings from the New Testament, from the Septuagint, from the Apostolic Fathers, from the Pseudepigrapha, and from the Christian Apocrypha.

This letter and the other literary remains retrieved from Oxyrhynchus indicate that (at Oxyrhynchus, anyway) Christian literature was collected (perhaps even produced), read, heard, lent, and borrowed among the community.

But it is true in other early Christian communities as well. Harry Y. Gamble, in his masterful work Books and Readers in the Early Church, provides a translation of Gesta apud Zenophilum consularem (Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church. Yale University Press, New Haven: 1995, p. 145–147.). This document describes the capture of Christian manuscripts for destruction during Diocletian’s “Great Persecution,” which commenced in 303. The document mentions 37 different manuscripts that were captured from a single church. The description is striking. The first volume taken was “a very large volume” which was likely a gospels codex. Upon receiving it, the mayor (who is the one seeking the manuscripts) simply states: “Why have you given one volume only? Produce the scriptures that you have.” He doesn’t for a minute believe that the church only has one codex. The next step is to locate the church’s readers (the early church had an office of “reader”), who are the ones with the books. The remaining 36 books are distributed among the seven readers of the church. The manuscripts were taken from the readers and, in all likelihood, destroyed.

Christians had books. They read books, they heard books read, they produced books, they maintained books, and they shared books. And it was more than just the New Testament. And it was more than just the material most today consider canonical.

They read widely and deeply.


Stuff Early Christians Read

I’m hoping (not promising) to write a series of posts introducing and examining various collections of works and individual works outside of the New Testament that early Christians likely read.

This is tenatively planned to include stuff like the Septuagint, the Apostolic Fathers, other writings from early Christian writers (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Melito of Sardis), and various writings collectively labeled as “Christian Apocrypha.”

Some Background

Over 4.5 years ago, I organized a class at my church that we called Stuff Early Christians Read. The goal was to give a very high level introduction to non-canonical sources the early church read and copied. I had the extra benefit of friends and colleagues well versed in other relevant literature (Judaica, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Pseudepigrapha) who did the introductions to those particular corpora. I focused on LXX, Apostolic Fathers, and Christian Apocrypha. It was a hoot. Since then, I’ve toyed with the thought of expanding the material I was responsible for into a book, but simply haven’t got around to it.

But it is good material. So I want to try to be semi-disciplined and work through the material, expanding and researching and writing as a I go. The best-case scenario is that I actually make my way through the material and end up with a rough draft that I can then further edit and revise into something publishable. The worst case is that I write one post and then the crazyness of life takes over and I never finish it. The reality is we’ll probably end up somewhere in between those two scenarios. I think it’s worth trying.

Christ’s Resurrection in the Apocryphal Gospels


The apocryphal gospels — those documents that relate stories about Jesus but are not considered to be in the canon of scripture — also relate details and aspects of the story of Christ’s resurrection that are not known from canonical gospels. These are typically interweaved with details knowable from the canonical accounts.

The translations below are taken from my book, Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha: A New Translation, published by Lexham Press. The book is also available for users of Logos Bible Software. The Logos version also has the Greek sources available as a separate resource.

Gospel of Peter

The Gospel of Peter, known from a codex dated between the fifth and eighth centuries, was found in a cemetery in Akhmim, Egypt. It contains some very familiar details and some rather fantastic details of Christ’s resurrection. Here is a selection from GPt 9.35–10.42:

9.35 Now on the night when the Lord’s Day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in heaven, 36 and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend from there with much light and come close unto the tomb. 37 And the stone that had been cast at the door rolled away of itself and made way in part, and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.

10.38 The soldiers, therefore, when they saw it, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they were also there keeping watch); 39 and as they told the things that they had seen, again they saw three men coming from the tomb, two of them supporting the other, and a cross following them. 40 And the head of the two reached to heaven, but that of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. 41 And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, “You preached to the ones who are sleeping?” 42 And a response was heard from the cross, “Yes.”

The detail in §10 about the two giant men (angels, their heads “reached to heaven”) and the even more giant cross that overshadowed them is certainly not witnessed in the canonical accounts. Even more interesting is the cross, personified, responding about preaching to those who “were sleeping.” Though please note Mark Goodacre’s conjecture that instead of “cross,” we should read “crucified one.”

Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus)

The text known (in its Greek edition) as the Acts of Pilate is also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus in its Latin edition. It was very popular, translated to several different language editions over the centuries and even in to modern times. There are three primary parts: The trial and death of Christ, a part with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus with details on the resurrection, and the Descent of Christ to Hades.

Here is Act. Pil. §13, styled as a discussion that takes place within the synagogue. The context is that the ruling Jews had locked up Joseph of Arimathea in a room and sealed it because of his involvement in putting Jesus’ body in the tomb. The synagogue was meeting the next day (Sunday) to discuss what to do with him. However, when they went to get Joseph, they discovered that he had somehow been taken away from the locked, guarded, and sealed room.

13.1 And while still seated in the synagogue and astonished because of Joseph, there came some of the guard that the Jews had asked Pilate to keep the tomb of Jesus, lest his disciples should come and steal him away. And they reported, saying to the rulers of the synagogue and the priests and the Levites what had happened: “Somehow there was a great earthquake, and we saw an angel descend from heaven, and he rolled away the stone from the mouth of the cave, and sat upon it. And he was shining like snow and like lightning, and we were very afraid and pretended to be dead. And we heard the voice of the angel speaking with the women who waited at the tomb: “Do not fear, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. Now go quickly, tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead, and is in Galilee.”

2 The Jews said, “Which women did he speak with?” Those of the guard said, “We do not know who they were.” The Jews said, “What hour was it?” Those of the guard said, “Midnight.” The Jews said, “And why did you not take the women?” Those of the guard said, “We became like dead men through fear, and we did not look to see the light of the day; how then could we take them?” The Jews said, “As the Lord lives, we do not believe you.” Those of the guard said to the Jews, “You saw so many signs in that man, and you did not believe, how then should you believe us? Truly you swore rightly ‘as the Lord lives,’ for he does live.” Again those of the guard said, “We have heard the reports of the one who asked for the body of Jesus, that you secured him and that you sealed the door; and when you opened it you did not find him. So you give us Joseph and we will give you Jesus.” The Jews said, “Joseph has departed to his own city.” Those of the guard said to the Jews, “And Jesus is risen, as we have heard from the angel, and he is in Galilee.”

3 And the Jews, upon hearing these words, were exceedingly fearful, saying, “Take heed lest this report be heard and everyone starts to listen to Jesus.” And the Jews took counsel and laid down a large sum of money and gave it to the soldiers, saying, “You say: ‘While we slept his disciples came by night and stole him away.’ And if this comes to the governor’s hearing we will persuade him and secure you.” And they took it and did as they were instructed.

Again, several details from the canonical accounts, but there are also significant expansions. There are more details given about what happened at the tomb, more details from the soldiers, and even some confrontation between the soldiers and synagogue leaders (you show us Joseph, we’ll show you Jesus) where the soldiers end up with assurances from the synagogue leaders that they’ll be protected if the governor hears what really happened.

So why is this stuff important if it isn’t in the canonical gospels? It shows us, again, that early Christians weren’t stupid. They had questions about things known from the New Testament, because they didn’t make sense. They were amazing and fantastic, and they believed them, but there were still questions they had about the whole thing. They fabricated some details in their telling and retelling of the stories, but that only shows us what information they found necessary to add to make sense of it all. This helps us understand what these early Christians believed, what they read, and how they assimilated it all.

To podcast or not to podcast?

So, a few weeks back, I asked the following question on the Twitter.

I kept the poll open for a week.

That’s  pretty strong response.

I’m still not totally convinced, though. Heck, I can hardly find the time to write stuff on this site, let alone produce a podcast.

Also, I’d need to do it super cheap. Like, no monetary cost. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

I’m concerned about storage and video is big, but I guess that’s what YouTube / Vimeo / et. al. are for. Or go audio only, though there’s still a storage question (soundcloud)?

Basically, I want to prepare (outline main points), record in one take (warts and all) on my phone, and then publish. Probably solo, at least for a bit. Low tech pirate radio stuff. 10-15 minutes, nothing long and arduous.

Is this possible? Am I crazy for even thinking it? I mean, I already have a basic outline and plan in my head for, say, the first 10–15 episodes. Anybody out there pull off something similar?

The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation is now available in print!

It’s real! Purchase at Amazon.

My translation of the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers is now available in print! I’m super excited about this.

It’s been long enough ago that I don’t really remember when I had the idea. But looking back at internal records here at Logos, my Apostolic Fathers Greek-English Interlinear was listed on pre-pub in late February 2010. That jives with my vague memories because I think I actually started work on the Didache and Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians in 2009. Anyway, that was the project that started it all.

I woke up early pretty much every weekday morning after that to work on the interlinear. Through 2010 and into 2011, until the product was released in October 2011.

Sometime between October 2011 and October 2012, I must’ve had the idea to write a program to convert the translation embedded within the interlinear into an actual, bona-fide, English translation. So I did. Some text-wrangling ensued, and I generated translations that needed to be further edited and revised into a smooth, readable English text. The Logos version was released in December 2012, with a reverse interlinear alignment. I thought it was pretty much the coolest suite of stuff I’d ever be able to do (Interlinear, Translation, Reverse Interlinear), but it just got cooler. Because in December 2016, Lexham Press talked to me about getting the translation available in print. There were some bumps along the way, but we persevered, and the English translation is now available in print. Woo hoo!

You can purchase a copy of The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation, from either Lexham Press (be sure to specify print) or from Amazon.

Side note: Because I was able to do it with the Apostolic Fathers meant I next wanted to try it with Logos/Faithlife’s Septuagint Interlinear. We rounded up some more contributors/editors (thanks, guys!) and the output of that process became the Lexham English Septuagint, available with a reverse interlinear.


On Creating an Annotated Edition of the Greek Acts of Pilate

As I shared in a previous post, one of my projects for 2018 (and 2019, likely) is an introduction, translation, and brief commentary on the Acts of Pilate, which is also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus in its Latin tradition.

Most of you know that my day job for the past two decades (wow, now I feel old) involves processing and analysis of texts in the Biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin) and also English. So I’m a little peculiar in how I approach a project like this.

If I’m translating something, I want a transcription of the Greek text I can use. And by “use” I mean analyze, correct, and append. I want a basic edition of the Greek text annotated with dictionary/lemma forms, with morphology data, and with English glosses. I’ll use this data as I work through the translation.

Unfortunately, creating and annotating the electronic edition is usually the most labor intensive portion of the whole task. But it is also, to me, the most valuable. If I didn’t care about the annotation data (and possible derivatives, like a Greek Readers Edition), I’d just work the text and translate away. But creating the annotation gives me an anchor to look back on. I’ll remember when I looked up that weird word that is likely a Latin loanword (this happens more than I’d realized in the Acts of Pilate), and I find this important.

So I find or make a transcription. Sometimes this even involves typing the Greek or some portion thereof, which can be slow-going, but is also good for familiarizing oneself with the text.

Next step: A few passes looking for typos and correcting them. I’m definitely old-school here; I just see typos much easier on paper than on the screen. So I usually print out the transcription at a larger-than-normal font size (typos scream when they’re bigger, trust me), and mark it up. Then I incorporate those changes back in the transcription.

When that feels good, then it’s write some code to compare words against existing morphological databases. James Tauber’s MorphGNT.org is one source, Perseus is another. If you have half an idea what you’re doing (and understand a bit about Greek and Unicode), you can grab these sources and create a fairly decent dictionary to do brute-force lookups to initially populate a new Greek text with lemma and morphology data. Since I’d like to think I have at least half an idea on these things, this is the way I roll.

Note I say initially because, particularly for participles, nouns, and adjectives, there is need to review and revise based on context (particularly when drawing from Perseus data). And it won’t populate for every word, which means you’ll need to devise a system to track missed items and re-integrate them back into your data. I’ve been doing this long enough that it isn’t usually a big deal (cross your fingers, Brannan!).

Once all of this is done, I have an initial edition of the text to start a translation from. I’ll write some code to output the transcription with morphology and glosses as an HTML document, and that’s what I’ll consult as I translate (and review the morphology data and glosses). It looks sort of like this:


By the time I get to the translation, I’ve already spent a fair amount of time in the Greek text, which I think is beneficial.

My approach with the Acts of Pilate will be slightly different, however.

Thanks to our good friend (to whom all NT and Early Christianity folks are in immense debt), Constantine Tischendorf, there are two (yes, two!) editions of the Acts of Pilate, commonly referred to as Acts of Pilate (A) and Acts of Pilate (B). Most translations/editions focus on Acts of Pilate (A) for the first 16 chapters, but snag the 11-chapter piece known as The Descent of Christ to Hades from Acts of Pilate (B) because it isn’t in the Acts of Pilate (A).

I’m not planning on doing that. I’m planning on giving the full treatment to both Acts of Pilate (A) and Acts of Pilate (B). This means I’ll have to get text for B. My current plan is to complete the draft translation of Acts of Pilate (A) and then start the transcription of Acts of Pilate (B).

My ultimate plan/hope (if the typesetter is adventurous enough) is to table the “A” and “B” portions in the translation, so the differences can be more easily seen in the shared portions of the text. Arranging the translation(s) as such should also help me more easily isolate the areas of difference that require comment.

(For the record, apart from noting differences between A and B, and perhaps some text-critical interaction, my hope for the commentary portion is to focus on the use of OT and NT material in the progression of the narrative. But we’ll see if that happens.)

After all of this is done, then I’ll have to write the introduction, without getting too carried away. After all, the Acts of Pilate, whether you know it or not, was a very popular text in antiquity (and straight through to modern times). There are scads of different versions of it in scads of different languages.

Apparently people were really curious about what happened during the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Who’d’ve thunk it?

Rick’s 2018 Writing Schedule

2017 was a weird year. After making logical plans regarding writing projects, my 2017 was upended when our son Josiah arrived in February. It’s not that we didn’t expect a child, we just didn’t expect him then (adoption is weird that way).

So it was good circumstance, but bad for consistent time to research, write, and edit. That said, I did manage to push out one new book for Appian Way Press at the end of the year, a Greek Readers edition of the First Apocryphal Apocalypse of John.

I’d hoped to write on (and finish) my Lexical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: Second Timothy. But it languishes at halfway written because my schedule is really unpredictable. Maybe 2018 will be the year it gets some attention.

So what about 2018? Not too much different. Here are the major projects as I see them right now.


Introduction and Commentary on the Acts of Pilate (A and B) and the Descent of Christ to Hades

I’ve been working on digital transcription of Acts of Pilate A and the Descent of Christ to Hades; it has progressed fairly well. I’ll need to begin keying in Acts of Pilate B soon, and then doing some analysis and correction of the text. Once that’s done, I’ll focus on the translation, and then the Commentary. This actually may get published by someone other than me (that is, someone other than Appian Way Press). More details on that as they come to light.

I’m able to get this going because typing Greek is something that can be done in smaller and random chunks of time; the project may bog down after I get the transcriptions and translation complete and actually need to focus on research and writing, which require longer uninterrupted periods of time. So I really don’t think I’ll come close to finishing this work in 2018, but it has started.

Depending on the progress of the transcription, I may be able to publish a Greek reader’s edition of this text. I plan to do that eventually, but it may not happen in 2018.

Lexical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: Second Timothy

The First Timothy volume in this series came out in 2016, and I’d really like to kick Second Timothy out the door too. However this work requires longer portions of time. That is, some work can be done in 60–90 minute chunks (the typical amount of time I’d have available in the morning) but 120–180 minute chunks are really the best. And I don’t forsee much of either, at least not in the first six months of 2018.

Other Stuff

I’m pretty much an opportunist, so I reserve the right to totally change directions if personal circumstance or opportunity warrants. But honestly, it seems I’ve barely had time to write my every-other-month Thoughts from the Church Fathers column for Bible Study Magazine (thanks for your patience, editors!) so I’m really not sure what 2018 will bring.

If attending SBL seems like it will be a reality this year, I may dust of my Stock Phrases in the Christian Apocrypha work and try to get something together there.

I’ve also (very briefly) thought about book-itizing a class I taught at church a few years back called Stuff Early Christians Read. That’s something I’d like to do some day, but I don’t know that 2018 is the time. We’ll see.