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.

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3 thoughts on “What Did Early Christians Read?

    • Yes, I hope to do more. Not sure how regularly they will drip out. First stop will be the Septuagint, then the Aposotlic Fathers, then (perhaps) some Melito and Clement of Alexandria, and then into Christian Apocrypha. Unless life gets too crazy, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

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