New from Princeton: Early Christian Books in Egypt

Thanks to Gregg Schwendner of What’s New in Papyrology for bringing this forthcoming volume to my attention.  Bagnall’s conclusions, particularly those which reevaluate the dating of early Christian papyri and the role of the church in the development of the codex, will be sure to cause a stir in some circles.  An example from the initial chapter:

There is, to judge by the figures in this table [outlining the number of Christian books from the first through the third centuries which could be expected to be extant], only one chance in eighteen that any Christian book of the late first or early second century would survive. That is, the odds are seventeen to one that we would have zero such books. We should have just one or two Christian fragments from the second century as a whole. On any reckoning, the number of published fragments of Christian character usually assigned to these early periods considerably exceeds the expected number. At all events, there are no grounds for thinking that we have a small number of Christian papyri compared with the likely proportion of Christians in the population, let alone Gnostics. The reverse is true. It is time to let go of the idea that Christian literature is somehow underrepresented in the papyri before the later third century. If the early dates attributed to Christian texts are accepted, they are actually grossly overrepresented. If the later dates are taken to be correct, the second century has about the right number—one, most likely—and the turn of the century is significantly oversupplied with Christian books. At all events, the basic congruity between what exists and what the model predicts is interesting and encouraging (p. 21).


Due out in September:

Early Christian Books in Egypt
Roger S. Bagnall

Cloth | September 2009 | $29.95 / £20.95
136 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 15 halftones. 11 tables.

Chapter 1 [PDF]

For the past hundred years, much has been written about the early editions of Christian texts discovered in the region that was once Roman Egypt. Scholars have cited these papyrus manuscripts–containing the Bible and other Christian works–as evidence of Christianity’s presence in that historic area during the first three centuries AD. In Early Christian Books in Egypt, distinguished papyrologist Roger Bagnall shows that a great deal of this discussion and scholarship has been misdirected, biased, and at odds with the realities of the ancient world. Providing a detailed picture of the social, economic, and intellectual climate in which these manuscripts were written and circulated, he reveals that the number of Christian books from this period is likely fewer than previously believed.

Bagnall explains why papyrus manuscripts have routinely been dated too early, how the role of Christians in the history of the codex has been misrepresented, and how the place of books in ancient society has been misunderstood. The author offers a realistic reappraisal of the number of Christians in Egypt during early Christianity, and provides a thorough picture of the economics of book production during the period in order to determine the number of Christian papyri likely to have existed. Supporting a more conservative approach to dating surviving papyri, Bagnall examines the dramatic consequences of these findings for the historical understanding of the Christian church in Egypt.

Roger S. Bagnall is professor of ancient history and director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. His books include Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton).


“This book is brilliant, concise, and elegantly written. Bagnall provides a masterful and readable study, while also addressing a number of controversies in early Christian studies. The book will be an instant and major classic in the field–it is that good.”–T. G. Wilfong, University of Michigan

“Written by one of the world’s leading papyrologists, this book is full of valuable and interesting information that will help to advance the discussion of a hot topic.”–Robert Kraft, University of Pennsylvania

Table of Contents:

List of Figures ix
Preface xi
A Note on Abbreviations xv
Chapter I: The Dating of the Earliest Christian Books in Egypt General Considerations 1
Chapter II: Two Case Studies 25
Chapter III: The Economics of Book Production 50
Chapter IV: The Spread of the Codex 70
Notes 91
Bibliography 99
Index of Subjects 105
Index of Papyrological Texts Discussed 110

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July 2009


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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