New College, University of Edinburgh
Books and Readers in Early Christianity

Books and Readers in Early Christianity

(Larry Hurtado):  In the unceasing flow of publications on early Christianity, important works often get overlooked or too quickly slip from sight.  So, here’s a reminder/pointer to a book that I regard as a “must” for anyone seriously interested in early Christianity, indeed, required reading for anyone doing a PhD in the area:   Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Gamble’s scope covers (and uniquely in one volume) the composition, copying, circulation, reading/usage, and significance of texts, especially in the first two centuries of Christianity.  I’m not always sure that the focus on “orality” in recent decades has taken adequate attention of the data that Gamble addresses.  Among religious options/groups of the Roman era, early Christianity was a uniquely textual religion, with impressive resources devoted to producing and disseminating them, and major places given to texts in early Christian worship and wider life.  Ancient Judaism gives us the only possible contender for this preoccupation with texts, but arguably, for its comparative size, early Christianity exceeded in the efforts devoted to textual-activities.

Gamble shows that probably as early as the early second century (or perhaps even earlier) we have what appear to be effectively Christian centres for the copying/publication of texts, that the collection of certain texts was another feature (e.g., Pauline letters), and that perhaps by the late first century we already may see some Christian texts beginning to be treated as scripture.

And it’s a good read too!

  • CSCO Team,
  • 5th August 2010


  • Steven Carr, 6th August 2010 at 8:13 am | Reply

    Gamble says on page 21 that ‘the collection of sayings of Jesus’…. ‘failed to survive’ after it had been incorporated into other works.

    Intriguing that Christians did not keep a copy of the sayings of Jesus.

    Gamble also says that the genealogies in Luke and Matthew existed in an ‘early and Jewish origin’.

    Perhaps Luke and Matthew invented them? Gamble does say that these items are ‘conjectural’.

    • larryhurtado, 6th August 2010 at 9:34 am | Reply

      Ah, but Christians *did* keep sayings of Jesus! Most scholars who think there was an early collection (typically referred to as the “Q” sayings-source) also think that it was substantially incorporated by the authors of Matthew and Luke into these texts.
      As for the genealogies, they do differ, indicating different points of origin. It is debated (because we aren’t able to falsify either option) whether “Matthew” and “Luke” composed them or received genealogies (which they may well then have shaped to their respective editorial purposes). The fullest treatment I know is R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (1977).

    • Tim, 19th August 2010 at 3:51 am | Reply

      Steven – I know I’m quite late to the conversation, but I’m wondering if you can clarify your statement that Gamble indicates that Jesus’ sayings “failed to survive” after being incorporated into other works. Nothing like that appears on p. 21 in my copy of Gamble’s book, and I’m not aware of this book being published in more than one edition. Can you verify the page number, or refer me to the chapter sub-heading in which this appears?

      And I absolutely agree with Prof. Hurtado’s recommendation of Gamble’s book. It’s essential reading for those interested in the topic, and I’ve consulted it regularly over the years.

      • Tim, 19th August 2010 at 9:49 pm | Reply

        OK, I had some time to skim Gamble’s book around p. 21 to find the info I requested. Here is the entirety of Gamble’s statement as it appears on p. 22 of my copy of his book:

        “Moreover, there are excellent reasons to conclude that the collection of sayings of Jesus (‘Q’), which was employed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, was not merely a fund of oral tradition but a written source. Yet the sayings source failed to survive after it was incorporated into larger documents of a different genre.”

        This is nothing earth-shattering, so I’m not sure what point Steven Carr is attempting to make. All Gamble is saying is that he thinks that a) Q was a written source, and b) this source, not long after the canonical gospels were written, no longer continued to circulate.

  • Steven Carr, 6th August 2010 at 10:25 am | Reply

    ‘substantially incorporated’?

    Does this mean sayings of Jesus from this (controversial) Q document were lost?

    • larryhurtado, 6th August 2010 at 12:57 pm | Reply

      We don’t know for sure, because we don’t have a copy of “Q” with which to make comparisons. We do have ca. 200 verses of sayings material thought to have come from “Q” in Matthew & Luke.
      In addition, we have quotations of Jesus in Paul, allusions in Epistle of James, and other citations in extra-canonical Christian texts of the first couple of centuries. All this suggests a wider body of Jesus-tradition that circulated both in texts and orally.

  • Christopher Meyer, 7th August 2010 at 1:32 pm | Reply

    Dr.Hurtado: You mentioned books that are “must” reads for anyone interested in early Christianity. Could you provide a basic reading list? I am a pastor wanting to learn more and share this with the congregation. Thank you for making the time for this blog and your own.

  • larryhurtado, 10th August 2010 at 7:55 am | Reply

    The field is now so diverse and complex in approach and foci that it would be difficult to draw up one list of finite length! It would require considerable time and thought simply to produce one from my own perspective, and I haven’t ever done that. It’s usually a bit easier to respond to queries about recommendations on particular topics/questions.
    (Larry Hurtado)

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