Editor's Note: This is the first of two reviews of Kim Haines-Eitzen's book to appear in TC. The second, by Ulrich Schmid, can be found at http://purl.org/TC/vol07/Haines-Eitzen2002reva.html. The editors hope that the contrasting evaluations expressed in these two reviews will stimulate discussion about the important topics raised in the book.

This article is also available in text-only format.

Kim Haines-Eitzen. Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 212. ISBN 0-19-513564-4. US $52.00.

1. This book is an enquiry about the kinds of people who copied texts in early Christianity. Who were they? What was their gender, social position, level of education? Nobody has attempted quite this sort of study before, and so this is an important book, not only in its conclusions but also by virtue of the task which it sets itself. It is significant not only in the material which it gathers, but also in the fact that the evidence we would like to find is often unavailable to us.

2. There are five principal chapters, with an introduction and conclusion to top and tail them, endnotes, a bibliography, and a general index. Each chapter has a quotation and an explanatory sub-title, and it gives the flavour of the book to reproduce these in full:

  1. "I copied everything letter by letter" [Hermas]. Locating the copyists of early Christian literature.
  2. "Girls trained for beautiful writing" [Eusebius, H.E.]. Female scribes in Roman antiquity and early Christianity.
  3. "For I could not find the syllables" [Hermas]. The education and training of early Christian scribes.
  4. "Make and send me copies" [P. Oxy. 2192]. Private scribal networks and the transmission of early Christian literature.
  5. "I am the guardian of letters" [from a colophon]. Contested readings, authoritative texts, and early Christian scribes.
Who, then, are the scribes? The central answer is, the users of the texts. That is, there was not a separate class of professional copyists in early Christianity.

3. By early Christianity is meant Greek speaking (or to be pedantic Greek writing) Christianity of the second and third centuries. The evidence of somewhat later times and other language areas might or might not support a similar picture elsewhere. Certainly, the likelihood that the scribe of Codex Bezae was a lawyer's copyist, and that Codex Bobbiensis was written by a pagan, suggests that the same might be true in at least parts of the Latin-speaking world.

4. This argument is supported by a range of evidence, and it is well argued. It is a very important argument text-critically, because it provides support for the thesis that in producing the texts, scribes were powerfully motivated by factors out of their religious and social context. That is, they were not professionals doing a job as competently and accurately and quickly as possible, but people who believed in the power of the words they were copying and who on other grounds have been shown to have produced the words they believed to be the right ones, even if their exemplar was somewhat different. In short, I suggest that this book may be taken as support for the arguments, advanced in quite different ways by scholars including B. D. Ehrman and myself, that the texts that were copied by early Christians were modified by them according to current debates and beliefs (Ehrman 1993; Parker 1997).

5. The data to be gathered are of various kinds. The author begins with what is said about Graeco-Roman scribes generally, with a view to finding what is distinctive about early Christian scribes. The specific case of female scribes is then taken. As well as bringing together a variety of evidence (some of it from outside the strict period under enquiry, including the women in Jerome's circle and the tradition ascribing the copying of Codex Alexandrinus to Thecla), this example emphasises the way in which texts were copied within a network of relationships and connections.

6. With the third chapter, manuscript evidence begins to be used, and it is a merit of this book that the actual achievements of copyists are perceptively used as evidence: how formal is the hand? how accurate is the copy? what level of education do the errors betray? After setting the scene with a study of the evidence for the ways in which writing was taught, Haines-Eitzen examines a number of features which might help to place early Christian papyri: the use of symbols for numbers, the quality of hand (Christian MSS appear all to be in the middle of the spectrum from beautiful to appalling), and harmonisation in the papyri (to scripture or to non-biblical early Christian texts). The fact that this last phenomenon is not very common leads her to conclude that there was no specific training in Christian literature for Christian scribes. An exception is P72.

7. Chapter 4 addresses the kind of manuscripts that were produced by scribes as they have been defined so far in the book, providing also a means of assessing the validity of the initial conclusions. A large portion of the chapter is dedicated to a study of the Bodmer papyrus that includes P72. Just as scribes were non-professional, so the channels of manuscript creation and textual transmission were private and not formalised. This significant insight sets the scene for the final chapter, which explores scribal control over their texts and the degree of freedom available. The topic is explored by the characteristics of manuscripts and by some variant readings. Manuscripts discussed include P66, with its frequent scribal corrections; variant readings examined include 1 Pet 5:1; 1 Cor 16:9; Acts 17:4, 34; Mark 6:3; 15:34; Luke 23:34a. It is concluded that "scribes' changes were not random, but marked by the constraints and pressures of their context. Simultaneously, their creation of new readings suggests that they held a certain power over these texts" (127).

8. This book makes a very good case out of a fairly small body of material. It is a brave book, because while subsequent scholars may find new ways of mining material which could answer these questions, Haines-Eitzen has not been afraid to push the available material as far as possible. Occasionally this causes one anxiety, either in the use of material such as a key passage from Hermas a number of times, or in the use of examples which are either somewhat or once (in the use of the marginal note to Heb 1:3 in Codex Vaticanus) substantially anachronistic.

9. But above all this book is to be praised because it takes the manuscripts seriously. Rather than imperfect witnesses to a lost text, they are in this study bearers which by their physical and visible characters contain a real text in a specific form. Textual criticism and transmission history and palaeography and codicology meet together here in making the study of manuscripts into a part of the study of the documents (manuscripts) of early Christianity. This is an innovative and exciting book. I hope that it will inspire further studies of manuscripts which will contribute further, to make this area an important aspect of textual work.

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2002.


Ehrman, Bart D. 1993. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parker, D. C. 1997. The Living Text of the Gospels. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.

D. C. Parker
Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Palaeography
The University of Birmingham