In Laymen’s Terms: Testimonia

21n3X98SbzLContinuing to dig into the literature on early Christian use of the Jewish scriptures, I’m now working through Martin C. Albl, “And Scripture Cannot Be Broken”: The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections (NovTSup 46; Leiden: Brill, 1999). Albl’s book, a revised version of his dissertation at Marquette University, has come highly recommended from several people, and so far it’s certainly living up to expectations.

Albl is chiefly concerned with the so-called “testimonia hypothesis,” which he defines as “the proposition that the earliest Christians collected, edited, and gave authoritative interpretations to a select group of scriptural quotations which served as proof-texts for basic Christian beliefs” (xv). The basic evidence for this phenomenon is found in the fact that certain passages (e.g., Ps 22 and 110) were far more important in early Christianity than other OT texts (e.g., Song of Solomon). Moreover, the fact that these same passages are consistently incorrectly attributed, mixed or linked with other quotations, or deviate from known scriptural texts (MT or LXX) suggests that we’re dealing with some kind of earlier scriptural extract collection from which these later sources are drawing. But how did this process work?

The first major study of testimonia was that of Edwin Hatch, who argued that early Christians took over the Jewish practice of making written collections of OT quotations for various purposes. J. Rendel Harris took this a step further by hypothesizing the existence of a single Testimony Book of OT passages organized under the categories of “against the Jews” and “concerning the Christ.” C. H. Dodd took this overly simplistic view to task, and instead emphasized the oral process at work in collecting these related texts. Writers such as L. W. Barnard and R. A. Kraft have argued for an evolutionary process in which oral traditions gradually led to the creation of larger written collections.

Albl comes down on the side of written testimonia collections. Perhaps his strongest piece of evidence is the existence of both Greco-Roman and Jewish extract collections from the period around that of early Christianity. At Qumran, for instance, scholars have discovered a document called 4QTestimonia, which simply consists of a series of quotations from the OT linked by catch-word connections, without any intervening comment. 4QTestimonia and other documents like it are proof that written extract collections existed in this day. The consistency of some of the phenomena described above (e.g., use of the same series of texts in independent authors) demonstrates a precision that we would more expect to find in written rather than oral transmission.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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2 Responses to In Laymen’s Terms: Testimonia

  1. Tyler says:

    David Lincicum has a very good article with a survey of recent approaches of the Testimony hypothesis. You should check it out. I can’t recall of the top of my head which journal it’s in, but search him on EBSCO and you should find it pretty quickly.

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