Here is a very helpful recent post by Larry Hurtado, which I am recycling here. We are learning more and more about the process as well as the product of copying of early Christian manuscripts, and the information is revealing. For instance, we learn from this post that manuscripts were not just copied in scriptoriums or formal church settings. BW3
A Splendid Study of P47: Papyrus Copy of Revelation
I’ve just finished an initial reading of a praiseworthy new study of P47 (P.Beatty III), an early papyrus copy of Revelation: Peter Malik, P. Beatty III (P47): The Codex, Its Scribe, and Its Text, NTTSD 52 (Leiden: Brill, 2017). It’s just the sort of thorough study that I hoped we will now see more of, one that addresses the manuscript as artifact, as well as analyzing its text.
Malik has done a remarkably thorough and careful job (the book arises from his Cambridge PhD thesis), and his study should be noted and consulted on the textual transmission of Revelation, on copying habits and the physicality of ancient textual transmission, codicology of early papyri, and as a model for analogous future projects.
P47 (P.Beatty III) comprises ten papyrus leaves containing Revelation 9:10–17:2, approximately the central one-third of Revelation. The manuscript is one of the remarkable collection of early Christian papyri housed in the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin). Malik proposes a date of sometime 250-325 CE (on palaeographic and codicological grounds), and his reasoning strikes me as well founded.
It was a “single gathering” (or “single quite”) manuscript. That is, all the folded sheets were stitched together in one binding, reflecting a frequent method codex construction in the earliest phases of serious use of this book form. Malik concluded that (as with some other examples) the codex was probably first constructed and then the text was copied into the bound codex. (Which means that the copyist first had to estimate the likely number of sheets necessary. And Malik judges that there were several blanks leaves at the end of the codex, indicating how difficult making such an estimate could be.)
The quality of the copyist’s “hand” is rather “informal” and not high-quality calligraphy by any means. This adds to the impression that P47 is “a product of an informal, uncontrolled setting” and with “no pretension to being a product of high literary culture” (222). Malik grants that the codex could have been intended for personal, individual usage, but also that it could have been prepared for group/church usage among a circle unable to afford or produce a higher-quality copy.
Malik also devotes considerable and detailed attention to the text and the copyist who produced it, and his analysis now supersedes prior studies of the copyist of P47, including James Royse’s widely appreciated analysis: James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007). After detailed analysis, Malik concludes that P47 was the product of “a scribe who attempts to copy his exempla accurately, but frequently lacks adequate skill and/or discipline to do so” (172).
There is no evidence of any ecclesiastical control or coercion, nor is there any indication of any doctrinally-influenced attempt to alter the text. Instead, the variants in the manuscript are almost entirely copyist mistakes, often through lapses in the visual and hand mechanics of copying. One of the more innovative analyses is Malik’s study of the correlation of copyist errors with the “re-inking” of the copyist’s pen (these points often observable in the variations in ink intensity).
My book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) was intended to encourage greater attention to earliest manuscripts as physical artifacts, not only copies of texts. I am all the more pleased, therefore, to see the impressive study now produced by Malik, and I hope that other (probably emergent) scholars will conduct similar projects.
Among my own students, the equally splendid study by Andy Smith reflects this approach: W. Andrew Smith, A Study of the Gospels in Codex Alexandrinus: Codicology, Palaeography, and Scribal Hands (Leiden: Brill, 2014).