More on the Homeromanteion

Yesterday I mentioned the Homeromanteion.  This work consists of an introduction, followed by a list of oracular extracts from Homer.  Using three 6-sided dice, you can get a random extract.

The work is extant in three papyri, P.Bon. 3, P.Oxy. 3831, and PGM VII.  One of these, P.London 1, 121 is a six foot long roll.  It is mentioned in this excellent British Library Manuscripts blog post post, by Federica Micucci, which also gives this image of the end of it.  The three numerals are at the start of each line.

The end of the translation given in Betz, Greek Magical Papyri, PGM VII, is as follows:

The left-most numbers are modern, as we can see.

I should have liked to give the instructions at the start of the work, but these were only preserved in P.Oxy. 3831.  There is a translation apparently by P.J. Parsons, in the original publication in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 56 (1989), p.44-48, but this does not seem to be online.  The BL blog gives an extract:

First, you must know the days on which to use the Oracle; second, you must pray and speak the incantation of the god and pray inwardly for what you want; third, you must take the dice and throw it three times.

There is an excellent article by Raquel Martin-Hernandez – whose site contains a great deal of material about sortilege, the art of divining using dice – on using Homer for divination, with special reference to the Homeromanteion. It may be found here.

Similar methods could be used with biblical texts, of course; and so they duly were.  Both Augustine and Jerome refer to these, according to Martin-Hernandez, who gives two interesting footnotes:

[4] Augustine, Epist. 55.20.37. Jerome, Epistula ad Paulinum Nolanum 53, 7 (CSEL 54, 453). See Klingshirn 2002: 82-84.

[5] The use of the Bible for divination was not only conducted by secular people, but also by members of the clergy on the light of Canon 16 of the council of Vannes, dated to the 462 and 468 CE: aliquanti clerici student auguriis et sub nomine confictae religionis quas sanctorum sortes vocant…hoc quicumque clericus detectus fuerit vel consulere vel docere ab ecclesia habeatur extraneus. “Some clergy are devoted to the interpretation of signs, and under the label of what pretends to be religion, what they call Saints’ Lots…any cleric found either to have consulted or expounded this should be considered estranged from the church” (Concilia Galliae, A. 314-A. 506 [CCSL 148:156]). Text provided by Klingshirn 2005: 100. For the use of the Bible for divination see Klingshirn 2005.

In the decay of the church in the late 4th century, it is perhaps unsurprising that such superstitions should take hold.

They are not really very different from opening the bible at random; a practice not unknown even today.

Illiterate bishops decided the canon of the New Testament! Or did they?

It is often claimed that the canon lists given in the canons of the council of Hippo in 393, and the council of Carthage in 397, in some way created the canon of the New Testament.  This is not the case, and cannot be the case – the lists are merely for local use in deciding what books to read in church.

 But I was intrigued by some comments on the bishops, by none other than Henry Chadwick:[1]

The old bishop of Hippo who had ordained Augustine presbyter feared lest some other church might carry him off to be their bishop. He therefore persuaded the primate of Numidia to consecrate Augustine to be coadjutor bishop of Hippo. The appointment (irregular in canon law) became surrounded by some controversy. The combination of Augustine’s Manichee past and his extreme cleverness helped to make him distrusted. Hippo was not a city where people read books. Numidia was not a province where congregations expected to have a prodigy of intelligence on the episcopal bench. (Augustine noted that illiterate bishops were a favourite butt for the mockery of the half-educated: CR 13.) Augustine’s presence induced apprehension. He was known to be a terror for demolishing opponents in public disputations. Some did not quite believe in the sincerity of his conversion at Milan.

“CR 13” is chapter 13 of De catechizandis rudibus (on the need to instruct newcomers).  But a look at the old English translation online does not really support this, interesting tho it is:

13. There are also some who come from the commonest schools of the grammarians and professional speakers, whom you may not venture to reckon, either among the uneducated, or among those very learned classes whose minds have been exercised in questions of real magnitude.

When such persons, therefore, who appear to be superior to the rest of mankind, so far as the art of speaking is concerned, approach you with the view of becoming Christians, it will be your duty in your communications with them, in a higher degree than in your dealings with those other illiterate hearers, to make it plain that they are to be diligently admonished to clothe themselves with Christian humility, and learn not to despise individuals whom they may discover keeping themselves free from vices of conduct more carefully than from faults of language; and also that they ought not to presume so much as to compare with a pure heart the practised tongue which they were accustomed even to put in preference.

But above all, such persons should be taught to listen to the divine Scriptures, so that they may neither deem solid eloquence to be mean, merely because it is not inflated, nor suppose that the words or deeds of men, of which we read the accounts in those books, involved and covered as they are in carnal wrappings, are not to be drawn forth and unfolded with a view to an (adequate) understanding of them, but are to be taken merely according to the sound of the letter. And as to this same matter of the utility of the hidden meaning, the existence of which is the reason why they are called also mysteries, the power wielded by these intricacies of enigmatical utterances in the way of sharpening our love for the truth, and shaking off the torpor of weariness, is a thing which the persons in question must have made good to them by actual experience, when some subject which failed to move them when it was placed baldly before them, has its significance elicited by the detailed working out of an allegorical sense.

For it is in the highest degree useful to such men to come to know how ideas are to be preferred to words, just as the soul is preferred to the body.

From this, too, it follows that they ought to have the desire to listen to discourses remarkable for their truth, rather than to those which are notable for their eloquence; just as they ought to be anxious to have friends distinguished for their wisdom, rather than those whose chief merit is their beauty.

They should also understand that there is no voice for the ears of God save the affection of the soul. For thus they will not act the mocker if they happen to observe any of the prelates and ministers of the Church either calling upon God in language marked by barbarisms and solecisms, or failing in understanding correctly the very words which they are pronouncing, and making confused pauses.

It is not meant, of course, that such faults are not to be corrected, so that the people may say ‘Amen’ to something which they plainly understand; but what is intended is, that such things should be piously borne with by those who have come to understand how, as in the forum it is in the sound, so in the church it is in the desire that the grace of speech resides. Therefore that of the forum may sometimes be called good speech, but never gracious speech.

Moreover, with respect to the sacrament which they are about to receive, it is enough for the more intelligent simply to hear what the thing signifies. But with those of slower intellect, it will be necessary to adopt a somewhat more detailed explanation, together with the use of similitudes, to prevent them from despising what they see.

This makes no reference to illiterate bishops.  Chadwick was a great scholar, but all of us can fall victim to printer errors.  So what did he have in mind?

The answer seems to be a passage in Monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l’Afrique chrétienne depuis les origines jusqu’à l’invasion arabe, (1901) vol. 4, p.423, here[2].

Des incidents de toute sorte mettent un peu de variété, ou même de gaieté, dans la monotonie des débats. Ce sont les scrupules bouffons des Donatistes, qui refusent de s’asseoir. Ce sont les scènes amusantes ou violentes, auxquelles donne lieu la vérification des signatures: confrontation des évêques d’une même localité, qui se regardent de travers et s’injurient ou s’accusent mutuellement … ou d’ailleurs; attitude piteuse de pauvres prélats qui n’ont pu signer eux-mêmes, ne sachant pas écrire[10]; fréquentes interventions et bavardage d’Aurelius de Macomades,

10) Collat. Carthag., I, 133 : « litteras nesciente ».

Incidents of all sorts brought variety or even gaiety in the monotony of the debates.  There were the idiotic scruples of the Donatists who refused to sit down.  There were amusing or violent scenes, caused by the verification of signatures: the confrontation of bishops belonging to the same place, who stared at each other and mutually insulted or accused…; the pitiful attitude of poor prelates who could not sign themselves, not knowing how to write[10]; the frequent interjections and jokes of Aurelius of Macomades…

This is undoubtedly our source; the reference given is to the Gesta Collationis Carthaginensis (CPL 724), the minutes of the miserable, rigged state-sponsored conference (collatio) of 411 AD between the Catholics, led by Aurelius and Augustine, and the Donatists.  As it happens, a new edition of this text has been published by the CSEL,[3] and a Google Books preview includes page 129, on which the relevant section appears:

Et recitavit: “Qui supra pro Paulino Zurensi praesente litteras nesciente coram viro clarissimo tribuno et notario Marcellino suprascripta mandavi et subscripsi Carthagini.” Quo recitato et accedente episcopo Paulino catholico idem dixit: “Catholica est.” Habetdeum diaconus Primiani episcopi dixit: “Presbyter est illic noster. Diocesis est nostra.”

As the bishops confirmed their signatures, one by one, the poor catholic bishop Paulinus of Zura had to listen to this as it was read out, litteras nesciente, not knowing his letters.

But I didn’t see any other examples.  Was this the only one?

The collatio is unusual because of the verbatim record of the proceedings.  But the same people were at other synods.  It is defensible that some of those attending were illiterate.  But at such proceedings, they must have been very rare indeed.

  1. [1]Augustine: A very short introduction, Oxford (1986) p.68
  2. [2]I owe this reference to Garry Wills, “Augustine’s Hippo: Power Relations (410-417)”, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 7 (1999), 98-119, JSTOR, p.103.
  3. [3]C. Weidmann (ed.), Collatio Carthaginensis anni 411: Gesta collationis Carthaginensis Augustinus, Breviculus collationis Augustinus, Ad Donatistas post collationem, De Gruyter, 2018.  The Gesta are printed in Serge Lancel, Actes de la Conference de Carthage en 411, 3 vols. (Sources chretiennes 194, 195, and 224) (Paris, 1972 and 1975), in Gesta Conlationis Carthaginensis Anno 411, volume 149A of Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, also edited by Lancel (Turnhout, Belgium, 1974); J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Latina 11.1257- 1418 (Paris, 1844-); and in J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 4.19-246 (Florence, 1739-1798; reprint and continuation: Paris, 1901-1927).

Searching for the Vulgate: one genuine text and two fakes

What do you do if you want a copy of the official Latin bible, the Vulgate?

First, some necessary background.

The Vulgate was created by St Jerome out of a mass of earlier “old Latin” translations, of variable quality, complete with a preface to many of the books.  It was then transmitted by copying down the centuries, becoming the standard medieval bible in the west, and the source for a vast amount of Dark Age and Medieval writing.  Along the way it acquired a certain amount of copyist errors – I have no idea what these are – and it also acquired punctuation and other forms of reader helps.  At the counter-reformation, with the arrival of printing, the Catholic church felt the need for an official text.  After Pope Sixtus V made some clumsy attempts at this, Pope Clement VIII produced four editions: in 1590, 1592, 1593 and 1598.  The last of these is referred to as the “Clementine Vulgate”.  This was the official version of the Bible in the Catholic Church until 1979.

Title page of the 1598 Vulgate edition.

There is a copy of this edition at Google Books here.  Here is Genesis 1:11 in that volume, where “juxta” is still printed as “iuxta”.

Over the following centuries, the text of the Clementine Vulgate was reprinted many times, and the readability improved with better fonts, text layout, and the modernisation of orthography by getting rid of the long-s (ʃ) form of the consonant “s”.

One innovation that has affected all printed books is to divide the Latin letter “I”, which represented two sounds, into the modern vowel “i” and the modern consonant “j”.  This was proposed by Gian Giorgio Trissino in a letter in 1524,[1].  It was advocated and adopted in an English book in 1634, in Charles Butler’s English Grammar.[2]  We still use this convention today.  The Vulgate was intended to be read, despite being in Latin, so copies began to appear in this form also, such as in the 1688 edition here.

The standard 19th century edition of the Vulgate, as far as I can tell, is that of Samuel Bagster.  It seems to have been created for his Biblia Sacra Polygotta, and then reprinted separately.  I have an undated copy (probably late 19th century) in my possession, with very tiny text, designed to be placed in a pocket.  The typeface is visibly worn.  The Bagster edition continued to be printed into the 20th century.

The modern equivalent is the A. Colunga – L. Turrado edition, Biblia Vulgata, BAC (1991), ISBN 978-8479140212, available for 45 euros (or equivalent) at the BAC site, and also at ($55) and (£56).  I’m not sure why it is so much cheaper in the USA.  I’ve not seen this, so I can’t say whether it uses “j” or not; but I think not.

In 2002-2005, Michael Tweedale and friends created an electronic text of the Clementine Vulgate, Biblia Sacra Juxta Vulgatam Clementinam, which was authorised by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.  This can be found online here.  The styling of the site is a little odd; the files are only visible from the left-top menu.  But they are all there.  It is a splendid piece of work, undertaken for the benefit of everyone.  It seems to be based on the Colunga edition but with corrections and it does use “j”.

Another very useful site is the, which contains online scans of the Leander van Ess edition which compares all four Clementine editions, and also includes a 1914 Hetzenauer edition (no “j” in this tho).  All this material is free and public domain.

But by the late 19th century various academics were getting restless.  The Clementine Vulgate was a practical useful book, but it was not a critical text.  It reflected 15 centuries of tweaking, but had started to drift – allegedly – from Jerome’s original.  In 1878 John Wordsworth started the Wordsworth-White edition of the Latin New Testament.  In 1907 a Benedictine edition was started.  Neither produced an edition of the complete text, but the work done fed into the “Stuttgart Vulgate”.

This means that someone wishing to purchase a Vulgate may be led astray by what I have seen called “fake vulgates”.  There are two.

The first “fake vulgate” is the Stuttgart Vulgate, edited by R. Weber and now – in its 5th edition –  by Roger Gryson.  This is a real critical edition of Jerome’s text of the Vulgate, as I understand it, based upon text-critical principles and early mss.  It has an apparatus.  But it lacks punctuation, capitals, or paragraphs, just as books did back in Jerome’s time, which makes it nearly unreadable even before the language barrier is considered.  For the half-dozen people who need to work, not with a medieval text, but the text of the 500s, it is a useful tool.  It is, indeed, not a book at all.  It’s a tool, a reference item.  Under German law it is the property of the German Bible Society, the deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, who “defend their property” with threats of lawsuits.  It is also not a Catholic organisation.

The second “fake vulgate” is the “Nova Vulgata”, a secondary consequence of the massive loss of confidence in Catholicism by the Catholic hierarchs that led to Vatican II.  This uses a great deal of Jerome’s Vulgate, derived from 20th century critical editions, but revises them in line with the Greek and Hebrew original.  It is, in reality, a new Latin translation of the bible, rather than a Vulgate.  It is officially approved, since 1972, as the standard Catholic Church Latin bible.  It can be obtained at .  I’m not sure how successful it is.  But anyone wishing to buy a Vulgate needs to avoid it.  The text may be found online here.

There is an interesting discussion of both by Ron Conte, a traditionalist Catholic, here.  Another interesting comment is that the text of 4 Esdras in the Stuttgart Vulgate is 140 verses as compared to 70 in the Clementine Vulgate, as a portion of the text was only recovered in the 19th century.

You can most easily distinguish the three texts by looking at Genesis 3:20.  Eve’s name is different in each:

  • Heva: the Clementine Vulgate.
  • Hava: the Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate.
  • Eva: the New Vulgate.

A rather useful parallel Greek, English and Clementine Vulgate in parallel columns is at here.

It’s all rather confusing.  I would like a pocket-size Clementine Vulgate, in a nice soft leather binding, properly sewn.  Does such a thing exist?


  1. [1]Thus Wikipedia which links to the text of the letter.
  2. [2]Lilo Moessner, “Chapter 10: Standardization”, in: Alexander Bergs &c (ed.), Early Modern English, p.171.

A miscellany of things

Here are a couple of things that I noticed recently, and might be useful to others.

Following an enquiry, I find that there is a translation of Theophylact on Matthew online here.  This is certainly better than the $70 needed to obtain the 1992 translation of the same work, at here.

Next, the physical remains of ancient Rome are always interesting.  Piranesi printed a drawing of the rear of the Pantheon, with what he claims are the remains of the Baths of Agrippa, completed before 12 BC and therefore one of the original public baths of thermae:

I was able to find online some photos of the same area, here.

Much of the baths still stood in the 17th century, despite use as a quarry for building materials.  It would be interesting to track down the older sketches that apparently exist.

Finally I saw something about the Ethiopian canon of the bible.  It is a common atheist jeer online is that the Ethiopian canon of the bible is larger than the normal, insinuating – the argument is rarely made explicit – that this proves that the bible does not exist, or is not by God, or something of the kind.  I’ve never worried about the odd additions to the Ethiopian canon, since Ethiopia was not converted to Christianity until the canon was pretty much set, and the isolation of that community, the little that we know about it, and its unusual circumstances could result in any amount of oddity.  One Ethiopian emperor used to eat pages of the bible when he was feeling ill, for instance.  This is not a very educated world.

But I spent a little time looking into this.  The Wikipedia article contains very poor sources.  The only one of any value seemed to  be by G.-A. Mikre-Sellassie,[1]  This says on p.119:

It is rather difficult to determine what exactly the official Canon of Scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is. As R.W Cowley has rightly observed, one of the problems in this study is that in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church “the concept of canonicity is regarded more loosely than it is among most other churches”.[46] Apparently, the two terms, protocanonical and deuterocanonical, employed among many churches nowadays, are not known within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

46. R.W. Cowley, “The Biblical Canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today” in Ostikirchliche Studien, 23 (1974), 318-323. In this short article the author has attempted a careful study of the Canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

This is not encouraging.  In fact the article did not give any kind of history of how the canon came to be – a common problem.  In general one gained the idea that in Ethiopian history the church was rather more important than the scriptures were, and the apocrypha might have a near-canonical status, or not, as times demanded.  Perhaps our own view on canon is shaped by the Reformers here, and is more precise than might have been the case either than in antiquity or the middle ages?  If so, the Ethiopians are merely continuing a late-antique vagueness, albeit shaped by their own unusual world.

One of the key sources is apparently E. Ullendorf, Ethiopia and the Bible: the Schweich Lectures 1967, OUP (1968).  This I could not access, but a Google Books preview gave me p.31 f., which gives an account about the translation of the Old and New Testaments into Ge`ez:

I don’t think that we need to rely on this very much.  Ullendorf also discusses the equally traditional idea that the bible in Ethiopian was translated by Arabic; and it seems to be a fact that many Ethiopian versions of ancient texts derive from an Arabic translation.  However I quickly drowned in the number of books and articles that I would have to read to know more!

That’s it for now.  More next time!

  1. [1]Mikre-Sellassie, Gebre-Amanuel (1993). “The Bible and Its Canon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” The Bible Translator 44 (1): 111-123.

Where are the academic reviews of bible translations?

This evening something drew my attention to the New World Bible Translation, the English translation of the bible made by and for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I knew nothing much about it, except that it is generally derided as biased and edited to reflect the theological ideas of that group.

But I prefer not to rely on hearsay for such things, and I began to search for information.  I came across a great many webpages, all of them amateur.  I came across the Wikipedia page, full of supposed quotes by scholars.  But it was clear that the JW’s themselves have also edited it to include material advantageous to themselves.  None of the material, for or against, seemed particularly reliable to me.

At this point, I wanted to know more.  I’m not a Hebrew scholar of any description.  The Greek text is something I could read, but not as a specialist.  So what I want is the professional, unbiased opinion of someone specialising in the relevant language skills.  I want someone with no axe to grind.   In other words, I want a solid academic review.

Naturally I skipped off to JSTOR, which my university makes available to alumni, and typed in “New World Translation”.  And I came up with … nearly nothing.  One review, in fact, just over a page long, which did not seem to me to be of a high standard.

On a hunch, I repeated the search but for the “New International Version”.  Again I got nothing worth having.  I did the same for a couple of other versions, with the same result – nothing worth having.

Google searches revealed a single study, by a certain Robert H. Countess.  I have not seen this, but the information available to me did not suggest that Dr. Countess was the kind of language scholar that I was looking for.

I have begun to wonder if I am looking in the wrong place!  Some of those who read this must know.  Am I doing this wrong?  Are all the reviews of bible translations hidden away somewhere?

The taxpayer funds universities to make it possible for us to find studies of knowledge.  To make available objective information as to whether a translation of an ancient text is accurate or not – whatever the ancient text – is one of the fundamental duties of a scholar in the relevant discipline.  This is particularly true for a text like the Bible, or indeed the Koran, where an error may produce heavy social consequences.

The world is heavy with biblical scholars.  You can’t throw a brick without one popping up, it sometimes feels.  So where are the reviews?

In my ignorance, it is hard to believe that these things don’t exist.  Could that possibly be the case?

Answers in the comments, or using the Contact Me form please!

Some thoughts on Craig Evans, “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use?”

A few days ago I wrote about the statement of Peter of Alexandria (d.311) that the original manuscript of John’s gospel was still around and that readings could be obtained from it.

A few days ago I came across an interesting article by Craig Evans, “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism”, Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 1 (2015) 23-37.  The article makes some interesting points.

The first part of the article is a dossier of evidence that ancient papyrus books could be in use for considerable periods of time, perhaps even a couple of centuries.  Our papyrus data is from Egypt and the desert of Qumran, both locations where the climate may play a part.  But there are literary references as well, that refer to Rome.  The article might also have referenced Aulus Gellius for further examples of long-lived literary texts, such as Fabius Pictor.  The evidence does suggest that a papyrus book containing a literary text might be in use 200 years after it was written.

The article then digresses, before giving us the statement of Peter of Alexandria that the church at Ephesus preserved the autograph of the Gospel of John, and what a particular reading was said to be in that autograph.

These two things together lead to an interesting thought.

Firstly, we have clear evidence that papyrus books could remain in use in the ancient near east for a couple of centuries.

Secondly, we have clear evidence (from Peter of Alexandria) that this actually happened to the original manuscript of the Gospel of John.

These two points together seem rather interesting.  Neither point is exciting by itself.  Just because a few rare books did remain in use for centuries does not mean that the gospel autographs were among them.  But then we have an ancient literary testimony that one of them was among them.

I don’t see that the force of this evidence can be disregarded.  The autograph, the original manuscript of the Gospel of John, was around much later than we would expect; possibly as late as 300 AD.

This is a rather amazing statement, but it is what the evidence says.  What kind of contrary evidence do we have?  Nothing.

Having established this point, unfortunately the article introduces various distractions.

The first distraction is references to the parchment codices of late antiquity; but the long life of such items is irrelevant, because these are parchment codices of a higher technological standard than anything available in the first century AD.  I have myself handled British Library Additional 12150, which was written in 411 AD, and is none the worse for its fifteen centuries.

It may be guessed that the reason for introducing parchment books lies in 2 Tim. 4:13, where Paul refers to the books and the parchments.  This phrase was used as a title for a famous book by F. F. Bruce, and was likely enough in Dr.E’s mind.  But there is no evidence in our possession that the NT autographs were written on anything but papyrus.  They may have been in roll or codex form, but we can’t suppose a parchment codex without evidence.

The next distraction is an attempt to draw upon Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 36:1-2:

Age iam, qui uoles curiositatem melius exercere in negotio salutis tuae, percurre ecclesias apostolicas apud quas ipsae adhuc cathedrae apostolorum suis locis praesident, apud quas ipsae authenticae litterae eorum recitantur sonantes uocem et repraesentantes faciem uniuscuiusque.  (CSEL 57)

Come now, if you are ready to exercise your curiosity better in the business of your own salvation, run through the apostolic churches, where the very thrones of the apostles preside to this day over their districts, where the authentic letters of the apostles are still recited, bringing the voice and face of each one of them to mind.[84] (Greenslade’s translation)

Greenslade indeed adds a footnote:

84. Eusebius, H.E., VII, 19, believed that the actual throne of James still existed at Jerusalem. Some think that Tertullian means by cathedrae here the physical objects. That is unnecessary, and on the whole unlikely, but not impossible. But “authentic” will scarcely mean autograph; he means unmutilated texts.

If we look to see how Tertullian uses “authenticae”, we find only one other reference, in De Monogamia 11:16:

Sciamus plane non sic esse in Graeco authentico, quomodo  in usum exiit per duarum syllabarum aut callidam aut simplicem   eversionem: Si autem dormierit vir eius, quasi de futuro  sonet ac per hoc videatur ad eam pertinere, quae iam in fide  virum amiserit. (CSEL 57, Bulhart)

Let us plainly know that, in the Greek original, it does not stand in the form which (through the either crafty or simple alteration of two syllables) has gone out into common use, “But if her husband shall have fallen asleep,” as if it were speaking of the future, and thereby seemed to pertain to her who has lost her husband when already in a believing state. (ANF, Thelwall)

There seems no reason to suppose a reference to the original manuscript of 1 Corinthians; but instead to the correct reading, the authentic reading of scripture, rather than the somewhat dodgy Old Latin translation then in circulation.

Dr. E. plainly consulted his dictionaries. The Oxford Latin Dictionary does indeed define “authenticum, -i, n.” as “an original document, autograph” and the adjective as “(of documents) Original”, referencing the Greek αὐθεντικός (Glare, p.220), but the examples given in both cases refer to documentary or legal texts, where the original means the actual thing itself.  But Souter’s Glossary of Later Latin has the adjective meaning “authoritative, genuine, true, original”, and even “authentica” used for Greek antigrapha, “copies” – presumably authentic ones.  Both of the Latin usages belong to the time of Tertullian, but here he is anticipating the later, and indeed the modern use of “authentic”.  A look at Liddell and Scott reveals both meanings hanging around the Greek word.

Tertullian, then, does not provide any support for the idea of autograph New Testament manuscripts; the subject is rather of honest copies instead of heretical forgeries or corrupt translations.

The article continues with some interesting general points about ancient letters, but this really only distracts from the key message.

Finally it ends with the very distracting claim that the NT texts were more textually stable than the gnostic writings, and hypothesises that the availability of the autographs may be the reason why.  This leads up to the tremendous final statement:

…. there really is no justification for supposing that the text of the NT writings underwent major changes in the first and second centuries.

Indeed not; but that does not follow from what has been said.

Such claims weaken the paper, because they have nothing to do with the evidence presented.  We can discuss them briefly, but as I said, they are a distraction.

The gnostic texts are known to us in tiny quantities of manuscripts, and, to the best of my knowledge, show a great deal of variation which is not a matter of textual transmission, but rather of editing changes.  In this they resemble the later hagiographical texts.  But we know from Irenaeus and especially Tertullian that the gnostics themselves did not consider that a rigid fidelity to what they heard was important.  As Tertullian pointed out – “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem” – they drew upon the pop-philosophical schools, where innovation was necessary in order to become a teacher.  Consequently every gnostic master taught something different.  The texts that they produced – we need hardly suppose any of them to be very old – will not be exempt from such an attitude.  Consequently they tell us nothing about the stability or otherwise of the New Testament texts.

Likewise the documented existence of the autograph of John by Peter of Alexandria does not force us to understand that it was consulted in such a way as to control the text.  Cathedrals preserve relics, in our own day, but getting access can be a test of patience.[1]  In fact the reading offered by Peter of Alexandria, with the authority of the autograph, looks very much the opposite, a lectio facilior.

This corrupt reading is most likely evidence that the Ephesus church was not doing what the article suggests.  If they were not doing it then we cannot suppose that others were doing so.

It is perfectly possible that Peter of Alexandria was an isolated instance.  It is quite likely that he was copying from an earlier, now lost source – he must have had access to lost works of Origen, for instance.  So the date of his anecdote may easily be fifty years earlier.

Nor does the existence of a “standard text” prevent the creation of “wild copies”.  Most ancient copies of books were probably produced in-house, by a literate slave.  Such copies are commonplace in the texts of the classics at Oxyrhynchus.  The medieval codices that transmit the Iliad and Odyssey to us do not derive from such trashy copies, but from the corrected texts of Alexandria, as the scholia show.  But the trashy copies still got produced.  No doubt it was exactly the same for Christian texts.  It is telling that our solitary text critical anecdote itself also comes from Alexandria.

These points should not distract us from what is a fine and interesting paper.

It may be relevant that it is the Gospel of John that is preserved.  Anybody who reads Eusebius’ Church History will be struck by the way in which stories about John are preserved.  Little is recorded about the other writers of the New Testament.  There were few Christians in the early days, and most likely they died before the Christian community was numerous enough to preserve very much.  How could those early believers in their house churches have managed to preserve autographs anyway?  But Irenaeus tells us that John lived on until the time of Trajan, 100 AD, and that Polycarp came to Rome ca. 155 and preached about what he had himself heard the apostle say.  Pliny the Younger tells Trajan that the temples are deserted.  This is a numerous group.  If John wrote his Gospel around 90 AD, it would appear in a world a generation later from that which the works of Mark and Luke had to face.  We are not obliged to believe in all or even most of the stories recorded, but the point is that they were recorded at all.  Such a world and such an environment might have been favourable to preservation.  But all this is speculation.

But regardless of its defects, this is a useful article.

Note: For some reason Dr. E.’s article greatly offended some readers.  Of the material that Google throws up, the hostile blogpost by Brice Jones is written in terms that would most certainly mean a duel in earlier days.  It also has comments below by various scholars.  Timothy N. Mitchell gives a critical but less excited reply.

  1. [1]This writer was once comprehensively prevented over a period of months from accessing an incunable by the apparently motiveless spite of an archivist at Canterbury Cathedral.

Extracts from Peter of Alexandria (d.311) and the original copy of the Gospel of John

In the 10th century one or more scribes created what is now a parchment manuscript with the shelfmark Vatican gr. 1941 (scanned microfilm online here).  The majority of the pages today (folios 19r-290v) are occupied by an anonymous chronicle of the 7th century, written, as it tells us, by a contemporary of Heraclius.  This world chronicle is known today as the Chronicon Paschale, bcause the manuscript starts with a long preface dedicated to discussing differing methods of calculating Easter.  The only copies known to us of the work are three of the 16th century – Munich 557 (written 1573), “Holmensis e. 30. I. 21, and Upsala 2; and there are some extracts in two manuscripts of the 15th and 18th century, Ambrosian 814 f.1-14, and Athos mon. Lavra 1866, f. 265-279.[1]  But largely the work was ignored.[2]

The text, including the prefatory material about Easter, was edited by L. Dindorf under the title “Chronicon Paschale” in the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (=CSHB) series in Bonn in 1832, with the Latin translation of Du Cange.  Vol. 1 is online here. Dindorf basically reprinted Du Cange’s Paris edition of 1688 (reprinted in Venice in 1729), and made corrections from the Vatican manuscript.[3]  This is most noticeable in the page of Greek text at the start, where there is no Latin translation.

But the start of the work contains something else altogether.  The horrible microfilm is too poor for me to make out what is actually in the Vatican manuscript.  The work starts with an extract from Philo, On the Life of Moses, book 3.  Then it says, “So much for Philo”, and tells us that after the fall of Jerusalem under Vespasian, various church writers discussed the question of the date of Easter, including Peter of Alexandria, an unknown Tricentius, the great Athanasius, and Epiphanius. (p.4, ll.1-5).  We then pass into material on the subject itself, which Du Cange headed as being by Peter of Alexandria from his lost work on Easter.  This has all been translated in the ANF 6, where it appears as fragment 5, ending in the CSHB on p.12, line 7.  What follows seems to be editorial, and then there is material from Hippolytus and then Apollinaris.

Nothing in the text actually identifies this material as being by Peter of Alexandria, but it is a reasonable inference – by Du Cange? – from the list of names just before it.

One portion of the text, however, is very interesting, on page 11, lines 5-10:

ἤ δὲ παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα· ὥρα ἦν ὡσεὶ τρίτη”· καθὼς τὰ ἀκριβῆ βιβλία περιέχει, αὐτό τε τὸ ἰδιόχειρον τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ, ὅπερ μέχρι νῦν πεφύλακται χάριτι θεοῦ ἐν τῇ Ἐφεσίων ἁγιωτάτῃ ἐκκλησίᾳ, καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν πιστῶν ἐκεῖσε προσκυνεῖται.

And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.[4]

The evangelist here is John.  This is a claim that the autograph copy of John’s gospel was preserved at Ephesus at the time of the writer.

The context is the discrepancy between Mark 15:25, which says that Jesus was crucified at the third hour; and John 19:14, which says that Pilate sentenced Jesus to death at the sixth hour.  [5]

Peter is saying that the text of John 19:14 is corrupt, and should read “third hour”, rather than “sixth hour”; and he is appealing to the original copy of John’s gospel.This is extraordinary!

This passage was mentioned in a controversial article by Craig Evans, “How Long were Late Antique Books in Use?”, in: Bulletin of Biblical Research  (BBR) 25.1 (2015), 25-37.  I have no access to this, but it drew excited responses such as this by G.W. Schwendner[6] and this by Brice C. Jones.  Evans suggested, I believe that this was evidence that the autographs of the NT were accessible for centuries and were used to correct the text.

In a way, the statement of Peter of Alexandria is inscrutable.  It says what it says.  What can we make of it?

Firstly, Peter does not say that he has seen the autograph.  Rather he says that it is the treasured possession of the church of Ephesus.

There is nothing at all improbable about this.  Indeed modern cathedrals across Europe preserve a great many relics of the apostles, such as their heads, and other body parts.  The authenticity of many of these may be doubtful – and indeed should be subject to DNA testing – but they do boast of holding such relics.  No doubt the church of Ephesus did indeed boast of such a thing.

Did they actually have the autograph, in the late 3rd century?  The autograph would have been a papyrus roll, perhaps; and by that date would have been rather fragile.  But it could be.  If it did exist, possibly it perished during the persecution of Diocletian, when such things were sought out.

But does the testimony of Peter actually suppose that this item existed in his time?  I think of Tertullian referring to the Acts of Pilate, probably copying Justin Martyr.  Peter may simply be using the testimony of a now lost earlier writer, such as a lost work of Origen.  He’s not saying he saw it himself.  Likewise his testimony as to what the reading of this passage was may be derived from his source.  But if we suppose that his source was around 200 AD – picking a random date – there is nothing at all impossible about supposing that the autograph existed at that date.

Was this reading really to be found in it?  Who can now tell?  But let us guess that the volume existed.  If so, it would be treasured, and it would be frail.  Anybody with any experience of dealing with “treasures” will know how the keepers would respond to requests to see it; with hostility.  In such a situation I would imagine that an “authorised” copy of the original might be made available in the church, to save wear and tear on the frail original.  Such a copy, “guaranteed” to be an “exact copy”, is what visitors would have access to.  The actual accuracy of the copy might be less than perfect.

In the end it is all speculation.  But it is certainly interesting to reflect on the longevity of ancient books.

  1. [1]Moravcsik, Byzantinoturcica (Berlin 1958) i. 241-2.
  2. [2]Whitby and Whitby, Chronicon Paschale: 284-628 AD, TTH7 (1989), p.xiv.
  3. [3]As indeed he states on p.4.
  4. [4]ANF 6 p.280 translation.  The references given in the ANF are very strange.  They read, “5 Apud Galland, Ex Chronico Paschal., p. 1, seqq., edit. Venet., 1729.” and “31 Apud Galland, Ex Chronico Paschal., p. 175, D.”  The introduction, on the other hand, says “(4) A passage from the Sermo in Sanctum Pascha, or from some other work of Peter’s on the same subject, is given in the Diatriba de Paschate, prefixed to the Chronicon Alexandrinum S. Paschale, and published separately in the Uranologion of Petavius, fol. Paris, 1630, p. 396.”  P.396 of the Uranologion can be found here, but only contains a Greek text. No work of Galland entitled “Ex Chronico Paschal.” exists, and the truth is that the translator was actually working from the Patrologia Graeca, vol. 18, col. 512, where the following screen shot explains all: The actual source used by the translator is the PG; the 1729 edition mention in it is not by Galland, but simply the reprint of Du Cange’s edition of the Chronicon Paschale that we saw earlier. This error has confused others; the same mistake is found on p.67 in Sacha, Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, 2nd Century BCE to 10th Century CE, Clarendon, 2001, p.67, in the otherwise excellent footnote 261: “261.  This letter, preserved in the preface of the Chronicon Paschale, was published separately by Migne, PG 18. 512 b—520 b, following Galland, Ex Chron. Pasch. (Venice, 1729), which itself follows Du Cange’s first edition of the Chronikon Paschale (Paris, 1688), and on which was based the English translation by Hawkins (1869: 325-32). However, a better edition of this text, based on MS Vat. gr. 1941, was published by Dindorf (1832) and followed by Migne, PG 92. 73 b-c.”
  5. [5]Stephan Witetschek, “The hour of the Lamb? Some remarks on John 19:14 and the hour of Jesus’s condemnation and crucifixion”, in: P. N. Anderson &c, John, Jesus, and History, Volume 3: Glimpses of Jesus through the Johannine Lens, SBL Press, 2016, p. 95f.  Preview here.
  6. [6]This also repeats the “Galland” mistake.  It is terrifying to consider just how many publications must have trusted that lazy editor from the ANF06!

Primasius and his Commentary on Revelation

Few will have heard of Primasius, bishop of Hadrumetum in Vandal Africa.  What little we know about him comes from the obscure chronicle by Victor of Tunnuna (who is NOT Victor of Vita),[1] and from Isidore of Seville (De viris illustribus 22).  The Italian continuation of Quasten’s Patrology published by Marietti (Patrologia IV: I padri latini (secoli V-VIII)) tells us:

On Primasius we are informed by Victor of Tunnuna and Isidore (Vir. Ill. 22).  Bishop of Hadrumetum, he was among the African bishops summoned to Constantinople in 551 because of the controversy over the Three Chapters.  Initially he took a position against Justinian and did not participate in the council of 553.  In consequence he was exiled to a monastery.  But then, according to Victor, in order to obtain the position of primate of the late Roman province of Byzacena, roughly equivalent to modern Tunisia, he sided with the emperor and began to persecute the defenders of the Three Chapters.

His Commentarius in Apocalypsin in five books is also mentioned by Cassiodorus (Inst. I, 9).  This is presented in the prologue as a work of compilation, based upon Augustine – although Primasius notes that Augustine had never written a commentary on Revelation as such – and Tyconius.  Tyconius had been a Donatist, so Primasius took care to declare this, and that he had selected the best bits, taken the gem out of the dung, etc.  …

Apparently Primasius also wrote three books on Heresies, to bring up to date the catalogue of Augustine.  Cassiodorus knew the first book of this, but it has not reached us.  The work under his name in PL 68 is the commentary of Pelagius on Paul, reworked by Cassiodorus, and supplemented by a work by Halberstadt.

CPL 873-4; PL 68, 793-936; PLS 4, 1208-1221; A.W.Adams, Commentarius in Apocalypsin CCL 92 (1985). …

Which is useful stuff as far as it goes.

The commentary only survived in seven manuscripts.  Strangely it is easier to find one of these in Google than anything else.  This, the oldest manuscript, is Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 140, which is late 7th century.  A page of it, fol. 4r, following the preface and the capitula for book 1, is shown here at the British Library website; the ms. is online here and here.

I have not been able to find any trace of a translation into any language, which is most curious.  However a reconstruction of Tyconius, by Roger Gryson, largely extracted from Primasius, has been translated into both English and French.  I do not object; but it does seem odd that a hypothetical book should receive translation while a real book does not.

  1. [1]The chronicle has been translated in John R. C. Martyn, Arians and Vandals of the 4th-6th centuries, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

Did King James issue instructions to the bible translators to change the text to hide his own sins?

An interesting discussion on twitter led me to a man who roundly asserted that King James I issued a list of instructions to the translators of the King James version of the bible, with an eye to getting his own sins omitted from it.  It sounded quite improbable.  In fact it is complete nonsense; but it drew my attention to the matter.

The King James Version or KJV has long been obsolescent and is now little used in England.  In some ways this is rather a pity; but it is now quite unfit for daily use by any other than antiquarians.  But it stands forever as a classic of the English language.

In 2005 Cambridge printed a version of the KJV, edited by David Norton, who also produced a book on the subject, his A Textual History of the King James Bible.  Norton inevitably emphasises that the “original” 1611 edition has become changed in little ways as the centuries have passed; for, of course, he was producing his own edition.  But the book contains much interesting information.

We know only a little about how the KJV was made.  King James did not, of course, supervise the work personally, deputising to Bancroft, Bishop of London.  But we do have three copies of a set of rules which seem to have been circulated among the translators.  These are extant in manuscript.  Norton tells us that British Library Add. 28721, fol. 24r; BL Harley 750; and BL Egerton 2884 fol. 6r contain the text.  The first two omit rule 15, suggesting that it was an afterthought.  Here is the text as he gives it, modernised from BL Add. 28721:

1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.
2. The names of the prophets, and the holy writers, with the other names in the text, to be retained, as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.
3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, viz.: as the word ‘Church’ not to be translated ‘Congregation’ etc.
4. When a word hath diverse significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place, and the Analogy of Faith.
5. The division of the chapters to be altered either not at all, or as little as may be, if necessity so require.
6. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot without some circumlocution so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text.
7. Such quotations of places to be marginally set down as shall serve for fit reference of one Scripture to another.
8. Every particular man of each company to take the same chapter or chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself where he think good, all to meet together, confer what they have done, and agree for their part what shall stand.
9. As one company hath dispatched any one book in this manner, they shall send it to the rest to be considered of seriously and judiciously, for His Majesty is very careful for this point.
10. If any company, upon the review of the book so sent, shall doubt or differ upon any place, to send them word thereof, note the place and withal send their reasons, to which if they consent not, the difference to be compounded at the general meeting, which is to be of the chief persons of each company, at the end of the work.
11. When any place of especial obscurity is doubted of, letters to be directed by authority to send to any learned man in the land for his judgement of such a place.
12. Letters to be sent from every Bishop to the rest of his clergy, admonishing them of this translation in hand, and to move and charge as many as being skilful in the tongues have taken pains in that kind, to send his particular observations to the company, either at Westminster, Cambridge or Oxford.
13. The directors in each company to be the Deans of Westminster and Chester for that place, and the King’s Professors in the Hebrew and Greek in each University.
14. These translations to be used where they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible, viz.: Tyndale’s. Matthew’s. Coverdale’s. Whitchurch’s. Geneva.
15. Besides the said directors before mentioned, three or four of the most ancient and grave divines, in either of the universities not employed in the translating, to be assigned by the Vice-Chancellors, upon conference with the rest of the heads, to be overseers of the translations as well Hebrew as Greek, for the better observation of the fourth rule above specified.

These rules were not followed rigidly, but contain much good sense.  The “Bishop’s Bible” was in general use; the Puritans wanted to use the Geneva edition, which contained much anti-monarchical material in its notes, and translated words like ecclesia as “congregation” rather than “church”.

The translators then did not want any of this new-fangled nonsense.  Instead they wanted a bible which was not radically different from what had gone before.

This was very sound thinking, in practice if not in theory.  It is entirely possible to produce a bible which is quite uninspired, at least in a literary sense, and no more than a collection of printed pages.  Anybody who has encountered the old “New English Bible” will know what I am talking about.

Norton also tells us that:

… one of the translators, Samuel Ward, gave an account of the work to the Synod of Dort (20 November 1618). The account includes specimens of the rules, beginning with a paraphrase of rules 1, 2 and 6, and then, as if they were rules, moves on to the following matters of practice.

He then quotes an abbreviated version, which he references to “Pollard, p. 142”, i.e. Pollard, A. W., ed., The Holy Bible. A Facsimile in a Reduced Size of the Authorized Version Published in the Year 1611. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911.[1]

Pollard is online here.  The opening 142 pages reprint a great collection of useful primary documents relating to the creation of the English bible from 1525 to 1611.  The material from the Synod of Dort is given in the original Latin and in English:

The theologians of Great Britain offered a written explanation of the design and plan in accordance with which the business of the very accurate English version was instituted by the most Serene King James, of what plan was observed in distributing the work, and what rules were laid down for the translators ; with the intent that any points which might be judged useful to us might be taken from it.  A copy of this document is subjoined.

Method which the English Theologians followed in the version of the Bible.

The theologians of Great Britain, unwilling to give a sudden and unconsidered answer to so important a question, considered it their duty to hold an early consultation, and since honourable mention has been made of the very accurate English translation lately set forth, with great care and at great expense, by the most Serene King James, to notify to this numerously attended Synod the design and plan with which this sacred business was furnished by his most Serene Majesty.

Firstly, in the distribution of the work he willed this plan to be observed: the whole text of the Bible was distributed into six sections, and to the translation of each section there were nominated seven or eight men of distinction, skilled in languages.

Two sections were assigned to certain London theologians; the four remaining sections were equally divided among the theologians of the two Universities.

After each section had finished its task twelve delegates, chosen from them all, met together and reviewed and revised the whole work.

Lastly, the very Reverend the Bishop of Winchester, Bilson, together with Dr. Smith, now Bishop of Gloucester, a distinguished man, who had been deeply occupied in the whole work from the beginning, after all things had been maturely weighed and examined, put the finishing touch to this version.

The rules laid down for the translators were of this kind :

In the first place caution was given that an entirely new version was not to be furnished, but an old version, long received by the Church, to be purged from all blemishes and faults ; to this end there was to be no departure from the ancient translation, unless the truth of the original text or emphasis demanded.

Secondly, no notes were to be placed in the margin, but only parallel passages to be noted.

Thirdly, where a Hebrew or Greek word admits two meanings of a suitable kind, the one was to be expressed in the text, the other in the margin. The same to be done where a different reading was found in good copies.

Fourthly, the more difficult Hebraisms and Graecisms were consigned to the margin.

Fifthly, in the translation of Tobit and Judith, when any great discrepancy is found between the Greek text and the old vulgate Latin they followed the Greek text by preference.

Sixthly, that words which it was anywhere necessary to insert into the text to complete the meaning were to be distinguished by another type, small roman.

Seventhly, that new arguments should be prefixed to every book, and new headings to every chapter.

Lastly, that a very perfect Genealogy and map of the Holy Land should be joined to the work.

All very interesting indeed.  The royal backing for the KJV is naturally emphasised.  But what we see, in fact, is a cautious and conservative approach, resisting innovation.

The outcome of all this was the standard English bible for 400 years.

I’d like to end with a word about the context of all this.

The original tweeter was not truly interested in any of this.  Rather he intended his readers to suppose a theological claim: that the KJV was not inspired by God.

It is a very common thing to encounter arguments of this sort: that claim to be historical, but where the intention is to insinuate a theological claim that won’t bear examination.  The claim is usually a strawman, something that no Christian actually believes.  It’s always worth trying to get the insinuated claim out into the open for scrutiny.

In this case the insinuated claim is something like “human beings decided the exact words of the KJV, and some of them were wicked men, therefore this proves that your God” – said with a sneer – “did not inspire the bible”.

Basically the claimant is asserting that he knows what an inspired bible “must” look like.  It must fall from the sky, written on tablets of gold, or something.  No human hand may be involved in any way.

A cynical man might ask how the claimant knows this.  This is a statement about God; so how does he know? did he get a prophecy that tells him this?

But this claim is not what Christians believe about the scripture.  It is merely a strawman, designed to require something that does not exist and never did exist.  Jesus himself talked about the rolls of the law as inspired; but these were written by men.  However divine inspiration works, it can certainly cope with spelling mistakes, human error, and all the business of living in an imperfect world.  If it could not, it could not exist.

The claim is not that the bible is not inspired, but a theological claim that inspired books are impossible in an imperfect world.  This won’t do.

  1. [1]Norton p.366, where the date of publication is amusingly given as 1611, not 1911.

The Second Council of Nicaea (787) and the Canon of the New Testament

Why on earth would anybody suppose that the Second Council of Nicea / Nicaea in 787 was responsible for deciding which books went into the bible?  It’s absurd on the face of it, considering the vast mass of patristic testimony and physical bibles that survive.

However I keep seeing ignorant people online who either state this, or seem genuinely uncertain whether they mean the First or Second councils of Nicaea.  There is a much more common myth that the canon was decided at the First council in 325, but that’s another story.

Quite by accident today I found what seems to be the source.  It is none other than Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, 2003.  It’s a popular book, not a scholarly work, so it probably circulates among atheists.  The reference I was given was to pages 41-43, in which Ehrman talks about the apocryphal Acts of John, as an example of works in which celibacy is praised.  In chapter two, pages 41-42 we find this interesting statement:

A comparable message appears in another of the Apocryphal Acts, the last we will consider in this chapter. The Acts of John narrates the legendary adventures of John, the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest disciples in the New Testament Gospels. He continues to be an important figure after Jesus’ death, according to the early chapters of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, but he quickly drops out of sight in that narrative as the book turns its entire attention to the missionary activities of Paul. Later Christians, not content with the silence shrouding John’s later life, filled the gap with numerous stories, some of which have made it into this second-century Apocryphal Acts of John.23  Once again we are handicapped by not having the complete text. It was, of course, a noncanonical book, and parts of it were theologically dubious to the proto-orthodox. It was eventually condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century, so that most manuscripts of it were either destroyed or lost.24

(Highlighting is mine) Buried at the back, on p.262, where few will read them, are the notes:

23. It is widely recognized that the surviving Acts of John derives from several sources; most scholars recognize that a large portion of the text (chaps. 87–105, or just 94–102) as we now have it was interpolated at a later time into the narrative. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–4. For a translation of some of the more intriguing accounts of the Acts of John, see the excerpts from Elliott in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 93–108; that is the translation I am following here.

24. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–7.

This, I suspect, is indeed the source for the modern legend.  Because of course if the Second council was condemning the Acts of John, it’s “obvious” to a certain type of mind that they were discussing what should be in the New Testament.

Looking at Elliot’s excellent single volume on the NT Apocrypha, we find that the Acts of John are first attested with Eusebius in the 4th century.  On the date of the work, Elliot states (p.306):

This is normally given as late second-century, but some scholars (e.g. Zahn) who argued that the work was known to Clement of Alexandria [6] gave an earlier date. Modern scholars tend to agree that there is no firm evidence that the Acts of John was known before Eusebius.

Schneemelcher concurs (vol. 2, p.152):

It is not possible to demonstrate any use of the Acts of John in the Christian literature of the 2nd and early 3rd centuries.

On page 305, Elliot states:

(e) The proceedings of the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) are contained in several Greek and Latin manuscripts, and also in the Latin version by Anastasius.5 Citations in them from the Acts of John 27-8, 93-5, and 97-8 are valuable for establishing the Greek text at these points (see Junod and Kaestli CCA, pp. 344-68).

The condemnation of the Acts of John by the Second Council of Nicaea meant that the ancient Acts could only survive in clandestine copies after 787. Parts survived in the rewritings of the story of John found in Pseudo-Prochorus, and (in Latin) in Pseudo-Abdias and Pseudo-Melito.

The footnote:

5. J. C. Thilo, Colliguntur et commentariis illustrantur fragmenta actuum S. Johannis a Leucio Charino Conscriptum, i. in Universitatis Literariae Fridericianae Halis consociatae programma paschale (Halle, 1847), 14f.

This suggests that Elliot is also repeating from elsewhere, just as Ehrman was.  Is it possible that nobody ever actually looks at the statements of Nicaea II?

Schneemelcher is rather clearer:

The most important evidence of all is provided by the Nicene Council of 787, already mentioned. Its fifth session dealt, among other matters, with the Acts of John, to which the Iconoclastic Council of 754 had appealed. Here AJ 27 and the first half of AJ 28 were read out from the pseudepigraphical ‘Travels of the Holy Apostles’ as a document hostile to images, together with a large part of AJ 93-98 as a general indication of the book’s heretical character.42


42.  Con. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi XIII, cols. 168D-172C); critical edition of the quotations from the Acts of John in Junod/Kaestli 361-365 (Greek text) and 366-368 (Latin translation of Anastasius Bibliothecarius).  [‘Junod/Kaestli’ is the standard edition, Acta Johannis, in the Corpus Christianorum, series apocryphorum, vols 1-2, Turnhout 1983]

This gives us the reason why the book was discussed – that it had been used in the Iconoclast disputes – and a source for the council text.  There is actually an English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), under that title in two volumes, from Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 68 (2018), translated by Richard Price, and available for only $175.  Unfortunately this is inaccessible to me, or we might hear what the council said.

The older pre-critical text of Mansi is thankfully available online here, in a very poor scan from microfilm.  Col. 167 has a section starting Ex falsis superscriptionibus itinerariorum sanctorum apostolorum, (On the false attributions of the “itineraries of the holy apostles”).  But the good stuff appears in column 171C, and continues to 175.  The delegates read out some short quotes which contradict the Gospel of John, and so must be heretical. Especially good:

Gregory of Neocaesarea said, “This codex is worthy of every condemnation and dishonour.  And they produced out of it testimonies against images!! which were copied by Lycomedes!”

John the most reverend monk and vicar of the oriental patriarchs, said, “Lycomedes brings in the crowned images of the apostles as if they were pagan idols!”

Basil bishop of Ancyra said, “God forbid that St John seem to speak contrary to his own well-established gospel!”

I don’t know who Lycomedes was – evidently an iconoclast leader – but I don’t think they liked him.

The section ends with:

John, most reverend monk and vicar of the orient pontiffs said, “If it please this holy and universal synod, let this be the sentence, that nobody henceforth shall make copies of this sordid book.”

The holy synod said, “Let nobody make a copy: not only this, but we judge that it is right that it must be thrown in the fire.

Let’s finish, for the benefit of Ehrman readers, with another quotation from him about the formation canon of the NT.  This time it’s from Truth and Fiction In The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.74:

Teabing’s conspiratorial view of the formation of the canon is intriguing, but for the historian familiar with the actual process of how some books came to be included in the New Testament while others came to be excluded, it is filled with more fiction than fact. The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on our historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process. … (75) … It was a process that took many years—centuries, actually. It was not (contrary to Teabing’s view) the decision of one person, or even just one group of persons (for example, a church council); …

Indeed so.