Trobisch, David. The First Edition of the New Testament. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-19-511240-7. pp. viii+175. US $29.95.

1. David Trobisch, Throckmorton-Hayes Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Bangor Theological Seminary, offers for English readers a translation of his Die Endredaktion des Neuen Testament. Eine Untersuchung Zur Entstehung der christlichen Bibel. In this groundbreaking work, Trobisch takes serious issue with the prevailing opinion that the New Testament underwent a prolonged period of canonization between the end of the first and fourth centuries. Instead, Trobisch argues for an archetypal complete Endredaktion or "Canonical Edition" of the New Testament consisting of the twenty-seven books in modern editions and translations of the New Testament. This Canonical Edition, written completely in Greek, was the product of a careful and deliberate editorial process and was complete as early as the middle of the second century CE. According to Trobisch, this text became a runaway bestseller in the ancient book market among Christian patrons and, most significantly, became the archetype for all subsequent copies of the New Testament throughout the Mediterranean.

2. The book opens with an introductory chapter outlining the methodology, sources employed, and scope of research. Trobisch acknowledges three types of historical sources for study of the early New Testament: indirect evidence, meaning evidence from quotations and allusions to the New Testament text by Church Fathers and other Late Antique authors; direct evidence, meaning the specific manuscript evidence of the New Testament (such as the Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus); and the redactional frame of the New Testament itself. It is on this final category that Trobisch focuses almost exclusively. Of the other two categories, there are only a handful of citations from the Church Fathers and classical writers (eighty are listed in the index, mostly from Eusebius), and all but about ten of these citations are in the extensive endnotes rather than in the text itself. Trobisch does make use of manuscript evidence, naturally enough when particular manuscript variants support his cause, but this is not the primary body of evidence on which he builds his case. The chapter closes with a list of issues that Trobisch acknowledges but declines to address: source-critical theories, issues of authorship and pseudonymity, and the obvious question of a historical context, editor, or provenance of the Canonical Edition (although he does make a suggestion to this last question in the final pages of the book). The reader cannot help but wonder how these issues would help or hinder his argument, to say nothing of other issues that he does not acknowledge in this chapter (more on this below).

3. In the second chapter, Trobisch itemizes the evidence supporting a "Canonical Edition." This term is concretely defined: "canonical" refers to "editions that are regarded as authoritative by an interpreting community"; "edition" is a "form or version in which a text is published" (8). He then states, "Only if an edition is widely accepted by a community of readers can it become canonical, that is, normative for the group" (8). As a result, Trobisch focuses principally on the intentions of the publisher(s) and especially on the Canonical Edition as it would have been understood and received from the perspective of its readers. Essentially, there are two overarching elements that show the activity of a "final redactor." Textual elements are those elements that might include the layout, the standard abbreviations used in a text, bibliographical information, or cross-references. Even when authorship, content, style, vocabulary, and other elements might differ, these textual elements remain consistent and show that the edition went through a redactional process. Nontextual elements consist of print size, binding and casing, and other such physical elements, aspects of the volumes that might have been just as important to the readers as the textual elements. Finally, Trobisch points out that a late date, their unifying function, and consistency in design can help scholars identify both textual and nontextual redactional elements.

4. The rest of chapter two focuses on the specific evidence from the New Testament. One of the most important types of evidence is the extensive presence of nomina sacra, or sacred names, that are contracted and abbreviated in New Testament manuscripts. Trobisch notes that there are a more or less uniform number of words that usually appear in the manuscripts as nomina sacra in contracted form. All of the textual witnesses display the same system of notation, and Trobisch suggests that these forms were present from the beginning of the editorial process. However, while the notation is consistent, there is a problem with the application of the system: there are a number of instances where a nomen sacrum is contracted at one place in a manuscript, whereas in other locations it is not (12). Finally, while there is a uniform list of terms that can be designated as nomina sacra, it is highly significant that only <grc>qeos</grc>, <grc>kurios</grc>, <grc>Ihsous</grc>, and <grc>Xristos</grc> are consistently and regularly noted as nomina sacra in virtually all extant New Testament manuscripts. The upshot is that since the notation of nomina sacra does not appear to have originated with authors of the autograph texts, their presence reflects "a conscious editorial decision made by a specific publisher" (19).

5. The practically exclusive use of the codex for Christian purposes is another key ingredient for Trobisch's argument. Codices were certainly in use outside Christian circles, but they were primarily used for personal reasons, such as notes, diaries, school exercises, and the like. They were not used much for actual publication of literary works until the beginning of the third century C.E., with the exception of the early Christian writings. Trobisch argues that "it is very improbable that several publishers working independently of each other would produce their New Testament texts in codices," but if an archetypal Canonical Edition was in fact published in this form to distinguish it from competing texts, it would be natural for subsequent copies to follow the Canonical Edition's example.

6. Trobisch cites further evidence by appealing to the arrangement and number of writings in the extant manuscripts. If it is true that varied sequences of the writings circulated separately at first and later were combined to form different collections, it is also true that if the same number of Gospels, Pauline Letters, General Letters, and other works are presented in the same order, these manuscripts must be based on an established collection (21). Trobisch points to the existence of complete editions, the placement of the letter to the Hebrews and of the Book of Acts, and the division of the New Testament into four separate collection units (Gospels, Praxapostolos, Letters of Paul, Revelation) as the strongest indicators of a unifying publisher early in the history of the Canonical Edition. Based on the evidence he examines, Trobisch boldly states here that "with the exception of five documents, all of the evaluated manuscripts of the first seven centuries may be interpreted as copies of the same edition" (34).

7. Another key element is the example of the titles of the New Testament writings. There is a consistent uniformity in all the titles of the New Testament works that points to an editorial concept not imposed by the authors of the individual writings (41). Since the genre designations (such as gospel and epistle), authorship, and structure of the titles are not particularly apparent from the texts alone, they were added or perhaps reinforced by the editors of the Canonical Edition. According to Trobisch, the editors were attempting to unify dissimilar material by employing uniform titles.

8. Finally, the last element that Trobisch discusses (albeit very briefly) in this chapter is the actual title of the Canonical Edition. In no uncertain terms Trobisch asserts, "the archetype of the collection most probably was entitled <grc>h kainh diaqhkh</grc>, 'The New Testament'" (43). Support for this is not found on a "title page" of extant codices, because the oldest manuscripts and codices do not preserve it, if it ever existed. Instead, Trobisch points to the use of the term "Old Testament," which presupposes the existence of a "New Testament." He points to anti-Montanist and other uses of the term, as well as its use by Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeaus, Tertullian, and Origen.

9. After this discussion of the evidence for a final redaction, Trobisch turns his attention in chapter three to the purpose and intent of the editorial process. There is a significant amount of overlap between this chapter, which forms the heart of the book, and the preceding one. Much of the evidence is rehashed with specific observations and discussions about its relation to the intentions of the supposed final editors. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is his discussion of the origin and function of the titles of the books and how they serve as links to the whole collection of New Testament documents. Trobisch does not, however, deal with specific issues of authorship of the texts. He is far more concerned to demonstrate that the titles of the works (<grc>euaggelion kata Markon</grc>, for example) attempt to unify different documents of the Canonical Edition with the figures of Paul, Jesus, and the Jerusalem church.

10. In addition to the titles, the alleged authorship of the edited texts is an important consideration. Although, as noted, Trobisch refuses to engage the issue of authenticity and pseudonymity, he makes the point that "if the editors are interested in demonstrating to their readers that after an initial discord there was undivided harmony between the Jerusalem apostles and Paul, they will have to insist that the documents promoted in their collection are authentic" (60). True enough, but the question then arises as to whether the readers of the Canonical Edition would necessarily pick that up. Trobisch insists that they would; there are eight alleged authors in the Canonical Edition (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude), and attentive readers will find that in more than one text four of these met in Jerusalem (Galatians 2.2-10 and Acts 15). The other four are "legitimized" as authors by their association with the former (Matthew with Peter and John as one of the Twelve, Jude with James as a brother of Jesus, Luke with Paul as his missionary companion, and Mark as the companion of both Paul and Peter). From the perspective of the reader, then, these serve as a system of cross-references and unifiers between discordant traditions in earliest Christianity, specifically between the Antioch incident and the Jerusalem council.

11. Trobisch then returns to the discussions of nomina sacra and of the codex form as exemplars of the intentions of the editors. The nomina sacra may originally have been based on Jewish reluctance to translate the Tetragram into a Greek equivalent when they worked on transcribing the Old Testament, and these early scribes simply wrote the divine name in Hebrew in the Greek manuscript. Jewish Christians, however, seem to have rendered the Tetragram with <grc>kurios</grc>. The problem came in when the New Testament writers had to distinguish between JHWH and "Lord." Scribes may well have originally distinguished between them by writing out <grc>kurios</grc> for JHWH and <grc>k_s_</grc> when referring to Christ as Lord. Eventually this distinction was lost on the scribes, and the usage of nomina sacra was expanded to all the nomina divina and other sacred theological terms in the New Testament. The editors of the Canonical Edition therefore made this convention one of the distinguishing marks of the new text, particularly as distinct from the Jewish Scriptures and other competing bodies of religious and sacred literature.

12. The codex form is the final source for understanding the editorial concept. Trobisch points out that the codex was in fact known in the Roman world of the first century CE; Seneca mentions it, and Martial explicitly advertises its use for his own books (Epigrams 1.2) and encourages readers to find codices for other Classical authors. Lawyers and doctors also made use of the codex as a kind of reference notebook designed for consultation. Because of their extensive practice of citing and searching for proof-texts, early Christians found this ease of reference particularly attractive. From an editorial perspective, the codex was more profitable to the publisher when produced in larger numbers, and, coupled with the missionary activity of early Christians, this was certainly an important factor. The codex could also hold more texts than a scroll, and its form of binding could ensure the integrity of the collection: very short writings benefited from the protection of other larger works surrounding them.

13. In chapter four, Trobisch turns to the text itself and seeks to identify traces of the final editorial redaction. Specifically, the author examines the book of Acts, 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, and John 21, and he considers the functions of each in the canon and in relation to each other. Trobisch sets out his relative chronology of the various texts (including the Gospels) as his first order of business. 2 Timothy is the last book of Paul, and 2 Peter is the last work of that apostle. Both can thus be seen as "literary testaments" of the two apostles. In fact, the New Testament shows a "strong interest" in minimizing the differences between Peter and Paul that are portrayed in Galatians, and Acts functions as a harmonizing text between these two apostles and the strands of early Christianity that they represent. The upshot of his reasoning is that the Synoptics were written before the death of Paul, while John was written last but still authored before the letters of Peter, the letters of John, and Revelation. The glue that really holds everything together, from an editorial standpoint and reader's perspective, is John 21, which looks back on the deaths of Peter and John. The arrangement of these texts, plus the addition of John 21, convinces Trobisch that the final editors who published the Canonical Edition intended to smooth over the embarrassment of disagreeing pillars of Christianity, as it were; if the ideas and the literary structure revealed the spat between Peter and Paul too extensively, the New Testament could never have been taken seriously as an authoritative text for the Christian movement.

14. In his final chapter, Trobisch essentially sums up his findings and offers his own suggestions for the significance of a Canonical Edition for modern scholarship. Modern editions of the Bible, Trobisch suggests, should mirror the Canonical Edition. The Gospels, of course, would remain as they are, but Acts should be grouped with the General (Catholic) Letters, and Hebrews included with the Pauline corpus and placed between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy. The nomina sacra ought to be included as well. Perhaps more interesting is his suggestion that the Marcionite controversy was the proverbial spark that lit the fire necessitating an authoritative Canonical Edition put together by professional editors (a variant on the usual idea that the Marcionite and Montanist controversies started the church thinking about issues of canon). However, he declines to elaborate on the issue, much to the reader's dismay.

15. Trobisch's thesis is intriguing and well documented, but there are a number of gaps in the book, many of which are rather frustrating. True, the author does explicitly tell his audience that he is not addressing many of these gaps. Still, the reader cannot but wonder what impact some of the "big issues" would have had on his argument. Detailed discussion of other authors of early Christian literature is completely lacking because Trobisch "did not want to base [his] argument on them" (6). For example, an interesting question in this particular vein would be the decision to incorporate Revelation at the supposed date of the Canonical Edition's official publication instead of the Shepherd of Hermas, which may well have been more widely read than Revelation in the second century. Another example is the handling of Eusebius and his comments on the canon and its status in the early fourth century. If such a Canonical Edition had existed in a published form, with almost two centuries of circulation by the time of Eusebius, it seems incredible that Eusebius would not have given his readers at least some indication of it. In other words, it is hard to see why Eusebius would have needed to address the canonicity of the New Testament if in fact there had been an authoritative Canonical Edition in existence for two hundred years already. On the other hand, Trobisch does include the Fathers and other authors in his extensive notes and does make a number of relevant observations, but his research in this area would perhaps have been better served if it were in the main text. Among other issues not addressed, one that seems like it would be of crucial importance to the development of his argument is the question of authorship and authenticity of the New Testament documents. If indeed the final editors of the edition needed to present the documents in such a way that their authenticity was beyond dispute, it seems logical for such a discussion to be present. Unfortunately it is not. For the sake of his argument, Trobisch must present all thirteen letters of the Pauline corpus as authentic, plus the letter to the Hebrews. Likewise, the Petrine correspondence is also genuine, as are the canonical gospels (although these are acknowledged to be anonymous). While Trobisch of course is focusing "on the final form of the editio princeps" (7), it strikes me that declining to address such a key issue in the formation of the editio princeps is at the very least inconsistent with his overall objectives.

16. These examples do not undermine the overall usefulness and value of the book. While some scholars may wince at the inclusion of Hebrews and the Pastorals as authentically Pauline, Trobisch's underlying thesis is sound. Without a doubt, there must have been some degree of professional editorial redaction of the New Testament. The extensive circulation and the numerous translations of the New Testament throughout the Roman Empire demand it. Furthermore, while the Canonical Edition as Trobisch presents it may not have been the archetype for all subsequent editions, he is certainly correct in presenting his Canonical Edition in competition with other works. His discussion of the New Testament from the perspective of the reader is particularly illuminating as well. The First Edition of the New Testament, while not without its flaws, is certain to be a major landmark in the field and will occupy a place next to the works of Skeat, Roberts, and Gamble on the bookshelves of both students and scholars.

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


Gamble, Harry Y. The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1985.

Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Roberts, Colin Henderson, and Skeat, T. C. The Birth of the Codex. London: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Jason T. Larson
Framingham State College
Special Collections