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NT Manuscripts and Ancient Readers

March 29, 2013

One of my emphases in a number of publications over the last 15 years or so has been the value of taking account of the physical and visual features of early NT manuscripts.  This value extends far beyond the traditional text-critical concerns, e.g., to establish the earliest form of the text of NT writings and/or to trace their transmission histories.  The physical/visual features, comprising “para-textual” data, offer value for various other historical questions as well.

In our Research Seminar today, we had an excellent example of this provided by one of our current PhD students, Josaphat Tam, who was concerned with how to understand the role of John 2:23-25.  Most commentators take it as introductory to the conversation in 3:1ff. between Jesus and Nicodemus.  But is this how best to take 2:23-25, or might it instead be seen as tying off in some way the preceding material?

In an innovative step, Tam consulted our earliest manuscripts of John that contain these verses, P66, P75, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Washingtonianus, to see how their copyists arrange the text of John.   This involved noting the various devices used by ancient readers and copyists to signify sense-units:  elementary punctuation, use of significant blank spaces, “ekthesis” (the placing of the initial letter of a line of text so that it extends out into the left margin), et al.

It is interesting that, except for P66, the others all appear to make a more significant break between 2:25 and 3:1, with a less significant sense-unit break between 2:22 and 2:23, which means that they took 2:23-25 as more connected with the preceding text than with what follows.

I don’t want to steal Tam’s thunder further here, so I won’t give more of his details.  But I do want to commend him and urge that students and scholars of the NT should become accustomed to consulting ancient NT manuscripts.  To take this one specific matter, I would urge that the text-division judgements of ancient readers deserve to be taken just as seriously as those of modern readers/scholars.  Certainly, in the case of these ancient readers, we’re dealing with people for whom Koine Greek was much more familiar than to moderns, and for whom the task of judging the flow and sense-unit demarcations of texts was much more a part of reading (whereas for us it’s all done by editors of our printed editions).

In any case, the sorts of reader/copyist devices that Tam considered in his paper are the direct artefacts of ancient reading/readers, and in examinging their “mark-up” of NT writings we’re directly looking at the traces of their efforts to read and understand these texts.  It’s a bit like archaeology, where we come directly across the artefacts of ancients.

For more on early Christian manuscripts see my book:  The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006).

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  1. Jeff Miller permalink

    I also checked on Alexandrinus, which is a draw, marking equal sense units at 2:23 and 3:1. Great post. I dabbled in Vaticanus sense units in my 2003 JSNT article, and have often dreamed of writing a dissertation along the lines of “scribal exegesis reflected in meta-textual features of NT MSS prior to AD 600.” Thanks for refueling my interest.

  2. Only in New Testament studies would consulting the earliest manuscripts be regarded as an innovative step!

  3. What a super foundational short piece to give to students who are beginning to understand scholarly manuscript work. THANKS

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