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Manuscripts . . . and a Guinness

February 19, 2015

Yesterday my colleague, Prof. Paul Foster, and I went with eight of our current PhD students for another of our periodic visits to the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin) to examine their fabulous collection of early biblical papyri.  We try to make this visit about every 2-3 years, making it a regular feature of what we offer to PhD students in NT/Christian Origins here in New College (Edinburgh).  We can fly over early in the morning and return that same evening.

The Director and Curator very kindly agreed to arrange for us to have direct (“autopsy”) access to a number of folios of various of their biblical papyri, and a private space in which we could examine them carefully and discuss details.  I had chosen particular folios of key papyri:  the Gospels codex (P45), the Pauline codex (P46), the Revelation codex (P47), the Numbers-Deuteronomy codex (Rahlfs 963), and each of the two Genesis codices (Rahlfs 961 and 962).  These are all Greek, and all copied by/for early Christian usage, so the selection allowed students to see and compare how these various texts were copied.

These papyri also reflect varying approaches to constructing codices large enough to accommodate large bodies of text.  So, e.g., P45 was constructed of individual papyrus sheets folded and then stitched together, whereas P46 was a “single gathering” codex of some 52 papyrus sheets (as probably the case also with P47).  On the other hand, Chester Beatty V (Rahlfs 962), one of the copies of Genesis, originally 84 leaves (42 sheets), was composed of 10-leaf/5-sheet gatherings (or, as the modern book trade calls them, “quires”).  These are all 3rd century manuscripts, and so, to my mind, show that Christians in this period were experimenting with different ways to construct large codices.  And that, I contend, suggests that they were at the “leading edge” of codex technology, developing the codex for more serious literary purposes than had been the case.  Otherwise, if they were simply adopting a previous literary use of the codex, why were they experimenting still with these different kinds of codex-construction?

The PhD students had been invited to indicate particular folios that they’d like to see, in some cases to check for themselves readings or other features, and it was interesting to see them have the opportunity to do this.  In one or two cases, I think we were able to query a prior reading of texts at particular points (with the aid of hand-held microscopes).  And in another case, I was able to satisfy myself that what looked like a “line filler” in the photographs was actually a shadow caused by a break in the horizontal fibres of the papyrus.  As well, there were folios on which there were errors in copying and corrections, entered in different ways.  It’s clear that a copying capable of a high-quality “calligraphic” hand wasn’t necessarily free from making errors (such as omitting a whole line of text!).  It was also interesting to see how ancient copyists handled (or, amusingly in some cases, mishandled) the “nomina sacra” practice that distinguishes early Christian copies of texts.

Earlier in the day we also visited the Book of Kells exhibit in Trinity College, and were invited to view the recently set-up Freyne Library (from the personal library of the late Prof. Sean Freyne), and have coffee with a few colleagues in the department there.

And, of course, at an early lunch in “The Duke” (local pub/restaurant), those of us so inclined were able to test for ourselves how Guinness tastes in its hometown.  Answer:  Very nice!

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  1. Marc Roemer permalink

    I need to see more evidence, too! — particularly whether the practice of placing an overstroke over the name of a deity or vox magica existed as early as the 1st C. This seems quite possible — the “magical” tradition has a long history pre-dating the common era. And your point about the distinction between the ordinary and the sacred is precisely what Dieleman finds to be the purpose of the overstroke in the work I cited. In any case, a magico-religious origin for the nomina sacra seems at least as worthy a hypothesis as the secular Greek numerals, and gets support from David Aune who considers magic a “potentially fruitful subject which may illuminate important aspects of the religion of early Christians” and finds it was a “characteristic feature of early Christianity from its very inception.”

    Good discussion! I’m looking forward to reading your book.


  2. Mark Lamas Jr. permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado,

    What a great opportunity for the PhD students. I recently accepted a place at Edinburgh with Dr. Bond and Dr. Foster (Matriculation Fall 2015). I look forward to some adventures as you have described above! Thanks for the blog and the overwhelming wealth of knowledge in Christian origins.

    Warm wishes from sunny California,
    Mark Lamas Jr.

  3. Marc Roemer permalink

    Hello Dr. Hurdado — thank you for making your research so accessible! On the topic of the nomina sacra, are you aware of any scholarship connecting them to Egypt? I came across some intriguing work recently (David Frankfurter, Jacco Dieleman) that might suggest an Egyptian origin.

    • There are several proposals about what phenomena might have been drawn upon by early Christian copyists in producing the practice called “nomina sacra”, but most that I know are examples of what Samuel Sandmel called “parallelomania”: i.e., making dubious causal connections on the basis of superficial similarities. The relevant precedents are these: (1) Jewish special treatment accorded to YHWH in biblical manuscripts; and (2) abbreviation practices of the time, esp. on coins, etc., involving honorific titles.

      • Marc Roemer permalink

        To me, items 1 and 2, while surely contributors to the tradition, don’t add up to a complete explanation. They don’t explain the supralineal line, nor the motivation to abbreviate (convenient on a coin or in the margin of a manuscript, but wholly unnecessary in the body of a text).

        It seems to me that data from the magical papyri, dating from the same time as the earliest Christian texts (and seen more and more by scholars as religious rather than “magical”) might shed some light on these difficulties.

        About the overstroke, in the magical papyri, a horizontal line was often written over a god’s name. Jacco Dieleman deems the overstroke a way of distinguishing “the efficacious hidden essence of the god” from an ordinary, colloquial name (Priests, Tongues and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual, 100-300 CE, p. 135). This sounds very much like what you refer to as “reverence.”

        About abbreviation, David Frankfurter supposes, based on the magical papyri and evident mystical interpretation of the Greek letters in late antiquity, that “what is apparent in such letter speculations is an attempt to recapture or reinvest the type of symbolism with which hieroglyphs were supposed to be endowed, but now in the stoicheia of the Greek alphabet. Greek letters themselves might become truly magical in a way reminiscent of hieroglyphic symbols. The early Christian phenomena of the nomina sacra … demonstrates that Greek writing was assuming a sacred power once unique to hieroglyphic writing” (The Magic of Writing and the Writing of Magic: The Power of the Word in Egyptian and Greek Traditions, HELlOS, vol. 21, no.2, 1994, p. 211). The implication is that letters pregnant with symbolism would be written more sparingly.

        What do you think?


        PS Please pardon me if my post is lengthy.

      • Marc: I’ve offered an explanation of the nomina sacra (building in part on prior work by the great Colin Roberts): Hurtado, Larry W. “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117, no. 4 (1998): 655-73; and have carried the discussion further in a large chapter in my book, Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 95-134. Maybe you might find these interesting. To my knowledge, they’re the most thorough discussions of the matter to date.
        I’d need to see the evidence proffered but I don’t recall overstrokes written over the names of deities in any magical papyri that I’ve perused (and BTW, most “magical” papyri is actually fairly late, and so dubiously relevant to provide origins of NT copyist practices). Moreover, in the early Christian MSS there is usually (but not always, as copyists often slipped) a distinction in the way the same word is written depending on who the referent is: I.e., “kyrios” is written out normally when the referent isn’t Jesus or God, and even “theos/theoi” is written out normally when the referent isn’t the one “God”. Etc.
        So, it isn’t a magical attitude toward the letters, but a reverential gesture toward particular referents.

  4. Dear Prof. Hurtado,
    What a privilege to study where some of the most important manuscripts are kept safe! I can just envy you guys.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. Teresa McCaskill permalink

    Dear Professor Hurtado,

    Thank you so much for organising our trip to Dublin yesterday. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

    Warm regards, Teresa McCaskill >

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