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Codex W, Numbers, and Copyist Fidelity

January 8, 2016

In a recent article, Zachary Cole (Edinburgh PhD student) traces the occurrence of numbers written fully or as alphabetic numeral abbreviations in Codex Washingtonianus (Codex W), showing that the “unique employment of numerical abbreviations in W falls into a remarkable pattern that coincides precisely” with the well-known textual shifts in the manuscript:  “Evaluating Scribal Freedom and Fidelity:  Number-Writing Techniques in Codex Washingtonianus (W 032),” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 52 (2015): 225-38.

Codex W is an oft-cited instance of what textual critics refer to as “block mixture.”  This = shifts in the complexion of the text, with different blocks aligned with different textual traditions:  Matthew 1:1-28:20 (“Byzantine”); John 1:1-5:11 (Alexandrian/Western; John 5:12-21:25 (Alexandrian); Luke 1:1-8:12 (Alexandrian); Luke 8:13-24:53 (Byzantine); Mark 1:1-5:30 (Western, although the textual shift may begin a bit earlier in Mark 5); Mark 5:31-16:20 (in earlier work often labelled “Caesarean/proto-Caesarean,” but this label is now shown dubious.  Instead, this part of Codex W is aligned closely with P45, and these two seem to share a somewhat distinctive textual tradition here).*

It isn’t clear why Codex W exhibits these shifts.  The original editor, H.A. Sanders, proposed that Codex W may derive from a manuscript of the Gospels that had been prepared in the aftermath of the terrible persecution under Diocletian, which included the destruction of Christian books.  In this scenario, Sanders suggested, the copyist had to make do with partially extant copies that derived from varying textual traditions, the copyist shifting from one to the next to put together a complete text of the Gospels.

Whatever the situation behind this “block mixture,” Cole’s study shows that the fascinating shifts from writing out numbers fully or as alphabetic symbols (e.g., α=1; β=2, etc.) conforms precisely with the block mixture shifts.  This is remarkable.

The import, Cole urges cogently, is that Codex W reflects a copyist carefully copying his/her exemplars, even at the level of how they rendered numbers. In short, Codex W reflects a high level of fidelity in the copying process.  It’s one of a number of recent studies that justify re-examining some oft-repeated stereotypes about ancient Christian copyists and how they handled their texts.  There is, in fact, little evidence of a “wild” or “free” attitude in which copyists readily manhandled texts to suit their own purposes.  The manuscript often cited, of course, is Codex Bezae, with its many, often-unique, variants.  But Bezae now seems more like a bizarre exception rather than as indicative of some supposedly wider practice.

*On the text of Mark in Codex W, see Larry W. Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text:  Codex W in the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981).

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  1. Jeff Cate permalink

    Larry, do you know if Cole looked into Sinaiticus? He mentions majuscules such as A, B, C on p. 235, but no mention of Sinaiticus which also has block mixture. I just skimmed Jongkind’s study of 01 and don’t notice (that I could find) him mentioning anything about numbers & numeric abbreviations in it. Just curious if there’s any similar pattern in 01. Thanks.

    • I’ll let Cole respond as to why he did not deal with Sinaiticus.

    • Zach Cole permalink

      Dear Jeff,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I did study Sinaiticus. I omitted discussion of it for two main reasons. First, there is an interesting pattern of numeral writing in Sinaiticus, but it is not related to that of W in any obvious way (neither in regards to its block mixture nor the specific contents of their respective books). Second, that pattern is significant enough to merit a study unto itself. Rather than preempting that discussion I decided to keep it for a later study.

      In my thesis I study the numerals in Sinaiticus exhaustively. Hopefully in due course I’ll be able to make that (and other parts) available for comparison!

      Best wishes,
      Zach Cole

      • Jeff Cate permalink

        Sounds good. Thanks, Zach!

  2. If Bezae is an exception, then P127 seems to fall within the same category of exception since it is frankly exceptional. So if Bezae is an exception, it isn’t alone.

    • On P127 (P.Oxy 4968), it isn’t actually aligned all that closely with Bezae. See the discussion by D. C. Parker and S. R. Pickering, “4968. Acta Apostolorum 10–12, 15–17,” in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXXIV, ed. D. Leith and et al. (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2009), 1-45. It also differs from the Vaticanus type of text, to be sure, and so is what they term a “free” type of text. But note that (like Bezae) it is 5th century, and so hardly direct evidence of some supposedly “wild” transmission of the earliest period.

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