Early Christian Manuscripts: Encore
Early Christian manuscripts, especially copies of texts that served as scripture, exhibit both plain, functional qualities, and also distinctive features that are purely visual and that reflect a desire to mark the manuscripts and their texts with a Christian identity.
I’ve posted on some of these matters before (simply click on “codex” and/or “manuscripts” in the word-cloud on the right-hand side of the home page). But I want to underscore two interesting things that reflect two different aims, which are combined in early Christian manuscripts.
For anyone who has viewed high-quality literary manuscripts of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the Christian literary manuscripts of the same period will seem somewhat plain in comparison. Typically, the “hand” of these Christian manuscripts is not as elegant or “calligraphic” as in the pagan manuscripts reflecting elite circles of readers. The impression given is of functionality as being the important factor. These Christian manuscripts are readable, to be sure, with individual letters separated and quite legibly formed, and generous spacing between the lines.
Moreover, there are devices such as extra spacing to mark off sense-units (roughly the size of modern-day sentences). There is also often elementary punctuation. These we may think of rightly as readers’ aids intended to facilitate the reading of these manuscripts (which was dominantly done in a group setting).
As I say, by comparison, pagan literary texts are often in a noticeably more elegant hand. The same is true also of early Jewish manuscripts, including those in Hebrew. So, to repeat for emphasis, functionality, the ready use of the texts in question seems to have been the main object reflected in earliest Christian manuscripts.
And yet, these same manuscripts also demonstrate the distinctive early Christian copyist practice known as the “nomina sacra,” the writing of certain words in an abbreviated form and with a curious horizontal stroke written over the abbreviated forms. (For more on the nomina sacra, again click on the term on the word-cloud, and see the fuller discussion in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2006.) The words most consistently treated in this way in our earliest manuscripts are Iesous, Christos, Kyrios, and Theos, with other words added quickly, that together form core words in early Christian discourse.
But the point I highlight here is that the nomina sacra are purely visual phenomena. The words so treated were read out as if written normally. In previous publications, I have referred to the nomina sacra as giving our earliest evidence of an emerging (and, granted, still elementary) early Christian “visual culture”. These devices show that the physical objects, the manuscripts, were themselves important, and so were marked to make them Christian. A Christian identity, we might say, was conferred thereby on these manuscripts. (Another noteworthy feature of early Christianity is the strong preference for the codex, particularly for texts treated as scripture.)
Further, these nomina sacra required readers to be familiar with them. In a sense, they were an obstacle to readers who weren’t familiar with them. This seems to go against the other features that functioned as readers’ aids. That shows us that the nomina sacra were a sufficiently important and sufficiently widespread Christian convention that they were not a problem for Christian readers.
So, on the one hand, earliest Christian manuscripts exhibit an intention to make the copies of key texts easily readable (and probably for a certain spectrum of reading ability), giving the manuscripts a somewhat plain and functional appearance. And yet, on the other hand, these manuscripts also reflect a convention of bestowing a visual distinctiveness and Christian identity to the copies of the texts that they contain. This means that these manuscripts themselves already held a certain importance as physical artifacts of Christian faith. They were not simply crib sheets for some supposed “oral performance” from memory. The nomina sacra represent a desire to express Christian faith in the way certain words were written, giving a distinctive visual and physical registering of faith.
In my recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), I devote a chapter to what I refer to as the “bookish” quality of early Christianity. By that term I refer to the significant place that reading texts had in their gatherings, and the energies devoted to composing, copying, and distributing texts in early Christian circles.