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Terminology and Its Effects: E.g, “Scribes” vs. “Copyists

November 5, 2018

In a number of blog postings and publications I’ve referred to “copyists” and distinguished their work (copying a text by hand) from “readers/users” of texts (individuals who invested time in studying a text, and who might well make changes to it, believing that thereby they were correcting some error in their copy or were removing ambiguities,  or who might add marginal notes, etc.).  In earlier studies, scholars often referred to “scribes”, and one still sees this term used to refer to the copying of Greek texts.  But it’s not helpful.  It blurs the distinction between the task and conventions of copying Greek texts and the role of readers/users of texts.

The first thing to note is that “scribes” in Jewish tradition were individuals who studied Torah and were deemed authoritative interpreters of it.  These are the guys mentioned in the Gospels often as critics of Jesus.  They didn’t make their living copying texts.

So, to avoid confusion, the term “copyist” is a better label for individuals who  . . . copied out texts.  Some of them in the Roman period were professionals, who got paid for their work on the basis of the length of text copied.  In some other cases, wealthy individuals had texts copied for them by household slaves trained to do so.  In still other cases, it appears that individuals made their own personal copies of texts.

My preference for “copyist” isn’t idiosyncratic.  I point to the comments by the distinguished papyrologist Peter Parsons:  “Copyists of Oxyrhynchus,” in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts, ed. A. K. Bowman et al. (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007), 262-70.  Note especially this one, where he makes the distinction between “scribes” (“a professional member of a sacred calling”) and “copyists”, and wrote, “We owe our literary papyri not to scribes, but to copyists” (262-63).

As others have noted also, copyists didn’t take the time to make intentional changes.  E.g., Ulrich Schmid, “Scribes and Variants: Sociology and Typology,” in Textual Variation: Theological and Social Tendencies?, ed. H. A. G. Houghton and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2008), 1-23.  The job of copyists was to copy the texts put before them.  They might be good at it, or not so good.  They might accidentally omit words or even larger amounts of text through a slip of their eye.  The might repeat a word or phrase.  They might produce an altered word-order (often correcting an overlooked word).  These sorts of variants come by the bushel in ancient texts.

But the larger and intentional variants (e.g., the various endings of Mark beyond 16:8, or 1 John 5:7, or the insertion of the pericope of the adultress, et alia) were the product of serious readers and students of the texts, who took the time to try to “improve” them in various ways.  The readiness to do this wasn’t indicative of whether a text was considered “canon” or “scripture.” I’ve noted, for example, how various readers of Acts seem to have produced what were intended as “disambiguating” variants at a number of places where the original reading was likely “kyrios” and it’s not immediately clear whether the referent is God or Jesus:  Larry W. Hurtado, “God or Jesus? Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts of the Apostles,” in Texts and Traditions: Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott, ed. Peter Doble and Jeffrey Kloha (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 239-54 , republished in Larry W. Hurtado, Texts and Artefacts: Selected Essays on Textual Criticism and Early Christian Manuscripts (London: BloomsburyT&T Clark, 2017), 64-80.

So, let’s follow Parsons in using “copying/copyists” to designate the transmission of a text by hand, and “readers/users” to refer to those individuals who used the texts copied, and who were responsible for making any intentional changes in them.

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13 Comments
  1. john permalink

    Thank you for the distinction and clarification between “scribes” and “copyists” Larry. One question I wonder about is how does the “spirit possessed ecstatic scribe” (for lack of a better term), fit into this mold, or break from this mold? I think of how the Gospel of John rethinks Jesus, or how the folks in the scriptorium by the Dead Sea created new texts like the War Scroll. Has anyone found evidence of other Jewish scriptoriums, or their texts, besides the famous one by the Dead Sea and what scholars are given to speculate about the pre-Christian elements within the so-called OT Pseudepigrapha?

  2. Tom Hennell permalink

    So how should we consider harmonised readings, which make up a very large proportion of recognised variants in the Gospels? These are not slips in copying; but nor do they introduce new material. I am sure that a copyist (or reader) who conformed a reading in one gospel to the counterpart text in another gospel would maintain that they were indeed conscientiously copying the words of scripture; not improving, adding or taking away, but preserving the text in its true form.

    • Tom: Minor harmonizations (especially in GMark) are a frequent kind of variant. Some scholars propose that copyists more familiar with GMatthew through liturgical readings may have “corrected” GMark by harmnonization with GMatthew. Maybe. But I still think that these more likely arose from those who read the text and took the time to observe such differences and sought to “correct” them.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Thanks Larry.

        I am trying to present your understanding systematically; so if I label the succession of Copyists: C1, C2, C3; and the succession of Readers: R11, R12, R13 | R21,R22,R23 | R31, R32, R33.

        Then your chain of reproduction may be represented:

        C1 -> R11 -> R12 – > R13
        ———————————-
        C2 -> R21 -> R22 -> R23
        ———————————-
        C3 -> R31 -> R32 -> R33.

        So in your schema, the exemplar manuscript in front of C2 consists of the original copy C1 as corrected, improved and changed by the succession of readers; R11, R12, R13. I take you as proposing (or taking from Schmid et al.) that the copyist C2 would “not have taken the time” to do any other than reproduce as contentiously as they were capable of doing, the amended text placed in front of them.

        For me, on the face of it – albeit based on no empirical examples of demonstrated copying from one surviving papyrus codex to its surviving successor – there do seem to be two processes not being taken into consideration in the representation above.

        Firstly, C1 will have made slips in copying (as every copyist did) some of which they will have corrected; some of which will have been picked up by R11, R12, R13; and some of which will still be present in the text before C2. I would expect C2 to be fully aware (and possibly trained) to spot such errors, and consider it part of their function to emend them (maybe even by consulting other manuscripts or synoptic parallels indoing so). Conscientious copying (I suggest) would not have been expected to reproduce manifest errors. Some of which may not actually have been errors at all.

        Secondly, there appears to me to be a functionary missing at each stage; a Redactor/Editor (let us label them E1, E2, E3). R11, R12, R13 will have introduced their annotations, but a decision remains to be established which of those annotated changes are to be reproduced in C2’s copy – remembering that it is not at all uncommon for the changes of R12 etc to reverse (or be incompatible with) the changes of R11.

        So we might rework the your proposed chain of reproduction:

        E1-> C1 -> R11 -> R12 – > R13
        ———————————-
        E2 -> C2 -> R21 -> R22 -> R23
        ———————————-
        E3 -> C3 -> R31 -> R32 -> R33.

        Alternatively it might be the case that C1 and E1 are one and the same; which (contrary to Schmid) would imply that the Copyists function would also commonly be editorial as well.

        Of course, it is quite possible that different chains of reproduction are to be observed in different contexts, and for different sorts of copied material.

        The research question might then be how differing understanding of the Copyist function might be distinguished in the surviving papyrus witnesses. Do we have evidence for the functions of R11, R12, R13 in the pattern of emendations found in papyri; and do we have evidence for editors E1, E2, E3. reviewing these emendations prior to their being recopied?

        Always remembering that absence of evidence can never be evidence of absence.

      • Tom: There is no reason to introduce your category of “redactor/editor”. As I and others have contended, significant and intentional changes were likely introduced by readers/users of texts. These may often have been in the form of marginal comments. But, as accidental omissions of size could also be corrected by adding the omitted material in the margins, a copyist would likely add in the marginal note into the text, thereby introducing it into the textual “bloodstream”. Also, your imagining copyists taking time to consult other manuscripts, etc., has little basis in evidence. As evidence of copiyists’ work, note Zachary Cole’s recently published study of how copyists handled numbers: Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts: Text–critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies, New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents 53. Leiden: Brill, 2017. He shows that copyists simply followed how numbers were treated in their exemplars, whether written out fully or using alphabetic substitutes, the same copyist shifting practice with his exeemplar.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Thanks Larry

        I do note though, that the discrete function of redactor/editor has previously been noted by Ulrich Schmid; who proposes the threefold categorisation; Editorial, Manufacturing and Using; for what I have been terming; Editor, Copyist and Readers. (I also note that Schmid appears to consider the bulk of harmonisations as non-editorial; since he supports a proposed identification of in instance of ‘editorial change’ with the observation that it is ‘not typical harmonisation’). For Schmid, editorial variants – as distinct from copyist variants – must be ‘consciously prepared beforehand’ and rare. I take your perspective as being rather different.

        Of course there is a great deal of overlap between copyist and reader. As Schmid notes, readers in antiquity commonly expected to write comments, notes and amendments into their copies of literary works. Where literary dissemination and transmission depends on copying by hand, the attention of readers to the correction of slips of copying, and recording those corrections into the copy, becomes an inherent and expected component in the reproduction process. So the function of the reader annotations overlaps substantially with that of the copyists own corrections to his/her copy. And likely the other way, the subsequent copyist (C2) may be the one who reviews the accumulated reader notes, to sort out those that identify slips in C1, from those that represent marginal musings or unsubstantiated speculations.

        As it happens, one of Schmid’s proposed reconstructions of a possible ‘editorial’ change Illuminates exactly this point. Schmid propose the passage in Matthew 27:49 (Jesus being pierced with a spear before his death, producing a flow of ‘water and blood’) as an editorial addition to the gospel text. (As it happens, I disagree with him here. Matthew 27:49 was one of the ‘Western non-interpolations’ included in brackets by Westcott and Hort in their critical text. But whereas all the other of WH’s Western non-interpolations have been reprieved in more recent critical editions; this one has not. Given that these words are universally present in the earliest and best manuscripts, and that we know that there was a conscious and prolonged centralised campaign from the 5th onwards to expunge them from the gospel tradition – so that only in Ethiopia and Ireland did they continue as the standard text – there is a strong case for their being original.)

        In Schmid’s proposed reconstruction, these words might have been added as a marginal annotation by a reader/user as a ‘pointer to the parallel passage in John’ (John 19:34), and so ‘not have been intended to be inserted into the text of Matthew’. But, Schmid speculates, ‘one scribe who was copying that manuscript must have erroneously put it into the running text of Matthew’. So who is to be considered Schmid’s ‘editor’ for this verse – the reader/user who composed it or the later copyist who decided to include it? Schmid doesn’t say explicitly, but the implication is that he considers the reader/user as the ‘editor’ here. Which is problematic, since the opening words in the Matthew text are characteristic of Matthew, not John; and of course, there is the crucial discrepancy that John locates this same event after Jesus’s death, and re-emphasises the testimony supporting this in the following verse. So if the hypothetical reader annotation simply pointed at the passage in John, the glaring differences must be due to the copyist – who would appear very much to have been assuming ‘editorial’ functions in doing so.

      • Tom: Just a brief response to a couple of matters in your lengthy (but helpful) comment. First, “editors” are more typically thought of as those who may have been involved in settling the “originating” form of a text from which subsequent copies are made.
        Second, if a copyist incorporated into a text a marginal note, thinking that it was something accidentally omitted and “corrected”, that isn’t editorial activity. The copyist was simply following the practice, when in doubt incorporate.

  3. So a small change to improve the sense, like the change of ouk to oupo at John 7:8, must be the work of a reader/user, not a copyist?

    • In so far as a variant likely arose from pondering the text, seeking to “improve” it or clarify it, or remove what may have seemed an error in the archetype, then it’s most likely a reader, not a copyist. The latter didn’t likely take the time.

      • How is the kind of transmitter Bauckham mentions different from the kind of transmitter you mention (and call “copyist”) here: “They [a copyist] might produce an altered word-order (often correcting an overlooked word).” You propose that copyists may make corrective alterations, but then don’t seem to allow Bauckham to make the same claim. Why?

      • Danny: I don’t think you get my points and distinctions. Copyists produce unintended variants, accidentally omitting, repeating etc., and then trying to correct their mistakes. The “corrective alterations” are to their own errors. REaders/users make more significant “corrections” to what they perceive to be errors in the basic text. ~And/or they make expansions, or disambiguating changes.

  4. David Madison permalink

    It might also be useful to make a distinction between a reader/user and an author who incorporates material from earlier sources in his work. Matthew would then be defined as an author in the latter sense rather than exceptionally creative reader/user. The usefulness of this distinction may be appreciated when we consider the implications of a failure to make it. In that case we would have to regard the Gospel of Matthew as a highly creative “copy” of Mark’s Gospel rather than a separate work in its own right.

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