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Wax Tablets, Sources, and Ancient Composition-Practices

April 6, 2019

One the questions currently intriguing me is how the authors of texts such as the Gospels may have gone about their composition of them.  What were the “mechanics” and the physical items used?  One of the studies that I’ve come across is this one:  John C. Poirier, “The Roll, the Codex, the Wax Tablet and the Synoptic Problem,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35, no. 1 (2012): 3-30.

As suggested in his title, Poirier’s interest in the article is whether taking account of ancient compositional practices, particularly the use of wax tablets, helps us to explore options for questions about the literary relationships of the Synoptic Gospels.  But I found the article in drawing attention to the crucial role of wax tablets in the Roman world, and helpful in citing other works dealing with this and related matters.

The items in question were rectangular wooden frames with a rectangular recessed area into which wax was melted and smoothed.  You write on the wax with a stylus.  You could have multiple such tablets, and could join them together with a leather or cord tie.  They were portable, and we read of authors taking them along on a journey to jot down thoughts.  They were also re-usable.  One end of the stylus was flattened, and was used to smooth out (erase) writing when it was no longer needed.

Ancient authors used such tablets to record quotations and notes on the texts that they consulted in doing any research for composition of a text.  So, as Poirier points out, authors didn’t have to have the full texts (scrolls) of literary sources before them as they wrote.  Instead, they used wax tablets containing the bits that they wanted to quote or cite.

Other studies more fully devoted to the use of these tablets are (unfortunately for English-only readers) these: Paola Degni, Usi Delle Tavolette Lignee E Cerate Nel Mondo Greco E Romano, Ricerca Papirologica, no. 4 (Messina: Sicania, 1998); Les tablettes à écrire de l’antiquité à l’époque modern, ed. Elisabeth Lalou (Turnhout: Brepols, 1992).

A couple of other studies from a few decades ago provide some interesting context for questions about how authors went about using sources.   C. B. R. Pelling, “Plutarch’s Method of Work in the Roman Lives,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 99 (1979):  74-96, notes that Plutarch and other ancient authors seem to have relied on one principal source, supplemented by others and by memory.  And Pelling also emphasizes the role of note-taking, using wax tablets and/or papyrus sheets.  So, he identifies three main compositional steps:  (1) preliminary reading of sources, (2) production of hypomnemata or hypomnema (notes, excerpts) , relying heavily on one source, but switching when that account was unsuitable or inadequate, and (3) the writing of finished versions.

In another interesting article, Pelling analyzes Plutarch’s use and adaptation of his sources: C. B. R. Pelling, “Plutarch’s Adaptation of His Source Material,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 (1980): 127-40.  Pelling shows that Plutarch abbreviates, collapses incidents, changes chronology, expands with dramatic details, etc.  And differences show up between two of Plutarch’s accounts of the same incidents. Sometimes they seem conscious and sometimes perhaps accidental.

I wish that we had more such studies (and would be grateful for tips for any additional ones).  The relevance to the study of the NT is obvious.  Poirier’s article is one illustration, but there are still other things that might make more sense if we took greater account of ancient compositional practices.

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14 Comments
  1. Myron permalink

    Larry, this is fascinating to me too — the mechanics of writing in antiquity. Were you aware of Lindsay Askin’s book Scribal Culture in Ben Sira? Page 71 addresses the topic and has interesting references too. Her other article “What did Ben Sira’s Bible and Desk Look Like” wonders about the same question you do: the possible effect of those mechanics on note-taking and composition of the final work.

    Another possible avenue: Jerome Quinn’s book The First and Second Letters to Timothy, page 811, talks about the use of membranae, or small folios of papyrus, for composition.

    I’ve thought about this too, because it seems to me that using wax diptychs for composing anything substantial would require so, so many of them as to be hardly manageable. Wouldn’t it have been much easier to use membranae instead.. Oh, if anyone had just told us.

  2. Thank you Prof Hurtado for bringing this under my attention.
    I do agree that Luke 1:63 most probably refers to these wax tablets.
    Thank you and God bless.
    Herman of Bibledifferences, Pretoria, SA.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    Thanks Larry for this fascinating article. Never heard of wax tablets before, Three questions/possibilities come to mind!

    (1) What was the approximate relative cost of a sheet of papyrus, a full Gospel codex the size of Mark’s Gospel and a single changeable wax tablet, say, during the time most scholars think Mark’s Gospel was composed?

    (2) Do you think it is fair to say that the money Paul and others raised for the Jerusalem church would have been able to cover easily, the costs of all three writing methods in Jerusalem? That is not to suggest Mark was composed in Jerusalem. I assume you think Mark was composed in Rome, with a possible Proto-Mark taking shape in the Hullah Valley just above Lake Galilee, thanks to the headwaters of the Jordan River, geographical reference for Peter’s confession, which Luke does not seem to know!

    (3) It is sometimes stated that the “great omission” by Luke is because Luke did not have Mark’s full gospel — that is to say, no codex of Mark for Luke. He only had papyrus sheets with pages of Mark’s Gospel missing. Do you subscribe to this theory? If we do subscribe to the theory, does it not follow logically that the two source theory is true, because if Luke was copying from Matthew, why did he not use Matthew’s copying of Mark, wherein the “great omission” is concerned? What are the implications here for Q, or Proto-Q theories? for anyone interested in Luke’s “great omission” see here:

    https://sites.google.com/site/inglisonmarcion/Home/luke/the-great-omission#TOC-Mark-6:45-8:26-The-Great-Omission-in-Luke

    Endlessly fascinating. Thanks for sharing the sources for your post, as always Larry!

    • John: I don’t know what wax tablets cost. But in any case, their special usefulness was that they were reusable. Papyrus was not. That we have letters and other writings shows that early Christians did acquire and use writing material.
      I don’t buy the theory that Luke only had pages of Mark. The “great omission” can’t be accounted for that way. To engage your other questions would (as so many times, John) take us afield from the subject of the blog post!!

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        Thanks for your take on Luke’ so-called “great omission” and your exciting follow-up on wax tablets. Like a modern day miniature chalk, or eraser pen board, only much more interesting historically. I’d love to get one. If anyone on this blog can find out the cost in Paul’s and Jesus’ time, please share what you learned!

  4. It’s fascinating that the mechanics of writing the books and letters of the New Testament is another consideration when trying to understand what the original authors wrote.

  5. If you haven’t already read it, the following, interpreting writing artifacts including reusable wax tablets, may be of interest: Taco T. Terpstra, “The Materiality of Writing in Karanis: Excavating Everyday Writing in a Town in Roman Egypt,” Aegyptus 94 (2014) 89-119.

  6. Duncan permalink

    In the UK we now have evidence from http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk that wooden splits were commonly used. Also https://www.newscientist.com/article/2091213-britains-oldest-writing-found-buried-near-london-tube-station/
    From the first century CE. I wonder about the viability of wax tablets in the mediterranean summer heat?

  7. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Michael Licona’s Book, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography” is helpful regarding ancient compositional practices and the Gospels.

  8. Dewayne Dulaney permalink

    Great post, Larry! I’ve wondered from time to time about this very topic. Are the journal articles you cited available online (for free download, hopefully)? I can read the French with no problem, and can work (more or less) with the Italian due to its similarity to Spanish.

    • The journal articles will likely require access to/through a library that subscribes to them.

  9. Ron Minton permalink

    Just two questions – at least related to this interesting post.
    1. Can we assume Luke 1:63 speaks of such a wax tablet?
    2. Can we assume all NT books were originally on scrolls?

    • The term “pinakidion” in Luke 1:63 refers to a small writing tablet, quite possibly a wax tablet.
      We assume that the NT authors followed standard practice in writing on scrolls. The codex preference likely developed very early, however.

  10. Thanks! If I’m not wrong, Birger Gerhardsson in his Memory and Manuscript writes about the use of wax tablets for remembering eg the words of a Rabbi like Jesus.

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