Saturday, October 15, 2016

Lucian on Christians and Their Books (165 CE)

Lucian (125-180 CE) was a Syrian satirist and author who wrote his works in Greek and was from the Roman city of Samosata on the banks of the Euphrates river. In one particular work, Lucian wrote about a Cynic philosopher named Peregrinus who had converted over to Christianity in his early years and was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his older years, Peregrinus converted back over to Cynicism and later cremated himself at the Olympic games in 165 CE. Lucian's work is of interest as it is one of the earliest references to Christians by a Roman author. One especially interesting and lengthy description reads;
"It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be ?—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. Then at length [Peregrinus] Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of. Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him. Then, as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way but with assiduity; and from the very break of day aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison, while their officials even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud, and excellent Peregrinus—for he still went by that name—was called by them 'the new Socrates.'" (Peregr. 11-12)
Of course, Lucian is most likely exaggerating or caricaturing some of the more prominent features of the Christian communities known to him. Even so, Lucian expects his readers to pick up on these salient aspects of Christians in order for the satirical humor to be effective. These features are;
  • The community leaders are the priests, scribes, prophets and interpreters of their sacred books.
  • Christians were meeting in a particular location; referenced as a "synagogue" by Lucian.
  • The centrality of the Christian's worship of the crucified Jesus.
  • The imprisonment and persecution of Christians for their beliefs.
  • Orphans and widows were a large component of the Christian community.
  • Christians visited prisoners and were doing all they could to help them.
One interesting feature of Lucian's description, however, is the prominence given to sacred writings and books. At one point Lucian draws attention to Peregrinus' facility in composing religious writings; no doubt a reference to the prolific output of Christian writings in the first and second centuries. Lucian also highlights the reading-out of sacred books in their community gatherings around Peregrinus while he was imprisoned. Overall, Christians of the second century were recognized by the importance they placed upon their sacred books; studying and interpreting them as well as publicly reading them in their worship gatherings.
Portrait of Lucian from an Early Translation of his Writings

Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus. A. M. Harmon (trans.). Vol. V. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Augustine On Learning Greek

In the midst of Augustine's "Confessions" (ca. 400 CE) he complains of the difficulty in learning Greek and wrestling with the language of Homer and other Greek classics.
"I sinned, then, when as a boy I preferred those empty to those more profitable studies, or rather loved the one and hated the other. "One and one, two"; "two and two, four"; this was to me a hateful singsong: "the wooden horse lined with armed men," and "the burning of Troy," and "Creusa's shade and sad similitude," were the choice spectacle of my vanity. Why then did I hate the Greek classics, which have the like tales? For Homer also curiously wove the like fictions, and is most sweetly vain, yet was he bitter to my boyish taste. And so I suppose would Virgil be to Grecian children, when forced to learn him as I was Homer. Difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of a foreign tongue, dashed, as it were, with gall all the sweetness of Grecian fable. For not one word of it did I understand, and to make me understand I was urged vehemently with cruel threats and punishments." (Confessions 1.13-14)
Though he apparently was forced to read Greek and difficult classical texts, he notes that "not one word of it did I understand." Even threats and punishments did not help him in navigating a foreign tongue. Nevertheless, looking back in the maturity of his adult years, he now regrets that he did not spend more time studying and learning Greek and reading the classics. 
Those of you who are either attempting to learn the elements of the Greek language, or (like myself) are doing their best to stay disciplined in reading the Greek New Testament every day and further advance their knowledge, take heart from Augustine, you will not regret studying Greek, but you may, later in your life, look back and regret that you had not stayed disciplined in your studies.

Translation taken from;

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Scripture For Sale in 4th Century North Africa

Hugh Houghton, in his monograph "Augustine's Text of John: Patristic Citations and Latin Gospel Manuscripts" (p. 23-24), brought attention to several quotations from the writings of Augustine that illustrate the sale of biblical manuscripts. (The following English translations are taken from Houghton's book)
"The Lord’s manuscripts are daily on sale, and readers read them; buy one for yourself and read it when you have time—in fact, make time for it: it is better to have time for this than for trifles." (Sermo 114B.15)
"Let someone complain, let him grumble, if this Scripture is not proclaimed and chanted throughout the world, if it should even stop being available to buy in public." (Enarratio in Psalmos 36.s1.2)
"Our writings reveal our religion to them, but we are not afraid. Our manuscripts are put on sale in public: the daylight does not blush for shame. Let them buy them, read them and believe them; or let them buy them, read them and laugh at them. Scripture knows how to call to account those who read and do not believe. A manuscript is carried around for sale, but the one whom its pages proclaim is not for sale...Buy a manuscript and read it: we are not ashamed." (Sermo 198.20)
These comments by Augustine are striking and indicate a flourishing time in North Africa when the scriptures were widely available and literacy was more wide spread than in previous centuries of the Roman imperial age.
For more fascinating insight into the production of books and manuscripts during this time, read Chapter 2 "The Use of the Bible and the Production of Books in the Time of Augustine" (p. 22-43) in Houghton's monograph. The chapter is filled with quotations from Augustine, Jerome and other contemporary figures that paint a picture of rich scholarship and free flow of ideas and books across the Mediterranean region during this time.

Houghton, Hugh. Augustine's Text of John: Patristic Citations and Latin Gospel Manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Bursting Church Libraries in Fourth Century North Africa

While reading through Hugh Houghton's new volume The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its History Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts (p.21), I came across an interesting quotation from Optatus of Milevis in North Africa (ca. mid 4th cen. CE);
“The libraries are filled with books. Nothing is wanting to the Church. In different places the divine praises are everywhere proclaimed. The mouths of the lectors keep not silence. The hands of all are full of volumes [of Scripture]. Nothing is lacking to the people who wish to be taught” (Contra Donat. 7.1)
It is fascinating to read Optatus' description of Church libraries in North Africa as "filled with books" and that the "hands of all are full of volumes." The abundant number of manuscripts available certainly speaks to the wealth of Christians in this area and the popularity of Christianity. There must have been a ready market for those who wished to study the scriptures for themselves. This comment also serves as a contrast to the generally low literacy rates in antiquity. Even though very few people could read, there were enough literates attending Churches that it warranted large collections of volumes.


Houghton, Hugh. The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its History Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Optatus of Milevis. Against the Donatists. O. R. Vassall-Phillips, trans. London: Longmans, Green, and CO, 1917.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cassiodorus on the Task of the Scribe

Cassiodorus (Gesta Theodorici: Leiden, University Library, Ms. vul. 46, fol. 2r)

Cassiodorus is famous for the foundation of his monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy and the copying of books and manuscripts. These activities, however, occurred later in his life. He spent a large part of his earlier career as a Roman statesman serving the administration of Theodoric the Great. Many of his letters are preserved from this time, and in Book 12, letter 21 we find him writing to a certain Deusdedit, a Scribe of Ravenna, about the duties of a scribe. In one place Cassiodorus declares that;
"Banish, therefore, all thoughts of venality from your mind. The worst moth that gets into papers and destroys them is the gold of the dishonest litigant, who bribes the Scribes to make away with evidence which he knows to be hostile. Thus, then, be ready always to produce to suitors genuine old documents; and, on the other hand, transcribe only, do not compose ancient proceedings. Let the copy correspond to the original as the wax to the signet-ring, that as the face is the index of the emotions so your handwriting may not err from the authentic original in anything." (Ep. 12.21)
The context appears to be that of a courtroom, where the scribe is admitting evidence of some kind (contracts, wills, deeds, and the like) and transcribing the minutes of the court proceedings. I find it particularly telling that Cassiodorus declares that the scribes task is to "transcribe only" and not to "compose." And in relation to the copying of texts, he states, "let the copy correspond to the original" and ensure that the "handwriting may not err from the authentic original in anything."
Though the topic of Cassiodorus's letter primarily concerns the scribes task in the courtroom (a primary task for an official city scribe), I cannot help but think that this gives a glimpse into his attitudes towards the copying of biblical texts later in his life.

Hodgkin, Thomas, trans. The Letters of Cassiodorus. London: Henry Frowde, 1886. (pg. 511-512)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Avoiding The Damaged Page: Imperfections Creating Errors in the Copying of a Text (?)

In 2015, Dr. Brice Jones published a fascinating piece on the scribal practice of avoiding imperfections in the writing material while copying out a text;
"Scribes Avoiding Imperfections in Their Writing Matierials" Archiv für Papyrusforschung 61.2 (2015): 371-383.
Dr. Jones discussed several phenomenon of imperfections that a scribe may encounter while performing their task; cracks, folds, tears, holes, separated or shrunken fibers, stains, and κολλήσεις (joint seams). The article is summarized nicely on his blog, here.
In short, if a scribe encountered a feature on the page they were inscribing, the copyist would more than likely have to pull the pen away from the page and then place it back in a (sometimes drastically) different location. For example, in the case of a hole, the scribe would have to alter the placement of the letters by writing around the defect in some way. Dr. Jones highlighted this phenomenon on pages 376-378. This occurred in the case of Codex Sinaiticus through-out the manuscript, in particular, on Q84-f.5.r, at the bottom of the first column.

A Scribe avoiding a hole in the parchment C. Sinaiticus (Q84-f.5.r)

Dr. Jones also highlights another similar case at Q18-f.6.r on page 377 of his article.
I find this fascinating, especially in its relation to the introduction of scribal errors in the copying of the text. In a particularly bad case in Codex Bezae that Jones highlights on page 377 of his article, the scribe had to avoid a large hole, writing the text around the imperfection.

A scribe avoiding a hole in C. Bezae (f. 205r)
This brought to mind another excellent article that drew attention to the scribal practice of re-inking the pen, which inadvertently led to the introduction of errors in the transcribing of the text.
Peter M. Head and Mike Warren, "Re-inking the Pen: Evidence from P. Oxy. 657 (P13) Concerning Unintentional Scribal Errors." New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 466-473.
In the article, Dr. Head and Dr. Warren contend that, 
"the constant necessity to re-ink one's pen provided the opportunity for scribal distraction at the level of eye, memory, judgement and pen, and would thus have been an occasion for the introduction of unintentional copying error." (pg. 466)
 This may (must) be true in the case of defects in the writing material. The lifting of the pen and the distraction of avoiding the imperfection may have led to the introduction of an error in the copying of the text.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Early Christian Scholarship

In about 403 CE three men, Getica, Sunnias and Fretela wrote to Jerome asking for an explanation as to why there were so many differences between the Septuagint LXX these men were using and the Latin Psalter Jerome had produced many years before in about 383 CE. Along with this letter, these men sent a long list of passages where there were differences in the text between the LXX and the Latin Psalter.

The Latin text of this Epistle 106 can be found in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum volume 55. This letter is interesting because this is an instance where Christian scholars in late antiquity that were studying scripture wrote to another scholar asking for explanation on various readings in their manuscripts. Of course, in this instance, the scholars had the privilege of writing to the translator himself. Perhaps, though, scholars in antiquity also wrote to other scholars asking for readings from manuscripts in their possession. For example (see previous post), Irenaeus (ca. 180 CE) discussed a variant reading found in some manuscripts of Revelation indicating that the number of the beast was 616 rather than 666 (Hear. 5.30.1). Irenaeus could have very easily written to any of his other Christian contacts throughout the Mediterranean (for example Polycarp), who possessed copies of Revelation, to check which readings their copies contained. Irenaeus mentions that the number 666 was "found in all the most approved and ancient copies" (Hear. 5.30.1). It is certainly possible.