Thursday, November 16, 2017

SBL Annual Meeting Boston 2017

It is that time of year again, the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, this time, in Boston. For those who may be interested, I will be presenting a paper ("Exposing Textual Corruption") in the late afternoon session on Sunday, S19-308 SBL Book History and Biblical Literatures Section. I hope to see you there!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Monks of Codex Sinaiticus

The grand Biblical manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus had an extremely long useful life (see previous post). It was manufactured around the middle of the 4th century and continued to be valued up to its modern "re-discovery" by Constantine von Tischendorf. Signs of its long useful life can be found in the margins of its parchment leaves. Several marginal notes scattered throughout the manuscript were written by readers and scribes of the codex.

The first group of notes were written sometime in the 12th century by a monk named Dionysius.

Bottom margin of Q39-f3r (
On the bottom left margin of Q39-f3r, under 1 Maccabees 1:9, reads a note (see image above). The following Greek transcription is taken from
"μνησθητι κε την ψυχην του αμαρτωλου
διονυσιου μοναχου οταν ελθησ εν τη βασιλεια σου"
"Remember Lord the soul of the sinner Dionysius the monk when you come in your kingdom." (Parker, 117)

Bottom margin of Q66-f6r (
On the bottom margin of Q66-f6r, under Song of Songs 3:5 reads another note that is simply Dionysius' name "διονυσιο(σ) (μον)αχ(οσ)" (Greek transcription is taken from

Bottom left margin of Q66-f7r (

The final note left by Dionysius is found on the bottom margin of Q66-f7r, under Song of Songs 6:3 reads in Greek (transcription taken from
"Remember Lord the monk Dionysius the sinner." (Parker, 117)
Another lengthy marginal note dating from around 1200 CE identifies a monk or scribe named Theophylact.

Bottom right margin of Q68-f1v (
Bottom left margin of Q68-f2r (
The marginal notes as they are viewed when the pages are open
On the bottom right hand margin on Q68-f1v and extending over into the bottom left hand margin of  Q68-f2r reads a note in Greek (transcription taken from;
"Ο πας(ης) σοφι(ας) χορηγ(ος) υ(ιο)σ θυ̅ και
λογ(ος) η ενυποστατ(ος) σοφια του π̅ρ̅ς̅
η διδασκουσα α̅ν̅ο̅ν̅ γνως(ιν) σοφισον
αμαρτωλ(ον) θεοφυλα(κτον) προς δοξαν" (Q68-f1v)
"του ονοματος σ(ου) ει το ποιης(αι) το θελημα σ(ου)" (Q68-f2r)
"The bestower of all wisdom, Son of God and Word, the incarnate Wisdom of the Father who teaches knowledge to man, instruct the sinner Theophylact to the glory of your name that he may do your will." (Parker, 118)

Though these marginal notes give sparse information about the scribes who wrote these entreaties to God, they reveal that the codex was still in use 850 years after its production.

Parker,, D. C. "Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World's Oldest Bible." London: Hendrickson, 2010

Friday, November 3, 2017

Celsus on the Corruption of Scripture

Celsus was a pagan philosopher who flourished in the last half of the second century. He was a brilliant opponent of Christianity who had intimate knowledge of the Christian scriptures. Sometime around 180 CE he penned a refutation of the Christian religion, "On The True Doctrine." No known copies of this work survive in any manuscript, however, Origen (184-254 CE) preserves most of the work in his treatise against Celsus. “On The True Doctrine” is valuable as a window into the 2nd century Roman perspective of Christians.

Near the beginning of the work Celsus accused Christians of altering their scriptures in order to remove contradictions and difficult passages.

"It is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie, and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have even heard that some of your interpreters, as if they had just come out of a tavern, are onto the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the original writings three, four, and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.” (On the True Doctrine, 3; Hoffmann, pg. 64) 
It is difficult to determine exactly what circumstance Celsus is referring to, and he may be making an unfounded accusation in order to discredit their use of the scriptures. However, it may be that Celsus is making reference to Marcion and his alteration of the Pauline epistles and Luke.
At a couple of places in his treatise Celsus makes reference to the many differences and disputations between the various Christian communities. In the midst of a discussion about differing teachings about Jesus, he wrote that “some among the Christians—Marcion and his disciple Apelles for example — think that the creator is an inferior god,” and a little later, while talking about the many different sects in Christianity mentioned that some “call themselves Marcionites after their leader, Marcion” (On the True Doctrine, 6; Hoffmann, pg. 90-91).
For being an outsider, Celsus had incredible insight into the internecine conflict between the various groups within Christianity. It may be that Celsus was drawing a connection between a difference in doctrine and a deliberate alteration of Christian scriptural books. It is striking that Tertullian noted that;
"Corruption of the Scriptures and of their interpretation is to be expected wherever difference in doctrine is discovered. . . . Marcion openly and nakedly used the knife, not the pen, massacring Scripture to suit his own material.” (Prescript. 38)
It may be that Celsus, in accusing some Christians of altering their own scriptures, was referring to the widely known accusations against Marcion.

Saint Mark the Evangelist - Gabriel Mälesskircher, Museo Thyssen

R. Joseph Hoffmann, tans. Celsus, On the true doctrine: a discourse against the Christians. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

S. L. Greenslade, ed. Early Latin Theology: Selections from Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome. 1956. Reprint, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sillybos: Getting the Title Right

The primary format of books in the Roman imperial age was that of the bookroll (see previous post), or more popularly the scroll. The text was laid out in a series of columns with a continuously running script. The title of the work was often written at the end of the last column (subscriptiones) and at the top of the first column (inscriptiones). Sometimes, due to wear or damage, no title could be found in the roll at all. When the book was rolled up, neither the beginning or end titles were visible without considerable trouble of unrolling the book and looking inside.

P.Oxy 3.412 with subscription
ιουλιου αφρικανου

In order to provide a convenient means of identification, scribes would often attach a small piece of papyrus or parchment that would extend out the top end of a closed bookroll. This "sillybos" or title tag on which would be written the author and title would aid in quickly identifying the contents of a closed bookroll. There are several examples of these preserved from the first and second centuries.

P. Oxy 2.301(ca. 2nd CE)

P.Oxy 24.2396 (ca. 2nd CE)
του Αμμωνιο(υ)
περι διαλεκτου
Λακων ων
των ειc β̅

P.Oxy 25.2433 (ca. 2nd CE)
P.Oxy 47.3318 (ca. 1st-2nd CE)

There are a few wall paintings from the Roman city of Pompeii that depict bookrolls with the title tags extending out the end of the rolled book (note the image below).

Notice the "sillybos" extending from the roll
Within the literate communities of the high Roman empire there was frequent interchange of books and the copying of texts (see previous post). Because of this close community corruption of texts and plagiarizing was often exposed and thus could potentially be corrected (see post). This happened on occasion with regard to falsely titled books. Galen ca. 190s CE) shared an interesting account where this occurred.
"The validity of your advice regarding the cataloguing of my extant books, Bassus, has been proved by events. I was recently in the Sandalarium, the area of Rome with the largest concentration of booksellers, where I witnessed a dispute as to whether a certain book for sale was by me or someone else. The book bore the title Galen the doctor. Someone had bought the book under the impression that it was one of mine; someone else—a man of letters—struck by the odd form of the title, desired to know the books subject. On reading the first two lines he immediately tore up the inscription (εὐθέως ἀπέρριψε τὸ γρὰμμα), saying simply: “This is not Galen’s language—the title is false ('ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ λέξις αὕτη Γαληνοῦ και ψευδῶς ἐπιγέγραπται τουτὶ τὸ βιβλίον').” (De libr. propr. 19.8-9)
Though Galen does not identify this "man of letters" one thing is clear, he was able to detect that this work for sale was falsely attributed to Galen. This educated man responded by tearing away the inscription. This inscription (γρὰμμα) was the "sillybos," the title tag of the bookroll (Johnson, 85).


Johnson, William A. Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities. Edited by Joseph Farrell and Robin Osborne. Classic Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

White, Peter, “Book Shops in the Literary Culture of Rome,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (W. A. Johnson and H. N. Parker eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 268-287. see especially 283-284.

Turner, E. G. Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World. 2nd edition. Edited by P. J. Parsons. London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1987.