Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reading Aids in Early Christian Manuscripts

As already discussed in the previous post, the public reading of scripture was a needed, intricate part of early Christian worship. The evidence for this can be seen in the many references to public reading in the New Testament and early Christian apologists and theologians such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen, among many others. But there are also physical traces of this early reading practice that are left imprinted on the contemporary codexes and papyrus fragments from the early centuries of the Church. In our modern books, whether printed or digital, we have the benefit of punctuation, spaces between words, paragraphs and other visual cues that have become standard in our modern printed language. In antiquity, these markers were all but absent in many ancient literary book rolls or scrolls (Hurtado, 178). Christian manuscripts on the other hand show many signs of reading aids that would assist less than talented readers (which would be likely in early Christian circles) to publicly read Biblical texts.

A very old complete copy of the Greek New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, shows many signs of reader aids. One such feature is referred to as "ekthesis." A visual marker where the first sentence of a new paragraph or sense unit extends out into the left margin (Hurtado, 179). Codex Sinaiticus has many examples of this feature and in particular the story of Jesus' transfiguration in Mark 9 show extreme ekthesis (Head, 10). Here verses 9:4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 are each marked off with an extreme out-dented "ΚΑΙ" (Head, 10).

Here in the picture on the left can be seen the Greek "ΚΑΙ.......ΚΑΙ.......ΚΑΙ...etc" of each of these verses in the transfiguration out-dented. Perhaps this extreme "ekthesis" reveals how the early Christians viewed this part of the text? Peter Head noted that "this extreme paragraphing had an impact on the public reading of Mark using Sinaiticus, with much more regular and pronounced pauses and potentially the fragmentation of the connected narrative" (Head, 10). Though Dr. Head notes that we cannot know for sure why the scribe chose to use this unusually extreme paragraphing here, it does seem like it affected the way the early Christians would have read this text during gatherings!
Normal "Ekthesis"
Compare the extreme "ekthesis" at left with that more normal used at right. Note the "ΚΑΙ" and the "ΟΔΕ" four lines down, these only protrude into the left margin ever so slightly. Though they still signal the beginning of new paragraphs aiding the reader by giving a visual marker of a break in the flow of the story. Other, even older manuscripts of the New Testament show the use of "ekthesis." P75, a 2/3rd century papyrus codex of Luke and John also show the use of "ekthesis" marking paragraph units and changes in the narrative (Hurtado, 180).

A common feature in our modern printed and electronic text, spaces between words and sense units (sentences) were not so common in antiquity. Looking at the pictures above, one can see the use of spaces in marking the end of paragraphs just before the use of the "ekthesis." The use of spaces between words to mark punctuation can also be found in other manuscripts such as Codex W, a 4/5th century copy of the four gospels in Greek. Scholar Henry Sanders noticed the use of spaces to mark punctuation in Codex W and Codex Bezae, a 5th century copy of the New Testament in Greek (Hurtado, 180).

Many have taken to studying these traces of punctuation and paragraphing in these early manuscripts, to give our modern eyes a small picture into how these early Christians viewed, read and studied the New Testament in reading and worship.


Head, Peter. "The Gospel of Mark in Codex Sinaiticus: Textual and Reception-Historical Considerations." TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism. Vol. 13 (2008). http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/vol13/vol13.html

Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.