Thursday, May 9, 2013

Irenaeus and Early Christian Reading

Proper pronunciation and inflection in reading ancient texts was very important for the listeners to understand the meaning. Lucian, a second century writer, criticized an "uneducated" Syrian who was attempting to pawn himself off as an elite intellectual but he did not “know how to read the texts so as to bring out their meaning” (Johnson, 276). The manner of reciting a text was a central part of sophisticated culture, as was “the ability to read performatively, with detailed, deep knowledge of the meaning, style, structure and conventions” (Johnson, 276).
Irenaeus of Lyons in the later part of the second century, made a similar statement when referring to how some confuse an ambiguous text in 2 Thessalonians 2:8;

If, then, one does not attend to the [proper] reading [of the passage], and if he does not exhibit the intervals of breathing as they occur, there shall be not only incongruities, but also, when reading, he will utter blasphemy, as if the advent of the Lord could take place according to the working of Satan. So therefore, in such passages, the hyperbaton must be exhibited by the reading, and the apostle’s meaning following on, preserved. (Haer. 3.7.2)

To help Christian readers not "utter blasphemy" by incorrectly reciting a text, many ancient manuscripts were equipped with marks of punctuation and spaces between words and sense units (Gamble, 229-230). One famous manuscript Codex Bezae is a fourth or fifth century codex of the gospels in Greek and Latin that has “each page written in thirty-three colometric lines” (Finegan, 40). Having the sense lines set out separately by spaces or into columns helps the reader sound out and properly parse the text for the audience.



Ante-Nicine Fathers vol. 1.

Finegan, Jack. Encountering New Testament Manuscripts: A Working Introduction to Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Gamble, Harry Y., Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Johnson, William A. “The Ancient Book.” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. ed. Roger S. Bagnall, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.


  1. It is a curious thing though as to what Irenaeus means by exhibiting the hyperbaton in the reading. Could he mean that the wording should be adjusted to fit the required sense? As he explains: "in these [sentences] the order of the words is this: “And then shall be revealed that wicked, whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the Spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the presence of His coming.” "

  2. Dr. Head,
    Very curious, thanks for pointing this out I was so focused on his comments on breathing and such that I did not realize what was going on here in the later part of the quote.
    Looks like he is taking a portion from v9 "whose coming is after the working of Satan" and placing it along side of v8 helping to explaining the "lawless one" as being after the working of Satan. So this indeed is is he implying that the practice in reading was for the reader to take dependent clauses such as this that are farther down the discourse and "read" them back with the clauses that they modify? I think this is what you were getting at above. If this is the case, then Gamble's comments on the reader taking up the role of interpretation come into sharper focus! "It was the task of the reader to discriminate between the syntactical and semantic units of the text and thus enable its structure and sense to be grasped by the hearer" (Gamble,"Books and Readers," 227). I wonder if there are any other examples from antiquity where a writer comments on the reader adjusting the word order while reading to make better sense of the text for the audience?
    Thank you for your insightful comments!