Monday, August 24, 2015

Irenaeus on Hyperbaton: Public Reading as a Source for Textual Variation

A previous post discussed the importance of reading out a text in the proper manner in elite literate circles of Greco-Roman society. It was crucial for the reader to pay close attention to breathing, inflection, and reading performance so as to properly bring out the meaning of the text for the listeners.
Irenaeus also emphasized the importance of properly reading-out the text of scripture during the Christian worship gathering. Irenaeus wrote:
"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. (ANF 1:42-421, Haer. 3.7.2, emphasis mine)"
It was Irenaeus's mention of the proper "breathing" that originally brought my attention to this passage but a commenter pointed out the curious mention of "hyperbaton" by Irenaeus. So what did Irenaues mean by hyperbaton?
Herbert Weir Smyth in A Greek Grammar for Colleges, defined hyperbaton as,
"Hyperbaton (ὑπέρβατον transposition) is the separation of words naturally belonging together. Such displacement usually gives prominence to the first of two words thus separated, but sometimes to the second also. In prose hyperbaton is less common than in poetry, but even in prose it is frequent, especially when it secures emphasis on an important idea by placing it at the beginning or end of a sentence. At times hyperbaton may mark passionate excitement. Sometimes it was adopted to gain rhythmical effect. Thus: “Such resting found the sole of unblest feet”: Milton."
In the immediate context of the passage in "Against Heresies" Irenaeus was defending Paul's alleged placement of words which were not in their proper grammatical sequence. In other words, Irenaeus believed Paul used hyperbaton in his style of writing. Earlier in the same passage as quoted above, Irenaeus highlighted a passage in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that apparently was being used by some Gnostics as a "proof-text" for their belief in a lower "God of this world" and a higher "God who is beyond all principality (Haer. 3.7.1). 2 Corinthians 4:4 reads;
"In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (ESV)"
In order to combat this interpretation Irenaeus argued that Paul used the "transposition of words" in this verse and that one should actually read "'in whom God,' then pointing it off, and making a slight interval, and at the same time read also the rest [of the sentence] in one [clause], 'hath blinded the minds of them of this world that believe not'" (Haer. 3.7.1). Irenaeus believed that the phrase "of this world" was actually referring to those who "believed not" and that the lector should read the phrase as, "God hath blinded the minds of the unbelievers of this world" (Haer. 3.7.1).
Irenaeus continued with an example from Galatians in 3.7.2 and then moved on to an example from 2 Thessalonians 2:8. Here too Paul is allegedly using hyperbaton and it is the job of the lector to properly read out the text with its intended meaning for the audience. 
"And again, in the Second to the Thessalonians, speaking of Antichrist, he says, “And then shall that wicked be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus Christ shall slay with the Spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy him with the presence of his coming; [even him] whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders.”Now 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.” For he does not mean that the coming of the Lord is after the working of Satan; but the coming of the wicked one, whom we also call Antichrist. (ANF 1:42-421, Haer. 3.7.2)"
In order to better explain this passage Irenaeus instructed the reader to take a portion from verse 9, "whose coming is after the working of Satan" and place it along side of verse 8 in order to better explain to the listeners that it is the "lawless one" who is after the working of Satan and not the "Lord Jesus Christ." These examples Irenaeus used to illustrate the importance of properly reading-out a text.

Public Reading as a Source for Textual Variation

Now one must consider if this practice of altering the positions of phrases, words, and even whole sentences was a wide-spread, or common practice in the early Church. If it was, then this might be the source of some of the variations that we see in the textual tradition. I will use only one example from Romans 8:1.
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (ESV)."
The text in the earliest Greek manuscripts stand as it reads in the ESV. But there are two readings that appear to have been added in stages. An early group of Greek manuscripts added "who do not walk according to the flesh" and even later group of Greek manuscripts added the phrase "but according to the spirit." Romans 8:1 in the KJV reads,
"There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."
 It is apparent that some scribes felt that Romans 8:1 gave too much liberty to the sinning Christian, that there IS condemnation for those who DO walk "after the flesh." It looks like this phrase was taken from Romans 8:4 in various stages. But is it possible that scribes were merely copying down what was being read during worship gatherings? Of course, this example is not hyperbaton in the sense that Irenaeus understood it. However, it is possible that the reader took interpretive liberties with the text at Romans 8:1 and simply "added" these words from verse 4 because that was the "sense" of the text as it was understood.
Is it possible that some textual readings ended up in later manuscript copies only because they were being read during worship gatherings in that way?



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. I don't think Romans 8:1 is a valid example, but there are other passages where this mechanism could account for variants, especially transpositions, especially in f13.

  2. Thank you James. I think that you are right. The example of Romans 8:1 is not an instance of hyperbaton. But I thought that Irenaeus's re-ordering of words would apply in instances of interpretation. I can just imagine a lector reading Romans 8:4 back into 8:1 in order to "explain" the meaning of the text.

  3. Perhaps a better example would be the Byzantine reading in Philemon v. 12.