Sunday, June 12, 2016

Moral Maxims, Education, and Codex Sinaiticus

Recently, I have been reading through Raffaella Cribiore's "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt," who examines in detail the physical remains of Greek writing instruction on ostraca, papyrus, wooden and wax tablets, and codices. Many of these writing samples and exercises consist of "maxims and sayings of famous men" (pg. 46). These remains reflect the attitudes expressed by the famous rhetorician Quintilian (ca. 95 CE) who wrote,
"It will be found worth while, when the boy begins to write out words in accordance with usual practice, to see that he does not waste his labor in writing out common words of everyday occurrence. . . . I would urge that the lines, which he is set to copy, should not express thoughts of no significance, but convey some sound moral lesson. He will remember such aphorisms even when he is an old man, and the impression made upon his informed mind will contribute to the formation of his character." (Inst. Or. 1.1.34-36)
Quintilian is hardly innovative in urging young students to learn useful maxims and sayings from the greats of Greek and Roman literature, though, he may be one of the few who urge students to incorporate these in writing exercises. The fourth century BCE Greek statesman Aeschines, while quoting from Hesiod, mentioned in passing that "for this is the reason, I think, that in our childhood we commit to memory the sentiments of the poets, that when we are men we may make use of them" (Ctesiph. 135). This practice continued for some time for in the third century CE, Diogenes Laertius, while writing about the fourth century BCE philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, wrote,
"The boys used to get by heart many passages from poets, historians, and the writings of Diogenes himself; and he would practice them in every short cut to a good memory" (VI 31).
This practice of memorizing moral maxims and sayings continued for many centuries and students would learned them through copying them out in school exercises and singing them in songs and chants. Augustine of Hippo mentioned that he used to "commit to memory the wanderings of I know not what Aneas while I forgot my own: and to bewail dead Dido because she killed herself ," and he complained that "one and one makes two, and two and two makes four, was a harsh song to me" (Confess. 1.13).

It is possible that this ancient practice of incorporating moral maxims and sayings into songs and chants was continued in Christian education as well. In a paper published in 2014, I argued that certain scribal features, the use of "lists" in Codex Sinaiticus, preserve an ancient practice of Christian instruction.
"Codex Sinaiticus as a Window into Early Christian Worship." Eleutheria 3:1 Fall (2014): 2-19.
Codex Sinaiticus was copied in the standard scriptio continua with some reading aids such as ekthesis integrated into the layout of the columns. Yet, at select locations in the text, the scribes interrupted the steady stream of letters and placed on a line "only one key word or phrase" which left "a noticeable empty space on the right hand side of the column" ("Codex Sinaiticus," pg. 4). One interesting place where these lists were employed was at "two-ways" or "virtue and vice lists" in the New Testament and in the Epistle of Barnabas. The use of "virtue and vice lists" and "two ways" was a common method in giving moral instruction in both Jewish and Christian literature ("Codex Sinaiticus," pg. 9).
Codex Sinaiticus at Mark 7:21 (

It is likely that these paragraph lists were read differently than the surrounding text, either chanted or sung. Perhaps, following in the Graeco-Roman tradition, these areas in the text were formatted in a way that facilitated learning of these moral maxims. It is well known that the "colophons at the end of 2 Esdras and Esther indicate a possible connection with Pamphilus’ famous library at Caesarea in Palestine. Origen was head of a school for catechumens during his days in Alexandria in Egypt and later began a similar school in Caesarea. Pamphilus was Origen’s star pupil and later directed his school in Caesarea. These colophons may connect Sinaiticus with an ancient tradition of early Christian worship and instruction of new converts" (quoted from the article abstract).


Adams, Charles Darwin, trans. The Speeches of Aeschines. LCL. Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann. 1919.

Butler, H. E., trans. The Institutio Oratio of Quintilian. Vol. 1. LCL. Harvard University Press; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920.

Cribiore, Raffaella. Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt. American Studies in Papyrology 36. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996.

Hicks, R. D., trans. Diogenes Laertius: The Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Vol. 2. LCL. Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925.

Watts, William, trans. St. Augustine's Confessions. Vol. 1. LCL. Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1912.

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