Saturday, December 30, 2017

Ancient Marginal Notes on Variant Readings

Map of Constantinople by Sebastian Munster (ca. 1550)
At the 2017 Evangelical Theological Society Meeting, an exciting series of lectures were given in the session entitled "Growing Up in the Ehrman Era: Retrospect and Prospect on Our Text-Critical Apologetic." I was unable to attend the meeting but fortunately was able to listen to the audio recordings of each presentation. The lecture by Greg Lanier, "Dating Myths: Why Later Manuscripts Can Be Better Manuscripts" was particularly good. In the midst of his excellent paper, one of the things that Lanier highlights is the manuscript GA 1582 studied in Amy Anderson's excellent work "The Textual Tradition of the Gospels: Family 1 in Matthew." 

GA 1582 is a Gospel codex that was carefully copied in 948 CE by the Constantinopolitan scribe Ephraim (Anderson, 6, 24). Ephraim produced several carefully copied manuscripts, one of which being Codex GA 1739, a collection of Acts and the epistles copied from a much older exemplar. One of the peculiar features of both of these manuscripts are a series of extensive marginal notations indicating textual problems. Anderson stated that "the text and marginalia of 1582 provide a record of early textual variation" (Anderson, 69). She also notes that
"it is unlikely that the marginalia are the result of Ephraim's own gathering of variants. Rather, Ephraim has preserved marginalia compiled by a much earlier scholar" (Anderson, 69).
One of the clues that points to a late 5th century compilation for the marginalia in 1582 is that Cyril of Alexandria is the latest father cited who died in the 440s CE (Anderson, 70).

Three interesting marginal notes are found at the end of the Gospel of Mark and at the end of John introducing the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery.
Instead of the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery being found at John 7:53-8:11 like most medieval Greek manuscripts, it is placed at the end of John with a long marginal note stating,

“in most copies it is not found. And not from the comments of the holy fathers; John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodore of Mopseustia...”

1582 at the end of John showing textual note before the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery.
Another series of marginal notes are found at the end of the Gospel of Mark. At the end of Mark 16:8 there is a note before the longer ending of Mark. This note reads in part,

"In some of the copies up to this point the gospel ends also up to to which Eusebius Pamphilus made his cannons. But in many also these [verses] are also found."

1582 Marginal at the end of Mark 16:8 and before the longer ending.

Another note is found in the long ending of Mark in the margin at 16:19. This marginal note reads,

"Irenaeus, who was near to the apostles, in the third book ‘Against Heresies’ quotes this saying as found in Mark.”

1582 marginal note at Mark 16:19

The compiler's knowledge of the church fathers is revealed in this note for Irenaeus does indeed quote from Mark 16:19 in his "Against Heresies" 3.10.5 reads, "Also towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says, “So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven , and sitteth on the right hand of God” (ANF 1:426).

These series of marginal notes reveals a knowledge and concern for textual variation in the manuscript tradition. Even in 10th century Constantinople, when many of the Greek New Testament manuscripts produced contained the longer ending of Mark and the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery, scribes such as Ephraim were copying older texts and marginalia that discussed these textual problems.


Amy S. Anderson, "The Textual Tradition of the Gospels: Family 1 in Matthew." (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of; "A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament" by Philip Wesley Comfort

A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament. By Philip Wesley Comfort. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015, 416 pp., $29.99.

 This book review had originally been written nearly two years previously and was submitted to a journal for publication. After languishing in their ‘accepted’ folder for months, it was subsequently withdrawn from submission and, instead, published on ‘The Textual Mechanic’ blog and on
As the methods of New Testament textual criticism develop and as more manuscripts are discovered, handbooks and textual commentaries of the New Testament require updating and revision. Philip Comfort’s A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament endeavors to provide such an updated resource. This work is a concise handbook on the manuscripts of the New Testament, a brief introduction to the theory and practice of textual criticism, a commentary on textual variations within the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, and an introduction to the curious scribal features known as nomina sacra.
Philip Comfort is senior editor of Bible reference at Tyndale House publishers and has taught at Trinity Episcopal Seminary, Wheaton College, Columbia International University, and Coastal Carolina University. He is well known for the Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (2001), edited together with David P. Barrett, and for his New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (2008).
In the introduction of A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament Comfort set out the goal for the work when he wrote, “[i]n this commentary readers will be reading commentary on actual manuscripts. . . No other Bible commentary does this” (p. 7). Besides providing annotation on textual variation, every instance where a nomina sacra appears within the text of these manuscripts is noted throughout the commentary.
Between the brief introduction and chapter one is placed a segment entitled simply as “Early Manuscripts” (p. 11-14). In this section, the earliest manuscript evidence is presented by chapter for each New Testament book. Though some may dispute the earlier dates given for some of the papyri (see discussion below), the list accurately reflects the manuscript data (regardless of dates) extant for each New Testament book.
Chapter one, “Introducing the Manuscripts, Text, and Nomina Sacra,” briefly presents the New Testament papyri (p. 20-22) and “Significant Uncial Manuscripts” (p. 22-23). Next, under the heading “Assessing the Manuscripts to Establish the Text of the New Testament,” Comfort orients the reader to the methods used to weigh manuscripts according to their textual “accuracy” (p. 23-29). Under this heading, the textual relationship between P66, P75, and B is surveyed (p. 24-26), and the Alands’ classification of manuscripts into the “strict,” “normal,” “at least normal,” and “free” categories is evaluated (p. 27-28). Comfort then provides some “corrective” to several of the Alands’ classifications and then proposes his own set of terminology in categorizing these papyri (p. 28-29). Following this, under the heading “The Canons of Textual Criticism,” he surveys the internal criteria used by critics to evaluate which reading gave rise to all the others in each variant unit (p. 29-31). The chapter closes by briefly introducing the nomina sacra, which are found within nearly all of the earliest New Testament manuscripts (p. 31-41).
Chapter two, “An Annotated List of the Manuscripts of the New Testament,” presents the 127 New Testament papyri with their editio principes and (for the more significant papyri) a brief analysis of their dates and textual character (p. 41-91). This segment closes with a section subtitled “Other Papyrus Manuscripts,” which discusses the Egerton Gospel, P. Antinoopolis 2.54, P.Oxy 655, and P.Oxy 5073 (p. 91-92). Under the heading “Significant Uncial Manuscripts,” the primary majuscule codices are listed with their editio principes, date, textual make-up, and characteristic features (p. 93-111). Next are listed the most important “Minuscules” with their dates, historical features, characteristics, and textual make-up (p. 11-113). Included under this heading are brief discussions of Family 1 (p. 111-112) and Family 13 (p. 112). Next, “Ancient Versions” are listed with a concise introduction, approximate date when the version first appeared, and, if applicable, the major manuscripts used in consulting the version (p. 115-123). The versions listed are, Syriac, Old Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Gothic, and the translation of the Diatessaron. Chapter two is completed by listing out, with no discussion, the “Church Fathers” consulted in this commentary along with their date (p. 123-124).
The Greek New Testament textual commentary begins in chapter three, which encompasses “The Synoptic Gospels” (p. 127-245). Chapter four deals solely with “The Gospel According to John” (p. 247-276). The “Acts of the Apostles” is discussed in chapter five (p. 277-298). Chapter six examines “The Epistles of Paul” (p. 299-369). Chapter seven is dedicated to the epistle of “Hebrews” (p. 371-382). In chapter eight “The General Epistles” are reviewed (p. 383-403). The textual commentary portion of the volume concludes with chapter nine, “The Revelation of John” (p. 405-413). Between the end of chapter nine and the appendix appears a brief “Select Bibliography” (p. 415-418).
The volume closes with an appendix entitled “The Significance of the Nomina Sacra (Sacred Names)” (p. 419-443). In this appendix, Comfort continues the brief introduction of the nomina sacra found in chapter one. The following nomina sacra abbreviations are discussed in full: “Lord” (p. 419-420), “Jesus” (p. 420-423), “Christ” (p. 423-424), “God” (p. 424-427), and “Spirit” (p. 427-433). The remainder of the appendix discusses other nomina sacra abbreviations found in the New Testament manuscripts under the heading “Other Prominent Divine Names: Father, Son, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David” (p. 433-441). In the appendix, Comfort argues that the “nomina sacra were intended to be understood only by initiates—i.e., those trained to read and decode the New Testament writings for their congregations” (p. 420). He also states that the “name ‘Jesus’ was treated as a nomen sacrum very early” and that it was likely the “second nomina sacra to be created—following right behind (if not concurrent with) ‘Lord’” (p. 420). Because the scribe of P46 inconsistently employed the nomen sacrum for “Spirit,” Comfort argues that this codex must be early, copied during the “transition” period in which this nomen sacrum was first being developed (p. 428-429).
Those who are familiar with Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (2008) may wish to learn of the similarities and differences between the two volumes. Due to space considerations, it is impossible to evaluate every point of commentary, therefore, this review will limit itself to two well-known variation units: the ending of Mark, and the Pericope de Adultera in John. At nine pages, the commentary on the endings of Mark is quite lengthy (p. 197-206). Comfort discusses the five variation units along with their manuscript, versional, and patristic attestation. The discussion appears to be taken nearly word-for-word from his Text and Translation Commentary. In contrast, though Comfort discusses the manuscript, versional, and patristic evidence, the commentary on the Pericope de Adultera, at two pages (p. 258-259), is highly abridged when compared to his Text and Translation Commentary. Therefore, it appears that some of the material is nearly identical and some an abridgment of the commentary already published in his previous Text and Translation Commentary. Only two features are absent in the current commentary, a list of English Bible translations that contain a particular reading, and the Greek text of the variation units. When variation units are listed, only English translations of the readings are provided.
There are some noteworthy shortcomings to A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament. Readers may be disappointed to learn that there is no discussion of the Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), which is now being used by the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) to produce the Editio Critica Maior (ECM). Along these same lines, Comfort seems to have completely disregarded the 34 changes in the Catholic (General) Epistles in the ECM that were incorporated into the main text of the NA28. Users who may have Comfort’s new commentary open alongside their NA28 edition of the Greek New Testament will be disappointed that there is absolutely no discussion of theses variations in light of the CBGM. Especially considering the conjectural emendation that has been incorporated into the main text of the NA28 at 2 Peter 3:10.
Significant criticism has already been directed towards Comfort’s other publications with regard to the palaeographic method employed to date some of the papyri earlier than the dates assigned in the NA28. Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse have critiqued Comfort’s tendency to date papyri by comparing single letters and words. Instead, they argue, Comfort should be dating papyri by placing the hand in question within the history of a graphic type (“Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” ETL 88.4 (2012), p. 450). Comfort has made no attempt to clarify or defend his dating method against these criticisms. Users of this commentary may come away with the (wrong) impression that some of Comfort’s assigned dates are more broadly accepted in the palaeographical community.
With that said, in most cases Comfort’s assigned dates for the papyri align with the standard dates given in the NA28. In some instances, his proposed dates fall on the lower end of the more broadly accepted ranges, or are twenty five to fifty years earlier (see for example P46, P52, P66, and P75). Most non-specialists would not see these differences as significant. At the very least, including the more broadly accepted dates alongside his own would have served better the purpose of a handbook on the manuscripts of the New Testament and would better represent the discipline of palaeography.
Most typographical mistakes are minor and forgivable, however, there is one major error in this commentary that might be distracting for users. It appears that at some point during the planning stages, what is now chapter one “Introducing the Manuscripts, Text, and Nomina Sacra,” was meant to be chapter two. Chapter two, “An Annotated List of the Manuscripts of the New Testament,” gives a detailed list and commentary on the manuscripts of the New Testament, was meant to be chapter one. During the course of the introduction in chapter one, when a particular manuscript is mentioned, the text reads “see discussion above,” presuming readers had already encountered the annotated list of manuscripts, but this annotated list occurs later, in chapter two. Even more confusing, in the appendix, “The Significance of the Nomina Sacra (Sacred Names),” the text reads, “[t]his appendix provides a continued discussion of the Nomina Sacra as presented in chapter two” (p. 419). However, the Nomina Sacra were discussed in chapter one, and readers who may pick up the commentary and turn immediately to the appendix may be confused as to where in the volume they may find the previous discussion of the nomina sacra.
One particularly disappointing error is found in the first paragraph of Chapter One, “Introducing the Manuscripts.” Here Comfort compares the “over 5,500 manuscript copies of the Greek New Testament, or portions thereof.” Boasting that “[n]o other work of Greek literature can boast of such numbers. Homer’s Iliad, the greatest of all Greek classical works, is extant in about 650 manuscripts; and Euripides’s tragedies exist in about 330 manuscripts” (p. 19). Of course, these numbers are woefully out of date. For example, a simple search on Leuven Database of Ancient Books ( reveals that there are well over 1500 copies of Homer’s Iliad extant. For a work that is purporting to be commentary on manuscripts, this is an unfortunate mistake and hopefully is not representative of other less obvious errors in the rest of the work.
Despite these drawbacks, Comfort’s A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament is a valuable handbook that can be used alongside Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed. 1994) and the NA28. Comfort’s commentary is bound in a similar hardback format with nearly identical dimensions as the NA28, and, along with a ribbon bookmark, makes for a nice companion volume that is easily portable.
The section entitled, “Early Manuscripts” is an excellent reference for quickly determining the earliest manuscript support by chapter for each New Testament book (p. 11-14). This will be particularly useful for pastors, preachers, and students of the New Testament text. It provides a strong visual representation of the manuscript attestation, which for some books, like Matthew and John, is remarkably extensive and early.
Chapter two, “An Annotated List of the Manuscripts of the New Testament,” is nearly worth the price of the volume. It provides a handy reference, especially for non-specialists, who may be working through a particular passage in the New Testament and come across an unfamiliar manuscript or versional sigla in the apparatus. The list of editio principes, date, textual make-up, and characteristic features provide a quick reference for those who wish to examine a specific manuscript in greater detail.
Finally, the most useful feature of this commentary is that it offers a wealth of information on the location of nomina sacra within the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. As far as this reviewer knows, there is no other resource which provides a textual commentary on the nomina sacra in this way. For each New Testament book, Comfort has annotated when a particular manuscript uses a nomina sacra within the text. This feature is a valuable resource for those engaging in a systematic study of the nomina sacra. Comfort highlights these curious scribal features in such a way that many who use this commentary will probably encounter them for the first time.
These features outweigh the shortcomings of the volume and the low price ensures its accessibility for a broader readership. Comfort’s A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament is a valuable handbook that will prove useful to pastors, preachers, students, and scholars of the New Testament manuscripts and text.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

New Testament Textual Transmission in the Catalina Foothills

On Sunday December 17th of 2017, I was invited by Dan Grossenbach to share some of my research for the "Reason Why?" Class at Catalina Foothills Church in Tucson, AZ
I primarily covered the material I presented at the 2017 Boston SBLAM. This concerns my research into Greco-Roman publication and how it intersects with the textual transimission of the New Testament. 
The class attendees were excellent, absorbing a lot of information and responding with great questions and feedback. They certainly kept me on my toes!
I wanted to extend a thank you to Dan Grossenbach and to those at Catalina Foothills Church for a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review of; "James: A Commentary on the Greek Text" by William Varner

James: A Commentary on the Greek Text. By William C. Varner. Fontes Press, 2017, 423 pp. ISBN: 1-948048-01-9, $19.95.

Dr. William C. Varner is Professor of Bible and Greek at “The Master’s College” and has published books, many academic journal articles, book chapters, and has written commentaries on the Greek text of the New Testament. His latest work is a new edition of his earlier commentary on the New Testament book of James. This new edition improves the previous edition which is no longer available in print (Forward, xv). Some of the improvements of this edition are his treatments of the new NA28 variant readings as well as references to the text of the Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament (SBLGNT), the Greek text of the NIV2011, and the new Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT). Varner also references the new “Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek” (GE), and, where relevant, the new Christian Standard Bible (CSB). For those who may own the earlier edition of his James commentary, these features, coupled with the affordable price, would alone justify purchasing this newly updated edition.

The main draw to this commentary is the originality of the work. Varner’s comments are focused and bolstered by a fresh examination of the Greek text in a top-down combination of the discourse level and sentence, phrase, and word syntax. Unlike some commentaries on the market, Varner’s work does not get bogged down in re-quoting, and re-treading the ground of previous commentaries (however useful this may be). The discussion revolves around the outline of James, which was determined by noting each place where a “cohesive device” was used. Varner wrote that James
“uses a cohesive device that cements his hortatory written discourse together much like a good preacher organizes and presents his material in a progressive manner by a coherent outline, sometimes with a repetitive device like alliteration. That cohesive device is his use of the direct address word “brothers” accompanied by either an imperative command or by a rhetorical question.” (pg. 38)
Each point on the outline is dealt with in the following manner. First the Greek text is quoted from the NA27 (cf. pg. 2). Then, if there are any textual issues these are discussed under the paragraph heading “Textual Notes.” Following this is a segment entitled “Sentence Flow and Translation” where a flowing translation is given and the text is indented to show sentence structure. Varner next gives any relevant historical background under the “Context” section. And finally, the bulk of the commentary is found under the heading of “Exegetical Comments,” where Varner brings a detailed discussion of each phrase and key word in the Greek. Throughout these subheadings Varner brings insight from the Old-Testament, Apostolic fathers, papyri, and other extra-biblical literature.

The only minor criticism that I have with the commentary has to do with some of the terminology used. Throughout the commentary Varner refers to “text-types,” such as “Alexandrian, Western, and ‘Majority,’ textual traditions” (pg. 3). The theory of text-types has largely been abandoned by most textual scholars, especially those at the INTF who produce the NA28 (see the relevant essays in the 2nd edition of “The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis”). However, this terminology is not prohibitive and may still be useful in referring to groups of similar manuscripts and does not detract from the excellent coverage of textual issues and transmission history of James.

Varner’s new commentary is an excellent resource for any scholar, pastor, student, or any others who may be working through the Greek text of James. And the cost of such a high quality work at only $19.95 means that “James: A Commentary on the Greek Text” is accessible to nearly everyone desiring a deeper understanding of James.

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.