Sunday, January 8, 2017

Teaching Aids for Ancient Christian Readers

Some of the earliest copies of the New Testament writings were copied in such a way that they aided the reader in their task of deciphering the scriptio continua. Bookrolls from the Roman world (1st -3rd century CE) which contained works of literature had very little by way of assistance for the reader. Take for example P. Lond. Lit. 134 (ca. 200 CE), a copy of  Hyperides, In Philippidem. It has a steady stream of letters uninterrupted by spaces or any type of punctuation.
P. Lond. Lit. 134. (Johnson, "Bookrolls and Scribes," 400)

Those fortunate children in antiquity with access to an education had to be taught methods of deciphering this system of writing. Grammarians (ancient teachers) facilitated this instruction by creating models of ancient works such as Homer's Iliad that incorporated spaces between words and markings differentiating syllables and sense units. One example of a teacher's model is a wooden tablet from Roman Egypt that contains Homer's Iliad (3rd century). The wooden slate uses spaces between words and markings to assist beginning readers in comprehending the text.

AM 13839 (Cribiore, "Gymnastics of the Mind," 135)
Similar phenomena of reading aid can be detected in some early copies of New Testament writings. For example, spaces between words can clearly be seen throughout P46 (2nd/3rd century), a collection of Paul's epistles.

The beginning of Galatians in P46
Spaces and limited punctuation can be seen in P66 (2nd/3rd century), a copy of John's Gospel. 

The beginning of the Gospel of John in P66.

There are some interesting parallels between early New Testament manuscripts such as P46 and P66 and teachers models such as AM 13839. Both types of documents employ clear and legible scripts, give generous space between lines, and use spacing between words and sense units. These features have been highlighted elsewhere on this blog (here, and here). It has already been noted that reading aids seem to reveal that these Christian books were produced for less than capable readers.
Coupled with this, perhaps the presence of reader's aids in copies of New Testament manuscripts also reveal another parallel with teacher's models; that of instruction. Just like teacher's models were used almost exclusively in the context of learning, perhaps these Christian manuscripts were produced so that they could be used primarily within teaching contexts.

Cribiore, Raffaella. Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Johnson, William A., Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.


  1. Tim,
    These features, along with the Christian penchant for the written word, could also indicate an increased desire to teach and learn since these words were considered authoritative.


    1. Tim, I agree that the accumulative evidence, the use of the codex, reading aids, etc, indicates that the early Christians valued these writings as authoritative for faith and praxis. Thanks for your comments.

  2. The spaces in P46 are not reader's aids. They are reflective of pen-lifts. See Ebojo's article in BT and his dissertation for a further discussion of this.