Saturday, January 30, 2016

Greek Palaeography: Writing Between the Lines

Scribes of the Greco-Roman period often used a very specific style of writing known commonly as the "book-hand" which is characterized by its "bilinearity." These are imaginary lines above and below that govern the height and shape of the letters. There are many examples of finely crafted bookrolls that exhibit these well formed slowly written letters. Students worked hard at developing this writing style as can be seen in a second century wax tablet example (see below, MS. 34186). This wax tablet has the teacher's steady handed example written between two lines, and the student's less fine copy written below. Notice how each letter is bound by the upper and lower lines. The only letter that extends past these lines are the single vertical strokes of the Φ (phi). The student is less successful at keeping the letters between the lines.
Training students to write in this fashion was common enough in antiquity that Plato (5th cen. BCE) could use this as an analogy of the function of laws within a society;
Their sons begin school at the earliest age, and are freed from it at the latest. And when they are released from their schooling the city next compels them to learn the laws and to live according to them as after a pattern, that their conduct may not be swayed by their own light fancies, but just as writing-masters first draw letters in faint outline with the pen for their less advanced pupils, and then give them the copy-book and make them write according to the guidance of their lines, so the city sketches out for them the laws devised by good lawgivers of yore, and constrains them to govern and be governed according to these (Protag.326c-d)
Another common feature of ancient books was that words and sentences were often written out syllable-by-syllable. Bookrolls were written in columns of continuous writing, scriptio continua (see previous post). In prose texts, the scribe would often break and divide a word at the end of a line only at the syllable level (see Tuner, GMAW2, p. 17). Teachers instructed their students to write and copy-out texts syllable-by-syllable. An example of this can be seen in a wooden tablet from late antiquity (see below, P.Duk.inv. 232). Lined columns contain the student's repeated writing of various syllables. Quintilian (ca. 95 CE) stressed the importance of student's learning these syllables;
As regards syllables, no short cut is possible: they must all be learnt, and there is no good in putting off learning the most difficult; this is the general practice, but the sole result is bad spelling. Further we must beware of placing a blind confidence in a child's memory. It is better to repeat syllables and impress them on the memory and, when he is reading, not to press him to read continuously or with greater speed, unless indeed the clear and obvious sequence of letters can suggest itself without its being necessary for the child to stop to think. (Inst. 1.1.30).
These two common traits of Greek writing are evident in most of the New Testament manuscripts. One example is P. Bodmer XIV-XV (P75), an early third century codex of Luke and John (see below). The scribe who copied this manuscript used a form of the "bilinear" script or "book-hand" as discussed above. Another feature of this New Testament manuscript is that the scribe copied syllable-by-syllable. E. C. Colwell and James Royse noticed this in the type of errors the scribe produced while copying out the text (Colwell, Scribal Habits, p. 116; Royse, Scribal Habits, p. 653, 672).

Colwell, E. C. “Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45 P66 P75,” in Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament (NTTS 9; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969)

Royse, James Ronald. Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (NTTSD 36. Leiden: Brill, 2008).

Turner, E. G. Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (2nd edition, ed. P. J. Parsons. London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1987)

Teacher's Example Above, Student's Writing Below. Wax Tablet, II CE. (British Museum MS. 34186)
School Writing Exercise, Syllable Combinations, 30 BCE- 640 CE (P.Duk.inv. 232)
P. Bodmer XIV-XV (P75) Showing the end of G.Luke and the Beginning of G.John


  1. Again, good observations and illustrations.

  2. Thank you for these helpful posts. I am recommending Textual Mechanic to my students.

    1. Thank you James. I hope that these modest articles spark an interest in Christianity's rich book history!