Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Quintilian on The Critical Skills Grammarians Teach (ca. 95 CE)

While reading through Eric W. Scherbenske's "Canonizing Paul: Ancient Editorial Practice and the Corpus Paulinum," I came across a reference from Quintilian. He was sketching the critical skills taught as part of the standard literary education given by the Greek and Latin Grammarians (teachers); 
"As soon as the boy has learned to read and write without difficulty, it is the turn for the teacher of literature (grammatici). My words apply equally to Greek and Latin masters, though I prefer that a start should be made with a Greek: in either case the method is the same. This profession may be most briefly considered under two heads, the art of speaking correctly and the interpretation of poets; but there is more beneath the surface than meets the eye. For the art of writing is combined with that of speaking, and correct reading precedes interpretation, while in each of these criticism has work to perform. The old school of teachers (veteras grammatici) carried their criticism so far that they were not content with obelizing lines [marking for deletion] or rejecting books whose titles they regarded as spurious, as though they were expelling a supposititious child from the family circle, but also drew up a canon of authors, from which some were omitted altogether." (Inst. or. 1.4.1-3)
Quintilian notes here that it was customary for Grammarians to teach the art of analyzing a piece of literature for a correct textual reading as well as determining its authenticity in relation to an author's other writings. Of course, Quintilian is describing the ideal Greco-Roman education. It may have been uncommon for literates (of lesser or greater ability) to acquire this level of analytical skill. Nevertheless, the teaching of these critical skills appears to occur early in a child's literary education (soon after acquiring an adequate level of reading and writing ability). Thus, most literates may have had at least a rudimentary understanding of recognizing textual/transmission issues as well as the problems associated with authorship.  

Apostles, disciples, and other early Christian leaders who were literate, may have had at least some ability in analyzing and evaluating a particular writing's textual character or authorship claims.  This can be seen in Peter's assessment of those who have miss-interpreted and possibly textually altered Paul's epistles in 2 Peter 3:16, and Luke's evaluation of previous Gospel writings in 1:1-4. Similar parallels could be made with regard to the collecting of Ignatius's letters in Poly. Phil. 13.1-2.

Mosaic of Plato's academy (Pompeii)
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria (trans. H. E. Butler; LCL; London: William Heinman, 1920), 61-63.

Scherbenske, Eric W. Canonizing Paul: Ancient Editorial Practice and the Corpus Paulinum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 16.


  1. Tim -

    For what it's worth, I just finished my PhD thesis on a similar topic related to ancient book culture and reading practices. I think you are dead right to suspect that "most literates may have had at least a rudimentary understanding of recognizing textual/transmission issues as well as the problems associated with authorship." In fact, I think you can even change your language from "may have had" to "would have had." :-)

    1. Thank you for your comments BJW, they are helpful in directing my own thoughts and conclusions on the subject of Christian literacy. Lately, I have been thinking along the lines of "Are there parallels between the wider Greco-Roman approach to literacy, composition, publication, and the authors of the New Testament writings?" In brief, I think that "yes" there are parallels (Quintilian's comments highlighting some of those parallels).
      I enjoyed reading your chapter in "Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament," a great book.

  2. Thanks! And again, I think you are on the right path. I argue for several parallels in my volume. If you are at the conferences in San Antonio next week, let me know. We can chat more.

    1. Thank you for offering to connect Brian, I would love to meet up. Unfortunately, I will not be making it out to any of this year's meetings. Hopefully we can connect some other time.
      Have you published your dissertation? It sounds right up my alley (I love Gamble's work "Books and Readers"). Thank you for reaching out and commenting on the post.

  3. Good work Tim!

    Schmid, U. “Conceptualizing ‘Scribal’ Performances: Reader’s Notes”, in Wachtel, K and Holmes, M. W. (eds), The Textual History of the Greek New Testament: Changing Views in Contemporary Research. Brill, 2012, 49-64

    Has some fascinating reflections (and bibliography) on this very issue.

    1. Thank you Peter. I have read his piece in that volume. it is excellent. Thanks for the reminder though, I need to pick it up again as it has been awhile since I have read it.