Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Revisiting the Shift from the Roll to the Codex Book Form

Recently, Brent Nongbri published an article in JSNT raising valid concerns with regard to using objectively dated rolls to assign dates to codices based on palaeography (see previous post). This JSNT article, and the subsequent interchange with Nongbri on the blog, got me thinking about the fantastic new resource put together by Grant Edwards.

"The Collaborative Database of Dateable Greek Bookhands"

The online database is very user friendly and it's sorting and filtering tools are quite intuitive. One drawback about using the data found in LDAB (which is a fantastic resource) is that many of the dates for the material referenced are not derived objectively.  Thus, any conclusions relying on the dates of the material obtained from LDAB (for example determining when the codex supplanted the roll) may not be as secure.

I thought that it might prove to be an interesting exercise to query the new "Collaborative Database of Dateable Greek Bookhands" for this information. Of course, objectively dated manuscripts are extremely rare and one should be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions from the information. 

All the same, using the "Filter" option to show only the format of "codex" gave only 32 results. The earliest codex being P.Bodmer 20 of the 4th century with some examples extending out to the 9th century (though with only one other 4th century example).

Using the "Filter" option again to show only the format of "roll" yielded 68 hits. Of  these, only 8 rolls were dated from the 3/4th century out to the 8th, with the bulk falling somwhere in the 1st-3rd century mark. 
I thought it intriguing that these more objectively dated results seem to support the well noted trend, that is, that the 4th century saw a shift in book formatting from the roll to the codex.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Limitations of Assigning Dates to Christian Codices

Published in a recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament is a new piece by Brent Nongbri.

Brent Nongbri, "Palaeographic Analysis of Codices from the Early Christian Period: A Point of Method," JSNT 42.1 (2019): 81-97.

It is a fleshed out discussion of the same topic that is found in chapter 2 of his recent book, "God's Library," (pg. 71-72). In this article Nongbri sets out a critique of the palaeographic practice of assigning dates to undated Christian codices by comparing their scripts with the scripts of securely dated rolls. The article takes issue with this method of dating Christian codices for the following reasons.

First, Nongbri rightly notes that writing styles could theoretically span generations as they were passed down and taught to student apprentices. Along with this are the examples of scribes having very long working lives of 20-30 years. In addition, there are extant writing excercises that reveal scribes practicing different scripts normally assigned to different temporal priods (Nongbri, pg 87, note 6). Therefore, drawing into question the bedrock of the paleographic method, that "graphic similarity generally equates to temporal similarity" (Nongbri, pg. 86).

Second, and more importanantly, according to the data located in the LDAB, the roll largely dropped out of use in the 4th century CE being supplanted by the codex. However, most of the securely dated samples used for comparative scripts in assigning dates to undated Christian codices are taken from rolls. Thus, Nongbri posits that this practice would artificially skew the assigned dates of these codices much earlier (Nongbri, pg. 92). Another issue is that the practice of reusing rolls to copy documents allegedly went out of vogue by the beginning of the 4th century (Nongbri, pg. 91). Therefore, it is surmised that employing re-used rolls as comparators of script style will skew the assigned dates of undated codices earlier (Nongbri, pg. 92).

I would like to make a few observations and engage with the article on a few points. As to the first critique, this is a thought provoking piece that raises some valid concerns with the method of assigning too tight of a temporal time span to styles of handwriting. It has certainly been observed that a student's hand can mimick that of their instructor (Rafaella Cribiore presents a few examples in her work). This would definitely allow for certain styles of handwriting to continue for generations. The only push back I want to offer against this notion is that this observation fails to take into consideration market and cultural demands on writing styles in vogue at the time books were copied. For example, (to use a crude modern example), many of us were taught cursive writing as children, but due to current styles in vogue and cultural conventions, few of us use cursive writing today. I think this mentality is evinced in the famous Price edict of Diocletian where the quality of a script was subject to the limits a patron was willing to pay for a book to be copied out. It would follow that, though a scribe may have been taught certain styles, books may not have been copied out in those styles because they had fallen out of vogue. Also, I would argue that the content of a book could, and did (in the case of documentary records for example) affect the type of script used. This would suggest to me that some writing styles could, theoretically have very short useful lives if the styles came and went out of style quickly. Of course, this is neither here nor there if modern palaeographers have few securely dated examples of these hands to use in reconstructing a chronology.

As to the second point, Nongbri makes a poignant and relevant critique against the dataset of securely dated writing samples used to reconstruct a chronology. If Nongbri's criticism holds, then potentially the house of cards may come tumbling down. He rightly notes at the end of the article that,
"these observations reinforce the conclusion that historial arguments should never depend too heavily upon the dates of manuscripts that have been assigned only by palaeography, especially when such arguments involve codices in the early Christian period" (Nongbri, pg. 94).
The problem here is that (as Nongbri is aware) the dates assigned to the manuscripts (codices included) in the LDAB are largely based on Palaeography. Thus, if we are to carry this criticism of palaeography to its logical conclusion, the precise era of transition from the roll to the codex is largely an open question. The chronology of when the codex supplanted the roll should take into consideration only securely dated samples along with other data as well. For example, the limited data scattered throughout the primary resources seem to indicate that it was quite normal to use a codex in writing and copying before the 4th century (Quintilian, Inst. Or 10.3.31; Martial, Epigr. 1.2; 2 Timothy 4:13, and Galen, "On the Avoidance of Grief," 31-33).  

Finally, now that Nongbri has primed the pump of doubt, so to speak, I have my own set of questions with regard to paleography. How did the social upheavals of the 4th century affect book production? Would the growing recognition of the sacredness of New Testament writings have an affect on the style of script used? How would economic factors affect the style of script used? For example, with regard to Diocletians Price edict, perhaps the well documented economic slump of the Empire in the 3rd century saw with it a decline in the use of certain types of more expensive ornate scripts. Many more things could be said. Alltogether a steller article that will likely motivate additional shifts in the discipline of Greek Palaeography.