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. 


  1. Tim,
    I find the almost ‘sacred’ view given to Nongbri’s writing to be absurd. Certainly, he makes some valid observations, but he is only one palaeographer and not even a time tested one. What criteria would allow for hundreds of years of palaeographial dating to be randomly discarded?

    1. Thanks for commenting Tim. I am not discarding anything really. I merely turning the argument back in on itself. Nongbri's observation on the weaknesses of assigning dates to codices by conparison to rolls also rests on the dates of codices assigned by comparison to rolls.
      If his observations prove correct, it would indeed call into question the validity of comparing codices to rolls.
      I apologize if I come across as treating Nongbri as "sacred." I just want to critically engage with his article with the respect ge deserves.

    2. Timothy Joseph,
      Brent is not the only person to have pointed out the problems with relying on so few securely-dated manuscripts to reconstruct a chronology, even if he has done more to popularize the idea. Eric Turner and Peter Parsons were expressing their own misgivings with some aspects of palaeographic dating decades ago.

  2. Hi Timothy (or I guess I should address this to Timothies),
    Thanks, Timothy M., for taking the time to read and respond to the article. To Timothy J., I would say that I hope nobody is treating my writings as "sacred." One of the things I'm attempting to push back against is the tendency in palaeographic discussions to simply accept arguments from authority. I'm trying to refocus the discussion on actual evidence and its analysis. Timothy M., I definitely agree with the point about the drawbacks of using the LDAB as an indicator of the shift from roll to codex. I think there are some ways around this, and if I have some time in the coming days, I'll post on that in more detail. With regard to the use of codices in the first century: Yes, we do have these literary references (Am I right in thinking these all refer to parchment codices?), so I think it's pretty clear that the format was in use already by the end of the first century. I think the open questions are: How widespread was the use of codices in the second century? How much were they being used for literature? How quickly did the codex overtake the roll? Do you know Sarah Blake's article on Martial? What do you make of it?

    1. Brent,
      Thanks for the clarification. I am an avid reader of your blog and articles. While I may not always agree with your take, I certainly was not meaning to impugn you or your methods. It was really a comment on the same thing you are arguing against. I agree that the evidence is what matters and am open to being convinced that the evidence is more sparse and more ambiguous than treated in the past.


    2. Brent,

      Thank you for your comments here. I look forward to reading your possible solution to the problem with using LDAB.
      As far as Sarah Blake's article goes, I think that she could be on to something with Martial simply manufacturing the idea of the codex containing high literature as a device used in epigram poetry, it's a very intriguing suggestion. It would still not negate the existence of the parchment or papyrus codex (obviously) or Martial's illustration would be meaningless (there are also other references such as Quintilian and 2 Tim). The question really is (as you note) 'when did the codex become the vehicle for high literature such as Homer or Virgil?' This question assumes, however, that New Testament writings were considered high literature. I think Matthew Larsen is on to something in his book "Gospels Before the Book" that Mark (and likely the other Gospels as Justin indicates) where considered more like notes. Also, the various letters of Paul, though they are composed more like treatises, they are letters after all and would not necessarily have been treated like Homer or Virgil. Thus, a codex would not be an unusual vehicle for the types of writings found in the New Testament. We do see evidence for notes in notebook codices and tablets (which are in the same category as a codex) in Pliny the Elder and Younger. Also, the comments of Galen "On the Avoidance of Grief" 31-33 hints again that the codex was used for low literature and utilitarian or 'scientific' texts. If Loveday Alexander is correct about the preface to Luke, then again, the codex is a likely vehicle for Gospels and letter collections.
      This comment is getting long, but I also suspect that membrana may be a reference to the codex form and not only to the material (that membrana could include papyrus too) but that is just my hunch at the momment.
      All of this is to say that it may be irrelevant to Christian codices as to when the roll was supplanted by the codex for liturature.
      Anyway, thanks again for the article, it has certainly got me thinking, and thank you for commenting here on the blog.

    3. Thanks for your thoughts Timothy Joseph. I appreciate you readership and your insightful engagement with my posts over the years.

  3. Galen used the codex specifically for discontinuous writing: it was the most useful format for a reference book, such as that of pharmacological recipies he mentioned losing in a fire. Naturally, Christians found it useful for using the Scriptures as most people do, to look up a specific reference or passage rather than reading cover-to-cover.

  4. I have a general question on method. It seems to me that there are very few people on this planet who have the years of experience and judgement necessary to be able to qualify as "experts" in greek paleography dating. Am I right? In general, who are these experts? I have in mind just a very few scholars. Wondering if you could comment on your thoughts?

    1. I am certain that I do not know all the Greek palaeographers in active scholarship today.