Saturday, September 9, 2023

How Marginal Comments Can Corrupt a Text in Transmission

A leaf from P.Mich.inv. 6238 (P46) showing the
end of Romans and the beginning and title of Hebrews

A number of years ago Michael W. Holmes wrote a book chapter in which he argued that several variations in the text of Romans in P46 were evidence of marginal comments entering into the body of text. This occurred, Holmes argued, when a copyist confused a marginal comment for a correction to be entered into the body of text (Holmes pg. 202-205).
"What now appear only as variant readings in the text originally were, I suggest, comments in the margins about the text—the earliest “commentary” (in the sense of activity, rather than genre) on the text of Romans." (Holmes pg. 205)
Though Holmes gave no examples from antiquity, there are two instances in which an ancient author mentions this phenomenon occurring during the copying of a text. 

The second century physician Galen in his commentary on Hippocrates "Epidemics" gives two explanations for a corruption in the text of Hippocrates. The first explanation Galen gives is that Hippocrates gave a parenthetical statement in order to point out the difference between two types of patients currently being discussed in the work. Galen makes the following comment for the second.
“The other explanation is something you often observe in many books: we sometimes write two expressions for the same thing, putting it in two different ways, and place one of them in the text body and the other in the margin of the book so as to pick the better of the two at leisure when we want to edit the book. It seems that Hippocrates did the same in this place. The first editor of this book then copied both expressions together into the book’s text. We then did not look at and consider it again, pause and fix this error. Many people passed on the copy of the book, and it remained uncorrected.” (In Hipp. epid. comm. I, 1.36) (Vagelpohl pg. 167)
Here Galen describes a practice in which the author of a work gives an explanatory note in the margin of their "autograph." When the text is initially edited and copied, the scribe would think that the marginal note was meant to be entered into the text as a correction. The result is that the book was then widely copied and circulated with the error uncorrected.

Another instance of this phenomenon is mentioned by Jerome. In about 403 CE Jerome received a letter from two men asking for an explanation as to why there were so many differences between the Septuagint LXX these men were using, and the Latin Psalter Jerome had produced many years before in about 383 CE. Along with this letter, these men sent a long list of passages where there were differences in the text between the LXX and the Latin Psalter. For one of the variations in the text, Jerome gave the following explanation.
"I wonder why some rash fellow has thought that the note: “the correct form is not καταπαύσωμεν, as some think, but κατακαύσωμεν, that is, incendamus,” which was placed by me for the guidance of the reader into the margin, should be put into the body of the text." (Ep. 106.46)
Apparently, in the first edition of Jerome's Psalter he had placed an explanatory comment in the margin. A later copyist confused this entry as a correction to be entered into the body of text. Thus, all subsequent copies of his Psalter had this variation transmitted in the text.


Corpus Medicorum Graecorum 5.10.1. English translation taken from, Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics Book I: Parts I-III (Translated by Uwe Vagelpohl. Corpus Medicrum Graecorum Supplementum Orientale V1. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2014).

Holmes, Michael W. “The Text of P46: Evidence of the Earliest ‘Commentary’ on Romans?” In New Testament Manuscripts: Their Text and Their World (ed. by Tobias Nicklas; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 189-206.

Translation of Jerome's Epistle 106 by Michael Metlen, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1937), pp. 515-542.


  1. Thanks for this excellent post, Timothy. I hope you can publish these gems so that they become widely known. Someone should do a detailed study of the incorporation of marginal notes. It is relevant to Rom 16:23 and 1 Cor 14:34-35, among other things. I do not have access to Holmes's chapter, and the book is expensive. What verses in Romans does he discuss? In P46 does he think that this type of copyist error is found only (or mainly) in Romans?

    Are you familiar with James Royse's explanation for the text of Rom 16:15 in P46? He shows that someone had reversed the names Julia and Nereus, and that a copyist misunderstood the letters alpha and beta, that had been added to correct a manuscript to the original order. Would this belong to the same broad category of errors that Holmes identifies?

    1. Thanks for engaging. I am not sure about Royse's argument. The quotes mentioned in this post are very specific with regards to marginal comments being mistaken as marginal corrections to be entered into the body of text. If you want the readings Holmes mentioned in his chapter just contact me through the blog contact feature and I will email you back.

  2. Don't let your conjecture become intellectual dogma. One must ultimately inject a healthy dose of conjecture to uphold Galen's works as a reliable authority.