Exploring Early Jewish Greek Literary Practices


Robert A Kraft (Pennsylvania)


[AIBI-6 (2002) 673-676]


Various claims and theories have been produced in attempts to explain and/or understand certain unusual aspects of early Christian literature such as the popularity of the codex format, the use of contractions and abbreviations ("nomina sacra" and the like), and the development of devices to indicate textual divisions (spacing, marginal markings, punctuation). Usually the points of comparison and contrast have focussed on "pagan" materials and practices. We now have available for close examination more than a dozen fragmentary manuscripts of Jewish scriptures and related materials in Greek dated paleographically to pre-Christian times, and a number of other possibly Jewish exempla from the early Christian period. This evidence strongly suggests that Christian scribes may have owed a greater debt to developed Jewish practices than has previously been recognized.

Much of the relevant evidence has been summarized and catalogued by Emanuel Tov in his "Scribal Features of Early Witnesses of Greek Scripture," pp.125-148 of The Old Greek Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma edited by RJV Hiebert, C Cox and PJ Gentry (JSOT Supplement Series, Sheffield Academic Press 2001). My own efforts have tended to focus more on paleographical matters (styles of writing, use of ornamentation, etc.) and on collecting good images of the fragments for easy access and comparison through the internet. This is an ongoing project (for both of us), and interested parties are encouraged to view the current state of my research through the following webpage:  http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rs/rak/jewishpap.html -- note especially the composite images dealing with Jewish scribal styles and with treatment of the tetragrammaton.

Obtaining good color images (the electronic equivalent of photos) of the materials is not always a simple task. Sometimes it is quite uncomplicated, as with the recent volumes of the Oxyrhynchos series, where the project itself has put the images on the web for anyone to view and use (see, e.g. the images of POxy 3522, a 1st ce papyrus roll fragment of Job 42, with paleo-Hebrew tetragrammaton, POxy 4443, a 1st/2nd ce papyrus roll of Esther, and POxy 4442, a 3rd ce papyrus codex of Exodus). At other times, it is a matter of going through the normal procedures for ordering, and obtaining delivery via the internet, as with PRyl 458 (a 2nd bce papyrus roll of Deuteronomy). If the supplier of such images has not yet developed a policy for dealing with "electro nic publication," a publication fee may be charged as well. Owners of large collections, such as at the British Library (formerly at the British Museum), may not be willing or able to deliver electronic images, but can provide color slides or prints from which electronic scans can be made by the recipient (see, e.g. POxy 1007, a 3rd ce parchment codex with an unusual tetragrammaton representation, POxy 1166, a 3rd ce papyrus roll of Genesis, or PlitLondon 211, a 4th ce parchment roll of the Theodotionic t ext of Daniel). Again, the question of a publication fee may be involved.

Why color images? Since the tradition for more than a century now has been "conservative," continuing the practice that at first was a technological necessity of producing black and white reproductions, the request for color reproductions may be considered unusual, and may be even be rejected out of hand ("our photographic department is not set up to do that"). But while excellent black and white images are usually available, the color image can be much more valuable for electronic imaging and, as needed,  manipulation. It is much easier to tell a shadow from a blotch, to distinguish different colors or intensities of ink, to view the patterns on the writing surfaces (e.g. papyrus strands, folds, etc.), and to modify electronically the varying color layers to facilitate more accurate description and decipherment. In some instances, I have been able to juxtapose the older black and white photo with the new color image, thus exhibiting the value of each; see, for example, POxy 1075 (3rd ce papyrus roll of the end of Exodus) -- on the black and white the letters stand out more clearly, but it is also more difficult to distinguish ink from shadows.

At the level of electronic presentation, it is relatively easy to attach headings and annotations to the images, to provide "thumb-nail" previews of the available larger images, and to create new configurations of visual information to help illustrate the evidence. I have found this last application to be most useful and promising. For example, it was a relatively simple matter to select examples from each of the highly ornamented early Jewish hands and to display them together on the same  screen (with ap propriate identifications and annotations). This goes far beyond the technical verbal comments (e.g. "upright round bilinear with frequent serifs on the feet and tops of most vertical strokes") in making the point about similarities and/or dissimilarities. Similarly with the representations of the tetragrammaton, the ability to display on the same screen the different examples, including quite different forms of "paleo-Hebrew," is strikingly effective. Of course, the same sorts of things can be done in tr aditional printed form with photographic excerpts, but not anywhere near as easily and without the ability to make desired adjustments.

Indeed, the ability to adjust the presentation is to me probably the most valuable aspect of such "electronic publication," if also one of the most difficult to control for the user. As I obtain new images, I can add them to the presentation, and can excerpt them for the composite screens. But I need to remember to include an "update" indication and date, to alert older users to the presence of some new information. As long as the study is active, its presentation is always in process. The results are, as is always true but not always so obvious with such studies, tentative.

Readers' comments, new bibliography, new insights, all can also be

accommodated to improve the work. Hopefully this will result in more substantial and more effective progress in the effort to collect and interpret this sort of basic data.

At the level of collection and analysis, a great deal remains to be done. In addition to the obvious task of gathering more and better images and examples, certain basic issues need further exploration. The use of spacing for sense and even word division is not unique in the pre-Christian world to Jewish texts (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), but occurs as well in some documentary (non-literary) materials, while rudimentary "punctuation" is found in some inscriptions as well. To what extent, if any, are these phenomena related? The sophisticated ornamental scripts of early Jewish and non Jewish literature seem to all but disappear by the mid 2nd century ce; is there a common explanation for this situation? Is it at all related to the growth in popularity of the codex format, especially in (Jewish and?) Christian circles, from that period onward?

Similarly, various sorts of "abbreviation" have long been known and used in the ancient Greco-Roman world (e.g. in various documents and inscriptions and coins) but have left little trace in "pagan" (Greek) literature, in contrast to Jewish and Christian. Why? Is the situation different in other ancient linguistic contexts (e.g. Semitic, Egyptian, Latin)?

While characteristically Jewish Greek ornamental style does not seem to have left any major impact on early Christian materials, some of these other aspects of Jewish Greek scribal practice are either documentable (especially the uses of spacing for text divisions) or suggestive (e.g. treatment of "nomina sacra" and perhaps even use of the codex). Hopefully future research will pay more attention to these possibilities and to the overall Greco-Roman context as more evidence becomes available and closer examination of the existing data is facilitated by the new technologies.