SBL 2008: Boston


Grossman/Haines-Eitzen Session (Monday, 24 Nov 2008, 1 pm)


Joint Session With: Qumran, Social History of Formative Christianity and Judaism
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Meeting Room 201 - CC

Theme: Material Witness: Ancient Manuscripts and the Evidence for Scribal Practice

Kim Haines-Eitzen, Cornell University, Presiding (5 min)
Emanuel Tov, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Consistency in the Activity of Scribes, Translators, and Revisers? (25 min)
Discussion (5 min)
Robert A. Kraft, University of Pennsylvania
Connecting the Dots: Early Jewish and Early Christian Greek Evidence in Context (25 min)
Discussion (5 min)
Florentino García Martínez, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Scribal Practices in the Aramaic Literary Texts from Qumran (25 min)
Discussion (5 min)
Roger Bagnall, New York University, Respondent (25 min)
Discussion (30 min)

Context: We are in the process of coordinating a session for the 2008 SBL on the social history of scribal practice, with a focus on Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose goals are both to highlight the manuscript evidence from Qumran, and also to contextualize that evidence in light of the larger body of evidence for Jewish, Christian, and other scribal practices in antiquity. The session is co-sponsored by the Qumran Section and the Social History of Formative Judaism and Christianity Section. We envision a program that will include a series of presentations and significant time for questions and discussion.

Please plan to speak for 25 minutes, so that we will have time for brief discussion, both between papers and at the end of the session

(Florentino Garcia-Martinez, Emanuel Tov, RAK; Roger Bagnall, responding)


"Connecting the Dots: Early Jewish and Early Christian Greek Evidence in Context

Abstract: We now have access to a number of pre-Christian or almost certainly non-Christian examples of Greek fragments of Jewish texts, mostly but not exclusively of works that came to be considered scriptural. It is possible to identify various scribal features in these texts, and to compare those features with the evidence from early Christian texts as well as texts that could be either Jewish or Christian in origin. Comparison with similar features in Greek documentary and "paraliterary" texts in general also sheds light on the possible scribal developments and relationships in that transitional period that saw the rise both of Christianity and of codex technology. It will be suggested that in "scribal practice" as in numerous other areas, early Christians seem to have been heavily indebted to their Greek Jewish predecessors, within the general context of Greco-Roman developments.

Orientation: For several years now, I've been trying to evaluate the old arguments that attempted to make socio-economic judgments based on the features and formats of early Christian written materials, and have at least convinced myself that what has usually been interpreted as Christian innovation reflecting relatively less professional cultural and educational status was, instead, largely in continuity with earlier Greek Jewish practices. While this changes the model in significant ways for the study of early Christianity, it leaves unaddressed the question of why Greek Jews developed and/or adopted such literary practices [see Peter Parsons' comments below]. Seeking for clues to that set of issues led me to search more carefully for analogous Greco-Roman practices, and indeed, to find significant parallels in some of the surviving "paraliterary" texts such as commentary, mythography, astrology, and law. 

Jewish Greek Fragments  With the Greek materials from Qumran and other "Dead Sea" sites, we are in a better position than ever before to explore various aspects of Greek Jewish scribal practices. The following examples of almost certainly "Jewish" Greek fragmentary scroll MSS, about half of which are from the Qumran caves 4 and 7,  and most of which are on leather, are examined in greater  detail on my website at (see especially the chronological listing -- all these examples are dated paleographically to between 2nd century bce and early 2nd century ce).

Some are merely isolated scraps containing a few letters [e.g.

others are more extensive single pieces preserving parts of a column or two [e.g.

while still others consist of multiple fragments from several columns [e.g.

It would be misleading to claim that all share a particular "style" of writing or had the same context of usage (public, commercial, private, etc.; note varying sizes, for example), but despite such variety, there are certain interesting features that appear, most notably careful letter formation, often with serifs, and the general use of spacing and marginal devices to separate sense (or possibly "breathing") units -- and in one instance (NahalHeverMPrsB [ornamented bilinear, 35 cm tall, 33 lines/col, ]), to separate the individual words.

Regarding "the character of the script," the late Colin H. Roberts commented on "the formal elegance of Jewish manuscripts" (Schweich Lectures of 1977, published in 1979 as Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt, 75 -- here he seems to be thinking mainly of the Rylands fragments and the Fouad 266 materials for the Jewish evidence) --  "there seems to have been a distinctive style of writing used for Jewish copies of the scriptures in Greek from the second century B.C. onwards and still used, with modifications of course, down to the third century A.D.; [footnote 4: "the style of these Jewish manuscripts needs closer examination and definition than they have as yet been given, especially in the use of serifs (for these see GMAW, p.25)"] .... But not all Greek manuscripts known to be Jewish are written in this style, witness the roll of the Minor Prophets ..., and parallels to it can be found among the secular literary papyri" (76). Peter Parsons adds, in his comparisons of the various Dead Sea Scroll Greek scripts (DJD 8 [1990] 23f.): "This makes it clear that serifed hands are common enough (but not universal) in Judaean material assignable to the period i B.C.-i A.D." (25).  Here are examples of both the more ornamental, and the less decorative styles, as well as some later, more simple formal hands.

Roberts payed less attention to the other scribal features such as the use of what have been termed "reading aids" such as paragraphing, spacing and even occasional punctuation, all of which appear in the Jewish Greek examples. Since these features are not characteristic of most other Greek literary remnants from this period, but do appear in many later Greek Christian manuscripts, it became standard to explain them in the Christian materials as evidence of a less literary training for the Christian copyists. Roberts himself shows awareness of the situation, although he does not attempt to address it directly -- "From this survey of the externals of our earliest Christian manuscripts we can conclude that their writing is based, with some changes and with a few exceptions, on the model of the documents, not on that of Greek classical manuscripts nor on that of the Greco-Jewish tradition" (Manuscript, Society and Belief 20). "But if the style is documentary in origin, it is documentary with a difference. Several of the early texts carry reading aids -- accents, breathings, punctuation, marks to indicate foreign words; ... All this is quite alien to the documents and not all that common in the literary papyri, not at least in the abundance in which they are found in some Christian texts" (21). But Roberts does not comment on the frequency with which these features are also found in what he admits to be "stylish" Jewish materials, some of which were not, of course, available to him in the 1970s. And it goes relatively unnoticed, perhaps because the material was less accessible thirty years ago, that other genres of Greek literature -- notably commentary and "mythography" -- exhibit similar features, as I noted in an earlier presentation.

What, then, is the current situation? Almost all of the Jewish Greek fragments make some use of spacing. Rochelle Altman explains this sort of feature as "breathing units" -- as much as can be spoken in one breath -- but surely more is involved in some of the texts. Tov has examined the relationship to liturgical units in the Jewish scriptural tradition, with significant, if not complete, success. Where left margins are preserved, evidence of some sort of paragraphing sometimes appears as in

Peter Parsons noted such features in the Minor Prophets materials, and commented at some length: "...the use of enlarged initials at line-beginning (hands A and B) and phrase-beginning (hand A) and (set out in the margin) to mark a new section (hand A) gives this manuscript a documentary look. ... The fact is itself remarkable. Early Christian books show the same characteristic; copies of the Greek classics do not. It has therefore been tempting to argue that the texts of the Early Church stood closer to the world of business than to that of literature, and to draw conclusions about the social milieu in which the texts circulated or the esteem in which they were held. Now we see the same thing in a Jewish manuscript of pre-Christian date. This may suggest that the Christians inherited the practice, rather than inventing it; the problem remains, why Greek-speaking Jews should have adopted it in the first place" (23f).

To what extent does size matter?  In a spate of recent publications, and coming from the entirely different angle of the history of the relation between writing formats (especilly size of columns, styles of writing) and intended functions (authoritative texts for copying, booksellers copies, private copies, etc.), Rochelle Altman suggests that the Rylands Deuteronomy scroll "was an official text of the Jewish population of Alexandria" -- "the serifs of this font design follow the Aramaic practice of heavy serifs as opposed to the thin serifs used by Rome." She goes on to make the problematic claim that "all of our early examples of Greek fonts with serifs are from Ptolemaic Egypt, not from Seleucid Syria or mainland Greece. Official serifed Greek scripts only begin to replace the Classical Greek sans-serif fonts following the Roman conquest of Egypt." If that claim proved accurate, the serifed fonts of the Qumran caves 4 and 7 Greek could suggest strong Egyptian connections for that material, at least. Otherwise, the criteria for making the sorts of distinctions on which Altman insists with reference to sizes and styles are extremely difficult to assess in these very fragmented materials, although that does not mean that the task is not worth attempting. But not in any detail today.

Here are the pieces that align most closely with her judgments about top level (authoritative in some sense) texts:


As for "accents, breathings, punctuation, marks to indicate foreign words," as mentioned by Roberts, there is little evidence of such in these Jewish fragments [[dieresis in Job and Esther, midpoint in Fouad-b]], nor is there evidence of overlined abbreviations ("nomina sacra" and numbers), another feature that became frequent in Christian materials. On the other hand, the special divine name (tetragrammaton) appears in several forms -- archaic Hebrew, square Hebrew, Greek abbreviated transliteration (IAW), and probably also in Greek translation (KURIOS). What the relationship may have been between the Jewish treatments of the tetragrammaton and the practice of abbreviation in the Christian materials is unclear, although I suspect they can hardly be unrelated.

Another aspect of this larger problem of formats and presentational devices is the role of the codex in Jewish and Christian circles. There is probable evidence for Jewish Greek use of the codex from around the turn of the second/third century in  POxy656 of Gen 14-27. Even Roberts, who for a time resisted such a conclusion, reconsidered in view of the challenges raised by Kurt Treu and decided that POxy 656 was indeed from a Jewish "papyrus codex of Genesis assigned to the second century" (Manuscript, Society and Belief 76). He also considers "most puzzling" the ambiguous fragment  POxy1007, "part of a leaf of a parchment codex of Genesis dated to the third century" in which the tetragrammaton is abbreviated in paleo-Hebrew, followed by an abbreviated overlined form of QEOS. He suggests that "either we have an instance of a Jewish scribe being influenced by Christian practice or we must assume that a Christian in copying a Jewish manuscript preserved the Hebrew form of the Name, as a few later manuscripts, e.g. the Marchalianus [MS "Q" of the Prophets, 6th c], do" (77). He never seems to consider that perhaps we have a Jewish scribe for whom the use of such contractions was part of an ongoing scribal tradition, and perhaps also the use of the codex (about which Roberts does not comment in this connection).

In short, with reference to many of these formatting and presentational features, it makes more sense to imagine continuity from Greek Judaism to Greek Christianity than to pursue conjectures about why Christian scribes and copyists invented or developed different practices of their own. It also makes sense to explore similarities and differences in various types of Greek literature from the same period to determine the extent to which such practices in the Jewish and Christian materials in question should be viewed as unusual, not simply in relationship to manuscripts of Homer, Thucydides, and the like ("high literature"), but in the context of what is being called "paraliterary" types of writing such as commentaries, "mythographic" narratives, memoirs, astrological texts, and even legal treatises. Indeed, it is also among such genres that the codex format first appears with significant strength in the development of non Christian Greek texts. This is reasonable since the notebook codex would most likely have been the initial recipient for such types of material in that educational and literary culture.

As Roberts was well aware, there were many different kinds of "documentary" hands and formats, so lumping them together somehow in general statements is of little help. At one point Roberts is more precise, at least with reference to the use of ekthesis -- "in secular literary texts [ekthesis] ... is confined in the Roman period to commentaries and lists" (18). "Secular literary texts" such as "commentaries and lists"? These are not the "calligraphic" texts to which Roberts normally refers when speaking of the "literature" of the period. Yet his comment is on target. Most of the "unusual" or even "documentary" scribal practices that we have been discussing are well attested in those texts that have sometimse been dubbed "semi-literary" or even "sub-literary," now termed "paraliterary." Early calligraphic serifed style aside, most of the early Jewish texts and many of the early Christian ones exhibit "paraliterary" features ("lectional signs") such as appear in commentarial  and similarly less "classic" literature of the same period.

Time does not permit here any wide ranging survey of these materials, which are increasingly available with detailed descriptions on the Leuven "Catalogue of Paraliterary Papyri" supplemented by the "Lists and Catalogues in Greek Paraliterary Papyri" from the same site. But since the interest of this section is "social history" of such scribal phenomena, perhaps some general observations are in order. The older generalization from which Christian social history was created out of supposed "documentary" and otherwise "non  literary" features (Christian copyists were viewed as less trained in things "literary," more in touch with commercial contexts) requires significant reevaluation. The social and educational and economic situations of the persons who were responsible for producing the relevant "paraliterary" texts need to be explored and viewed in relation to the producers of the Jewish and Christian texts in question. Recent attention to "school texts and practices" in the Greco-Roman worlds may prove helpful.

But in general, this is not easy territory, especially in the context of DSS studies. Some features of the Greek DSS texts could be explained as imitation of semitic practices (as Roberts already suspected) -- e.g. sectioning by use of spacing, word division, variety in presentation of divine names (especially, but not only, the tetragrammaton), marginal markings. On the other hand, most of the same features are present in the non-DSS Greek Jewish fragments, which complicates things accordingly.  And, of course, the relationship of the people who wrote the DSS Greek materials to either the semitic DSS scribes or the non DSS Greek Jewish producers is a major unknown.  Even the relationship of the cave 4 Greek producers to the exclusively Greek cave 7 scribes is unclear. Are the Greek Jewish materials sufficiently homogeneous to suggest a common educational background and/or training? Of course, other features of the manuscripts also need to be taken into consideration, such as the relationship between size/style and probable function, as Rochelle Altman argues. Note, for example, her judgment that some of the DSS materials are products of the book selling trade -- "because we also find products of bookshops among the Greco-Roman papyri and the DSS, we can state with a high degree of probabilty, that bookshops existed in Judea and Greco-Roman Egypt.".

With regard to Christian scribal practices, while there are developments beyond what the Greek Jewish materials demonstrate (e.g. elaboration of punctuation schemes, expansion of nomina sacra uses, widescale adoption of the codex), it seems no longer possible to speak simply of Christian innovation in scribal practices, or to create specifically Christian "social history" from the observed phenomena. Continuities from Jewish practices to Christian are what we should expect, in light of early Christian history in general.  So, as Peter Parsons observed, regarding ekthesis and enlarged letters to mark sections,  "the problem remains, why Greek-speaking Jews should have adopted" such practices "in the first place" (24). Given the calligraphic care exhibited by many of the same Jewish MSS, the old explanation (with regard to Christians) of social and educational "inferiority" seems unsatisfactory.

As Emanuel Tov has detailed, many of the semitic Qumran materials show more or less consistent scribal practices, presumably learned and passed along in some sort of educational or professional continuity. Here the comparanda are more scarce and more chronologically constrained than with the Greek materials, although if on other grounds one accepts the view that such semitic materials at Qumran emanated from an Essene or similarly cohesive Jewish group, perhaps an aspect of "social history" can be postulated. And if the Greek Qumran materials come from the same Jewish milieu, a bilingual aspect can be added. But such a conclusion would be highly conjectural, and difficult to support on the basis of the existing evidence. On the other hand, the hypothesis that there was significant continuity in scribal practices between the Jewish worlds and early Christianity seems to me at least more productive than earlier theories of discontinuity and/or competition in such matters.

Finally, questions need to be explored as to the "social history" of the relevant paraliterary materials in the Greco-Roman scribal world at large. To what extent can the producers and users of these materials be identified, and what can that tell us about the adoption of similar practices by Greek Jews and Christians? At present I have no convincing, or even highly suggestive answers, but at least the playing field seems more level now, and the materials available for comparison more plentiful and accessible, than has been the situation in the past.