In Search of Jewish Greek
Exposing the Obvious?
by Robert A. Kraft [31oc07 draft] [#01]
for Toronto conference on "Editorial Problems" (1-4 November 2007)
Jesus and his earliest followers apparently were Semitic speaking Jews
living in Roman Palestine, but their messages quickly spread into the
Greek speaking worlds in which Jews had been quite active for
centuries. The Greek sources left to us by the early Christian authors,
compilers, and copyists include Jewish writings and traditions of
various sorts, especially those that later became "canonized." Greek
speaking Jews tend to disappear from our preserved sources in the
second century CE, leaving the impression that the gradually dominating
Semitic Judaism of the Rabbis has displaced most other Jewish
representatives. This paper will challenge that simplistic assessment
by drawing together evidence from and about Jewish scriptures in Greek
throughout the Greco-Roman period.
The surviving examples [#02]
of Greco-Roman literature from the period that covers
Christian origins (i.e. through the 3nd century ce, for
present purposes) were predominantly written on scrolls (not codices)
in "continuous writing" (scripta continuo) without much indication of
sense units (paragraphs, phrases, punctuation) or inclusion of
pronunciation aids (rough breathings, disambiguation of consecutive
vowels) and without any significant use of
abbreviations, whether of names or of frequently used words or of
numbers. Thus past generations of scholars could claim that certain
characteristics of early Christian books pointed to Christian
innovation or at least to specifically Christian exploitation of
relatively new bookmaking practices. At the most obvious level, the
Christian use of the codex [#03]
rather than the scroll was heralded, and the
employment of special abbreviated forms of certain names and words
("nomina sacra") [#04].
Other less obvious editorial features also received
attention, such as page formatting with paragraphs and sense units
demarcated by various means [#05]
(paragraphoi, ekthesis, horizontal strokes,
spacing) and more detailed "inner text" reading aids such as
punctuation and diacritics (rough breathing markers, dieresis to
separate adjacent vowels, similar markings when certain consecutive
consonants occurred) [#06].
Various explanations were offered,
sometimes emphasizing Christian self-definition over against other
groups (especially Judaism), often pointing to similarities with
scribal practices more common in the worlds that produced "documents"
of various sorts (laws and edicts, contracts and deeds, petitions, tax
records, receipts) and ephemeral communications (personal notes,
invitations) or even memory aids (memos, school exercises) [#07]
in the world of "high literature" and its dissemenation -- thus
supporting ideas about the lower social status of early Christians and
There has been a spate of recent studies, both in hard copy and online [#08],
that provide new information relevant to this discussion of the
production of written materials in this early period. At the very
technical level, for example, Emanuel Tov has presented a detailed
analysis of scribal techniques evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls and
associated materials (2004) [#09].
In a survey aimed at a more general
audience, Larry Hurtado deals with most of the relevant evidence in his
recent book on The Earliest
Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (2006) [#10].
My own online investigations can be most easily accessed through an
index page [#11].
At the methodological level -- how do we know what
we claim to know and what have we assumed in order to draw our
conclusions? -- the door through which I want to take you was actually
opened by the late Kurt Treu, in his groundbreaking but often
overlooked essay [#12] on
the significance of Greek for the Jews in the Roman
My aim is to expose the debt that early Christian scribes owed to their
Jewish Greek predecessors [#13].
The main corpus of surviving evidence that
can be interrogated consists of fragments of works that came to be
considered "scriptural" within Jewish circles and subsequently by
Christians as well, and some closely associated materials. The corpus
continues to grow as new discoveries are made either in the field or in
the accumulated collections of papyri and related materials in our
museums and libraries or in private hands. The interpretations
and theories that I'm challenging were developed at a time when this
corpus was relatively small and when few certifiably pre-Christian
Jewish texts were available. [#14]
Now we have about 20 such items, plus some
30 more from the period before Christianity received official
recognition and protection under Constantine (early 4th century) [#15].
The easiest place to begin is with those little details that Hurtado
calls "readers' aids" -- the use of spacing within the text to mark out
sense units, marginal markings for similar purposes, punctuation, rough
breating marks, dieresis, and the like -- "scribal devices that reflect
a concern to guide and facilitate reading of the texts" (177) [#16].
Hurtado wants to argue, in accord with the rest of his book, that "in
their time the earliest Christian manuscripts represented the leading
edge of such developments in book practices" (179), the appearance of
Tov's close study of Jewish scribal practices forces Hurtado to concede
that "we can probably assume influence of some scribal features found
in Jewish biblical manuscripts upon early Christian copying practices
such as the practice of signaling at least major sense units of the
texts" (185) [#17].
the early Christians certainly obtained their
copies of Jewish scriptural books from Jewish sources, probably
directly, or at least indirectly through booksellers, it should
occasion no surprise that the Christian scribal practices reflect
continuity with Jewish practices. And the explanation that these
features "facilitate reading of the texts" works equally well for
synagogue oriented Judaism as for Christian liturgical contexts.
But having said that much, it is a short step to exploring Christian
uses of special abbreviations [#18].
The early Jewish texts clearly deal with
divine names, especially the tetragrammaton or "four lettered"
designation of deity, in special ways, including abbreviation, both in
the Semitic language materials from the Judean desert and in surviving
Greek fragments. This phenomenon is known to later Christian authors
who continue to have contact with Jewish manuscript sources, including
Origen and Jerome [#19].
We may titter a bit when we hear of the PIPI
manuscripts, where the square Hebrew representation of the
tetragrammaton is rendered as exactly as Greek orthography allows into
the similar looking sequence PIPI. But strictly speaking, that is not
abbreviation. The Greek IAW, known not only from a Greek Judean Desert
manuscript but from onomastic lists (on the meanings of Hebrew terms)
world of gems and amulets [#20],
is such an abbreviation. And the frequent
double or triple archaic Hebrew yod, with a line through or over it, is
also such. The failure of our sources thus far to preserve an
unambiguously Jewish example of an abbreviation of the Greek term
usually used to represent the tetragrammaton, KURIOS ("LORD"), is
evidence for arguing that this is a Christian development. All
indications suggest that it makes more sense as another carryover from
Greek Jewish scribal practice [#21].
The abbreviation of names and common words [#22],
normally by "suspension"
(omitting the final letters) rather than by "contraction" (omitting
letters between the beginning and ending) is widely used in the
surviving "documentary" texts from the Greco-Roman world. Early
Christian abbreviation techniques vary, but there are interesting
examples of both procedures, although contraction tends to predominate
as time goes on. While I would expect to find similar practices in
early Jewish Greek texts, I can offer no hard evidence, although why it
should be considered a Christian innovation baffles me.
Which brings us to the larger format question, on the Christian use of
the codex. Christians certainly did not invent the codex as a vehicle
for their literature, and Christians continued to use scrolls as well [#23].
Our earliest evidence for codex technology used for literature in public
distribution comes from the Latin poet Martial in the city of Rome
around the year 80 ce (and pertains to Latin
Our earliest preserved
piece of a codex containing specifically Christian material is the
Rylands fragment of the John 18 material, usually dated no later than
the mid 2nd century [#25].
The earliest Jewish and Christian sources do not discuss
or even mention any of the aforementioned developments. Jews do not
accuse Christians of introducing new
scribal features or formats and Christians do not mention these sorts
of things in relation to Judaism. Probably this is largely due to
the paucity of surviving
sources, especially for Greek speaking Judaism, and the nature of those
sources that have survived. Still, there are a few passages [#26]
do dispute textual and translational differences that had developed
(e.g. in Justin and Irenaeus), and
we find no hint in those passages that Jewish and Christian copyists
these transcriptional and format details differently. Book terminology
consistent, with βίβλος and βιβλίον
applied to Jewish scriptural works as well as to other writings (e.g.
Irenaeus refers frequently to his own "books" as he writes them [#27],
presumably scroll by scroll) and surprisingly only occasionally to what
became Christian scriptural writings. Justin does introduce a
different designation for the writings attributed to Peter and the
-- apomnhmoneumataἀπομνημονεύματα) or
"memoirs" -- but that
is a title already used centuries earlier by Xenophon ("Memorabilia")
and by and of other
authors, especially for "historical" types of texts [#29].
It would be quite
a stretch to think that Justin uses it to indicate a different format
such as the codex (perhaps building on the practice of using
small wax on wood notebooks [ὑπομνημονεύματα] or the like).
The earliest passage of which I am aware that might shed some light on
the subject comes from around the end of the first century and is
itself fraught with editorial problems at both the
textual and the interpretational levels [#30].
In Luke 4.17 (but not in
parallel passages in Mark and Matthew), Jesus is
described as accessing a passage in the book (βιβλίον) of Isaiah to
read from it
in a synagogue in Nazareth, after which he "closes" the book
(literally, "folds" it up -- πτύξας, Latin vg plicuisset). Modern
of the Greek text are not in agreement as to which verb for opening the
book is the preferred reading -- anoigein
(so Aland's Synopsis) or anaptussein
(Huck-Lietzmann, UBS\4 category "B" = "the text is almost
Roger Bagnall has argued, neither of these
has the primary meaning of "unroll" as we might expect in this context
-- and as the old Latin, Jerome, and many modern translators render it
-- but the latter usually means "to unfold" (as a letter) while the
former is simply "to open" (as a codex notebook) [#32].
To later readers, the
and/or early copyists convey the image of opening a codex rather than
unrolling a scroll. Bagnall suggest that this is possibly "an early
reflection of the adoption of the codex as the standard form for
Christian scriptures" on the part of the author of Luke and/or some
early copyist-editors (to explain the alternative readings) -- or,
dare to add, perhaps even of an early perception that codices of
scriptural writings (here Isaiah is in view) were used in some Jewish
synagogues! But this is only a "foot in the door" sort of
passage; it is suggestive, but far from conclusive. It is a long trip
from the perceptions of an author and copyists in the late first and
early second centuries (and the ambiguities of their language) to
firm historical realities.
In the fragments of
the 30 Greek Jewish scriptural texts from the mid first to the early
4th century ce mentioned above, two thirds are from codices. The older
scholarly approach has been to judge them to be "Christian"
productions, lagely due to their codex format. Even then, a couple of
them are admitted to possibly be from Jewish copyists (e.g. the Genesis
fragments POxy 656
1007; so even C.H.Roberts [#34].
Obviously I'm arguing that the old criteria, including the codex
format, are misguided or at least undemonstrated. There is no reason to
doubt that just as in numerous other areas, Christian scribal habits
and the codex format itself were derived from the Jewish manuscripts
that delivered these Jewish materials into Christian hands and reflect
the training early Christian copyists and scribes received from their
So far so good.
Clearly there seem to be
continuities between the "certifiably Jewish" use of certain "lectional
and their presence in early Christian
manuscripts, which at one level "exposes the obvious." It is no longer
useful to characterize early Christian scribal practices as emerging
rather ad hoc among relatively untrained, in a sophisticated
literary sense, and impecunious
copyists who sort of made things up as they went along. But there
is more to be said. A closer examination of the non Jewish and non
Christian Greco-Roman evidence is now possible through online sites
as the "Catalogue
Paraliterary Papyri" from Leuven
. Rather than confirming that
the early Jewish and early Christian scribal practices were relatively
unusual in relation to the broader Greco-Roman world, study of this
wider context suggests that the early Jewish scribes and their early
successors may have been following well-worn procedures used in the
production of commentarial and related "paraliterary" material from
pre-Christian times onward! This additional "obvious" direction calls
for further exploration in detail.
While it does not change the fact that early
Christians adopted texts from their Jewish predecessors and
contemporaries, and that early Jewish and early
Christian manuscripts share certain scribal features, it does suggest that there may have been continuity with the
techniques used in the copying of other literate manuscripts from that
[#36] Especially in
the production of "commentaries," one might
expect to find most of these features. Of course, we must also ask what
types of writing were not affected by these practices, in order to
proceed to more responsible conclusions. In any event, the older
approaches that ascribed a significant degree of uniqueness to the
early Christian scribal practices and book format require careful
reevaluation, along with the attendant explanations. [#37]
-- [end shorter presentation]