Formatting Ancient Texts: A Brief Introduction to Greek Manuscripts
Papyrus and parchment were the two most widely used materials in making books in ancient times. Though as strong as hand-made paper when fist made, papyrus deteriorates faster and the writing on the back side of a papyrus sheet is read with difficulty because of the vertical lines of the strips of the papyrus plant on the verso. Parchment, however, is more durable and can be easily written and read on both sides. Moreover, parchment could be made anywhere there were animals, while papyrus grew mainly along the Nile.
Parchment is made from the skins of sheep, calves, goats, antelopes, and other animals (one writer even suggested rabbits). The younger the animal the finer the parchment. The finest quality of very thin parchment is commonly called vellum and came from lambs, kids, and calves and sometimes from animals not yet born. The term “parchment” includes vellum, but vellum is distinguished in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a fine kind of parchment prepared from the skins of calves (lambs or kids).” Vellum was used in deluxe volumes, such as those which might be presented to royalty or great dignitaries of church or state.
A twelfth-century account describes how vellum was made. The skins were soaked in running water for several days, then immersed in a solution of lime and water for up to a fortnight. After all the hair was scraped off, the skins were re-immersed in the lime solution. The skins were stretched over a frame, cleaned repeatedly with pumice and water and dressed with chalk.
There are two principal forms of ancient books, the older being a roll and the other the codex which resembles modern books. A roll could only be written on one side and had to be unrolled when looking for specific passages whereas the codex could be opened to any page at will. Parchment and vellum have two “sides,” the hair side and the flesh side which is whiter and smoother. Sheets were placed so that when the book was opened similar sides would face each other. The three Greek manuscripts on display are all written in one column, though one includes a marginal commentary. Texts written in multiple columns, however, were also common. The great Codex Sinaiticus (early fourth century), for example, was written in four narrow columns except for the poetical books of the Old Testament which were formatted in two wide columns.
The Latin codexes on display were written with dark brown ink. Sometimes decorative headings and initial letters were colored with red ink. These are called rubrics from the Latin word for “red.” Pens were dried reeds that had been sharpened to a point. Ink was made by dampening dried cakes of fine carbon black or red ochre mixed with gum. The writing is in Carolingian minuscule, a book hand developed in the late eighth century under Charlemagne. Uncials and half-uncials, the older cursive Latin hands popular from the fourth to eighth centuries, were used for headings and initials. Minuscule could be written rapidly because the cursive letters were joined together—a characteristic that saved both time and parchment. Contractions or abbreviations were also used for some words that appear with great frequency (e.g., God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, Son, Spirit, Israel, heaven, etc.). Minuscule manuscripts have been classified into four time periods, with characteristics of the writing varying during these periods. These changes can be used to help date manuscripts. It should be noted that verse divisions were attempted before their first appearance in print in 1551 [11.3], and the conclusions of paragraphs or chapters were often designated by a sign such as two or more dots with or without a horizontal dash.
In some of the manuscripts one finds readers’ aids, as, for example, the inclusion of neumes in liturgical texts. Neumes are Byzantine musical notes which assisted the reader in chanting the Scripture. They appear as hooks, dots, and oblique strokes and are usually written in red ink above the words to be sung. Other manuscripts provide lectionaries, which are lists of Scripture lessons to be read on particular days of the year. These guidelines for readings are often part of Greek manuscripts, though sometimes added by a later scribe (see 1.2 and 1.4).
Equally useful, and probably desirable to the reader, are the miniatures and other illuminations in Greek manuscripts. The Benton manuscript [1.2] contains miniatures and the Luke and John manuscript [1.4] has both miniatures and a full page painting.
The early biblical manuscripts shown in this first section of the exhibition were designed to be useful, to be beautiful, and to last. The codex form made study more convenient and the readers’ aids provided guidance. The miniature paintings and rubrication literally “illuminated” the text—and hopefully, the reader’s understanding of it. Finally, the use of parchment as the medium for these holy books ensured that they, like the Word of God, would endure through the ages.
C. C. RYRIE