Early Christian Copyists
“NOT many wise in a fleshly way were called, . . . but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put the wise men to shame; . . . in order that no flesh might boast in the sight of God.”—1 Cor. 1:26-29.
Those words of the apostle Paul include the hardworking, conscientious, largely unknown and unskilled early Christian copyists. They proved themselves to be far wiser than the worldly professional calligraphersa of their day, both by reason of what they copied and their practical approach to their labors. A consideration of their work is interesting, enlightening and strengthening to faith.
Today little remains of the work of these early Christian copyists. This is not to be wondered at in view of the persecutions by pagan Rome, which repeatedly ordered the destruction of the Christians’ Scriptures. Age, wear and tear from handling also played their parts, as papyrus, the writing material used by these copyists, rapidly disintegrates in humid climates; accounting for the fact that most of the copies of their work that have been discovered in modern times were found in Egypt, which has a very hot and dry climate, favorable to the preservation of papyrus. Then, too, as the papyrus manuscripts of these early copyists were replaced by vellum copies made by professional scribes in the early fourth century, little need was seen to preserve these earlier manuscripts, even though among them were copies of the original autographs. What little has come down to us, however, has proved to be invaluable, as we shall see.
WHAT THEY COPIED
There is no question about it; these early Christian copyists were wiser than their pagan professional contemporaries by reason of what they copied. None other than the Son of Almighty God had come to earth and upon parting had given instructions to his followers to “make disciples of people of all the nations.” This ‘publishing of the good news,’ as it was called, began orally at Pentecost. But oral publishing has limitations. For the sake of accuracy, permanence and wider distribution the good news needed to be put in writing.—Matt. 28:19, 20; Rom. 10:15.
For these and other reasons the holy spirit moved men to put this vital message in writing. And so it was that within little more than thirty years of Pentecost, with the exception of John’s writings, all the Christian Greek Scriptures had been penned.
Not that Christian publication was to be limited to these writings. Obviously the Gospels were intended for general circulation, requiring copies to be made. The very way James begins his letter (and Peter begins his similarly) shows the need of publication: “To the twelve tribes that are scattered about.” Publication is also implied by the warning, recorded by John, against adding or taking away from the book of Revelation.—Jas. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; Rev. 22:18, 19.
However, even before such copies were made the early Christian copyists played a vital role in publishing the good news. How so? In that the highly favored ones who were inspired to give us the Christian Greek Scriptures did not always do their own writing. Thus in one of Paul’s letters we read: “I, Tertius, who have done the writing of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” In fact, it is quite likely that Paul, with but few exceptions—such as the brief letter to Philemon—contented himself with dictating his letters and then adding in his own hand a greeting and his signature: “Here is my greeting, Paul’s, in my own hand, which is a sign in every letter; this is the way I write.”—Rom. 16:22; 2 Thess. 3:17; Philem. 19.
A Christian scribe also assisted Peter, for we read in his first letter: “Through Sylvanus, a faithful brother, as I account him, I have written you in few words, to give encouragement.” Apparently Sylvanus was a skilled writer, not “unlettered and ordinary” as was Peter, for, according to Doctor Goodspeed, “Hebrews and 1 Peter are generally regarded as the best Greek in the New Testament.” Some have claimed that Second Peter could not have been written by Peter since it represents such a contrast in style to the finely written First Peter. But that does not at all follow. It merely would show that Peter allowed Sylvanus latitude in choosing his words and that another (it might even have been Peter himself) wrote the second letter.—1 Pet. 5:12; Acts 4:13.
The Hebrew Scriptures had been written on leather. History shows that it was leather copies that were sent to Alexandria for the production of the Septuagint. Without doubt the Isaiah scroll from which Jesus read in the synagogue of his native city of Nazareth was of leather, even as are the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah and most of its companion books discovered in 1947.—Luke 4:17.
But leather scrolls were bulky, besides they were very costly. Something more practical in every way was needed for Christians in their ministry and papyrus served the purpose ideally, at least during the first three centuries. It could be bought at the stationer’s shops in various sizes and qualities and used in scrolls or rolls. That the original manuscripts, whether written by the inspired penmen themselves or by their copyists, were on rolls is apparent both from secular history and from Scripture references. It also seems that they soon disappeared from sight, as no early church overseer mentions having seen any of them.—2 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 5:5.
Papyrus rolls of that period seldom exceeded thirty feet and varied in width from six to fifteen inches. Quite likely Luke, whose Christian Greek Scripture writings are the longest, limited himself because of this, his scrolls being estimated to have been eleven inches high and from thirty-one to thirty-two feet long. John’s Gospel must have been twenty-three or twenty-four feet and Mark’s nineteen. Paul’s letters ranged from six or seven inches for Philemon to eleven feet six inches for Romans.
In making copies of these autograph rolls the Christian copyists at once outstripped their pagan professional contemporaries. They were practical men. They early began replacing the roll with the codex, that is, a written work consisting of separate sheets and, if bound, having a wooden cover. Thus we are told that in the third century nearly all pagan writing was still on scrolls, whereas most of the work of the early Christian copyists was already in codex form.
The advantages of the codex over the roll are marked: the cost was less, since the codex consisted of the individual sheets as first manufactured, whereas the roll required these first to be glued together end to end. Further, a codex could contain far more than could a roll. Instead of being limited to just one book, such as Acts, early the four Gospels were brought together in one codex as also were the letters of Paul. In fact, it would take from thirty-five to forty rolls to hold what appears in such a codex as the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209.
Nor may we overlook the advantage that the codex presented in looking up a certain Scripture passage. How much simpler to turn to the back of the book, the last page, than to unroll thirty feet of manuscript! No question about it, the early Christian copyists knew full well what they were doing when they at once utilized the codex form, if they did not invent it themselves.
For ink a copyist used a mixture of soot and gum. This was produced in a hard form and mixed with water as needed. Instead of gum or rubber erasers, as we have today, or even the knife used by the scribes who wrote on leather, vellum or parchment, these copyists carried a sponge with them to wash off their mistakes. Their pen consisted of a reed, a calamus, the tip of which was softened with water and therefore was somewhat like a fine brush.—Jer. 36:23; 2 Cor. 3:3; 2 John 12; 3 John 13.
CONSCIENTIOUS THOUGH UNSKILLED
Historians are prone to speak disparagingly of the work of these early Christian copyists. They point out that these copyists did not appreciate the importance of accuracy and so made many mistakes, which scholars ever since have been endeavoring to correct. But such observations give an entirely wrong impression. True, as Westcott and Hort point out in their Introduction to the New Testament: “The exact reproduction of a given series of words in a given order” is the purpose of transcription, and to accomplish this there must be “a distinct perception that a transcriber’s duty is to transcribe and nothing more.” “This perception,” they go on to say, “is rarer and more dependent upon training than might be supposed,” for unless there is a “special concentration of regard upon the language as having intrinsic sacredness . . . the instinctive feeling of sense cooperates largely in the result.” In other words, unless specially trained, a copyist, however conscientious, will make minor errors due to his concentration on the sense rather than on the exact words, this largely due to the workings of the unconscious mind.b
So the early Christian copyists, due to their lack of professional skill, did make many errors. But what did these amount to? Minor transposition of words or phrases, or the use of synonyms, such as “Lord” for “God,” or the use of a pronoun for the noun or vice versa, such as “he” for “Jesus” or “Jesus” for “he,” or it might be a variation or a mistake in spelling. In fact, none other than Westcott and Hort state that 99.9 percent of the differences concerning which there may be question consist of “comparatively trivial variations.”
Typical of the work of these early Christian copyists is the oldest extant fragment of any of the Christian Greek Scriptures, the Papyrus Rylands Greek, No. 457. Written on both sides, it consists of but some hundred letters of Greek and has been dated as early as the second century A.D. Regarding it we are told that, while it has an informal air about it and makes no pretensions to be fine writing, it is “a careful piece of work.” Interestingly this fragment is from a codex, about eight inches square, and which most likely contained all of John’s Gospel, or some sixty-six leaves, about 132 pages in all.
Bearing more extensive witness, but at later dates, are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri. These consist of portions of eleven Greek codices, produced between the second and the fourth centuries A.D. They contain parts of nine Hebrew and fifteen Christian Bible books. These are quite representative in that a variety of writing styles is found in them. One codex is said to be “the work of a good professional scribe.” Of another it is said: “The writing is very correct, and though without calligraphic pretensions, is the work of a competent scribe.” And of still another, “The hand is rough but generally correct.”—Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, Vol. I.
More important than these characteristics, however, is their subject matter. In the main they corroborate those fourth-century vellum manuscripts known as the “Neutrals,” which are rated most highly by Westcott and Hort, such as the Vatican No. 1209 and the Sinaiticus. Further, they contain none of the striking interpolations that are found in certain vellum manuscripts and which have been termed, perhaps mistakenly, “Western.”
Most important of all is the support that these papyrus manuscripts give to the authenticity of the existing texts. Regarding them Sir Frederic Kenyon states: “The first and most important conclusion derived from the examination of them is the satisfactory one that they confirm the essential soundness of the existing texts. No striking or fundamental variation is shown in either the Old or New Testament. There are no important omissions or additions of passages, and no variations which affect vital facts or doctrines. The variations of text affect minor matters, such as the order of words or the precise words used.”
Truly, of the early Christian copyists it could be stated that among them were “not many wise in a fleshly way,” yet their labors proved them to be truly wise. And though many minor flaws crept into their work because of their lack of professional skill, their conscientiousness and stress on the sense caused them to produce manuscripts basically correct and free from gross interpolations. What we have of their works contributes strongly to the authenticity of the Scriptures as we have them.
a From the Greek kalós, “fine, beautiful,” and graphein, “to write.”
b Authorities on textual criticism point out that even printed editions several centuries apart may vary considerably. They also tell that shortly before the time of Christ, when books (rolls) became common in Greece there were constant complaints about the deficiencies and inaccuracies in the work of the professional scribes.
[Picture on page 85]
FRAGMENT Papyrus Rylands Greek, No. 457 (showing both sides)