Do I Need a Dictionary to Study Ancient Manuscripts?


Almost every field of study has a unique vocabulary and ancient manuscripts are no exception. Some words (i.e. Boustrophedon) are unique to the study of manuscripts, while other words (i.e. hand) use an uncommon definition.

When I started studying the topic of New Testament manuscripts, I quickly realize I needed to learn a lot of new terminology. Writing down the definitions (or my understanding of the definitions; I can’t vouch for their complete accuracy!) helps in my understanding of the subject.

Since I’d already stated creating this dictionary/encyclopedia, I thought it may help other people understand these terms.

A.D. – Latin for Anno Domini (Usually translated into English: In the Year of Our Lord), used to count years since year one. Properly appears before the year: A.D. 2019 (In the Year of Our Lord 2019). See B.C.

Autograph – The original manuscript made by the author, or by a scribe under the direction and authority of the author. If a scribe was used, the author would often write his signature the end of the document1. See Amanuensis.

Amanuensis – A scribe writing under the direction and authority of the author.2 3 See Autograph.

B.C. – English, meaning Before Christ, used to count years before year one; there was no year zero. Properly goes after the year: 586 B.C. (586 Before Christ). See A.D.

B.C.E. – English, meaning Before Common Era. Equivalent to B.C. (Before Christ), but without Christian connotations. See C.E.

Boustrophedon – A method of writing where the direction of the text changes in alternating lines. The odd-numbered lines may be read left-to-right, while the even-numbered lines may be read right-to-left (or vice-versa). The word comes from a Greek phrase that loosely means “turn like an ox while ploughing”.

C.E. – Common Era, equivalent to A.D., but without Christian connotations. See B.C.E.

Carpet Page – Page with geometric designs that resemble Islamic prayer rugs.

Codex – (plural: Codices) A book of handwritten pages. The early Christians are often credited with making the codex more popular than the scroll.

Colophon – Greek word meaning “finish”. Usually at the end of a manuscript, a colophon may include the title of the work, the name of the scribe, the date the manuscript was completed and where it was written. A colophon may also include a dedication to the person who commissioned the manuscript, a prayer or other comments. A colophon is similar to a modern copyright page.

Copyist – A person who copies a manuscript, but doesn’t have professional training in the field.

Corrector – Person who checks manuscripts for errors. Correctors can occur at several levels in the creation of a manuscript.

  • Original scribe who copied the manuscript
  • Scriptorium’s official corrector
  • Purchaser of the manuscript

Diglot – A printed book that contains the text in two languages, usually side-by-side on each page. See Polyglot.

Embellished – See Illuminated.

Exemplar – The source text (written or oral) a scribe used to make additional copies.

Folio – A single sheet or leaf in a book. A folio is numbered on one side (opposed to a page number on both sides in modern books), with a “r” (Latin recto, or right) on the front, or a “v” (Latin verso, or turn) on the back (i.e. 1r and 1v would be equivalent to pages 1 and 2 in a modern book).

Fragment – A small part of a manuscript, where the remainder has been lost, damaged or destroyed.

Gloss – A note in the margins of a manuscript. The modern equivalent are footnotes.

Hand – Experience level of a scribe:

  • Common hand – untrained in copying
  • Documentary hand – trained in preparing  documents
  • Reformed documentary hand – experienced in preparing documents and copying literature
  • Professional hand – experienced in producing literature

Historiated Initial – A large first letter of a book, chapter or verse. The letter will have a picture inside or surrounding it. The pictures often relates to the text. From the Latin word historia, meaning story.

Illuminated – Manuscripts, primarily from the middle ages, which are decorated, in many cases elaborately.

Illustrated – See Illuminated.

Leaf – See Folio.

Lectionary –  From the Latin word for “reading”. A book of Biblical passages used for reading at church services. A lectionary often uses a set schedule for the passages to be read, and passages may be read at special times of year, such as Christmas or Easter.

Lector – A person who reads passages aloud for a congregation during a service, or while scribes copy what is being read.

Majuscule – See Uncial. See related Minuscule.

Manuscript – A combination of the physical media text is written on (i.e. papyrus or paper) and the text that is written (i.e. the New Testament). Most commonly refers to multiple sheets rather than small fragments. Abbreviated MS (singular) or MSS (plural).

Minuscule – From a Latin word meaning “somewhat smaller”. A style of handwriting Greek letters, similar to English lowercase letters, and was considered informal. Most common style of Greek writing since about A.D. 800. Also called cursive. See related Uncials.

Opisthograph – Writing on both sides of a piece of media. Codices/books usually have writing on both sides of folios, while scrolls are typically written only on one side.

Paleography – From Greek for “old writing”. The study of ancient handwriting and manuscripts. Handwriting styles changed in different places and times, so being able to identify the location or time period a manuscript was written can help identify its age and authenticity.

Palimpsest – Greek for “scrapped again”. Media (often parchment) which was reused by scraping off (or erasing) the old text and writing new text on it. Frequently a faint image of the old text remains.

Papyrus – Writing material made from papyrus plant, commonly found along the Nile river.

Parchment – Parchment is animal skin, usually from goats, sheep or cattle. The skins are scrapped until they’re very thin, and both sides could be written on. Parchment became popular about A.D. 300, but had been used for hundreds of years before then.

Polyglot – A printed book that contains the text in three or more languages, usually side-by-side on each page. See Diglot.

Quire – Two to eight sheets of writing material stacked and folded in the middle. The sheets would be stitched together at the fold making 8-32 pages which could be written on. Multiple quires could be bound together to form a book.

Recto – The front side of a sheet of writing material, from the Latin for “right”. See related Verso.

Scribe – A person who copies texts using written or oral source texts. The experience level of a scribe is called the hand. See related Amanuensis, Corrector, Hand.

Scripto Continua – Text written without spaces or punctuation.

Scriptorium – A  designated place used for writing, copying, illustrating or storing manuscripts.

Scroll – A written text made on a long writing surface, usually of papyrus or parchment. Some scrolls had the ends of the scroll attached to wooden rollers, and the scroll would be wrapped around the rollers for storage and transportation.


  • A style of handwriting Greek or Latin letters, also called large hand, similar to English capital letters. This style of writing was considered formal or elegant, and was most common from about A.D. 300-800. See related Minuscule.
  • A type of Greek manuscript written using uncial letters.

Vellum – Vellum is a very high quality skin prepared from calves. See related Parchment.

Version – A translation of a text into another language.

Verso – The back side of a sheet of writing material, from the Latin for “turn”. See related Recto.


  • Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results (Downers Grove, IL: IVP  Academic, 2006) (Amazon) (Logos)
  • Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Glossary of Technical Terms, Page 542. (Amazon)


  1. I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. (2 Thessalonians 3:17 ESV)
  2. I Tertius, who wrote this letter [Romans], greet you in the Lord. (Romans 16:22 ESV)
  3. By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I [Peter] have written briefly to you…. (1 Peter 5:12 ESV)

Follow, Like and Share


  1. […] Do I Need a Dictionary to Study Ancient Manuscripts? (4 of 22) […]

  2. […] the oldest knowing writings (or drawings) are on cave walls, and sometimes clay tablets were used. Papyrus (made from the papyrus plant, common along the Nile river) was used for well over 2,000 years, then […]

  3. […] author wrote the book on papyrus or parchment, while in other cases the author dictated to an amanuensis, who actually put pen to […]

Comments are closed.