What is Scriptio Continua?


The written word has evolved significantly over the millennia. Many of the evolutions have made writing easier for the sender, and reading easier for the recipient. The media that has been used for writing is one example: some of 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 parchment (made from animal skins) became popular around A.D. 300-400, and paper (made from wood pulp) started being used about A.D. 1300-1400 in Europe (in Asia it had been used around 1,000 year earlier). Each one of those made writing more accessible to more people, and increased the literacy rate in the areas they were used.

Styles of writing have also changed significantly. Scriptio Continua (Latin for “continuous script”) is a style of writing without spaces, punctuation or letter case. One of the reasons for using scriptio continua was to save space on the expensive writing material. For modern readers, who are unaccustomed to this style, it’s difficult to read.

thelordismyshepherdishallnotwanthemakesmeliedowningreenpasturesheleadsmebesidestillwatersherestoresmysoulheleadsmeinpathsofrighteousnessforhisnamessakeeventhoughiwalkthroughthevalleyoftheshadowofdeathiwillfearnoevilforyouarewithmeyourrodandyourstafftheycomfortmeyouprepareatablebeforemeinthepresenceofmyenemiesyouanointmyheadwithoilmycupoverflowssurelygoodnessandmercyshallfollowmeallthedaysofmylifeandishalldwellinthehouseofthelordforever1.

This is a familiar passage to Christians, Jews and Muslims, and probably many non-religious people would recognize it as well. For those of you who are unsure of these verses, it’s Psalm 23 (ESV)2. Even though we know the chapter well, reading it this way takes extra time and concentration (for me, anyway). One scholar gives an example of the confusion that can result when Scriptio Continua is used:

The word godisnowhere could mean quite different things to a theist (God is now here) and an atheist (God is no where); and what would it mean to say lastnightatdinnerisawabundanceonthetable? Was this a normal or a supernormal event?3

Which message is correct?

  • Last night at dinner I saw abundance on the table
  • Last night at dinner I saw a bun dance on the table

Under most circumstances, it seems likely the author would have been referring to abundance. However, if it was written the day after an earthquake, the second meaning could have been the author’s intent. Knowing the context in which something was written can help with understanding what the author intended to write.

Scriptio Continua was used for Classical Greek and Classical Latin writings. In much of the ancient world, literacy rates were low4, so both the author and the reader were specially trained, and this style of writing was often used. As literacy became more common in the Roman Empire, people with less education learned how to read and write, and it became necessary to change the writing style to make it easier for those people. The addition of spaces, punctuation and letter case helped the cause.

The Roman literary world had long had word separation within their texts, but the elite reading culture of the Roman world in the second and third centuries returned to scriptio continua (Lat. [Latin] for “continuous script”), a style of writing without spaces or other marks between the words and sentences. This choice of writing style over others that were current and common, with spaces between words and sentences as well as punctuation, diacritical marks that indicate how words are to be pronounced, and distinguished letter case, is evidence that they were putting up roadblocks to keep the uneducated out of their elite reading culture. This is even further evidenced when we consider that they ignored the codex and stayed with the rolls or scrolls that were held horizontally, with the text being read vertically.5

One of the earliest complete New Testament manuscripts is Codex Sinaiticus, dated about A.D. 300-400. Codex Sinaiticus was written in Scriptio Continua. Here’s a sample of John 1:1 in Greek and English:

Source John 1:1 / ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ 1:1
Codex Sinaiticus  (Picture)(CodexSinaiticus.org)Codex Sinaiticus, John 1:1
Codex Sinaiticus (Transcription)(Textus-Receptus.com)ΕΝΑΡΧΗΗΝΟΛΟΓΟC
ΚΑΙΟΛΟΓΟCΗΝ
ΠΡΟCΤΟΝΘNΚΑΙ
ΘϹΗΝΟΛΟΓΟC
Modern Greek (Nestle-Aland.com)Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν
πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ
θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
English Standard Version (Continuous Script) (BibleStudyTools.com)inthebeginningwastheword
andthewordwas
withgodand
thewordwasgod
English Standard Version (BibleStudyTools.com) In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was
with God, and 
the Word was God. 

It might surprise some people that after 1,500 years, scriptio continua has made a partial comeback in the past 20-25 years. Computers and the Internet prompted this resurgence, in an attempt to avoid using spaces in Internet addresses. Some computer systems aren’t designed to handle spaces easily. The case of letters are often ignored, but punctuation is critical when trying to access internet resources. Notice the link https://biblequestions.info has no spaces or capital letters, but does have punctuation. E-mail addresses also use a modified scriptio continua, as do many usernames and passwords.

Summary

I had wanted to use a difficult example in my article, to show the confusion that could occur when using scriptio continua. I eventually decided it would be better to start with a familiar passage and leave the difficult one to the end. Here’s a passage written in scriptio continua, one which many people are probably not very familiar with.

adamsethenoshkenanmahalaleljaredenochmethuselahlamechnoahshemhamandjapheththesonsofjaphethgomermagogmadaijavantubalmeshechandtirasthesonsofgomerashkenazriphathandtogarmahthesonsofjavanelishahtarshishkittimandrodanimthesonsofhamcushegyptputandcanaanthesonsofcushsebahavilahsabtaraamaandsabtecathesonsofraamahshebaanddedancushfatherednimrodhewasthefirstonearthtobeamightymanegyptfatheredludimanamimlehabimnaphtuhimpathrusimcasluhimfromwhomthephilistinescameandcaphtorimcanaanfatheredsidonhisfirstbornandhethandthejebusitestheamoritesthegirgashitesthehivitesthearkitesthesinitesthearvaditesthezemaritesandthehamathitesthesonsofshemelamasshurarpachshadludandaramandthesonsofaramuzhulgetherandmeshecharpachshadfatheredshelahandshelahfatheredebertoeberwereborntwosonsthenameoftheonewaspelegforinhisdaystheearthwasdividedandhisbrothersnamewasjoktanjoktanfatheredalmodadshelephhazarmavethjerahhadoramuzaldiklahobalabimaelshebaophirhavilahandjobaballthesewerethesonsofjoktanshemarpachshadshelaheberpelegreuserugnahorterahabramthatisabraham6.

This is the family tree from Adam to Abraham in 1 Chronicles 1:1-27 (ESV)7. Imagine a medieval lector reading a manuscript written in scriptio continua out loud, while several scribes are making copies of the manuscript. The lector could easily misread a word, and the scribes might faithfully copy down what was heard, even if the word didn’t make sense in the context. If a scribe got a bit behind when writing, it would be easy to skip a few letters trying to catch up, and scriptio continua could make it more difficult to see the error. Regardless of who made an error, an inexperienced reader could easily get confused and misunderstand the text.

Adding spaces, punctuation and letter case to writing may seem simple and obvious to us, but for hundreds of years they weren’t used. These features greatly improved the reliability of the manuscripts which were copied, and the comprehension of the readers.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. (Psalm 23 ESV)
  2. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23 ESV)
  3. Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) Pg. 48.
  4. There are some good arguments the Hebrews had a higher literacy rate than the neighboring nations.
  5. 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) Page 34. (Amazon)
  6. (1 Chronicles 1:1-27 ESV)
  7. Adam, Seth, Enosh; Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech; Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama, and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. Cush fathered Nimrod. He was the first on earth to be a mighty man. Egypt fathered Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim (from whom the Philistines came), and Caphtorim. Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. And the sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech. Arpachshad fathered Shelah, and Shelah fathered Eber. To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg (for in his days the earth was divided), and his brother’s name was Joktan. Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. Shem, Arpachshad, Shelah; Eber, Peleg, Reu; Serug, Nahor, Terah; Abram, that is, Abraham. (1 Chronicles 1:1-27 ESV)

Follow, Like and Share

Comments

  1. […] the scribe may split words incorrectly. Many early manuscripts were written using Scriptio Continua6, which did not use spaces or punctuation, which was especially […]

  2. […] What is Scriptio Continua? (14 of 15) […]

Comments are closed.