What is Paleography?


My article last week was How are New Testament Manuscripts Dated?. Today’s article is a follow-up describing one particular method of dating ancient manuscripts: paleography.

The word paleography comes from the Greek words παλαιός (transliterated: palaiós; English: old), and γράφειν (transliterated: graphein; English: to write), meaning “old writing”. Paleography is the study of how old manuscripts were written. It focuses on studying the handwriting used to create the manuscript, not the text that was written or the media it was written on. Goals in paleography are to determine where and when a manuscript was written based on how the writing was done.

A person who studies paleography, a paleographer, studies the strokes of the pen, the thickness of the ink and the font used. These can help determine when the manuscript was written, and where it was written. Paleography can determine if multiple manuscripts were written by the same scribe, or if multiple scribes collaborated in writing a single manuscript. The  training and experience level of a scribe is referred to as a hand, and is divided into four categories.

  • 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

Each of these hands had different writing styles, and the styles of these hands changed over time and locations. People who study paleography need to know when and where the different writing styles were used.

In contrast with the ever more cursive hands of the late Ptolemaic period [305-30 B.C.], [the Augustan period (43 B.C. – A.D. 18)] displays a kind of print, wherein the letters occupy separate and roughly even spaces as if placed in ruled squares. Except for the iota [Greek letter Ι, ι], which was an obvious exception, the letters tend to be as wide as they are high and most observe a rule of isocephaly [the tops of the letters at the same level], terminal hastae dropping below the line to some extent but letters rarely rising above it. At its best, this style achieved a certain elegance approaching that of the uncials [Greek upper-case] of a later date; so the Oxyrhynchus Homer [papyri] dated to the first half of the second century. Properly, however, the style aimed at easy legibility rather than beauty. The earliest examples have something of a childish appearance, are rough and labored, the curves jerky rather than flowing. As better effect was sought with time, it took the form of attaching serifs to all terminal lines, and these characterize the style from the middle of the first to the middle of the second centuries. Gradually, too, cursive features appear. Letters tend to be connected without lifting the pen. Curves and loops are employed wherever possible, and letters tend to be oval rather than round, sloping rather than upright, varied in height rather than even, with long and dashing initial and terminal strokes. Within this process it is possible to date a given hand typologically with some confidence, although given scribes may be ahead of or behind the general development.1

Paleographers also need to know the languages, alphabets and spellings to be able to estimate the age of a manuscript.

Evolution of the Uncial Script (© Waltz, Robert B.)

The chart above doesn’t mean much to me. There are obvious differences in the way letters are written, but I don’t know how paleographers can determine if the writing is unique to the manuscript, the scribe, the culture or the time period. Paleography is more of an art than a science.

Palaeographical comparison may lead to chronological results when an undated manuscript is compared to an explicitly dated or to a datable one (i.e., a manuscript that contains no explicit date but objective chronological data, such as references to known people, places or events). Such parallels may lead to different results. They may: 1. connect an undated script with the same general graphic background to one or more dated and/or datable examples; 2. bring an undated manuscript into the context of a “stylistic class”, whose chronological range can be reconstructed thanks to various dated manuscripts; 3. link an undated script to a “style”, whose history and main distinctive aspects can be reconstructed thanks to dated and undated manuscripts; 4. connect an undated script with a “canonical” or “normative script” for which a system of internal rules and a history can be reconstructed; 5. attribute an undated manuscript to the hand of a scribe, known by other manuscripts, dated or undated.2

One problem that occurs is fragments of the same manuscript may found in different places at different times, often by different people. These fragments may studied independently for years before anyone realizes the writing style (or hand) is the same, and they’re part of the same manuscript. The papyrus fragments 𝔓4, 𝔓64 and 𝔓673 fall into this category. Most scholars who have studied them believe 𝔓64 and 𝔓67 belong together, while others argue 𝔓4 should be included also. 

Papyrus4

𝔓4

𝔓64

𝔓67 (combined with 𝔓64)

Contents

Luke 1:58–59; 1:62–2:1, 6–7; 3:8–4:2, 29–32, 34–35; 5:3–8; 5:30–6:16

Matt. 26:7–8, 10, 14–15, 22–23, 31–33

Matt. 3:9, 15; 5:20–22, 25–28

Date

A.D. 200-299 (K-Liste); A.D. 150-175 (Comfort and Barrett)

A.D. 200-225 (K-Liste); A.D. 150-175 (Comfort and Barrett)

A.D. 150-175 (Comfort and Barrett)

Page size

13.5 cm x 17 cm

10.5 [+3.0] cm x 17 cm

10 [+3] cm x 17 cm

Columns

two

two

two

Lines per column

36-38

35-36

36-38

Letters per line

12–19; 15–17 average

15–17

13–20; 15–17 average

Punctuation

at Luke 1:76, 80; 2:1; 3:19, 23; 5:36; 6:12 (most correspond with the beginning of a new paragraph)

at the beginning of Matt. 5:27 (corresponds with the beginning of a new paragraph)

at the beginning of Matt. 26:31 (corresponds with the beginning of a new paragraph)

Paragraphs (marked as outdent with horizontal bar)

at Luke 1:76, 80; 2:1; 3:19, 23; 5:36; 6:12 (most correspond with the beginning of a new paragraph)

at the beginning of Matt. 5:27 (corresponds with the beginning of a new paragraph)

at the beginning of Matt. 26:31 (corresponds with the beginning of a new paragraph)

Lettering

letters are remarkably similar to those in the other fragments; many are identical

letters are remarkably similar to those in the other fragments; many are identical

letters are remarkably similar to those in the other fragments; many are identical

Resources

  • Comfort, Philip Wesley and Barrett, David P. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001; Logos), 20-29, 43-49. (Logos)
  • Neo-Paleography: Analysing Ancient Handwritings in the Digital Age Conference (Basel, Switzerland: Basel University, 27-29 January 2020) Accessed session Digital Palaeography of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Dating Undated Manuscripts 03-March-2020.
  •  

    Orsini, Pasquale and Clarysse, Willy. Early New Testament manuscripts and their dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography (Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, 2012) Accessed 09-Feb-2020. (KU Leuven)

Footnotes

  1. Oats, John F. and Wells, C. Bradford. Yale Papyri in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (New Haven: American School of Papyrologists, 1967-; 1-4). Quoted in: Comfort, Philip Wesley and Barrett, David P. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001; Logos), 24-25. (Logos)
  2. Orsini, Pasquale and Clarysse, Willy. Early New Testament manuscripts and their dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography (Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, 2012) Pg. 448-449. Accessed 09-Feb-2020. (KU Leuven)
  3. 𝔓 is the designation for papyrus (even though with many fonts it rather looks like a B).
  4. Comfort, Philip Wesley and Barrett, David P. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001) Pg. 43-49 (Logos)

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