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The Scribes and the Book of Revelation: How Do You Copy a Book Full of Bad Grammar?

Page 3 of 4

3. Bring in the Scribes

As you already know, before the invention of printing, books were made by hand. The spread of Christian churches created a huge demand for copies of the Gospels, the letters of Paul, the Book of Acts, the other letters, and the Book of Revelation. Huge numbers of handmade copies were therefore produced, and in this way the text of the New Testament was transmitted through all those centuries before the printing press. (To say nothing of the Hebrew Bible, the church’s Old Testament, but that is another story for another time.)

In the earliest period, copies were made on a more or less informal basis. In the case of the Book of Revelation, its initial publication consisted in its being copied out seven times and sent round to seven churches in Asia. Thirty years later a fellow named Papias seems to have had access to the book in the region where it was published (he was from there himself). Forty years later a Christian philosopher named Justin encountered the book, probably in Ephesus, and when he moved to Rome, he had access to a copy, either because he brought along his own copy or because one had reached Rome before him. Eighty years later the Christian scholar Irenaeus, born in Smyrna, one of the seven churches, went to school in Rome, and when he became bishop of Lyons carried his books with him into southern France—among them a copy of Revelation. Meanwhile the book had reached Egypt as well, for a little papyrus fragment of it has turned up from the second century (p98), and even more substantial fragments from the third century (p18,  p47, and  p115 unless it is fourth century). The manuscripts from this early period reveal their nature as private copies made by individuals. For instance, the copyist of p18 happened to have a scroll of the Book of Exodus that was blank on the reverse side, so he or she used it to copy out the Book of Revelation.

By the fourth century the process had become more formalized, and the manuscripts show it. The question of canon (that is, which books were acknowledged as Scripture) was not as fluid now as it had once been, and books were copied in standard groupings: the four Gospels went together into a single volume, the letters of Paul including the Pastoral Letters and Hebrews went into a single volume, Acts and the Catholic Letters went into a volume, and Revelation went into a volume by itself. Someone was even wealthy enough here and there to produce manuscripts that contained the entire Bible, both Testaments, in a single codex! But this is extremely rare.

The methods of book production changed, too. Manuscripts were more and more copied out by people who did it as a career specialty and less by the private souls who simply wanted a book. Scriptoria were established in major Christian centers. Surely one existed in Alexandria by Dionysius’ time, since the catechetical school was there, and Alexandria was the intellectual center of the Empire at that time, and had the greatest library in antiquity. In a scriptorium, several scribes would be set up with pen and ink and a blank book, and they would write as someone read the text out loud to them slowly and carefully. In this way multiple copies could be made at the same time.

There is, by the way, a variant reading in Revelation that must have arisen in a scriptorium when some scribes heard one thing and other scribes heard something else. It is in 1:5, and here are the possibilities: (1) “to him who loosed—λύσαντι—us from our sins” p18 א A C 1611 2050 2329 2352 and the manuscripts with the Andreas commentary and (2) “to him who washed—λούσαντιus from our sins” P 1006 1841 1854 2053 2062 and the manuscripts of the Koine type. The two words are sounded the same, or almost the same, so it would be easy to take one for the other.

A part of the formalization we are discussing now was the tendency of the Byzantine church to standardize the text as something immediately suitable for liturgy. (The same tendency motivated Jerome’s revision of the Western church’s Latin Bible, which did not transmit a Greek Testament at all, but the Vulgate.) This uniform edition is now known as the Byzantine text, or the Koine text. It was a revised and, to some extent, edited text, but the contents were not altered and the revisions were mostly stylistic and—in the Gospels—harmonistic.

So we have a complete copy of Revelation from the fourth century in Codex Sinaiticus (the fragments from the second and third centuries used to be complete when they were made, of course, but they did not survive complete). Then we have Codex Alexandrinus in the fifth century, and so forth and so on, up until the last handwritten copy that was ever made, whichever that was, a thousand years later—almost three hundred surviving manuscripts in all.


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Portion of p115

A fragment of p115, a third- or fourth-century manuscript of Revelation. The entire manuscript may be viewed at the Oxyrhinchus site by clicking here.



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