I have recently been reading two books, both of which I highly recommend. The two are Colin Hemer's The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, about which I hope to have more to say later. This post is about just one bit in John Wenham's Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem.
Says Wenham (pp. 204-205),
How are we to suppose that Mark went to work? It is anachronistic to think of him working like a modern author with well-referenced sources, convenient writing materials and plenty of space. A quotation from A. Dain, the eminent French authority on manuscripts, will illustrate the point:Think about what Wenham is quoting Dain as saying here: They didn't write on tables! They didn't write on desks! They wrote in this incredibly uncomfortable position sitting on the ground with a little lap-board on their knees, holding the parchment with one hand and writing with the other. Could any writing position be less useful for purposes of complex editing and redacting of a literary source? Wenham continues (pp. 205-206):
With very rare exceptions, one always sees the copyist in a quite characteristic attitude: he does not execute his copy on a desk or reading-stand--nor a fortiori on a table--but he writes on his knees, usually but not always, with a board serving as a writing-surface for him...It is astonishing that the professional copyists should not have used a table for their work. The truth is that Antiquity did not know what we call a writing-table. The table virtually serves only for eating, and it is always very low. It is only in the second part of the Middle Ages that one finds representations showing copyists writing on a desk, or even on a table...There is then a classical copyist position...[my omission from Dain here]. The person is seated, his left leg bent; his right leg is vertical and his knee supports the little writing board on which [he] writes. With the right hand he traces the parchment marks, while with the left he holds the sheet of parchment.
This is borne out by B. M. Metzger's subsequent study 'When did Scribes Begin to Use Writing Desks?' in which he shows that desks, tables and stands are traceable only to the ninth century. He adds useful information about note-taking:
...when a scribe was making relatively brief notes on a wax tablet or on a sheet of papyrus or parchment, he would usually stand and write while holding the material in his left hand. When a scribe had a more extensive task, such as the copying of a rather lengthy manuscript, he would sit, occasionally on the ground but more often on a stool or bench, supporting the scroll or codex on his knees (123).He discounts the idea that the 'table' in the scriptorium at Qumran, which was solid and only seventeen and a half inches high, could have served as a writing-desk (136). Nothing could give a more vivid idea of the awkwardness of redactional work than a study of Plates III-XIX in Metzger's book, which shows how cramped scribes were even when they began to have desks to work at. In the first century tables and chairs such as we know them did not exist. Diners reclined, propped up on an elbow, at the low tables. To consult more than one scroll an author would presumably have had to spread them out on such a table or on the floor and either crawl around on hands and knees or else repeatedly crouch down and stand up again, looking at first one and then another. He could either make notes or commit what he read to memory before writing the matter up on a sheet of papyrus or vellum, or, possibly, sitting down and transferring it direct to his new scroll. Finding the place, unless he was prepared seriously to deface his scrolls, would be difficult. Handling a reed pen dipped in ink (or moistened to get ink from a dry ink-cake) to write on a surface made of strips of papyrus pith was a skilled operation--which Paul seems usually to have left to an amanuensis. In a community where most had small, dark, crowded homes, finding a room suitable for the task, and reasonably free from distractions, would not be easy.
In ideal conditions, it was not particularly difficult for a trained scribe simply to copy a scroll, though (as Dain points out) it required great concentration. Copying with some adaptation was also common in the ancient world, but it was the work of highly educated scholars. For one who was not a professional to take a lengthy manuscript with no chapter, verse or even word divisions and select, rearrange and revise it was a formidable task. It is highly unlikely that one gospel was produced as the result of an author working directly on the scroll of another; even less that he worked on two or three at once.No tables or chairs! This information about the physical conditions of writing in the ancient world has enormous importance for any redactional theory of the origins of any ancient book, including the gospels. Indeed, these difficulties make it an interesting question as to how we come to have even the verbal similarities that do exist among the synoptic gospels. Knowledge of these difficulties in copying, much less in using multiple sources at once, should rule out altogether hypotheses according to which any of the synoptic authors were literally editing and grafting together earlier sources in anything like a complex literary manner.
Wenham gives his own ideas of how an author like Luke might have worked: Making an outline based on Mark, doing the actual writing partly from memory based on his previous reading of Mark and Matthew, fitting in as he writes additional information he had available (such as the annunciation and birth narratives), and then reading back through either Matthew or Mark (or both, but not both at once) and his own draft and making some changes to his draft in the light of this re-reading. This is conjectural and would have been cumbersome enough, in all truth, but it at least avoids the more absurd picture of Luke (or anyone else) crawling around on a large area of floor covered with un-indexed scrolls in an attempt to do a true copying-with-detailed-redaction.
This fascinating information should be much more widely known. Wenham quotes the dry comment of F.G. Downing, "[T]he long debate on the sources of the Synoptic Gospels seems to have been conducted without paying much or any attention to this issue of whether any indications of 'sensible' compositional procedures in the first century C.E. are available." (Wenham, p. 206)