Wednesday, April 01, 2015

What was writing like in the 1st century

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:
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.
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):

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)


Roger Pearse said...

Remember that books were read aloud; and also written by dictation. That modifies the picture of a process of combination of sources, doesn't it?

Lydia McGrew said...

I certainly don't think it makes it significantly easier to redact. Redaction, where one is (e.g.) moving chunks of text around, inserting a word here and deleting there, is not particularly assisted by reading aloud. I suppose that if one were _determined_ to redact, one could try to use a read-aloud process somehow in the mix, but it would be extremely cumbersome. I think that what this rather gives us is a far greater role for _memory_ in the occurrence of verbal similarities--whether memory from having read a scroll oneself or having heard it read makes little difference. But remembering and writing down what one remembers is really quite different from editorial combination of sources by partial verbal copying and partial redaction.

Lydia McGrew said...

Wenham himself thinks that Luke (in particular) did _something_ that one might _call_ "combining sources." He thinks that Luke *in one sense* made use of Matthew, Mark, and other notes he had made from talking with people and so forth (material unique to Luke). Presumably Luke had his own unique material in some form--perhaps as shorthand notes, since shorthand was known at the time.

But Wenham argues that his use of Matthew and Mark was not of the sort envisaged by redaction theories in which one is copying some passages verbatim, tweaking others, moving others around, and so forth *as passages of text*. The circumstances of writing at the time just make this highly implausible.

In the cases of Matthew and Mark themselves, whichever was first, this also gives rise to the very real possibility that similarities of wording between them were due in part to non-literary factors, such as similar wording in oral teaching by the apostles (including both Matthew and Peter, the source of Mark) when telling those stories.

Kristor said...

We may presume then that theories about the successive waves of redaction and editing of the OT are likewise gravely undermined. There are long running arguments in OT criticism about, e.g., the fact that the Septuagint has a couple verses in a different place that the Masoretic. But these arguments may all stem from innocent scribal mistakes, that are not meaningful after all. It's one thing to think of a medieval monk making a transcription error and scraping away days of work so as to correct it. It is quite another to think of a scribe at Alexandria or Qumran erring and *not even noticing.*

One can envision the Masoretes pulling their hair in frustration at the variances among their texts, and resolving by God to arrive once and for all at a definitive version, and to Hell with anyone who ever modifies so much as a jot of it! Ditto for John: the discrepancies among the versions of NT texts must have been maddening to him by the time he wrote Revelation.

How funny, to ascribe these anathemae, not to hidebound doctrinal conservatism, but rather to the same sort of intense, burning frustration I have myself felt at the corruption of documents in my own modern firm, where version control is such a huge issue.

One can then see why Jerome would have opted for the Masoretic rather than the Septuagint already in use throughout the Church: it was totally a quality control judgement, the LXX having been compiled over several centuries by many scribes, while the Masoretic was compiled in a concerted, coordinated push, the fruit of the latest, best scholarship.

Those phrases in the OT that can't possibly be read in such a way as makes sense? Now we see why.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, this certainly has implications for OT theories as well.

My _impression_, which I have not researched recently, is that the differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic are sufficiently wide that it appears that there was in fact a somewhat different "text family" on which the Septuagint was based which we do not now have. That doesn't tell us anything, though, about the origin of those different text families. Is it plausible that that origin was in scribal errors? There I don't know enough to say.

As far as John and variations, I don't think he would have been bothered by variations amongst Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In those cases I think he would have seen them (correctly) as genuinely the products of different authors, though not working entirely independently. However, he may well have been frustrated if there were different textual versions _of_ the manuscript of, say, Matthew.