New College, University of Edinburgh

Early Christian Bibles: Form and Function

What can the physical format of a Bible tell you about its intended purpose? While a compact, thinline paperback version might be used for the ease of travel, a Bible used in personal study might be comparatively larger in size, accompanied by marginal notes and cross-references. On the other hand, a pulpit Bible meant for public reading (or even for decoration) will likely be substantial in size, large-print, and hard back, perhaps complete with colour illustrations.

In a similar way, scholars of early Christianity are interested in the physical form of ancient biblical manuscripts and what this can tell us about their place in the early church. Numerous archeological discoveries during the twentieth century have made this possible; the Chester Beatty Papyri and the Bodmer Papyri are substantial copies of early Christian scripture that take us right back into the third century CE, and similar discoveries continue even now. Most of these early New Testament papyri bear some interesting similarities in physical makeup: codex format (as opposed to the more commonly used book roll), clear and regular scripts, and spacious margins. Most importantly, many contain “lectional aids,” including punctuation, sense-divisions, and the like, which are features not normally included in ancient Greek books (i.e., “the classics”). Taken together, these features suggest at least one thing: most early New Testament manuscripts were meant to be used and read, and probably in the context of public worship. I credit New College’s own Larry W. Hurtado for arguing this point clearly and persuasively; see especially his Earliest Christian Artifacts (Eerdmans, 2006). One might contrast this with the practice of other faith communities, for whom copies of scripture are more to be venerated than used.

I tested this theory about early Christian books by researching an obscure and seemingly trivial scribal practice: number-writing. When writing Greek numbers, scribes could use either longhand words (e.g., δύο), or shorthand numerals (e.g., β̅)—much like modern English, which has “two” as well as “2.” Scholars have long been aware that scribes used both systems, but they have been baffled by the apparently random interchange between them in manuscripts. Consider this strange sentence that appears in the third-century manuscript P75 at Luke 12:52:

εσονται γαρ απο του νυν ε̅ εν ενι οικω διαμεμερισμενοι γ̅ επι δυσιν και β̅ επι τρισιν

“For there will be from now on 5 in one house divided, 3 against two and 2 against three.”

Why did the scribe write ε̅, γ̅, and β̅ (5, 3, 2) in shorthand but spell out ενι, δυσιν, and τρισιν (one, two, three)? At first, this seems to be purely arbitrary, and my initial impression was that ancient scribes were as inconsistent as we are today. Who really knows—or cares—when “ten” is more fitting than “10”? As my research progressed, however, I noticed an interesting pattern that began to change my mind. Far from scribal whimsy, this sentence from P75 actually illustrates a consistent practice followed by virtually all early scribes. The pattern is this: Christian scribes avoided using symbols and abbreviations that would be potentially ambiguous in oral pronunciation.

Due to the fact that Greek is an inflected language, abbreviations and symbols can be extremely vague and potentially misleading. Take, for example, the number “one.” In Greek, there are several different forms for this number, all depending on grammatical gender and case: εἷς, ἑνός, ἑνί, ἕνα, μία, μιᾶς, μιᾷ, μίαν, and ἕν. With all these forms, how is a reader to know what is meant by the equivalent abbreviation α̅? It could mean any of these words. If used as a page number or marginal note, α̅ would be perfectly understandable. But to someone trying to read the text out loud, this abbreviation poses a serious problem.

Small wonder then that in my research I did not find a single instance of the number “one” written as a symbol in any New Testament manuscript dated up through the fifth century CE. This is a staggering degree of consistency considering the fact that the number “one” occurs in the New Testament more than any other number, no fewer than 345 times, and also considering that New Testament scribes are notoriously unpredictable in terms of orthography. In other words, while Christian scribes were happy to use numerical shorthand in their biblical manuscripts (and many clearly preferred them to longhand forms), they routinely avoided using shorthand for the number “one” and similar numbers that would be ambiguous in public reading.

So how does this explain the above example? Aside from the number “one”, which is never abbreviated by scribes, the rule is this: scribes used symbols for nominative/lexical forms because their spelling is expected, but they avoided using symbols for inflected forms because these would be potentially ambiguous. Most Greek numbers are indeclinable and thus have only one grammatical form. Since these can be pronounced only one way, scribes routinely abbreviated them: e.g., τέσσαρακοντα (forty) is frequently written μ̅, and ἑπτά (seven) is frequently written ζ̅. There are, however, a handful of numbers that, similar to εἷς/μία/ἕν, have declinable forms (e.g., δύο, τρεῖς, τέσσαρες). Scribes often used shorthand for these numbers too, but only when standing for nominative/lexical forms. As above, γ̅ for τρεῖς is fine, but to avoid ambiguity, τρισιν must be spelled out.

The same pattern can be found when scribes write numbers in the thousands (e.g., πεντακισχιλίοι, πεντακισχιλίων, κτλ. = 5,000) or ordinal numbers (e.g., πρώτος, πρώτου, κτλ. = “first”). Since both of these categories of number-words can have variable endings due to inflection, scribes carefully avoided using shorthand forms for them. Clarity for public reading took precedence over speed and convenience.

I argue that this pattern of number-writing is so widespread and so consistent that it simply cannot be coincidence. Furthermore, Greek documentary papyri contemporaneous with these New Testament manuscripts regularly contain numerical shorthand for “one” and other inflected numbers noted above. So, the pattern in New Testament manuscripts seems to be an intentional restriction. It therefore illustrates a conscious adaptation of the Greek numeral system to accommodate the needs of the early Christian community. It was not enough to have copies of scripture; early Christian groups needed Bibles that could be read aloud in worship without unnecessary impediments. I argue this point at length in Chapter 8 of my thesis, which was written at New College: Zachary J. Cole, Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts: Text-Critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies, New Testament Tools Studies and Documents 53 (Brill, 2017).

This observation, therefore, dovetails quite nicely with the current understanding of early Christian books, especially as articulated by Hurtado, as I note above. But it also adds to our knowledge because it reveals a remarkable degree of planning that took place in the copying process. It confirms that the early papyri are not haphazard, unprofessional scribblings of amateurs, though they are often described this way. Rather, New Testament scribes were very much aware of what they were doing and were more than able to produce functional, readable manuscripts even at the expense of economy and convenience.


Written by Dr. Zachary J. Cole


  • CSCO Team,
  • 7th July 2017


  • Trevor R Allin, 7th July 2017 at 10:25 pm | Reply

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating and important insight. I am glad to see that your thesis is being published.

  • Dick White, 16th February 2020 at 5:10 pm | Reply

    Well done, Dr. Cole. Keep up the good work!

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