Lincoln College Summer School of Greek Paleography

There is “nerdy.”

And there is “super nerdy.”

Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a week-long course that fits into the latter category: the Lincoln College Summer School of Greek Paleography, held at the University of Oxford.

You know you’re in over your head when you’re the only person in the room who (a) does not know Latin and (b) cannot figure out which Greek tragedy we’re looking at simply based on reading a few of the lines written in Greek.

But it was a good week, so let me share a bit more about why on earth anyone would take such a course.

Looking at old books written by people a long time ago, in handwriting that is almost completely illegible, in a language no one speaks any more

In a nutshell, that’s what this course was about. Paleography is the study of ancient and historical handwriting, generally focusing on manuscripts that circulated prior to the invention on the printing press. In most cases, these documents are written in ancient Greek, Latin, or perhaps some other language (Syriac, Hebrew, Ethiopic, Georgian, etc.).

In a world of Kindles, iPads, e-readers on smart phones, beautiful typesetting, and a general collapse in the ability of the modern student to write anything by hand—let alone in cursive—it is easy to lapse into a certain amount of chronological ignorance or even snobbery about the way reading and writing took place long long ago. Before Gutenberg, before the word processor, before Helvetica, before Steve Jobs, the world was much different in terms of the way books and manuscripts worked. Everything was, of course, written and transmitted by hand (or orally), usually one at a time, on materials that were very costly to obtain. Imagine the expense of producing a copy of,  say, Homer’s Iliad or the Old Testament if you had to pay someone to copy it by hand, letter by letter, on very expensive parchment, with no CTRL+Z (undo) or backspace key, and, if you’re really aiming to impress, commissioning some painter in Florence, Italy, to do original paintings in the book. It’s astounding, really.

Here's a great example of a decorated, well-produced manuscript
Here’s a great example of a decorated, well-produced manuscript

Let’s say you try to download an English translation of Plato’s Republic to read on your Kindle Paperwhite by the pool this summer (because who wouldn’t pick that, right?). Few people pause to realize how such access to that work came to be. Behind the scenes, some academic translator produced that version based on some nicely printed critical edition that was originally written in Greek. The folks who made that critical edition may have had access to a handful of other nicely printed editions that various scholars put together over the past few hundred years. But those scholars only had access to a handful of much older manuscripts written in a horribly illegible cursive, lower case form of Greek, produced perhaps by some monk or another scribe by candlelight on very expensive parchment in, say, the 12th or 13th century AD, or perhaps earlier.

That’s a long process to get to your nice Kindle.

Paleography, then, is one of a group of disciplines that focus on going back to these original manuscripts to understand what they contain, how the text was passed along from scribe to scribe, and so forth. Other related disciplines include codicology (how the physical books themselves are produced) and textual criticism (studying the various versions of a given work).

Why do people do this? For a variety of reasons: to have access to various versions of a text that may have been circulating (given that scribes make mistakes or may try to “improve” something when they are copying it by hand); to be able to transcribe (=convert to modern letters) works that have only recently been discovered and have not been accessed before; to access interesting notes in the margins or in other parts of a book that the scribe or the person who owned the book may have made, which may reveal a lot about how the work was read or interpreted; to gain clarity about how old a manuscript might be, and under what circumstances it was copied; and much more.[1]

With all that as a brief prologue, let me share briefly about how the course itself worked (including my evaluation of it), followed by some reflections on why I think this kind of thing is important (and, thus, why I wanted to attend this massive nerd-fest).

About the paleography course itself

This was the fifth year of this course offered by Oxford. The week was structured as follows:

  • The attendees (roughly 30-40, but it was tough to tell for sure as we were subdivided into 3 groups) were from all over the world: a few from British universities, a large number of Classics and Byzantine students from America, and a smattering of scholars from Europe. There was a handful of biblical studies students, but we were in the minority.
  • Each day we spent about 5 hours looking at digital images of a variety of Greek manuscripts, dating from roughly the 400s to the 1500s AD. These manuscripts included a good number of biblical (or liturgical) manuscripts, classical Greek poetry and philosophical works, and even a few scientific texts, such as Euclid’s Elements. Nearly all the manuscripts we studied were “minuscules”: lower-case, cursive, heavily-abbreviated (or even shorthand at points) handwriting that includes some punctuation but no spaces between words (scriptio continua). We would take turns reading a few lines of the manuscript at a time, and the instructor would point out various things along the way regarding how to make sense of the handwriting, the abbreviations used, etc.
Examining a medieval manuscript of Psalm 110
Examining a medieval manuscript of Psalm 110
  • For two hours each day, we looked at real manuscripts held at the Bodelian Library and the library at Christ Church college, both of which are world famous for their manuscript collections. In some cases, we were allowed to handle these ancient documents, which was something I had never been allowed to do. It was fascinating to touch and feel something hand-written by, say, a monk at Mt. Athos, Greece, which was then purchased by the former archbishop of the Church of England in the 1700s, and then passed on to his alma mater (Oxford), and so forth.
The world famous (among folks who study Greek manuscripts) Nigel Wilson giving us a tutorial at Christ Church library
The world famous (among folks who study Greek manuscripts) Nigel Wilson giving us a tutorial at Christ Church library
The extensive collection of very old manuscripts at Christ Church college
The extensive collection of very old manuscripts at Christ Church college
  • We finished each day with a lecture given by a scholar in the field.
  • At the end of the week, we sat for a final examination, whereby we were asked to produce a transcription (not a translation, fortunately) of two excerpts of Greek manuscripts, using no helps.
Evaluation: things I found very beneficial in the course
  • The strongest part of the course is being put on the “hotseat” multiple times a day to read a Greek manuscript cold, with no helps. I had little exposure to “minuscules” previously (other than some help from Dr. Peter Head at Tyndale House). It was, thus, pretty brutal to be put on the spot to read an unfamiliar text in front of others! But the benefit was that all my crutches—some of which I didn’t even know were there—were pulled away. No English translation nearby; no biblical passage that I sort of know from memory in English, so that I can fudge the Greek that I don’t know so well; no clean modern printed edition. Just me and some convoluted Greek that I was forced to decipher on the fly, over and over and over and over again! It was brutal, but good. By the end of the week, I felt much comfortable with the various forms of handwriting.
  • On a related note, it was also very beneficial for me to rub shoulders with non-biblical studies folks for the week. The Classics guys REALLY know Greek, so it was great to hear them discuss various aspects of Greek grammar as we tried to decipher particularly inscrutable / illegible texts of Euripides or Homer or whatever. I left feeling like I know next to nothing about Greek! (but I also learned a good deal)
  • The library visits were also on the whole helpful. It is one thing to look at a digital image of an ancient manuscript. It is another thing to see it literally in the flesh (on animal skins!). They are truly fascinating artifacts of our cultural heritage.
Evaluation: things I wish had been done differently
  • On the whole, the course could have been a touch more organized. We could have used a more detailed schedule for where we were supposed to be, what we were supposed to be doing, etc. each day.
  • Perhaps the major frustration that I felt (and I know others did as well, based on talking with them) was that the tutorials did not include enough actual paleography-related instruction on how the various handwriting works, how it changed over time, and so forth. We worked primarily via looking at example after example, and that is certainly the best way to gain experience. But we could have used a bit more big-picture guidance.
  • The lectures in the evenings seemed a bit random, and some of them did not seem to be related to the theme of the course (namely, paleography).
  • While it was a tremendous blessing to have access to the manuscripts during the library visits, at points it was difficult to follow exactly what was going on or why certain examples were being shown to us (i.e., we weren’t always given context for why this manuscript mattered). It may have been more useful to provide us with some information beforehand so that we would have known what we were going to see.

All-in-all, however, it was a beneficial week. It was also a great opportunity to spend time in Oxford during a week of lovely sunny weather.

The view of the entire city from South Park hill
The view of the entire city from South Park hill

Connecting to the pew

So why would I attend such a class? Why does this topic matter? Why is it important to study something that looks like this:

This example was particularly atrocious!
This example was particularly atrocious!

Let me offer a few reasons:

  • Ability in the languages matters. One of the goals for me personally during the week was to boost my Greek capabilities. The more I serve in ministry and in the academic world, the more I realize the need for those who serve in a teaching capacity in the church to be very solid in the biblical languages. There’s a much longer discussion about why I think this is the case (see “Brothers, Bitzer was a Banker” in the meantime). But on the whole, it matters that we have men and women who are very good in handling the Bible in its original languages. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but this week was part of an ongoing process of growth in that area.
  • It is important for pastors, seminary students, and scholars to understand that our cherished biblical text has a history. When you look at a modern English edition of the Bible (say the ESV or NIV), you may see footnotes that say something like “Some manuscripts read ‘XYZ’ for this verse.” Behind that footnote is a wealth of scholarship that has tried to determine based on the manuscripts we have available (e.g., at present there are a little over 5,800 ancient copies [before the modern era] of all or part of the NT!) which reading was most likely originally written by, say, Paul or Mark or whomever. In our tidy Greek Bibles (Nestle Aland or UBS) that everyone uses today (for preaching or for Bible translation, etc.), there are even more footnotes that tell you all sorts of information about which manuscripts say “this” or “that” in a verse, and so on. But behind THAT set of footnotes are all the manuscripts that scholars have painstakingly analyzed in order to understand the text. It is one thing to look at those footnotes in our Greek editions and get a feel for the different options for a given verse. But it truly comes alive when you actually look at original manuscripts, one after another, and get a feel for how scribes worked, how they tediously copied letter by letter or word by word, how errors or changes may have crept in through their labors, and how we can go about eliminating errors to arrive at what we think is the most likely “original” text. Looking at Greek paleography and evaluating actual manuscripts is the best way to get your head around the fact that, as soon as the words of the NT were written by the original authors, they began to have their own quite interesting history as they were copied, disseminated, copied again, and passed down through the church to the present day.
  • The manuscript artifacts themselves give us a connection to the church of our forefathers. One of the most interesting things about looking at old manuscripts, particularly those of the Bible or liturgical readings or lectionaries of the church, is how the physical artifacts themselves—that is, the tangible item, not just the text it contains—provide a vivid connection to the church historical. It’s fascinating to look at a very expensive copy of the gospels, which has markings indicating which passages were to be read on a given day in a given year, and realize: wow, that literal book was what a church in, say, modern-day Turkey actually used for its Sunday morning readings! Someone held that book and read from it on, say, the fourth Sunday after Easter in 936 AD. Of course I knew that cognitively, but it was very cool to see it, touch it, smell it. The Christian faith is rooted in a very real and vivid history—it is not just about your morning devotional reading or your church’s youth program—and these manuscripts give us a timeless window into the church world of our forebears.
  • Studying Greek paleography is part of the creation mandate. I’ll admit that at a few points along the way last week, namely when I was being asked to, say, read some portion of Euripides (and I didn’t know any of the vocabulary), I wondered why I was wasting my time on this. Sometimes it seemed overly technical and kind of pointless. But stepping back from those emotions, which were likely fueled by frustration at my own incompetencies more than anything else, I realize better now that something as esoteric as studying early Byzantine Greek paleography is exactly what God calls us to do. Sure, not’s not preaching … it’s not feeding the hungry … it’s not curing cancer. But God’s creation mandate was for his people to work, to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over it. Part of that calling is studying something simply because it is there to be studied: increasing knowledge is, by definition, a good thing, because it is part of what God calls us to do as stewards of his created world. So even if there is not an immediately practical benefit, there is still tremendous value in studying something and doing so with excellence.


[1] For instance, one of the most interesting books we looked at was a massive volume of a variety of old church writings (mostly relating to icons in the church) that had been written elegantly on large and costly parchment, decorated with a large number of paintings throughout the book, and bound with a Venetian velvet cover and metal brackets. The book was put together as a gift for the queen at the time, perhaps as a wedding gift. Apparently it was not heavily used, given that the parchment was still in very good shape. Given the size of the book and the quality of the production, it likely took at least 250 sheep to make!

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