Palaeographic Dating: Graphic Difference Does Not Always Mean Chronological Difference

In a few days, I hope to complete a post on the date of Codex Sinaiticus. It has been educational for me to revisit the arguments for the dating of this codex. One quotation that I found especially eye-opening was this admirably forthright comment from H.J.M. Milne and T.C. Skeat’s classic, Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus (1938):

“…the dangers of judging age on grounds of style are nowhere better illustrated than in the Sinaiticus itself, where the hands of scribes A and B present a markedly more archaic appearance than that of scribe D; did we not know that all three were contemporary, D might well have been judged half a century later than A and B.”

Let that sink in for a minute. The quite subtle differences between the writing of copyists A and B and the writing of copyist D would, in other circumstances, have led Milne and Skeat to assign copyist D to a period a full 50 years later than A/B, even though they are in fact contemporary.

This example is a good reminder that minute differences in the appearances of samples of Greek writing of the Roman era are not necessarily indicative of differences in the ages of the writing samples. Other factors, such as the personal tastes or skills of the copyist, could very well account for such differences.

Samples of writing from Codex Sinaiticus: Copyist D, Matt. 16:22 (left) and Copyist A, Mark 8:32 (right); image source:
This entry was posted in Codex Sinaiticus, Codices, Palaeography. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Palaeographic Dating: Graphic Difference Does Not Always Mean Chronological Difference

  1. The point is well taken, and prompts one to suggest a corollary (relevant to arguments re the dating of P75): “textual similarities do not always mean chronological similarities.”

  2. Lance says:

    I’m a cuneiform specialist, so I approach this all as a layperson. However, it has always amazed me that it is even possible to date a text to something like “50 years later” based just on paleography alone. It’s obviously a vastly different world, but we have tablets from, say, Shulgi year 30 and from Shu-Suen 9– about 40 years– and I am not sure that without a date written that I could say which was older.

    Perhaps we care less because the date is generally right there, but no one has really tried to plot certain cuneiform signs chronoligically over such a short span. And I’m not sure it’s possible. I am now inspired to dabble with this and see, but my guess is that just basic scribal variances (to say nothing of geography) would make it hard to create a true chronology of cuneiform graphemes over such a short span.

    • Thanks, Lance. I mean, if you have a lot (many thousands) of securely dated tablets, and you were able to actually detect graphic stylistic change over time in say, 50 year intervals, that would be fantastic. But for Greek literary writing of the Roman era, we just don’t have enough firmly dated sign posts to do this kind of thing. And it may not be possible at all for the very reasons you name: copyists/scribes may have personal styles and be capable of producing the kinds of writing that we have traditionally assigned to very different dates (on this point, see:

  3. Pingback: Vatican Library Website on Greek Palaeography | Variant Readings

  4. Steve Passage says:

    Within this context then, can you be sure if the Vaticanus, Sinaiticus or Alexandrainus text is older

    • Hi Steve, Codex Alexandrinus is generally thought to be later (5th century) than Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (4th century). Codex Alexandrinus has a terminus post quem (an earliest possible date) in the latter part of the fourth century because it includes the letter of Athanasius to Marcellinus, which is usually taken to be a work Athanasius wrote at an advanced age. So, there would be some overlap between the early end of possible dates for Codex Alexandrinus and the late end of possible dates for Codex Sinaiticus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s