The Question of Question Marks in Greek Manuscripts

I’ve been meaning to post for quite some time on a fascinating video from the 2021 Birmingham Colloquium on New Testament Textual Criticism. Elijah Hixson presented on P50, a papyrus bifolium containing Acts 8:26-32 and 10:26-31 kept at Yale’s Beinecke Library (P.CtYBR inv. 1543, LDAB 2861). It was bought in Paris from Maurice Nahman in 1933. It’s generally assigned to the fourth century, but Hixson argued this piece might be a modern fake. I think he’s right.

I don’t want to give away too many of the details. Hixson builds a cautious cumulative case for forgery that is definitely worth watching, either in the original Birmingham presentation here or a more recent version here.

I just want to dwell on one issue that came up in the video that has been of interest to me for a while. In both videos, Elijah comments upon the presence of the symbol ; used to mark questions on two occasions in P50, the end of Acts 8:31 and the end of Acts 10:21.

As Elijah notes, this seems out of place in a fourth century manuscript. In fact, as far as I know, this would be unique among papyrus manuscripts of the fourth century, as the “semicolon”-style question mark does not occur regularly in Greek manuscripts until much later. This seems to me to be, by itself, a strong indication of that P50 is a modern forgery.

But I have wondered for a while: When, exactly, do we start seeing the ; symbol as question mark in Greek manuscripts? The textbooks have not been especially helpful. The clearest statement I have seen is Edward Maunde Thompson writing in 1912 (An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography):

“The mark of interrogation also first appears about the eighth or ninth century” (p. 60).

Frustratingly, Thompson does not provide any examples. The earliest instance I know of is a manuscript of Genesis in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Bodleian Library MS. Auct. T. inf. 2). This is a parchment manuscript copied partially in majuscules and partially in minuscules. Some authorities assign it to the 9th century, others to the 10th century.

Bodleian Library MS. Auct. T. inf. 2. 1; image source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The “semicolon”-style question mark regularly appears at the end of interrogative sentences, for instance in Genesis 3:11:

Detail of Genesis 3:11 in Bodleian Library MS. Auct. T. inf. 2. 1image source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The phrase ἀδαμ ποῦ εἶ is already marked as a question by the circumflex accent over the diphthong in ποῦ (“Adam, where are you?”), but the copyist has also added the ; symbol. As I noted, this is the earliest piece I have been able to find with the ; question mark. But there must be some earlier examples that Thompson had in mind. Does anyone know of any?

This entry was posted in Fakes and Forgeries, Punctuation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Question of Question Marks in Greek Manuscripts

  1. Conrad T. Elmelund says:

    David Parker deals with question-marks in Latin books on pp. 46-7 in his “Codex Bezae,” and he references this article by Jean Vezin (https://www.persee.fr/doc/scrip_0036-9772_1980_num_34_2_1171).
    I know this doesn’t answer your question but there are given examples of the appearance of question-marks in Latin books from around the second half of the eighth century.

  2. Not directly relevant, but, as you may know, Edward Maunde Thompson and Thomas Duffus Hardy differed on dating the Utrecht Psalter, Hardy claiming an earlier date, asserting, contra Thompson, that punctuation, including inverted semicolon, was added much later, in his 1874 book, Further report on the Utrecht psalter; in answer to the eight reports made to the Trustees of the British museum.

  3. Pat Sanders says:

    I have also searched for Thompson’s 9th c. question mark in both biblical and non-biblical mss. The Bodleian has a Plato ms, E.D. Clarke 39, dated 895. Folio 1r has a punctuation mark that looks like two vertical dots over a comma, where I would expect a change of speaker and a question mark, so perhaps a combined mark? Plus, there is one semi-colon style mark where I did not expect it. How would you interpret these punctuation marks?
    https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/f57d074b-cff1-4172-8236-797c7b8f0403/surfaces/9f5322f4-100e-4732-9aee-b1fe63b3c0b9/

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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