The Canon, Text, and Manuscripts of the New Testament

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Chapter 4

The Methods of Marking and Measuring; the Manuscripts


Section I. Punctuation

In the making of early uncial manuscripts the custom commonly prevailed of writing a continuous text, there being neither distinction of words nor separation of sentences. A method of distinguishing paragraphs, however, is found in early manuscripts, both on papyrus and parchment. A dividing stroke or dash (—), called παράγραφος, was used to mark the termination of paragraphs, being inserted, as a rule, at the beginning of the following line, the text itself remaining continuous, or in some cases broken only by a short space between paragraphs. The διπλῆ or wedge >, and κορωνίς or full stop ⁊, were also frequently used as paragraph marks.

These methods of marking paragraphs were afterward displaced by the fashion of enlarging and projecting beyond the margin the first letter of the next full line following the break, and this irrespective of its being an initial letter or not. This system prevails in Codex Alexandrinus. The same Codex also illustrates the usage of two other marks in punctuation of biblical texts, namely, the στιγμὴ τελεία or high point, placed on the level with the top of the letters to mark the full stop or period, and the στιγμὴ μέση, placed opposite the middle line of the letter and equivalent to a slight stop or comma. The ὑποστιγμή, a point on the lower level of the line to signify a pause midway between these two and equivalent to a semicolon, was adopted a little later. Both Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus make occasional use of the short space and of the στιγμὴ τελεία to mark a pause in the sense, while Codex Basiliensis is a good example of the use of all three points named. To mark the end of a paragraph or chapter the custom widely prevailed of using the παράγραφος in combination with two or more dots (:, :-, . ̇ .).1

The Greek mark of interrogation, or semicolon, first came into vogue at the end of the eighth century, and the comma used to mark a slight pause, a little later.

The comma placed above a letter in the character of the apostrophe occurs in the oldest uncials, especially after proper names, and in Codex Bezse and some others it assumes the shape of the διπλῆ or wedge, rather than that of the comma.2

Section II. Accents and Breathings

The Greek system of accents, punctuation, and breathings is attributed to the invention of Aristophanes of Byzantium, who flourished during the latter half of the third century, as a part of his Δέκα προσῳδίαι.

The Greek name for accents was τόνοι, and they were divided into the grave, βαρεῖα, or ordinary tone ; the acute, ὀξεῖα, or rising voice, and the circumflex, ὀξυβαρεῖα or περισπωμένη, which combined both a rise and fall or slide of the voice.

Although accents w r ere not applied with systematic accuracy to Greek texts before the seventh century, many of our earliest New Testament manuscripts have been embellished with them by scribes since that time, and several cases of their introduction at first hand are preserved on early papyrus as well as parchment manuscripts.

As the function of accents, however, is not such as to finally determine questions of interpretation, but rather to assist the public reader, only slight critical assistance can be looked for from this source. Of breathings, πνεύματα, more can be expected, since the rough breathing, in particular, is an essential portion of the language and represents the loss of a real letter.3 The entire controversy as to the standing of αὑτοῦ and its cognates in the "New Testament is an example in point.4

The original aspirate H is reflected in the sign of the rough breathing̘├ and of the smooth breathing ┤respectively, still preserved in some of the old manuscripts. These forms gradually became simplified into └ and ┘, and finally took the curved shape of later usage, that is, ʽ and ʼ.

Section III. Abbreviations and Contractions

These terms are used in the sense employed by Sir E. M. Thompson : the former, " for the shortening of a word by suppressing its termination," and the latter "for the shortening of a word by omitting letters from the body."5

In the oldest Greek papyri abbreviation is quite common, so that the tendency to avoid the labor of rewriting words of frequent occurrence existed long before the expense either of the labor or the material employed brought the custom into universal use.

In sacred manuscripts of the earliest date, the various names and titles of the Deity, as well as those of familiar places and household use, were shortened by the omission of the middle letters and the use of a horizontal stroke above the word. For example, θC stands for Θεός, XC for Χριστός, KC for Κύριος, IC for Ἰησους, ϒC for Ὑιός, ΠP for Πάτηρ, MP for Μήτηρ, CHP for Σωτήρ, ΠNA for Πνεῦμα, ΔΑΔ for Δαυίδ, IHΛ for Ἰσραήλ, etc.

On the other hand, examples of real abbreviation are Ιω for Ἰωάννης, Λο for Λουκᾶς, and the like.

The omission of ν at the end of a line was uniformly indicated by a straight stroke over the last remaining letter.

Section IV. Stichometry

The custom of measuring manuscripts, both of prose and poetry, by the use of the ἔπος or· στίχος, the average hexameter line, prevailed from the earliest period of Greek literature.

The normal use of the term στίχος makes it refer to the number of syllables rather than the number either of words or letters in the line, although there is evidence that the process stands midway between "letter-by-letter writing" and " a transcription word-by-word,"6

The title στίχος ἡρωϊκός and ἔπος ἑξάμετρον point in the same direction. This stichometric device was employed in determining the sale price of works, the wage scale of copyists, and the location of particular passages.

By writing a manuscript στικηρῶς and counting and recording the number of lines, both the market price of the copy and the wage of the copyist could be gauged. A standard thereby being set and the number of στίχοι registered, " subsequent copies could be made in any form at the pleasure of the scribe, who need only enter the ascertained number of lines at the end of his work. Thus in practice we find papyri and early vellum manuscripts written in narrow columns, the lines of which by no means correspond in length with the regulation στίχοι, but which were more easily read without tiring the eye."7

From the tariff contained in the edict of Diocletian Dr. J. Rendel Harris calculates the cost of production of the complete volume of which Codex Sinaiticus forms a part at approximately one hundred and eighty dollars, the cost of vellum being included.8

Besides recording the number of στίχοι contained in a work at the end of the book, the custom appears to have prevailed among librarians, as at Alexandria, of entering the number of στίχοι along with the title in their catalogues.

They also marked the number of lines at every fiftieth or hundredth line, in their copy of the book for the purpose ostensibly of literary reference.9



1) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Balæography, p. 70.

2) Scrivener, F. H. A., Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, vol. i, p. 49.

3) Scrivener, F. H. A., Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, vol. i, p. 46.

4) Home, T. H., Introduction to the Holy Scriptures, vol. iv, p. 33.

5) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 86, note.

6) Harris, J. Kendel, Stichometry, p. 9.

7) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 80.

8) Harris, J. Rendel, Stichometry, p. 27.

9) Johnston, H. W., Latin Manuscripts, p. 32.