The Canon, Text, and Manuscripts of the New Testament

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Chapter 5

The Origin and Forms of the Greek Alphabet


Section I. Origin

The Latin alphabet is the literary alphabet of modern Christendom and divides with the Arabic any claim to cosmopolitan extension,1 while its present rapid diffusion promises to make it the ultimate literary vehicle of mankind. The Latin is the direct descendant of the old Attic or Chalcidian type of the Greek alphabet which was brought to Italy as early as the eighth or ninth century B. C. through the colony of Cumæ, which tradition has named as the earliest Greek settlement in the Italian peninsula.2

The Greek alphabet was derived from the primitive Phoenician, as the term Φοινικήια γράμματα, the ancient name of Greek letters implies, although there are also traces of a certain Aramæan influence, as appears from the names of the letters themselves. It will be noticed that the names of the Greek letters commonly end in the final vowel called the "Emphatic Aleph," and which Dr. Isaac Taylor derives from the post-fixed article characteristic of the Aramæan idiom,, Otherwise the Greek names are manifestly descended from their Semitic prototypes, Alpha from Aleph, Beta from Beth, and so on. In either case the origin of the Greek alphabet as clearly Semitic is now abundantly proved by the evidence of epigraphic and numismatic material. A peculiar indication of the probable dependence of Greek upon Phoenician letters is the fact that the earliest Greek inscriptions are written after the Semitic fashion, from right to left. Then followed a period when the lines proceed alternately from right to left and from left to right, as an oriental ox turns back and forth in plowing a field. This was called βουστροφηδόν or plow-wise writing. Finally about the sixth century B. C. the more convenient practice of writing all the lines from left to right became generally prevalent.

The further question of the source of the Phoenician or Semitic alphabet is one that has been variously answered, Dr. Eduard Meyer tracing it back to that of the Hittites; Dr. Hommel, and Dr. Deecke, to the cuneiform Assyrian, while many eminent scholars agree that the hieratic Egyptian is more probably its immediate predecessor. Even the hieroglyphic cartouche of King Sent or Send, of the second dynasty, is made up of three capital consonants in practically the same form that they have kept in the Phoenician, Greek, Latin, and English alphabets during the sixty-five and more centuries since they were inscribed, while the cursive characters found in the hieratic document known as the Papyrus Prisse, and dating perhaps two thousand years later, furnish abundant evidence for the contention of those who trace the Semitic alphabet to Egypt. Thus the prolific Nile valley has produced not only the papyrus roll and the pen, but the letters as well of classic and of Christian civilization.

Section II. Capitals

The classification of the various forms of the letters in Greek manuscripts must, in the nature of the case, be arbitrary, since capital, uncial, minuscule, and cursive, mingle and interchange with true literary inconsistency in documents of the same period and even in those proceeding from the hand of the same scribe. Moreover the terminology of the subject has become singularly involved, the early and widely received division of manuscripts into uncial and cursive being peculiarly faulty, both because the terms themselves are in no sense coordinate and because there exists from the earliest times a script which may be described as a cursive-uncial, on the one hand, and an archaic, carefully executed minuscule script, by no means cursive in character, on the other. It is, of course, true that no important manuscript of the New Testament is written either in a distinctively capital or a distinctively cursive hand.

Capitals were invented and at first largely employed for the inscription of brief data upon hard substances, as rock, brick, pottery, coins, metals, ivory, shell, and horn. Their forms, therefore, are angular and comparatively stable and are often called lapidary forms. These capital letters are the direct source of the early uncial or book hands, and have themselves continued to be used in their most archaic shapes, in titles and superscriptions down to the present time. The inscription here reproduced from the Jerusalem Stele, a tablet which is supposed to have stood as a warning upon the barrier or fence dividing the inner court from the court of the Gentiles, in the Herodian Temple, furnishes interesting illustration of the lapidary Greek alphabet of New Testament times.

Section III. Uncials

We have in Plates II to VII inclusive facsimiles of the chief uncial types of New Testament manuscripts. These are evidently the work of professional scribes and probably illustrate the best period of uncial activity as far as the -Scriptures are concerned, being fully equal to the best manuscripts of classic Greek writers, whether contemporary or otherwise. It is often remarked that Homer in the Greek world, Virgil in the Latin world and the Bible in the world of Christian literature were published with a uniformity of care and elegance to which no other works could aspire, indeed, so great was the respect of ancient copyists for these three classics that there are comparatively few manuscripts known of them written in a strictly cursive character.

"The term uncial, which dates from the time of St. Jerome, . . . arose out of a misconception, uncial letters not being necessarily so very large and rarely an inch in height, as the name implies. It denotes a majuscule script in which the letters are not so square or so upright as in the lapidary alphabets. The forms are somewhat rounded and have usually a slight inclination of the vertical strokes, the difference being mainly due to the nature of the writing material—papyrus or parchment instead of stone or metal."3

There is considerable difference again as between the uncials upon papyrus and those upon parchment. Although the line of descent and dependence of the latter is directly traceable to the former, and although " the general result of the progress of any form of writing through a number of centuries is decadence and not improvement," yet, " in the case of the uncial writing of the early codices there is improvement and not decadence." This, as Dr. Thompson suggests, is doubtless chiefly due to the change of material, the superior surface of the vellum furnishing the scribe " greater scope for displaying his skill " than did that of papyrus. So that u there appears to have been a period of renaissance with the general introduction of vellum as the ordinary writing material".4

The Oxyrhynchus papyrus (plate II), although it is written in codex, and not roll form, and utilizes the verso as well as the recto side of the sheet, and although it contains a few conventional word contractions, as IC (line 5), θϒ (line 8), ΠPA (line 11) and ΑΝΩΝ (line 19) and the peculiar > shaped character to fill out the lengths of the shorter lines (for example, lines 3, 10, 17 and 18), nevertheless probably belongs to the earlier half of the second century and preserves a very pure type of the so-called Roman uncial hand of that period.5

This papyrus fragment is of so much higher antiquity, as well as palæographical value, to that of the first chapter of Matthew, found at the same time and place, that it is inserted in preference to the latter despite the fact that it cannot be strictly classed as canonical Scripture.- The simplicity, dignity, and regularity of this hand when compared with the great vellum uncials following confirms the contention of Dr. Kenyon that the palæography of Greek papyri anticipated in its development the subsequent history of writing upon vellum, so that the corresponding styles of writing on the two materials are not contemporary, but are separated by some centuries of time.6

The "five great uncials" on parchment which are illustrated in plates III-VII have been so often and so fully discussed elsewhere that there remains little to suggest save that the student cultivate a very close acquaintance with them.

Section IV. Minuscules

Minuscule manuscripts of the New Testament outnumber those in uncial hand twenty to one, and although they all date, in their extant form, later than the eighth century, yet the possibility is now generally recognized that they may, in some cases, reflect a text of as high antiquity as that preserved in the majority of uncials. Greater respect is now being paid to this class of manuscripts than in the days of Tregelles and the earlier text critics, and their careful collation is producing abundant material to warrant the labor involved.

The minuscule is the most nearly perfect book hand that has ever been invented, combining the elements of legibility and dignity inherent in the literary uncial with those of grace and more rapid execution characteristic of the nonliterary cursive.

As their name implies, the letters of this hand are somewhat smaller in size than their predecessors, yet at the same time they show a marked tendency to extend themselves either above or below the normal line of the text as well as to reach out laterally, as in cursive writing, and join together by the use of ligatures. The twofold origin of the minuscule from a combination of the uncial and cursive hands is seen in the Table of Alphabets at the end of this chapter, where it will be noted that in nearly every case of the duplicate letters in the miniscule columns one, is clearly derived from the corresponding uncial and the other from the cursive form. Another interesting peculiarity of minuscule script is the fact that these diversely derived forms of the same letter are often found side by side upon the same page and even in the spelling of a single word.

The perfection of Greek minuscule writing upon vellum was attained, according to Dr. Kenyon, in the tenth century, and continued, as a type for biblical scribes, fully three hundred years. It had been distinctly anticipated in the cursive hand prevailing in nonliterary papyri in Egypt as early as the seventh century,7 and thus again, as in the case of the lineage of Greek uncial letters, we find the minuscules tracing their descent back to the land of the Nile.

Of the eight New Testament minuscules in the Drew collection three may be classed as eleventh century and four as twelfth century manuscripts, while the latest is dated in the colophon of the scribe at the year 1366 and 1369, A. D. From this fact as well as from their facsimiles it will be seen that they belong as a whole to the earlier and better period of the minuscule art.

As to contents, it is possibly worth noting that the three eleventh century documents (plates, X, XT, XII) are codices of the gospels, either in whole or in part; the four of the twelfth century (plates IX, XIII, XIV, XV) are sumptuous lectionaries of the gospels, and the last contains the Pauline epistles. For the study of the minuscule text of the gospels, therefore, this collection furnishes an apparatus not often excelled by single libraries even in Europe.



1) Taylor, Isaac, The History of the Alphabet, vol. ii, p. 136.

2) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 10.

3) Taylor, Isaac, The History of the Alphabet, vol. ii, p. 148.

4) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography ; p. 149.

5) Grenfell and Hunt, Sayings of Our Lord, p. 6.

6) Kenyon, F. C, The Palæography of Greek Papyri, p. 89.

7) Kenyon, F. C, The Palæography of Greek Papyri, p. 125. Compare Wilcken, U., Tafeln zur aelteren Griechischen Palæographie, Vorwort.