Let’s Talk About Preservation

Posted by Clark Bates
November 1, 2019

Let’s talk about preservation.  Preservation is one of those Christian doctrines that is largely presumed in a discussion rather than explained or thought through.  Essentially, the doctrine of preservation is the belief that since God has promised that His word will never pass away, the word of God found in the books of the Bible must be preserved for all time.  The reason this doctrine isn’t often addressed on its own, is because it usually gets enveloped into an argument for the reliability of the text.  Discussions focus on manuscripts, variants, text categories and the like.

For critics like Dr. Bart Ehrman, the existence of variants in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament patently demonstrate that there has been no preservation of God’s Word. For others, the need to maintain the doctrine of preservation leads to adopting a particular translation of the Bible as the “only inspired and inerrant word of God” or to prefer the text that is found in the majority of manuscripts. And others choose to adopt a particular form of the text adopted by the Reformed creeds. In general, these slightly extreme approaches are bound up in a generally honorable desire, to defend the doctrine of preservation.

The doctrine of preservation is entirely biblical (Ps. 12:6-7; Is. 40:8; Lk. 21:33) and if one believes that God must work miraculously through time to preserve every single word, the desire to adopt a specific form of the text makes perfect sense.  I believe in the doctrine of preservation even though I do not hold to any of the positions above, but this post isn’t about breaking down the details of the doctrine, it’s about sharing what I believe to be an excellent example of God’s actions in history, through completely natural processes, to preserve his word for the next generations.

It’s all Greek

The direction of my academic work rarely intersects with content that I would consider applicable to this site, but this week I believe it does. My present studies involve the transition in Greek manuscripts from the handwriting commonly called Majuscule or Uncial to what is called minuscule.  In the earliest New Testament manuscripts, the Greek writing was entirely capital letters, with no spacing; this is what we call “majuscule” Greek.  Over several centuries the Greek majuscule was refined into various styles seen fit for writing books, referred to generically as a “book-hand”.  One of the most used styles by the 4th century onward is now called the “biblical majuscule” and is best evidenced in Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus.

The majuscule Greek dominated all literary works for hundreds of years, until the 9th century when a new book-hand abruptly appears on the scene. Nothing like the refined beauty of the all-capital majuscule style, this form of writing was lowercase.  Not only this, but it was written in a cursive style of interconnected letters in random places and marked with several combination forms of letters, called ligatures. This new hand would later be called “minuscule” for its lowercase approach to the text and becomes the predominate style of writing until the time of the printing press in the 16th century. So influential was the minuscule that the earliest Greek typefaces used in printing were designed after the minuscule writing style, so much so that ligatures are even found in the earliest printed Greek New Testaments.

The question that puzzles many (okay not many, but a select few that have nothing better to do) is why did the style of writing change as it did, and when did this actually begin? It’s impossible to believe that our oldest example of the Greek minuscule book-hand is the first time it appeared.  Many of these studies are very technical, but most paleographers are in agreement on two features:

  1. The minuscule book-hand must go back to at least the 7th century
  2. All evidence suggests that this book-hand originated in the Stoudium monastery in Constantinople

It’s these two details that I want to expand on, briefly.

A Brief Byzantine History

In the 4th century a Roman diplomat of high social status named Flavius Stoudios founded a monastery in Constantinople. Very little is known of the monastery in the following centuries, but the surrounding Empire experienced immense difficulty.  As various Emperors rose and fell, the wealth of the empire grew, but suffered under excessive expansion of territories. The plague decimated people and grain storages and people-groups living on the outskirts of the Empire began to revolt. Persia began to encroach into the northern boundary, Avars invaded in the West. By the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire was a shadow of its once great glory. At this same time, a new religion was rising in the East led by a man named Muhammed Ibn Abdullah: Islam.  The Islamic faith spread rapidly in the 7th century, conquering Egypt and the Persian Empire, threatening the existence of the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople.

The Islamic invasion was suppressed for a time, but their conquering of Egypt cut off the supply of papyrus to the Empire resulting in a shortage of writing materials. The alternative material, vellum, made from animal skins was costly and not producible in mass quantities in a financially diminished Byzantium.  Within Christianity, this was the era of the Chalcedonian Council and the Christological battles against Nestorianism and the nature(s) of Christ. By the 7th century, a new conflict had arisen called the Iconoclasm. This dispute in the church revolved around the use of icons (images of Christ and Mary) in worship or in churches. The iconoclasts argued that they should be destroyed, while the iconodules argued for their necessity.  It is here that the monks of the Stoudite monastery reappear in history.

The Stoudite monks opposed the iconoclastic emperors and churchmen, arguing fervently and writing excessively in favor of the use of icons in the church. So adamant and vocal were they, that many were persecuted, defrocked and exiled.  Among them was the abbot of the monastery, Theodore the Studite.  Theodore didn’t begin his life as a monk, but was trained to be a bureaucrat, loving the sciences, reading and writing.  He was convinced of the monastic lifestyle by his uncle Plato, also an abbot, and also trained in reading writing and the sciences.  Under Theodore’s leadership the Stoudite monastery became a center of literature. The monks were diligent in labor and encouraged to read and copy books regularly.  How would this be possible in a time of material shortage like I mentioned above?  The monks raised sheep, both for food and for their skins to use as material.  They became a self-sufficient center of learning.

In the obituaries written of Theodore and Plato, it is said that they possessed a style of writing that is difficult to translate into English.  The use od the Greek word is strange, but when combined with its context, the suggestion is that they wrote with a sweeping motion and with great speed. It is presumed that Plato taught this style to Theodore, who, in turn, taught it to his monks.  This is believed by some to be the beginning of the minuscule Greek hand. Why? Because the earliest dated example of this book-hand is a Gospel text referred to as the Uspenski Gospels and it is signed by a monk.  Nicholas the Stoudite, servant of Theodore.

Over time, the church returned to the use of icons and the monks were allowed to return, yet their monastery had become so influential in its operations that the Empress Irene asked that they send monks to other monasteries and train them. In effect, these monks took the minuscule book-hand they had learned from Theodore and spread it to the rest of the Christian world, where it was then recopied, taking on regional features of its own, and eclipsing the previously used majuscule hand. Within a few centuries, the demand for book making increased to such a level that it rocked even the archaeological evidence left behind.  In the 8th century a scant 58 New Testament papyri remain, many of which are fragmentary.  By the 9th century, and the beginning of the minuscule book-hand, there are 208, by the 11th century there are 836 and it grows astronomically from there.

Allow me to take this one step further by going one step backward. If you examine the non-literary papyri of the 5th – 7th centuries, it is possible to trace the expansion of a sloppy minuscule writing style, very useful for writing deeds, receipts, and the like.  These all come from Egypt of course, and are nowhere near the Stoudite monastery in Turkey.  However, the monastery was founded by a Roman diplomat, who would have been familiar with these non-literary styles of texts and was likely exposed to this very early form of the minuscule Greek. To populate the monastery, monks were brought in from the Ivory Coast of Africa on a trade route that would have taken them through Egypt, exactly where we find these papyri, exposing the monks to this style as well. What this may suggest is that the Greek minuscule writing style can be pushed back farther than originally thought, possibly back to at least the 6th century.

Conclusion

So, what does all this mean for preservation?  Let me show you what I see, from 10,000 feet. An educated Roman consul creates a monastery a century after the reign of Constantine from which a monk trained in the love of literature would eventually lead. It is populated by monks exposed to a very new and foreign way of writing Greek that also happens to resemble a Latin style of writing, once refined. This monastery becomes an outpost of book care and production, even establishing its own provisions for material in a time when the outside world is being ravaged. They are led by scholars, to become scholars, and influence other monasteries with them. They perfect a writing style that is faster than the one prior to it and aesthetically resembles the Latin, making it approachable in all regions of the Empire. These monks take this style of writing into the rest of the Empire right at a time when economic upturns promote a love and demand for literature. A demand for books that can be written quickly and stylishly. A demand that the earlier majuscule style would not have been able to meet. Without the minuscule hand, the coming Byzantine Renaissance would have died before it began, but because a thousand small changes took place centuries prior, exactly the right people, were in exactly the right places, at exactly the right time, to enable the largest period of book production ever seen prior to the printing press.

I call that divine preservation. I call that providence. In all times, for all people, God has provided His word and He has ensured that it will last even through the most unlikely of times.

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