This blog features a tenth-century manuscript of the Gospels known to scholars as Gregory-Aland 773 (GA 773). The manuscript is held at the National Library of Greece in Athens, the site of our 2015–16 digitization project. GA 773 is a remarkable manuscript in many respects. First of all, though it is over 1000 years old, it is nearly in mint condition. Each of the ornate icons of the Evangelists are entirely intact, along with the headpieces and other features of the manuscript. GA 773 also has extensive commentary surrounding the biblical text in the margins and a brief introduction to each Gospel. You might characterize GA 773 as a medieval study Bible.
It is easy for us, as inheritors of a tradition, to take for granted the many helpful features that have grown up around the bare text of scripture. Nearly all of our Bibles include basic things like page numbers, topical headings, chapters, verses, and intertextual cross-references; and study Bibles include as well explanatory notes from trusted scholars on the historical, literary, and theological features of the text. These do not claim to be essential nor original (besides book titles and page numbers, none of these features can be found in the earliest manuscripts of the NT). Instead, features like these are the products of centuries of study and reflection. Over time, certain innovations and helps became standard in the medieval church.These features … frame and guide the reading of the scriptural text.”
These features are referred to by scholars as ‘paratext.’ That is, they are features which frame and guide the reading of the scriptural text. In this blog, we will examine a single page from the beginning of Mark in GA 773. This single page can serve as a window into the many interesting paratextual features that became prominent after the first 1000 years of the text’s development.
In nearly all medieval manuscripts, each book begins with a headpiece. It is often rather ornate, with gold and blue ink used to beautify the beginning of the Gospel. The headpiece signals to the reader that a new book starts here.
Inscriptio (Book Title)
From the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels in the second century and throughout the entire tradition, each Gospel has had a title. It is either “The Gospel According to Mark” or simply “According to Mark.” GA 773 has the longer title, “The Gospel According to Mark,” written in gold ink with majuscule letters (similar to ‘all caps’ in modern English).
It is very common throughout manuscripts to have enlarged letters at the beginning of books and throughout each book in order to mark the beginning of new sections. In some cases it could even be intended to help readers recall verses for memorization by causing the first letter to stick out in their minds. The first Greek letter in the Gospel of Mark is alpha, identical to a capital “A.” It begins the word arche, ‘the beginning.’
As you can see on this page, the biblical text is written in a block in the top left quadrant of the page. The reader can easily see that the biblical text is the primary focus of the page, since it is much larger and more prominent than the commentary text surrounding its three sides.
If you spend any amount of time looking at medieval Gospels manuscripts, you will no doubt notice small notations in the margin of the text. These combinations of letters are an ancient system devised in the fourth century by Eusebius, the church historian and scholar. Though the system is a bit too complicated to explain here, these notations assisted readers in quickly finding stories that occur in multiple Gospels.
Nomina Sacra (‘Sacred Names’)
One feature unique to Christian manuscripts is the presence of nomina sacra, or ‘sacred names.’ Scribes would abbreviate names referring to God, the Spirit, many titles referring to Jesus (such as ‘Christ,’ ‘Son,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Savior,’ ‘God,’ and others). In the first verse of Mark, the words “Jesus Christ” have been written as nomina sacra. In Greek, these words would be spelled ιησου χριστου, but as nomina sacra they are shortened to only the first and last letters ιυ χυ (with a line over each one to alert readers these are shortened words). This communicated to readers the uniqueness of Christ and the worshipful reverence due to him.
As the medieval era dawned and progressed, certain historical information became standard introductory material in Greek NT manuscripts. It would often include information about the Gospel’s author and when it was written. In GA 773, this information is provided briefly on the first page of each Gospel, in (now somewhat faded) red ink before the commentary begins. This introduction provided readers with helpful information about the Gospel writer’s connection to Christ and the apostles, which reinforced the authority that the canonical Gospels held for Christian readers as a reliable witness to Christ’s person and work.
In medieval manuscripts of the New Testament, it is relatively common for there to be commentary accompanying the biblical text. After the first 500 years or so of Christianity, certain particularly reliable teachers emerged. Their teaching was deemed to be so helpful for so many Christians over such a long period of time that scribes wanted to make these comments on the biblical text readily available to future readers. In GA 773 specifically, it seems that the commentary provided in the margins is a combination of writings from numerous church fathers, especially from the fourth and fifth centuries.
Markers in text and commentary
Though it may be hard to see in the image above, there are small Greek letters written in red ink which are interspersed throughout the text and commentary. These were devised to help readers find the section of commentary that corresponded to each phrase in the biblical text they were reading. Similar systems are used in modern study Bibles with cross references or textual notes.