There is more to a text than merely the words on the page.
This is a principle that is often missed, even by modern readers. When a person reads a book, of course the intellectual attention is primarily centered upon the words and the meaning of those words. But, most readers don’t realize that there are many factors beyond the words that affect one’s reading experience. Such factors often go unnoticed as they operate in the background, often imperceptibly.
Some examples of such “paratextual” features: the size of the page, the size of the font, the spacing between lines, the margins/borders, the use/non-use of color, section headings, chapter headings, the size of paragraphs, use of italics/bold, etc. Beyond these factors, there is the color of the paper, the feel/weight of the paper, the cover of the book, and even the physical texture of the book.
All of these features—even though they are not the words themselves—are still communicating an immense amount of information to the reader. They can say something about genre (is this a science book? Kid’s book?), they can create expectations (high quality construction creates a sense that a book is more valuable), and they can even shape the reader’s perception of themselves (this book has an intellectual feel therefore I must be an intellectual).
But such paratextual features are not just part of modern books. They were also part of ancient books. Indeed, we see a variety of such features in our earliest New Testament manuscripts.
In recent years, scholars have increasingly begun to realize this. More and more attention is now being given to the various features of the physical medium by which the New Testament texts are delivered—e.g., scribal conventions, page layout, punctuation, abbreviations, quality of the hand. Rather than seeing manuscripts as merely disposable “husks” that carry an author’s story, it is becoming more evident that the visual features of these manuscripts can (and do) tell their own story.
Two recent books demonstrate this renewed scholarly interest in this topic. The first is Studies on the Intersection of Text, Paratext, and Reception: A Festschrift in Honor of Charles E. Hill (Brill, 2021), edited by Gregory R. Lanier and J. Nicholas Reid. Chuck Hill is now emeritus professor at RTS Orlando, and Greg Lanier and Nick Reid are both current professors at RTS Orlando.
This volume is chocked full of a number of fascinating essays from scholars such as Peter Head, Peter Malik, Peter Gurry, Jennifer Knust, Tommy Wasserman, Stanley Porter, Peter Gentry, Peter Williams, Paul Foster, Richard Bauckham, and James Barker. Not all essays were on paratextual features, but many of them were.
I was also pleased to contribute to this volume as Chuck and I have been long-time friends and have collaborated on a number of projects over the years. My article was entitled, “Second Peter 3:2, the Apostolate, and a Bi-Covenantal Canon.” There I argue that the “Prophets” and the “Apostles” were terms used in the very earliest Christian literature to refer to two distinctive stages of Christian revelation, and that those stages were the seeds for the eventual OT/NT canons.
The second volume about paratextual features was just released: Studies on the Paratextual Features of Early New Testament Manuscripts (Brill, 2023), edited by Stanley E. Porter, Chris S. Stevens, and David I. Yoon.
This volume, too, has an impressive collection of essays by various scholars: Stan Porter, Hans Förster, Matthias H.O. Shulz, Tomas Bokedal, S. Matthew Solomon, William Varner, Linnea Thorp, Tommy Wasserman, Conrad Thorup Elmelund, Sean A. Adams, Seth M. Ehorn, Chris Stevens, David Yoon, and Michael Theophilus.
The essays in this volume all pertain to paratextual features such as punctuation, intermarginal signs, nomina sacra, subscriptions, paragraph markers, and marginalia. My own essay in this volume was entitled, “Miniature Codices in Early Christianity,” where I explore the role of tiny size as a paratextual feature of early Christian manuscripts.
In sum, if you are interested in New Testament manuscripts as physical artifacts in their own right, then don’t miss these two volumes!