Re: all punctuation secondary, part 2

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Apr 03 1998 - 16:27:51 EST

At 1:54 PM -0600 4/3/98, Perry L. Stepp wrote:
>I hate to be repetitious, but I sent this thing in so scattered a manner--
>I also have seen breaks in the running text, what appear to be dots, etc.,
>in the papyri. I also have heard David Balch talk about his research into
>the oldest extant Greek mss--I'm guessing pottery, inscriptions, but
>possibly also descriptions of same?--where he has seen punctuation and
>breaks between words. This in material from several centuries BC.
>As I recall, Balch was at a loss to explain how punctuation et. al.
>generally fell out of written Greek.
>1. Is anyone aware of this research? Can anyone describe it with more
>specificity and detail than I can?
>2. If I've characterized this properly, what explanations have been
>mustered to explain how the practice of punctuation was discontinued?
>3. Can we categorically state that there was no punctuation in the
>earliest texts of the NT? The fact that papyri copied under certain
>circumstances for certain purposes don't consistently or frequently use
>punctuation doesn't add up to "no punctuation in the earliest texts of the

For what it's worth--probably not much--I'd like to reiterate a point I
made this morning and add 2c worth more on the matter of phraseology (I
always remember Hermione Gingold in "Music Man" telling her husband, 'Watch
your phraseology' in the sense of 'watch your language'). Both points hang
together, actually:

While it is the business of an editor--which is to say of every
conscientious reader who must decide for him/herself which of the
alternative punctuations seems most probable--to figure out where the marks
of punctuation should be placed, it is certainly not true that phraseology
is altogether arbitrary--nor do I/did I ever really believe that Jim West
meant to say that. Word order is not fixed in Greek of the Classical Attic
or of the Koine eras, but neither is it arbitrary: there are patterns that
are decidedly more common than others; there are decided preferential
positions for certain types of adverbs and certain types of clauses
relative to other elements in a sentence or clause. What punctuation does
for a reader is not really so much to indicate how the editor reads the
text but to make it easier for a reader to discern where the natural or
logical phrase and clause units break.

Most people have had the experience (which I had most recently yesterday
afternoon) of reading a letter written quickly, almost illegibly, and
more-or-less without punctuation: one starts to read it aloud and has
difficulty making out what was intended; somewhere in the letter if not
more than once one will read through a place where there should have been a
pause that would have been marked by proper punctuation and misconstrue it.
Nevertheless, if one perseveres and ultimately deciphers the entire
composition, one will probably understand all, or almost all, of what was
written rightly, even without the guidance of all but the most obvious
punctuation that one didn't need anyway. I think this must be the
experience of the first readers of those ancient texts without clear
punctuation or readily discernible spacing between words: the better one
knows the language (as an ancient reader presumably would), the more
readily one "rightly divides the word of truth" (is that where that phrase
came from?)--and more often than not, one recognizes the places where a
pause in the flow of the language is natural.

Maybe all that is really too obvious to mention. Yet it seemed to me that
maybe one obvious point SHOULD be reiterated: the flow of language is
certainly not arbitrary any more than it is rigidly fixed. Which means that
there are indeed some problems like this with the SHMERON, but they are not
so numerous that we are continuously frustrated by them.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:39:21 EDT