Notes on chapter divisions in Syriac manuscripts from antiquity

The British Library holds some of the most ancient Syriac manuscripts in the world, brought there in 1842 by Archdeacon Tattam from the monastery of Deir al-Suryani in the Nitrian desert in Egypt.  Last Saturday I went down there, along with Syriacist Steven Ring, and examined four of them for evidence of chapter divisions.  This sort of thing is not recorded at all well in critical editions, so personal inspection was necessary.

The first item examined was Ms. Additional 12150.  This is a large folio manuscript, containing translations from Greek, and dated (by the scribe) to 411 AD!  That is, it was written the year after the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Goths.  I used Wright’s Catalogue, p.632 f., as a finder’s guide.  The text is written by a single scribe.

It begins on folio 1r with scribbles in Syriac and Arabic.  The page must originally have been blank, which is curious; for the text begins on folio 1v with no heading.  However a running header in red, apparently by the same scribe as the text, appears on the verso of each leaf; in this case, saying “.o. Clement .o.”, because the volume begins with discourses and homilies from the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions; labelled as “I” by Wright.

Folio 1v shows the start of chapters 1, 2 and 3 of discourse 1, or so I find from De Lagarde’s 1861 edition of the text.

There are no chapter numbers.  Each chapter begins on a new line, and ends with a series of “o.o.o.o”, sometimes all in black, sometimes alternately in black and red.  This fills up most of the remainder of the line; and a blank line sometimes follows.  De Lagarde shows the item in his edition, but for some reason has omitted the newlines.

The subscriptio to the first discourse is in red on f.53r.   There it is followed by a blank line, then “.oo. .oo. .oo.”

I found that:

  • Discourse 1 is divided into chapters throughout.
  • Discourse 3 is not divided at all.
  • Discourse 4 is divided throughout.
  • Homily 12 has a few divisions only towards the end.
  • Discourse 14 is not divided at all.

The next item in the codex, II, is the work of Titus of Bostra against the Manichaeans.  This has chapters, ending with three examples of a marker, consisting of four dots in a diamond shape; later on reverting to the same end-of-chapter marker as used for Clement.  Again a new chapter means a new line.

I curse, by the way, that the British Library would not allow me to take snaps of the pages with my mobile phone; thus I am reduced to verbiage, where an image would show what I mean.

After Titus we find (III) the treatise of Eusebius on the Theophania, in five books.  This also is divided into chapters by the same markers.  However, part way through book 4, the ninth chapter — there are no numerals, remember — begins with a heading in read, and each chapter then has a heading for the remainder of the book.  Book 5 also has some.

Item IV is Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine.  This is divided into sections with red headings.  Inside each section are chapter divisions as before. E.g. f.235v, 236r.

Item V is Eusebius’ Encomium on the Martyrs, divided into chapters like the rest of the ms.

Nowhere are there any numerals.

It is interesting that some of the Clementine material is divided, and some is not.  I would infer from this that the divisions are not by the scribe, who would otherwise have done the same thing all through.  The differences in the Clement material may be accounted for most easily, if we suppose that the scribe had a box full of rolls, each containing one item, which he proceeded to copy into his brand new codex.  He only had a rag-bag of rolls, which is why discourse 2 is missing — the discourses are headed with their number in the subscriptions — and some of these came from sources that were divided, while some were not.

The same applies to the Theophania; while all the rolls were divided into chapters, the last two had headings in the roll.

The next manuscript examined was a quarto, Additional 14639.  This dates to the 6th century AD, and contains a Syriac translation of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia Ecclesiastica.

I noted that on f.11b there was a red heading.  F. 18 has chapter divisions, marked by filling up the line with a diamond of 5 dots, then newline.

The table of contents to book 2 appears on f.18v.  It is not numbered.  Each table element is on a new line, and alternate elements are in different colours, black and red text. At the end of each element the scribe has filled up the line with dots or diamonds.  Divisions in the text are mainly by means of red headings.

There is a deviation in the table of contents.  The one on f.70a starts with alternate red and black elements, as before; but the scribe then changes to first word of each entry in red, with the rest of the words in black.  However the table of contents on 96v is back to full alternating as before.

I then looked at Additional 14542.  This dates to 509 AD, and contains Basil the Great’s work on the Holy Spirit.  It is a quarto volume.

A chapter division is visible on f.7r., and on f.5r.  10r 13v, with coloured dots.  There are no headings, but definitely chapter divisions of the form we saw earlier.  The subscriptio is in red.

My final manuscript was Additional 17182, containing the homilies of Aphrahat.  It dates to 474 AD.  It too is quarto.

There are infrequent chapter markers. One appears on f.3v; another on f4r.  There are no blank lines when a new chapter begins, but there are newlines.  F.7v has two diamonds at foot of page.  There is a red heading on f.11v and f23r.  There is also a running title on the verso, but this time only at the end of each quire.  Presumably this means that the book was written in quires, and the running heading told the binder what order to assemble the book.

In short we find, in these very early manuscripts, copious evidence of division into chapters.

12 Responses to “Notes on chapter divisions in Syriac manuscripts from antiquity”


  1. Suburbanbanshee

    Cool! And so amazing to see something written so long ago. (As opposed to being carved or built a long time ago, which you’ve got a fair amount of, over in your neck of the continent.)

  2. Roger Pearse

    I thought so myself. In fact I was prepared for argument; but they didn’t blink, or treat it any different than any other manuscript. I wonder if the staff even knew how old it was? Syriac, being a minority interest, gets less attention in every respect.

    I don’t know if there are Greek or Latin manuscripts dated to ca. 411, but I’d expect a lot more hassle to access them!

  3. suburbanbanshee

    Hard to say. Sometimes, working with amazing stuff makes you very matter of fact about it. Like archeologists bringing out the masking tape to hold together an old pot until more can be done — it just seems weird and casual, but it’s practical and everyday for them.

    OTOH, it’s possible that nobody noticed. Heh.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Well that’s true. The manuscripts have modern bindings and just look like books. The pages in Additional 12150 were all frayed at the edges, so these have been reinforced by new parchment, and the result is that, although large, it doesn’t look that old until you open it.

  5. David Wilmshurst

    I think the MS of 411 has the distinction of being the oldest dated Syriac manuscript. Either this one or another one of roughly the same date is connected with the Roman bishop Marutha of Maiperqat, who visited Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410 to attend the synod convened by Isaac, the patriarch of the Church of the East. Marutha provided useful advice on organising the Church of the East along Roman lines (patriarch, metropolitans and bishops), and took back to the Roman Empire relics of the martyrs of the ‘Great Persecution’ launched against the Church of the East by the Persian king Shapur II in the 330s. He honoured the Persian martyrs by founding the city of Martyropolis in Sophanene, normally known under its Syriac name Maiperqat.

  6. Roger Pearse

    Yes, add. 12150 is the oldest dated Syriac literary manuscript. Nice to see it.

  7. sftommy

    Was reading about the Roman ship found off Varazze, Italy with sealed amphora intact and the expectation of finding 2,000 year old food.

    Made me wonder if scrolls, when shipped overseas, were put in sealed amphora or left in capsae? One study of Roman woodworking suggested these were made of a beech laminate, which would’ve probably leaked and destroyed any scrolls.

    If scrolls were shipped in sealed amphora it’d be nice to find a library “in transit” in this new discovery and maybe in other wrecks.

  8. Roger Pearse

    It’s an interesting thought; but it’s hard to think of a reason why rolls would be placed inside sealed amphorae, isn’t it?

  9. sftommy

    The line of thought being that a capsa wouldn’t be expected to be water-tight, so a publisher, like Atticus, might prefer to ship their larger quantities of work in sealed amphorae to prevent water damage en route.

    Then again the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were found in a very tall jar, perhaps another way of shipping such things out of Egypt?

    Speculative optimism I know. I’m still searching for examples of how scrolls were sea transported at the time and in the back of my mind keeping an eye out for other wrecks sites that might preserve their cargo.

    I appreciate you sharing so much of your work, thought and insights with all us.

  10. Roger Pearse

    Now that is an interesting thought. And yes, the Nag Hammadi codices were found in a large sealed jar.

    But you remind me that books used to be shipped in barrells, at the reformation, and bound on arrival. Why not ancient texts?

    I think you are right. (And thank you for the kind words)

  11. Patrick Cullinan, Jr.

    >the British Library would not allow me to take snaps of the pages with my mobile phone

    Roger, what in hell is the matter with the British Library?!

    Don’t answer that. I’m just blowing off steam.

    All the best,

    Patrick Cullinan, Jr.

  12. Roger Pearse

    Like most state institutions, they are run mainly for the benefit of the staff.