palaeography & dating manuscripts - the elusive terminus ante quem - identifying replicas and forgeries

Steven Avery


Let's start with the definitions given to palaeography.

We go to Metzger and we get this definition:

Manuscripts of the Greek Bible
An Introduction to Palaeography (1981, 1991 edition)

PALAEOGRAPHY (παλαια + γραφή) is the science that studies ancient writing, preserved on papyrus, parchment, or paper, occasionally on potsherds, wood, or waxed tablets. Epigraphy deals with ancient inscriptions on durable objects, such as stone, bone, or metal, while numismatics is confined to coins and medals. The distinctions are less superficial than it may seem, for the forms of letters were determined in part by the nature and the size of the material that received them.

Greek palaeography has three aims: first, developing the practical ability of reading and dating the manuscripts; second, tracing the history of Greek handwriting, including not only the form and style of letters, but also such matters as punctuation, abbreviations, and the like; and third, analyzing the layout of the written page and the make-up of ancient book forms. p. 3
First, we will note as an aside that codicology is simply given as an "aim" of palaeography, which makes no sense. It is a separate, related but distinct, discipline.

Palaeography may be defined as the comparison and analysis of ancient hands, leading to their classification and dating. It has often been taken to include other aspects of book production, though today these are often placed under the separate heading of codicolocy.

Was Matthew Written Before 50 C.E.?
David Charles Parker
Returning to Metzger, there is already a major problem in the definition.

How can "
the science that studies ancient writing"
develop "
the practical ability of ... dating the manuscripts" ?

The simple answer: it cannot.

The practical ability of dating manuscripts is dependent on a myriad of factors in addition to the writing. Provenance, all aspects of the authorship and history of the ms., motives for forgery, the condition of the vellum and ink and binding, textual considerations, scientific testing of parchment and ink and binding, any pictures, icons and symbols, there are factors internal and external that affect proper dating and determination of ms authenticity.

Even graphology is a separate discipline, and comes to play, e.g. when an analyst claims to see a "forger's tremor" within a writing. Philology, the study of changes in language over time, can be extremely helpful in dating manuscripts, e.g. by finding anachronisms. This is the main basis of how Lorenzo Valla, 1407-1457, showed the Donation of Constantine is a forgery, and this is the focus of James Donaldson studies on Hermas and Barnabas in Sinaiticus) and determining authenticity, yet it, too, is a separate discipline.

So the paragraphs given by Metzger are simply logically errant.

Palaeography as the science of studying ancient writing can assist in determining dates, it can be one factor for consideration, but it is far from being able to develop the practical ability to date mss.

The situation is even more dicey when replicas and forgeries are involved, because then there is a conscious decision to emulate an older script. Yet even in normal copying, it may simply be a favorite technique (e.g. of monks and church scribes) to continue to write in the old style. It may simply be preference and style.

Plus, simply studying script and style can never give us a terminus ante quem of any writing.

"I do not trust palaeography to prove an old date, but I do trust it to disprove such a date. It is easy to imitate what is antique, but impossible to predict what will be novel." - David R. Smith
The simple fact of the lack of symmetry in the time chronology is a major element of palaeography that is barely recognized in the rarefied world of New Testament "palaeography" that developed through Tischendorf.

And as for Tischendorf's rush to date his own mss and the mss he considered textually most significant, this was a highly unusual situation, which we discuss on another thread. And when Tischendorf was given a special chair of sacred palaeography in 1859 at Leipsic University, it was like making the fox the architect of the hen-house.

For the ancient manuscripts, rarely can a terminus ante quem date that is given be really supported by evidences.

You can see this confusion in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Palaeography, a science of dating manuscripts by typological analysis of their scripts, is the most precise and objective means known for determining the age of a manuscript. Script groups belong typologically to their generation; and changes can be noted with great accuracy over relatively short periods of time.
This is simply false information. There may well be times when "typological anaysis of their scripts..." achieves he ends stated. However, there can be other times when it is simply useless, e.g. in determining whether a manuscript was created in 400 AD, or 1000 AD, or 1800 AD. Look at ms. 2427 as a simple example.

So an interesting question arises: what is the science of dating mss called?

Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) author of De re diplomatica
libri sex, is considered the founder of palaeography and diplomatics. There were difficulties in determining the authenticity of documents, often government and official documents and thus he developed:

"a series of criteria for testing the authenticity of medieval documents"

Foundation of Palaeography and Diplomatics
Mabillon's range included:

"material, ink, language, script, punctuation, abbreviations, formulas, subscriptions, seals, special signs, chancery notes and so on"

Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (1998)

Luciana Duranti
While there is a looser definition of diplomatics referenced as given by Peter Herde "the study of documents", however Duranti essentially affirms that it is the study of "archival documents".

However, the object of diplomatics is not any written document it studies, but only the archival document, that is a document created or received by a physical or juridical person in the course of a practical activity.
However if you go to a work like that of Metzger's there is no diplomatics and no equivalent discipline discussed for dating manuscripts or determining authenticity of manuscripts.

The confusion between diplomatics and paleography is not of a terminological nature, but is deeply rooted in the history of the two disciplines and in the philosophical conceptions of the eighteenth century.

Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (1991)
Luciana Duranti
Thus we are left with a void. The implication is that studying palaeography (whether limited to the script only, or including textual features) finds the date of a New Testament manuscript. This is false. It can suggest a date, with the major caveat that styles and features can always be emulated at a later time.

By laying this out, we can see a bit of the background as to why the Appeal to Palaeography that is used with Sinaiticus is so dicey. Even beyond the lack of much actual study given. (Often, Tischendorf simply declared a date. Even on the major issue of the Vaticanus overwriting/retracing we see this happening. Tischendorf went about 500 years earlier than the historical date given, and the date is accepted with barely any actual analysis at all.)

With Sinaiticus, the manuscript sections were generally not available, information was fed from a biased party, Constantine Tischendorf, who had motives for a specific result, in a special facsimile edition.
Tischendorf highlighted elements he thought would help give his result, and simply ignored elements that contradicted his view.

And when we look at the history of "palaeography" we do not even know what the palaeography is supposed to demonstrate! Is it a full study of authenticity, as done e.g. by those involved in forgery analysis? Or is simply date-pegging? Is it objective? Or is it running through information fed with an agenda? With Sinaiticus, everywhere we go we find major concerns.


Lets mention a good resource for some of the history (e.g. see Angelo Poliziano on p. 690 and Humfrey Wanley on p. 691) and the interrelationship of disciplines:

A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing, Volume 2 (2014)
Palaeography and Diplomatic p. 688-691
D.R. Woolf

Google trick: you should be able to get to each page by putting in each page as a new url.

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