The Scribes and the Book of
How Do You Copy a Book Full of
By Stephen Broyles
Codex Sinaiticus (fourth
century) showing Revelation 2:20 and corrections to a case of bad
grammar in lines 4 and 5. Image courtesy of
We tackled this topic at a recent Andreas Forum, after an excellent
cheese-and-broccoli soup. Not only did we have to think about the
question, How do you copy a book full of bad grammar, we had also to
think, How do you turn Greek grammar into a pleasant evening for
your friends? So we began with a story . . .
Dionysius of Alexandria
Book Seven of Eusebius’ Church History—completed around the
year 313—tells about a book I would like to add to the Andreas Center
Library. But I can’t, because the book has disappeared off the face of
the earth. Eusebius does, however, give us some nice long quotations
from it, and he tells us how the book came to be written. The story
begins long, long ago in
Around about the year 200 (we don’t know exactly) a
male child was born and given the name Dionysius. He became a Christian
and attended the catechetical school in
Alexandria, where he was a student of the
greatest Bible scholar the world has ever known, Origen. Dionysius
himself became a great scholar and became the head of the catechetical
school in 233. After fifteen years as an academician, Dionysius was made
bishop of Alexandria,
and he served until he died in 265.
He was a good bishop, broadminded and wise. He led his church through
the perils of famine, plague, civil war, persecution, heresies, and
controversies. The book I wish I had for the Andreas Center Library was
written after the amicable settlement of one of the controversies.
Here is how it happened. The controversy was sparked by an Egyptian
bishop named Nepos (deceased at the time of this story). Nepos had
believed that the Book of Revelation ought to be understood literally,
not symbolically, and that there would be a kind of millennium reign on
earth and, apparently, a lot of good food and wine. So he had written a
book called Refutation of the Allegorists (which I also wish we
had, but alas, it has perished, too). Nepos’ book had been taken up by a
fellow named Korakion down in the Arsionite Nome, and his promotion of
its contents had caused the peace of the churches to be unsettled.
So Dionysius went down to Arsinoe—or maybe an Egyptian would say he
went “up,” since Arsinoe is upstream on the Nile—and he called together
the elders and the teachers in the village churches, and anyone else who
cared to come, and for three days they talked about Nepos’ book and its
teachings. It must have been a good, clean talk, because this is how
Dionysius wrote about it later:
I conceived the greatest admiration for the brethren, their
firmness, love of truth, facility in following an argument, and
intelligence . . . as far as possible attempting to grapple with the
questions in hand and master them. Nor, if convinced by reason, were
we ashamed to change our opinions . . . with hearts laid open to God
we accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of
the holy Scriptures.
At the end of the meeting, Korakion stated that he had been
sufficiently convinced and would cling no more to the ideas of Nepos.
Everyone went home happy and “rejoiced at the joint conference, and the
mutual deference and unanimity which all displayed.”
When Dionysius got back to Alexandria, he wrote the book I want, and
called it On Promises. Eusebius had a copy of it, and as I said,
he at least gives us some long quotations. In the first part of the
book, Dionysius laid out his own understanding of how God would keep his
promises. In the second part, he discussed the Book of Revelation.
Dionysius said that before his own time, some people had rejected the
Book of Revelation and didn’t acknowledge it as Scripture. They said it was
unintelligible and illogical. They said its title was wrong—the
Revelation of John: it wasn’t a revelation at all because the book was
so obscure it didn’t reveal anything, and it wasn’t of John because John
didn’t write it.
For his own part, Dionysius did not dare to reject the book, since
many Christians held it in esteem. But he admitted he didn’t understand
it and thought its meaning must lie hidden way below the surface.
Whatever the book’s meaning, however, Dionysius felt sure that the man named
John who wrote it was not the same John who wrote the Gospel of
John. Here were his reasons. The author of the Gospel (and letter) of
John, nowhere gave his name, but the author of Revelation did, in
several places. John was such a common name that the author of
Revelation didn’t have to be the same person. The Gospel of John and the
Letter of John had similar ideas and expressed them in similar words.
Dionysius made quite a long list of these, and said they show that the
Gospel and the letter had the same author. But he found no such
agreement with the Book Revelation. Finally there was the matter of
style. The Gospel and letter were written in faultless Greek and showed
great literary skill. But Dionysius observed that in Revelation the use
of Greek was not accurate, but the author employed barbarous idioms and
in some places committed downright solecisms. Dionysius didn’t mean this
as an insult: he agreed that the author had seen revelations and
received knowledge and prophecy. He only meant to establish authorship,
and the barbarisms and solecisms were an important clue.
In this story about Dionysius, we find a number of rabbits on the
run. How was Revelation understood and interpreted in the early church?
An interesting rabbit, because opinions were divided quite early and
remain so. Where, when, and by whom was Revelation acknowledged as
Scripture? Opinions were divided there, too. Who wrote Revelation? Was
it the same John who wrote the Gospel, or was it another John, or was it
someone else? All of these are fine, plump rabbits. But the rabbit I
want to chase has been set running by Dionysius’ words about the bad
grammar—the barbarisms and the solecisms.
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Map showing Alexandria and the Arsionite Nome (nowadays called The