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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

March 4, 2020

What Doe a Paleographer Do in Biblical Studies?

  1. Ask your students to define the term paleographer.
  2. Ask them to speculate what a paleographer would have to do with translating and studying original copies of the Bible.
  3. Share the following text from Abba Isn’t Daddy and Other Biblical Surprises: What Catholics Really Need to Know about Scripture Study to further explain the importance of paleographers in studying and understanding the Bible.

Image result for biblical paleographer

Missing Vowels, Spacing, and Punctuation

Ancient Hebrew (like modern Israeli Hebrew) had no vowels! That’s right—no written vowels! Of course, Hebrew speakers pronounce vowels when they speak or read from the page, but the vowels are not written. So imagine what confronts the reader of an ancient page from a Hebrew Bible: long lines of uninterrupted consonants across the whole page. How in the world do readers make sense of what they’re looking at?

Let’s try to visualize this experience, as best we can, in English. Look at the following English text written without vowels, without word breaks, and without punctuation:

drjhnwntmnwhknwswhtlvsllbtyrgnrskndthghtflpplwhrntlkydmttbngslssndnfrryhvrndmfrt

hrmnyrnfryhvnflngswhtsvrwhnwrprtcnbfrvrhppywllyltmbyrsglr

What in the world does this mean? And how can we derive meaning from—dare I say exegete—this scramble of consonants? The interpreter gets some help by at least inserting word breaks. With this help, the text looks like this:

dr jhn wnt mn wh knws wht lv s ll bt y r gnrs knd thghtfl ppl wh r nt lk y dmt t bng slss nd nfrr y hv rnd m fr thr mn yrn fr y hv n flngs whtsvr whn wr prt cn b frvr hppy wll y lt m b yrs glr

Is this much help? Perhaps, but let’s get some more help by now supplying vowels: 

dear john i want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men i yearn for you i have no feelings whatsoever when were apart i can be forever happy will you let me be yours gloria

Aha!  Now we’ve got it. It’s a love letter from Gloria to John! So now let’s just clean it up a bit simply by adding punctuation—some periods, commas, capital letters, and the like. And here’s what we get: 

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy. Will you let me be yours?

Gloria

Some of you might now recognize this text. It’s made its rounds on the internet for some time. If you’ve already seen it there, then you’ll know that this exact same text can be radically transformed by simply changing the punctuation. Note, nothing else in the previous text has been altered but the punctuation (the commas, periods, capital letters, etc.). Now look at this differently punctuated version:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn. For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy.

Will you let me be!

Yours,

Gloria

Not only is the meaning of the text different, but the meaning and intent of the letter is really just the opposite of the previous text. The meaning has been completely changed simply by altering the punctuation.

I hope this exercise gives you a little sense of what confronts paleographers (“those who study ancient handwritingt”) and the other readers of ancient Hebrew biblical manuscripts. Now, lest we get upset that the biblical text could be subject to such widely disparate interpretations, depending on who edits the punctuation or adds the vowels, let’s remember that most of the texts of the Old Testament were already very well known and widely memorized by many ancient students of the Old Testament. So most ancient readers of the Bible already knew what the texts of the biblical books said. For many ancient readers, the letters on the parchment or papyrus were simply mnemonic devices, that is, aids to their memory. These readers had little difficulty correctly reading and understanding the ancient page. 

It’s also important to note that the very important word breaks of the biblical texts were not inserted, for the most part, until around the fifteenth century with the advent of the printing press. These first printed Bibles and all of the others up to this day all have their roots in the ancient Hebrew and Greek hand-copied texts.

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