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Professor Holly Hearon examines Scriptura Continua

Holly Hearon (T.J. and Virginia Liggett Professor of Christian Traditions) recently participated in an international conference at Yale University, “Double stories – Double lives: Reflecting on Textual Objects in the Pre-Print World.”  The conference explored the complex relationship between the textual and material nature of artifacts such as manuscripts, amulets, ornamental objects, and monuments.

Presenting a paper, titled “Manuscript and Melody: Written Texts Experienced in Sound and Rhythm,” Hearon examined early manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew written in a style that is unfamiliar to most modern readers.  “When we look at an early manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew, we expect to see words on a page, and we do—except that to the untrained eye, the words all but disappear in the stream of letters written in scriptura continua – a continuous line with no punctuation or even separation of words,” says Hearon.

This physical presentation is a reminder that reading a manuscript is a complex exercise which involves more than simply the translation of signs into words. ‘Reading’ also requires that we recognize and correctly translate the multiple functions that are served by the signs,” she says.

Hearon further explains, “When we look at an early manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew written in scriptura continua, this unbroken line of letters presents us first of all not with words, but with a continuous string of sounds that are marked out in rhythmic patterns measured by vowels, long and short.” 

Being the lone biblical scholar among archaeologists, Egyptologists, art historians, philologists and classicists at the conference was a rewarding experience for Hearon. “I enjoy attending conferences where I am on unfamiliar ground,” she says. “I learn a great deal from people who are using methods similar to those I employ, but to study vastly different material in different contexts. It helps me to ask new questions about my own field of study. For example, this conference raised questions such as ‘what is the distinction between correction and censorship in early manuscripts?’ That is a very provocative question when dealing with religious manuscripts!”

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