Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.06

Cordula Bandt, Der Traktat "Vom Mysterium der Buchstaben". Kritischer Text mit Einführung, Übersetzung und Ammerkungen. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, 162.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2007.  Pp. viii, 260; ills. 25.  ISBN 978-3-11-019606-1.  €82.24.  

Reviewed by Thomas J. Kraus, Hilpoltstein (
Word count: 1653 words

This lavishly produced book is the revised version of Cordula Bandt's dissertation accepted by the Faculty of History and Cultural Studies at the Free University of Berlin in 2007. It is the first critical edition (editio princeps) of the mid-6th century tract On the Mystery of Letters (hereafter ML). This is what the author calls the text in accordance with the Coptic title and in the absence of a title in the Greek manuscripts.1 The anonymous Christian tract is about the secret messages hidden in the forms and the names of the Greek letters; and its author apparently feels inclined to unveil them by starting with the New Testament Book of Revelation (1:8; 21:6; 22:13): "I am the Alpha and the Omega." Bandt succeeds in fulfilling two complex and contrary assignments: to introduce and present the setting of the text in a comprehensible way and to edit its Greek text accurately. Consequently, this piece of work is a splendid example of how to do both, to attract attention to an old mystical text and to provide high quality research. Therefore, everybody with an interest in innovative explanation (and this is what the author of ML certainly undertakes) will benefit from Bandt's astounding skills, although the technical edition of the text itself will be of more relevance for academic specialists.

As if she wants to take her readers by the hand immediately and guide them, Bandt introduces her edition in a very pleasant and intriguing way. Her preface is, more or less, the start of conveying the fascination she herself feels for the ML: Bandt tells about the overall importance the author of the ML attached to his work, which itself represents the archetypal forms of the elements and of the creatures of the world (see the Coptic version, ML 106.1-4). Therefore, it is only natural to assume that the (Greek) alphabet is regarded as being of divine origin. In addition, the author addresses not only Christians, but also pagan Greeks (by writing about the Greek alphabet and mentioning, for example, Plato and Aristotle) and Jews (by reinterpreting Hebrew letter names as indications of Jesus Christ). Bandt is right in pointing to the mystical, almost magical tendencies of ML, something that makes the readers curious about the next chapters to follow.

The introductory chapter (pp. 3-48) offers all the relevant pieces of information that should precede the critical edition of the text. Bandt presents a brief history of research. Its shortness determines (a) that not really much had been done until 2007 after some first interest in the text and (b) that the Greek manuscript found by Joseph Paremelle in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1980 had to be published and may be a key to a fuller understanding of the ML and the interrelation of its manuscripts (Coptic-Arabic and Greek). According to Bandt, the text was written around the middle of the sixth century in Palestine. Its author is unknown, although the Coptic-Arabic introduction mentions Apa Sepa (Coptic) or Saba (Arabic) as the potential author, so that one may think of Saint Sabas of Jerusalem (439-532; as a consequence Bandt calls the author Pseudo-Sabas). Bandt refutes that claim by pointing to the time of the composition of the ML. Nonetheless, Bandt optimistically identifies an anti-Hellenistic polemic against Greek philosophy, lyric rhetoric, and science, and concludes that this should be read against the background of the Origenist controversies of the sixth century. Besides, the witty explanations of the letters, the style of writing, and the background knowledge, to mention only a few of its many aspects, allow the conclusion that the author was a monk (i.e., a professional scribe and/or calligrapher) from the monastery Mar Saba. Bandt's reasoning is sound and convincing, though the theses based on the content of the ML may be challenged by the interpretation of the relevant terms and passages.

Bandt then offers the structure of the ML, of which only the first nine chapters are numbered. For these and the other chapters -- in all forty-two plus a prologue -- she presents descriptive headings, which at once provide a first impression of what is presented in each chapter.2 The structure is followed by a detailed analysis of the text. For this purpose Bandt arranges the chapters to form larger thematic clusters. This part of the book could have borne the alternative title 'commentary' instead of 'analysis', as it can be regarded as such if taken together with the commenting annotations following the edition itself.

The author attempts to find out the original sense of the saying "I am the Alpha and the Omega." After intensive prayer the author is taken to the Sinai and receives a revelation about the real meaning of the letters. He identifies the letters with the twenty-two acts of the creation (see, above all, the Book of Jubilees 2:1-25, where a connection is made between the Hebrew letters and the creation), and then with the twenty-two events in Christian salvific history. Here the author is very creative and even innovative: for instance, he interprets the form of the Greek letter χ as an image for the four canonical Gospels and their distribution all over world, i.e., into all four directions (p. 30). Interestingly, the explanation of letters as original images of the creation ends with letter ο, the fourteenth letter of the Greek alphabet. Here the author contrasts the seven days of the creation with the 'new creation', which is manifested by Christ and the Christian church (p. 27). Everything he writes seems to refer to Jesus Christ, to prophesy and to praise him (pp. 43-44). Consequently, those who reject the 'truth' and therefore Jesus Christ and Christian faith -- pagans, Jews, and infidel Christians -- are addressed in a polemic way in chapters 9, 19 to 22, and 37.

The forty pages of the next main part are dedicated to the cosmic potency of the letters, so that, according to Bandt's section heading , 'to write means to create and to create means to write'. Pseudo-Sabas seems to deduce the contents of the Hebrew Bible from the Greek alphabet, so that he claims to have received a revelation on Mount Sinai in analogy to Moses and the Ten Commandments. However, he underscores the importance of Abraham and, partly, of Moses in order to neglect their Jewishness and the role the Jews have in salvific history. In addition, the books of Enoch (Ethiopic, Slavic, and Hebrew) are analyzed to trace traditions that have to do with astrology, the copying process of heavenly tablets, the writing process and writing itself, Enoch-Metatron as a heavenly leader, and Enoch as the author of Gnostic texts. In these traditions letters and the names they may form play a significant role and can protect the addressee or ban evil powers. Finally, Bandt deals with Christian approaches to the symbolism of letters, for example, the Christian adoption of the twenty-two acts of God (cf. Jubilees 2:1-25) and the speculations of the Gnostic Marcus (cf. Ps.-Tertullian haer. 222.4-11). Of course, Bandt could have done more with the issue of reading and writing in late antiquity (see pp. 85-87 and 211-212 [ML 116.13-14]),3 although this is not the central topic Bandt has to cope with. The same is true for a rather vague discussion of the term χειραγωγός.

The next chapter concerns the manuscript attestation of the ML. Bandt concisely describes the relevant manuscripts, develops a sound and meticulous explanation of the interrelation of the manuscripts with each other, and presents her policy of transcribing the text (abbreviations, signs, and symbols).

Then the text edition follows with the Greek text and a critical apparatus on the left page and a German translation on the right (pp. 101-207). In the apparatus the reader learns about manuscript attestation, references to and quotations from literary sources (mainly ancient authors and Biblical texts), and variant readings. The presentation of the Greek is precise and no mistakes could be found; the German is fluent but quite close to the syntax of the Greek original. The annotations offer relevant details and brief explanations of significant terms and passages (pp. 208-235), but sometimes even more complex discussions: for instance, for ML 120.11 Bandt convincingly argues for the assumption that a copyist may have inserted that verse.

The bibliography is detailed and comprehensive, as it is subdivided into primary sources, reference tools, and other secondary literature (pp. 236-250). The indices facilitate orientation and navigation in the volume (references to texts, names and subjects). The color plates with twenty-five images not only visualize some pages of the relevant manuscripts of the ML, but also present the miniature image of a calligrapher from the ninth century, a fragment of Jubilees from Qumran (4Q216Jub-a), and a waxed wood codex from fourth to fifth century Egypt (illustrations 1-3). Above all the high quality photographs of ML manuscripts are essential for providing a realistic impression of the extravagant calligraphic skills of the scribes (with enlarged and isolated letters written in red ink, often put into the centre of a line).

This is a marvelous book, a masterpiece of editorship, and a much needed investigation into a text that was neglected for too long. Of course, an edition always implies some indispensable technical sections, so that readers who are only interested in such texts and their time will find it hard to benefit fully from the edited text. However, Bandt writes in such a fluent style and offers so many fascinating details about the text, its manuscripts, its setting, and the people behind it that even non-specialists will profit from her introductory chapters, analyses, and annotations. In addition, Bandt did specialists a brilliant service by supplying such a meticulous and methodologically sound edition that she is to be thanked for the hardship of editing the Greek text (basically the new manuscript in Paris) and for treating in detail the most relevant issues linked with the ML.


1.   Later (cf. p. 101) Bandt presents the title in Greek accordingly (Περὶ τοῦ μυστηρίου τῶν γραμμάτων). There is also a Latin title (Mysteria litterarum), which Paul Ernst Jablonski chose for his transcription of the Coptic manuscript Vindob. Armen. 22, fol. 311r-346v in 1713 and 1718 (cf. p. 1 n. 1 and p. 88).
2.   Whereas Bandt calls chapter thirty-seven the 'third polemic excursus' in her analytical section (p. 44), she does not do so in her structuring table (p. 11).
3.   Bandt relies on William V. Harris (Ancient Literacy, Cambridge-London 1989) and Catherine Heszer (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, Tübingen 2001) in order to discuss this complex subject matter and interprets Acts 4:13 and 1 Cor 1:26-27 only superficially. Documentary papyri and potsherds, to mention only these two kinds of indispensable witnesses to everyday life, and specialist studies of them should help to specify and improve Bandt's analyses.

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