Wax Drippings and Favorite Passages
by Daniel B. Wallace
When the only access that students of the New Testament had to most images of manuscripts was through poor-quality microfilms, interpretation of the data was rather limited. The staff at the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster, which boasts about 90% of all NT MSS on microfilm, instructed student collators not to try to decipher the marginalia because such were virtually impossible to read. Just the text, please. And even with the text, the students had to guess at quite a bit of the letters and words because of blurred images.
With digital photography, much more data can be seen and interpreted. This includes erasures, different colored ink (including the next-to-impossible-to-see-in-microfilm red and gold), smaller font, ornamentation, prickings (which are used to locate a MS’s scriptorium and age), etc. In addition, wax drippings are visible.
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As innocuous as the wax drippings might seem, Henry Sanders, the editor of the editio princeps of Codex Washingtonianus, used them to show what pages were frequently on display. The reason, he argued, is that visitors would often read the pages with a candle, and less-than-careful lectors would inadvertently allow wax to drip from it onto the page.
Sanders’s comment, based on an examination of the actual MS, may have implications that go beyond codex W. With some caveats, it seems that wax drippings can be used to show what passages were favorites. If one were to examine the wax drippings seen in digital images of, say, a twelfth-century minuscule, he or she might be able to determine which passages were favorites from the twelfth century on. Of course, this kind of work would be needed to be done for a good number of manuscripts because an individual MS might be rather idiosyncratic—much the way codex W seemed to be (in that the wax drippings there, according to Sanders, only showed what passages were put on display, not what passages were otherwise favorites of readers). Lectionaries would probably be the least significant for interpreting wax drippings since they were regularly used in church services and the lector would of necessity be reading through the entire lectionary cycle, year after year. And when wax candles were used as opposed to oil lamps to read these MSS needs to be factored in as well. But MSS that were meant for study, personal use, or were otherwise not used much in public worship could contain many secrets of bygone generations of Christians…