By: Andrew J. Patton and Leigh Ann Thompson
Throughout history, Christians oriented time around Jesus Christ. It started by recognizing the first day of the week by his resurrection. Later, significant days like Easter and Epiphany were commemorated. Even entire special seasons like Advent and Lent were observed. Scripture, naturally, played a crucial part in worship and traditions at these times of the year. Today, we can see what was being read in Greek New Testament lectionaries.
What is a lectionary? Lectionaries are liturgical books that correspond with the calendar, ordered so that particular passages of the Bible are read on certain days. These books were most often created for public reading in churches, monasteries, or other services rather than for private reading. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Greek New Testament lectionaries resembled the form that they would follow for the next thousand years while the Scriptures were copied by hand. Lectionaries seem to have been ubiquitous. We have more than 2500 Greek New Testament lectionaries remaining today.
The readings are divided into two sections. The first section, called synaxarion, followed the movable church calendar beginning and closing with Easter. The menologion section, which comes after the synaxarion, follows the civil calendar from September 1 to August 31, with readings for the celebration of events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, commemoration of saints, apostles, and martyrs, as well as readings aligned with special occasions in the church.
Since we are in the season of Advent with Christmas nearly two weeks away, we thought it would be meaningful to take a look at lectionaries for Advent and see how medieval Christians copied the texts about Jesus’ birth.
Readings from the Christmas Story in Byzantine Lectionaries
In the menologion, we find readings in December that, like modern day Advent readings, culminate in the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th.
While some lectionaries included Scripture readings for every day in December, others simply indicated the day and noted what Scripture should be read. The readings that focused on Christ’s birth begin on December 23rd which includes Jesus’ genealogy found in the beginning of Matthew. On the following day, readings for Christmas Eve were designated for each hour leading up to Christmas day starting at 6:00pm. Finally, to celebrate Christ’s birth, readings from the first two chapters of Matthew rang through churches beginning at dawn on Christmas Day.
Special Features that Accompanied the Christmas Story
Lectionaries are some of the most elaborately and consistently decorated Greek New Testament manuscripts. This partially reflects their context, being a part of a visual and ornate liturgical setting (see this blog post for more about illustrations in liturgy). Furthermore, since a lectionary often served a lector who was reading aloud, decorations marked out important places so that a reader could easily navigate through the text. Notice how the beautiful decorations below accompany, emphasize, and point out the Christmas readings.
Decorated letters were often placed at the beginning of a reading as indicators. Below are some examples that not only stand out on the page, but also among other readings in the menologion.
Lectionary 384 includes other interesting markings that note the beginning of this lection.
Advent Lections in Lectionary 1957
The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin owns a 10th–11th century lectionary written in majuscule (capital letter) script called Gregory-Aland Lectionary 1957 by scholars.The handwriting alone makes this a special artifact because there are only a few hundred or so majuscule lectionaries. This beautiful copy of the Greek New Testament is a terrific example for looking at the readings around Advent.
The scribe wrote out the month and date at the top of the column. Then included in red and gold ink labels for Saturday and Sunday readings. The Saturday reading is expected to be Luke 13.29, of which an excerpt is recorded below the heading. The Sunday reading is Matthew 1.1–25.
On this and the following pages, the scribe copied Jesus’ genealogy with deluxe gold letters for the start of his ancestors’ names. The genealogy of Jesus was commonly treated in special ways that made it more prominent.
Then later in the manuscript, the Christmas reading is introduced. The prescribed texts for Christmas in the menologion included Matthew 2.1–12. Here, the scribe recorded an introduction to the reading in smaller script and then added the biblical text following the decorated tau. If you notice the small red markings above the letters, those are guides for the reading of Scripture aloud. They would have helped the clergy member read this text to the congregation.
We hope you have found it interesting to examine these artifacts that show how Christian scribes copied the nativity stories in the Gospels in lectionary manuscripts. Byzantine lectionaries recorded the story of Jesus’ birth for reading when Christians gathered to celebrate their Christmas services, and the ordered readings led the congregation and clergy to reflect on the significance of the birth of their holy savior—as Jesus is described in the introduction to the Christmas readings in Lectionary 1957. At such an important season and moment in the Christian year, we wish you a merry and joyful Christmas.