Fathom Mag

Typography: The Secret Power of Christianity

To Who It May Concern

Published on:
October 24, 2016
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6 min.
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This paragraph begins with what is known as a drop cap. It is a large decorative letter signaling the beginning of a new section. The next paragraph begins after a short break. Each sentence begins with a capital letter, and each one ends with a mark signaling the purpose of the sentence and how we should read it.

Typography is simply visual language. It’s the way we represent what we say. Typography is drawing the faces of the letters, typesetting the words, punctuating the sentences, and printing the paragraphs. The whole point is to make the reading experience as clear and enjoyable as possible. This is never more necessary than when it comes to the very words of God.

So, why do we have spaces between our words or paragraphs or question marks or quotation marks? It wasn’t always this way. It all began with a pugnacious group of people, as much now as they were thousands of years ago—Bible scholars. It was Bible scholars throughout the millennia who have punctiliously propelled proper printing. 

In typesetting, the area with all the text on it is called a text block. Let’s look at this tiny block to see how the Bible became what it is today.

Editor’s note: Many of these arguments are drawn heavily from Shady Characters by Keith Houston, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Nearly flawless. A traditional book review will follow in the coming weeks.

Scriptio Continua

The New Testament was written in ancient Greek. Back then, they didn’t have spaces between words, lowercase letters, or really any marks of punctuation. Take this passage from Acts 1, for example. If we wrote it with the English alphabet, it would look like this.

Our Acts 1 passage in a fourth-century Greek parchment known as Codex Sinaiticus, written in scriptio continua with all capital letters (known as majuscules)

This is called scriptio continua. Of course, it’s difficult to read. So, scholars and orators needed a way to see a pause in their texts. The first person to separate words, to move away from scriptio continua, was a librarian at the famous Library of Alexandria, a Greek scholar named Aristophanes of Byzantium in the fourth century BC. He placed dots・in・between・the・words, which you might have seen on some ancient inscriptions. These dots took on various shapes and were used for intermittent pauses in speech, called the komma, kolon, and periodos.[1] You may have seen these terms before.

An inscription from the first or second century
Found in Saint-Lizier Cathedral (Ariège)


The next revolution began appearing in the second and third centuries AD. The text needed to be broken up into sections to understand the flow of thought. Some old manuscripts have the letter K, for kaput or “head,” just outside the text block to mark the beginning of a new section or argument.

As an interesting side note, the letter marking the beginning of a new section eventually became a C for capitulum, or “chapter,” and finally became the shape of a pilcrow (¶). You still see these pop up on Microsoft Word if you turn on the hidden characters.

In the production process of a book way long ago, the scribe copied the text as best he could and was careful to leave spaces where he saw this sign, which sat before each new section. For the next stage of the process, an artist called a “rubricator” drew detailed capital letters in red ink—rubrico in Latin means “to color red”—to guide the reader’s eye to important section breaks, much like the drop cap at the beginning of this article.

Rubrication shown just before the paragraphs
Photo by Mark Rasmuson

As the demand for books increased, there was less time for the rubricator’s artwork, and many books passed by him on their way out the door, leaving spaces just before each new section. And this is where the modern paragraph indent comes from.[2]

With these little quirks in the visual representation of a text, it was only a matter of time before Christianity, a primarily textual religion, began to “change the face of written language on a grand scale.”[3]

Ancient Christianity

The new religion had two driving forces behind its typographic transformation. First, Christians were under tremendous persecution by the Roman government. Second, they believed in inspiration, the technical term used for God personally revealing himself through written words. They needed this inspiration codified in order to unify and overcome the persecution. “After all, the Word of God had to be transmitted with as little ambiguity as possible.”[4]

After Constantine announced Christianity a legal religion with the Edict of Milan in 313, Bible scholars were free to share and elucidate texts like never before. Over the next several centuries, Christian manuscripts exploded throughout the Greco-Roman world. Scholars debated, copied, and explored texts with greater and greater clarity, and their counterparts refuted arguments and clarified their writing with the same precision, creating the need for clearer typographic standards.

The next revolution came by way of Saint Isidore of Seville, known as the last great theologian of the ancient world, in the seventh century. Before then, how would a scholar note a quotation from another sacred text? How would he note a question? In his classic book Etymologies, Isidore described a new system of punctuation, reorganizing the placement of periods and commas, and introducing the punctus interrogativus, known today as the question mark, and the diple (>), which later gave rise to quotation marks and guillemets (« »).[5]

Remember, books were extremely expensive and valuable during this time, getting passed down from generation to generation. With each new edition, there were “wildly different approaches to the same text.”[6] Through these marks, our text from earlier starts to take a recognizable shape.


Scholars were able to pinpoint arguments and quotations at great speed and clarity, but it wasn’t until the next century where we see even greater achievements in our written heritage.

Medieval Times

After the ancient world began to fade into the medieval era, writing became increasingly easier to read and cheaper to produce. The Word of God was spreading quickly throughout Europe, which meant it had to be translated into multiple languages. Not everyone was blessed with the gift of tongues.

During the eighth century, Irish priests spread the words out across the page, finally bringing an end to scriptio continua.[7] The space between words made the reading experience simpler and more pleasing to the eye. This was the goal of many Bible scholars then as now—letting the reader experience the text with greater pleasure. They wanted the Bible in the hands of the common person, which had cataclysmic effects later during the Reformation. By the eighth century, four out of every five manuscripts in the Western world were of Christian origin.[8]

One technological advantage made this transition even easier. The eighth century saw not only new spacing but also new paper. Papyrus had been the material of choice until then, but religious scholars in northern Europe began using animal skin, known as parchment or vellum. The smoother, more durable material gave scribes more freedom in their writing, since it was easier to draw the quill across the smooth skin. It’s like giving a modern letterer an iPad Pro when she was using a coloring book. The new technology brought new opportunities.

An eleventh-century parchment of the gospels in the lowercase letters (or minuscules)

The Frankish king Charlemagne saw these opportunities and capitalized on them by decapitalizing the alphabet. The big blocks of a capital alphabet, like our ROMAN LETTERS, were best suited for the stone mason’s chisel. But after several centuries and technological innovations, it was time for a gifted letterer to use his quill. This letterer was Alcuin of York, a deacon of the church and a liberal arts scholar whom Charlemagne commissioned to write our lowercase letters, known as minuscules.[9]

Through the advancements of the eighth century, our text from earlier is virtually indistinguishable from its modern form.

So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.”

The typography of the Bible changed very little from the eighth century to the fifteenth. As everyone knows, the printing press introduced in 1440 revolutionized not only the way we read the Bible but how we as humans communicate to one another.

I’ll wait to communicate that in the next issue.

Brandon Giella
Brandon is the content editor for Fathom, serving as its copy editor. He also serves as a content developer for The Starr Conspiracy, a full-service digital agency in Fort Worth, TX. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[1]  Keith Houston, Shady Characters (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 4–5.

[2] Ibid., 13–14.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 11–12.

[6] Ibid., 191.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 190.

[9] Ibid., 13.

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