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Jesus’s Stenographers in their Historical Setting

  • May 10, 2019
  • By Ben van Noort
Jesus’s Stenographers in their Historical Setting

Jesus’s Stenographers in their Historical Setting


Before the year 63 BC we knew nothing about stenography, not among the Greeks and not among the Romans. Then the new art of writing came.

Thucydides, Father of Greek Historical Writing

(431 BC)
In the year 431 BC the war between Athens and Sparta began, and it is generally assumed that Thucydides began in that year with his description of the occurrences. In the introduction of his history he writes about the different speeches that were made: “that it was difficult to recall with strict accuracy the words actually spoken … and that he adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.” Already in the past, it was clear for all that Thucydides tried to be as close as possible to the spoken word in his orations, but not strictly and not always. Nevertheless Thucydides’s method of writing history became the example for Greeks and Romans forever.
(Source: Thucydides)

Invention of Stenography 

(ca. 65 BC)
It was a slave of Cicero, named Tiro, who invented stenography. It was an elaboration on rapid writing that was already common in the Greco-Roman culture and practiced by slaves. It is remarkable that Tiro used a little and recognizable part of an existing letter for consonants and in the same way he did for the vowels. These parts together were then written as one sign. The result was that he could create one sign for each syllable. In the beginning he probably did not give signs for all the Latin word endings (nouns).
(Source: Isidore of Seville, ca. 600 AD)

Introduction of the Art

(63 BC)
Stenography was introduced in the Roman Senate by Cicero in 63 BC. He had been chosen as a consul in that year, and on December 5 he introduced stenography in the Senate, which brought an unexpected turn in political affairs. Rome was in turmoil through the threat by Catilina who wanted to take over political power in Rome as he approached the city with a formidable army.

Cicero knew that the last speaker, Cato the Younger, had a harsh point of view about Catilina and his spies who had been taken captive in Rome: for them he wanted the death penalty. Because of the importance of the subject, Cicero positioned stenographers at different places in the Senate. That day the Forum of Rome was crowded with people in a state of great fear for the future of their city.

Cicero knew that shortly after the special meeting of the senators everybody in town could learn what was said through the reports produced by the stenographers. The senators understood that they could not risk defending a weak standpoint as writers worked during the discourse with the final decision. It turned out that Catilina had been sentenced to death by default and his conspirators were sentenced to death and were executed the same day.

(Source: Plutarch, ca. 90 AD)

Latin and Greek Stenography after the Introduction

(Since 63 BC)
The impact of the introduction of stenography in Rome was great. Not only with the Romans, but also the Greeks began following the art that had proven to deliver an oration with accuracy. There were great communities of Greeks in Rome and other cities of Italy and these were also enthusiastic about the new art of writing.

We know this from Plutarch who concluded at the end of his description about the introduction by Cicero: “For one had not yet trained nor possessed the so called sèmeiographous (stenographers), but then at first one began to follow the trail (i.e. the praxis).”

Plutarch wrote this in Greek in about 90 AD. By the use of the term “the so called sèmeiographous” we know that not only the Romans but also the Greeks had a tradition of stenography in Plutarch’s time. Furthermore he says in the post clause that then they (one) began to follow the trail (of stenography); consequently he spoke in the post clause about Romans and Greeks. The year 63 was not only important for the beginning of the Roman start of stenography, but this was also the time when the Greek variant of classical stenography began.
(Source: Plutarch, ca. 90 AD)

Cicero Used the Greek Term

(45 BC)

In a letter to his friend Atticus, it is said by Cicero that Atticus did not have understanding of a former letter as he had used abbreviations in it. Regarding the number fourteen, he had used the Roman number XIIII. In that second letter he used a remarkable expression: “dia sèmeioon scripseram”. That is: (Greek) through signs (Latin) I had written. “Signs” was the Greek standard expression for steno signs.
In the Roman culture, stenography remained a matter for slaves for a long time, but apparently not among the Greeks who often set the tone in the Greco-Roman culture. That was probably the reason for Cicero’s use of the Greek term for stenography. It seemed to be pretty chic to use the Greek expression for stenography in the Latin letter to Atticus. Apparently many Latin characters for numbers were very useful in stenography, even in the Greek variant.
(Source: Cicero, 45 BC)

Augustus Caesar

(ca. 40 BC)
He supposed that the oration of Julius Caesar named “For Quintus Metellus”, was not the original version as it did not agree with a copy in Julius Caesar’s legacy. He had assumed that the actuarii (shorthand writers, not stenographers) of the inferior copy, would not have been able to follow the spoken word precisely. In Latin a stenographer was called “notarius”.
(Source: Suetonius, ca. 120 AD)

Again Augustus Caesar

(30 BC–14 AD)
In the Golden Age of the Roman Empire improvements have been arranged in the art of stenography. They were implemented by two slaves (liberated) Vipsanius Filagrius and Aquila. As they lived in the surrounding of Caesar Augustus it is to all appearances that they worked under imperial order. They probably worked together with both the Latin as well as the Greek variant of the new art of writing.
(Source: Bishop Isidore of Seville, ca. 600 AD)


(ca. 30 AD)
Luke says in the first two clauses of his prologue (1:1–2) that bystanders of the events of Jesus were informed by eyewitnesses about what they had seen and heard, also being servants of the spoken word! This is of a total different level than the history of Thucydides, who honestly witnessed “that he adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.” Of course Luke could not proudly state that he worked more accurately than the usual Greek history writing. He could do what Thucydides did: telling what his sources were and how he used them. Luke used them just as the many did (1:1), who copied the reports of the eyewitnesses (just as).

Luke described the eyewitnesses as real professionals, not as the amateurs as they are always painted in Church history: romantic and idyllic fishermen.

In the same way Matthew stated after each long oration “when Jesus had finished these words … etc.” (or sayings, 7:28–29, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). In this way he underlined that the actual words of Jesus had been presented. Only professional stenographers were able to do that. Everybody knew that in the Jewish land before 70 AD. After that period, with high apostolic standards in the Church, a period of great ignorance about the early roots of Christianity set in. Soon the high culture of the Jews was forgotten, as a result of the general contempt and discrimination—also among the Church Fathers—for the Jewish people who had lost their country.

(Sources: Luke, Matthew, ca. 30 AD)


(ca. 50 AD)
In one of his Letters the philosopher Seneca gives a short impression about stenography. He was a wealthy man and the value of stenography could be bought in the form of the lowest slaves at the market place. They were the inventors, he said, and still the most skilled workers of his time. This is the reason that we do not Hear much about stenographers in the first century (silent period), they belonged to the lowest social layers.

And yet he expressed their art as: “signs (notas), which enable us to take down a speech, however rapidly uttered, matching the speed of the tongue by the speed of the hand.” It is clear that stenographers were indispensable in the enormous Roman empire.
(Source: Seneca, ca. 50 AD)


(ca. 70 AD)
A great exception was Titus, the son of emperor Vespasianus. He competed with his stenographers in the art. This is an example of how stenography slowly became part of the free world in which ordinary people would also began to learn the art. At the end of the first century there were as many stenography teachers in Rome as there were teachers in grammar and rhetoric.
(Source: Suetonius, ca. 120 AD)

Later Centuries

Later on, all the Church fathers had stenographers at their service to establish their sermons. If there was an open spot through the illness of a stenographer—Augustine said—there was always a volunteer in Church to fill in the gap.
(Source: Augustine, ca. 390 AD

By Ben van Noort, May 10, 2019