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What about Stenography in Jesus’s Time?

  • November 25, 2018
  • By Ben van Noort
What about Stenography in Jesus’s Time?


What about Stenography in the Time of Jesus?

At first some questions as ‘What is stenography? What are stenographers? And more.


Stenography is the art of writing the spoken word. This is possible by writing one sign per syllable. It took two years to learn the art, for who was able to read and write. It is clear that a stenographer had learned a lot of signs (about 700), necessary for this way of writing.

It was an invention of a Roman slave named Tiro and the signs he designed have always been named the signs of Tiro. He was a slave of Cicero who later made him a free men.

Classic Stenography

It is indeed strange that we do not hear a lot about stenography from the Greaco-Roman world. There is enough interesting content about the subject.

Generally, theologians and those who study classical literature are pretty silent about the subject. The first
have always been concentrating on biblical texts, in which the term stenography is not mentioned. And so they did not feel compelled to say anything about it. A pretty limited perspective.

In the past, scholars of classical philology had honored for centuries the view that stenography was an old Greek invention, ca. 400 BC. However before the second world war, one began to doubt about that opinion. Words as stenography, sèmeiography, and others do not occur at all in the older Greek texts. The first description of the invention and use of this art of writing is connected with the year 63 BC. In that year the statesman and philosopher Cicero introduced stenographers in the Roman Senate. Today classical scholars don’t like to publish about stenography, due to the former misconceptions in their discipline about the subject, propagated with scholarly authority.

Seneca about the Art

The Roman Seneca gave a most interesting view on stenography of his time, ca. 50 AD.
(Epistels to Lucillus 90. 25. Transl. M. Gummere, Loeb Classical Library, 1920)

“… these early inventions were thought out by no other class of men than those who have them in charge today.”

Then follows a list of slave’s activities ending as follows:

“Or our signs for whole words, which enable us to take down a speech, however rapidly uttered, matching speed of tongue by speed of hand? All this sort of thing has been devised by the lowest grade of slaves.”

Seneca’s statement makes clear that stenography in the first half of the first century was mastered by slaves, the lowest social class of society. Also Jesus working in Israel among the lowest class of the people (fishermen etc.), could make use of the rapid writers of his time: stenographers.

Despite slaves had invented and developed this art of writing, it was certainly not limited to slaves only. We have to reckon also with people who made themselves useful in this art, people without higher education but who had trained themselves into the art of rapid writing.  

Origins of Stenography

Another quote is from the Greek Plutarch, ca. 80-90 AD (Cato Minor 23.3, own translation):

“For one did not yet train nor posses the so called stenographers (sèmiographous), but then at first one began to follow the trail (the practice), one says.”

This is the closing statement after Plutarch’s description of the introduction of stenography in the Roman Senate in 63 BC, the 5th of December.

With so called stenographers Plutarch speaks about those who in his time practiced the art of stenography. That were Roman and Greek stenographers (he uses the Greek term!). In the post-clause is said when the art began for these groups. That was in 63 BC: then, right after the introduction of the art in the Roman Senate.

Stenography in Jesus’s Time
Did stenography also exist in Galilee, that backwards region when Jesus worked there?
It is odd that there is so much silence about stenography in Jesus’s time, while it is a pretty clear subject from the sources.

Yes, Roman and Greek stenography existed in the first century on which the Romans were dependent for administration, jurisdiction and education. It existed in all the main areas of the Empire where the Greaco-Roman culture had become predominant, also in the Jewish land.

By Ben van Noort, November 25, 2018