EUSEBIAN CANONS: the System of Dividing the Four Gospels

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Eusebian canonsEusebian sections, or Eusebian apparatus, also known as Ammonian sections, are the system of dividing the four Gospels used between late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The divisions into chapters and verses used in modern texts date only from the 13th and 16th centuries, respectively. The sections are indicated in the margin of nearly all Greek and Latin manuscripts of the Bible and usually summarized in Canon Tables at the start of the Gospels (see below). There are about 1165 sections: 355 for Matthew, 235 for Mark, 343 for Luke, and 232 for John; the numbers, however, vary slightly in different manuscripts.

London Canon Tables

The Eusebian Tables

An Armenian illuminated manuscript of a canon table by Toros Roslin (active 1256 - 1268) entitled Canon Table Page.
An Armenian illuminated manuscript of a canon table by Toros Roslin (active 1256 – 1268) entitled Canon Table Page.

The Harmony of Ammonius suggested to Eusebius, as he himself tells us in his letter, the idea of drawing up ten tables (kanones) in which the sections in question were so classified as to show at a glance where each Gospel agreed with or differed from the others. In the first nine tables he placed in parallel columns the numbers of the sections common to the four, or three, or two, evangelists; namely: (1) Matt., Mark, Luke, John; (2) Matt., Mark, Luke; (3) Matt., Luke, John; (4) Matt., Mark, John; (5) Matt., Luke; (6) Matt., Mark; (7) Matt., John; (8) Luke, Mark; (9) Luke, John. In the tenth, he noted successively the sections special to each evangelist.

Codex Beneventanus CanonTable from the 8th century

Canon table from the Book of Kells; the tables in the book were effectively unusable, as they were over-condensed and the corresponding sections were not marked in the main text. This is either because it is unfinished, or because it was a display book not meant for study.

The usefulness of these tables for the purpose of reference and comparison soon brought them into common use, and from the 5th century the Ammonian sections, with references to the Eusebian tables, were indicated in the margin of the manuscripts. Opposite each section was written its number, and underneath this the number of the Eusebian table to be consulted in order to find the parallel texts or text; a reference to the tenth table would of course show that this section was proper to that evangelist. These marginal notes are reproduced in several editions of Tischendorf’s New Testament.

Eusebius’s explanatory letter to Carpianus was also very often reproduced before the tables.

Illuminated Canon Tables

Canon tables from the Garima Gospels, Ethiopic gospel manuscripts of the sixth century; showing original Late Antique arcaded forms subsequently perpetuated in Byzantine and Romanesque manuscripts
Canon tables from the Garima Gospels, Ethiopic gospel manuscripts of the sixth century; showing original Late Antique arcaded forms subsequently perpetuated in Byzantine and Romanesque manuscripts
APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

The tables themselves were usually placed at the start of a Gospel Book, and in illuminated copies were placed in round-headed arcade-like frames of which the general form remained remarkably consistent through to the Romanesque period. This form was derived from Late Antique book-painting frames like those in the Chronography of 354. In many examples, the tables are the only decoration in the whole book, perhaps other than some initials. In particular, canon tables, with Evangelist portraits, are very important for the study of the development of manuscript painting in the earliest part of the Early Medieval period, where very few manuscripts survive, and even the most decorated of those have fewer pages illuminated than was the case later.

Eusebian tables before text of the Gospels in Codex Harleianus 5567 (Gregory-Aland 116; 12th century)
Eusebian tables before the text of the Gospels in Codex Harleianus 5567 (Gregory-Aland 116; 12th century)

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