As far as I know, there has been no detailed examination of column layouts inNew Testament manuscripts -- at least in any context relating to textual criticism.But it seems likely that manuscripts were written in columns from the very earliestdays -- scrolls, after all, had to be written in columns. The Greek word for acolumn is σελις, although this the word originallymeant instead the space between the columns.
It is often stated that, with the exceptions ofℵ and B,all continuous-text New Testament manuscripts are written inone or two columns. This is not quite true (048 and 053 are alsoin three columns, as is the minuscule 1957 and, of necessity, thetrilingual minuscule 460 -- and of course there are many commentarymanuscripts which use irregular page formats), but not far fromthe mark. The following table shows, by century, the number ofmanuscripts with one, two, three, and four columns. (Note: Manuscriptsmust be substantial enough for the determination to be certain.)For the first five centuries, the manuscripts themselves are listed. Thepercentage of manuscripts in each category is also listed. The data is asgiven in the first edition of the Kurzgefasste Liste (note thatpaleographic estimates in the Liste are not always reliable, andthis list is only approximate).
|Century||Number of Columns|
|III||P45 P47 P72 P75 0212 0220 0232||P13|
|IV||0162 0169 0176 0181 0189 0206 0228||057 058 0171 0185 0207 0214 0221 0230 0231||B||ℵ|
|V||C I W 059 061 069 0163 0172 0173 0174 0175 0182 0217 0244||A Q T 062 068 0160 0165 0166 0201 0216 0218 0219 0226 0227 0236 0239 0242||048|
|VI||13 (24%)||42 (76%)|
|VII||7 (28%)||18 (72%)|
|VIII||9 (39%)||13 (61%)|
|IX||unc||17 (38%)||27 (60%)|| (2%)|
|min||9 (75%)||3 (25%)|
|X||unc||8 (53%)||7 (47%)|
|min||89 (85%)||16 (15%)|
|min||283 (81%)||68 (19%)|
|XII||461 (87%)||69 (13%)|
|XIII||458 (89%)||59 (11%)|||
|XIV||454 (91%)||45 (9%)|
|XV||193 (90%)||21 (10%)|||
|after XV||145 (88%)||19 (12%)|
It is sometimes stated that the reason ℵis written in four columns is that this gives the appearance of a scroll.It should be noted, however, that the papyri are usually in one column,so Christians had clearly already abandoned the "scroll look"before ℵ was written.It seems more likely that ℵ,which is one of the largest uncials known (indeed, based on the data in thefirst edition of the Kurzgefasste Liste, it is as presently boundthe largest uncial known), was written in four columns to keep the width ofeach column close to the standard column width found in other manuscripts.
It is also worth noting that 2-columns format was standard for uncials (57% ofuncials are in two columns), and also very common for lectionaries, butwhile obviously acceptable, certainly not normal for minuscules (only13% of minuscules have more than one column, and many of those are diglots).One may speculate that this has to do with readability. Uncials, particularlyearly uncials which lacked punctuation, word spacing, and breathings, weredifficult to read. To reduce the stress of reading, scribes may have resortedto narrower columns. When the more readable minuscules became standard,scribes turned to the easier-to-copy-but-harder-to-read one-column format.(It is now known that there is an optimal column width for reading; a columnwhich is requires the reader's eyes to move more than five or six times makesreading more difficult. Ancient scribes could not have known this, but theycould well have sensed that narrower columns were easier to read than wide.)
Note that this applies only to Greek manuscripts. Other traditions will haveother histories. Indeed, Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts,Phaedon, 1997, p. 91, states that "at the beginning of the twelfth centurymany manuscripts were still in a single column format, but by about 1170 manuscriptswere generally larger and often in two columns." De Hamel does not say whichmanuscripts this applies to; it appears to be Latin manuscripts (because he goes out of hisway to ignore the very existence of anything in Greek), but he does not specify.Still, it shows how different traditions differ: at a time when Greek manuscriptswere, on average, reducing their number of columns, he finds an increase amongthe manuscripts in his sample base.