Manuscripts of The Bible

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Manuscripts are written texts copied individually by hand. Until the invention of printing in W Europe about 1450, practically all written texts were manuscripts. This was so with biblical texts, in whatsoever language they were written. Here we limit ourselves to biblical manuscripts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the three original languages of Scripture. These were written with carbon ink and a reed pen on skin (parchment, vellum, etc.) or papyrus, in scroll or codex form. Old Testament (Jewish Bible). The earliest known biblical manuscripts are those discovered in 1947 and the following years in the caves of Qumran and other places west of the Dead Sea. These go back to the closing centuries b.c.: they include fragments of all the books of the Hebrew Bible except Esther, and a few portions of the pre-Christian Greek version of the OT, commonly called the Septuagint. But the great majority of manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible exhibit the Massoretic Text, the text edited by the Jewish scholars called Massoretes (i.e., custodians of massorah, “tradition”) from the sixth century a.d. onward. The oldest Massoretic fragments came to light toward the end of the nineteenth century in the “Ezra Synagogue” of Fustat (Old Cairo). Of complete Massoretic manuscripts, the oldest known is a codex of the Prophets belonging to the Qaraite synagogue in Cairo, dated a.d. 895. Others of comparable date are a codex of the Pentateuch in the British Museum (Or 4445), only a few years younger; an early tenth-century codex of the whole Hebrew Bible, formerly (until 1948) belonging to the synagogue in Aleppo and now, unfortunately mutilated at the beginning, preserved in Israel; a Leningrad codex of the Latter Prophets (P) dated a.d. 916; a Leningrad codex of the whole Hebrew Bible (L) completed in 1008, on which the text of Kittel's Biblia Hebraica (3rd ed.) is based; and an almost complete codex of the whole Hebrew Bible in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, a few years younger. Some of these codices exhibit the specially pure form of text edited by the Ben Asher family of Massoretes, of Tiberias. Other manuscripts which exhibit the Ben Asher text are the British Museum Or 2626-2628 and 2375, together with the “Shem Tob” Bible belonging to the Sassoon family; these were used by N.H. Snaith for the Hebrew Bible published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1958. Samaritan Bible. The Hebrew Pentateuch has been preserved independently by the Samaritan community, which recognizes no other part of the OT as canonical. The Samaritan Bible is based on a popular Palestinian text (of which some samples have been identified among the Qumran manuscripts), with the addition of some sectarian readings upholding distinctive Samaritan beliefs, such as that Mt. Gerizim and not Jerusalem is the dwelling-place of the name of God, where He desires to be worshiped (cf. John 4:20). The oldest known Samaritan codex (in Cambridge) contains a note indicating that it was sold in a.d. 1149-50; it must have been written some decades before that. The Abisha scroll, which is shown to visitors at the Samaritan synagogue in Nablus as the oldest book in the world, is actually composite: the oldest part (Num. 35-Deut. 34) may go back to the eleventh century a.d., but when the remainder of the scroll (Gen. 1-Num. 34) was accidentally lost or destroyed in the fourteenth century, it was replaced by a new copy. Septuagint. The “Septuagint” (abbreviated LXX) is the name traditionally, though imprecisely, given to the pre- Christian Greek version of the Hebrew Bible and some associated documents. Some fragments of this version have been identified among the manuscripts from the west shore of the Dead Sea. The John Rylands Library, Manchester, possesses a papyrus fragment of Deuteronomy 25-28 in Greek, of date not later than c.150 b.c. (P. Ryl. 458), and there is another pre-Christian portion of the Greek Deuteronomy in Cairo (P. Fouad 266), containing a few verses of chapters 31 and 32. In this last papyrus the consonants of the divine name (YHWH) are left in square Hebrew characters, instead of being turned into Greek.

All our other Septuagint manuscripts are of Christian origin. The Chester Beatty biblical papyri, now housed in Dublin, include seven codices of various parts of the Septuagint, written in the second and third centuries a.d. With the NT papyri in the same collection these probably belonged to the multivolumed Bible of a Greek-speaking church in Egypt which could not afford more expensive or durable copies. One of these codices, containing parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Esther, is of special interest because it is one of the very few witnesses to the original “Septuagint” version of Daniel-a version which is so free a paraphrase that in nearly all manuscripts of the Greek OT it is replaced by a later and more accurate version ascribed to Theodotion (late second century a.d.). The principal witness to the original “Septuagint” text of Daniel is a codex in the Chigi collection in Rome (eleventh century a.d.).

Most manuscripts of the Septuagint form the OT part of a complete Greek Bible; they are thus witnesses also to the Greek text of the NT, and can be conveniently treated under that heading. New Testament. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Greek NT are written on papyrus. Such are the three NT codices in the Chester Beatty collection, containing the gospels and Acts (P 45), the Pauline letters and Hebrews (P 46), and Revelation (P 47), and dating from the late second-to-mid- third century. The oldest piece of any part of the NT is the papyrus fragment of John 18 in the John Rylands Library (P. Ryl. 457 or P 52), dated before the middle of the second century. The Bodmer Library, Geneva, houses another important collection of NT papyrus codices, including a copy of John's gospel dated c.a.d. 200 (P 66), an incomplete copy of Luke and John perhaps a decade or two earlier (P 75), and a third-century copy of 1 and 2 Peter and Jude with a number of other early Christian documents (P 72).

The most important manuscripts of the NT are the great uncials of the fourth and fifth centuries-so called because they are written in uncial letters, which were based on lapidary capitals. The Vatican and Sinaitic codices (B and Aleph respectively) are the best-known examples of these; they are fourth-century copies of the whole Greek Bible, beautifully produced on vellum, exhibiting a text characteristic of Alexandria. These two manuscripts form the chief biblical treasures respectively of the Vatican Library and the British Museum. The British Museum also houses the Alexandrine Codex (A), which was presented to King Charles I in 1627 by Cyril Lucar, who had recently been patriarch of Alexandria and thus legal owner of the manuscript. The Ephraem Codex (C) in the Louvre, Paris, is also a fifth-century manuscript of the Greek Bible; it owes its name to the fact that in the twelfth century its biblical text was scraped off to make room for some writings of the fourth- century Syriac father Ephraem. The original writing was later made visible again by the use of chemical reagents. A manuscript which has received this treatment is called a palimpsest (from a Greek adjective meaning “scraped again”). In Cambridge University Library the Codex of Beza (D) is preserved; this is the best- known example of a group of bilingual (Greek and Latin) NT manuscripts. This codex, containing the gospels and Acts, was written in the fifth or sixth century; it came into the possession of the Geneva Reformer Theodore Beza, who presented it to Cambridge University in 1581. It exhibits the “Western” text, which is marked by a number of peculiar deviations from other types of NT text, mainly amplifications and additions.

Two important gospel uncials are the Washington Codex (W), in the Library of the United States Congress, and the Koridethi Codex (Theta), in the Georgian State Library, Tiflis. They are important especially for the evidence they provide of the conventionally called “Caesarean” text of Mark; in addition, the Washington Codex includes a substantial expansion of the unauthentic ending of that gospel after Mark 16:14.

While the best-known uncials are traditionally designated by capital letters, all the uncials are officially listed in a series beginning 01 (Sinaitic).

In addition to nearly 270 uncials of the NT, there are about 2,800 minuscules, written (that is to say) in smaller letters approximating to ordinary cursive script. Whereas the official list of uncials is distinguished by 0 preceding each serial number, the official list of minuscules is numbered 1-2800. In addition to the regular uncial and minuscule manuscripts, well over 2,000 lectionaries containing the Greek text of the NT have been listed (their serial numbers are preceded by 1); in them the text has been arranged in selections for reading in church. In all, the Greek NT text in whole or in part is preserved in some 5,250 extant manuscripts, covering a range of nearly 1,400 years-a wealth of attestation such as no other body of ancient literature can approach.

The majority of later uncials, minuscules, and lectionaries exhibit the Byzantine Text-a revised form of the NT text standardized throughout Greek-speaking Christendom after the peace of the church, from the later years of the fourth century onward. This text was in its main essentials taken over into the earliest printed editions of the Greek Testament (the “Received Text”) and is represented in the English AV and other early printed vernacular versions.

See Bible (English Versions).

B.J. Roberts, The Old Testament Text and Versions (1951); E. Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (ET 1957); F.M. Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (1958); F.G. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (revised by A.W. Adams, 5th ed., 1958); P.E. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza (2nd ed., 1959); F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., 1963); B.M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (2nd ed., 1968).