A pastor reviews and reflects on the recently released website of the World’s Oldest Bible – Codex Vaticanus


Today’s post features news about the recently launched website by the Vatican in Rome with regards to one of the most important witnesses to the text of both the Greek Old Testament (i.e the Septuagint) and the Greek New Testament – the Codex Vaticanus. The above photograph comes directly from the website featured in this post and depicts the text of 2 Thessalonians in the first column and the beginning of the Epistle of Hebrews in the second and third columns: http://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1209?sid=a886faeb2d1af5d0a3b7ca841a5065bf#current_page.

A quick description about the significance of the manuscript Codex Vaticanus

When mention is made of any hand-copied manuscript of either the Bible or work of antiquity, the term “manuscript” is used. The title of the above manuscript, “Codex Vaticanus”,  is so-named because of its location – (the Vatican in Rome) and the form in which it exists – (a “codex” or precursor to modern day books). Scholars have dated this nearly full manuscript of the Greek Old Testament and New Testament to the fourth century, making it over 1600 years in age!

The history of this vital manuscript and its place among the textual history of the New Testament in particular is second to none. Greek scholars Kurt and Barbara Aland in the standard reference work of the history of the Greek New Testament, “The Text of the New Testament”, page 107, note the following about Vaticanus: “It was recorded in the Vatican inventory in 1475. The facsimile edition of 1904  has been superceded by the 1968 reproduction in color with an introduction by Carlo M. Martini, published in Rome.” The Alands then later write on the same page of their work: (Vaticanus) is by far the most significant of the uncials (an uncial is a manuscript written in upper-case Greek letters).” New Testament Scholar and specialist in ancient manuscripts, Brice C. Jones, describes Codex Vaticanus on his own blog post regarding the release of the Vaticanus website at http://www.bricecjones.com/blog/news-alert-codex-vaticanus-online: “The Codex is named after its place of conservation in the Vatican Library, where it has been kept since at least the 15th century. It is written on 759 leaves of vellum in uncial letters and has been dated palaeographically (that is, the science specializing in the dating of the writing in ancient manuscripts) to the 4th century.”

Greek scholar Dr. Daniel Wallace at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) has the following description of this manuscript at his website http://www.csntm.org/   “Codex Vaticanus is an important fourth century majuscule (another word used to describe manuscripts written in uppercase Greek lettering) manuscript. It contains Matthew–2 Thessalonians, Hebrews 1.1–9.13, James–Jude. It lacks the Pastorals, Philemon, and Revelation. After Hebrews 9.13, the document is written in much later minuscule hand. 142 leaves on parchment, three columns, with 42 lines per column.” On his website one can view his organization’s own color fascimile photographs of this incredible literary masterpiece.

The importance of ancient manuscripts being made available in digital form to the world

Remarkably, the entire world can view the contents of a Bible that is over 1600 years old! Even if the reader may not know Greek, the beauty of the manuscript and the history it represents gives tangible demonstration of the history of the Biblical text. For years ancient Biblical manuscripts have been available in hardcopy, photographic copies (fascimilies) in books that deal with the history and transmission of the Biblical text. The following picture (taken by the author of a fascimile of Vaticanus in an academic textbook of the beginning book of Hebrews) gives a sample of what one of these facsimilies look like:


The problem shared with their manuscript subjects is that of age and deteriorating quality. When once compares the fascimile image (a picture of a picture of a picture) to the above digitized picture from the Vaticanus website, there is no comparison! Digitization brings out more fully the manuscript as it would appear if we were handling it first hand. The process of making ancient manuscripts available to the public is not only a possibility, but a reality and on the increase. Significant manuscripts like Vaticanus, which have only been available to elite groups of scholars for the past 1600 years, can now be viewed and studied the world-over.

Reviewing and Reflecting on the significance of the Codex Vaticanus website

What follows are some general remarks that serve to review and reflect on this remarkable website featuring full access to the Codex Vaticanus manuscript. This blogger writes as a pastor who desires to make know to a wider readership the world of the Bible in the original languages. Why the big deal? To answer this question, this blogger will list off four headings in terms of the “benefits” of having access to a fully digitized copy of a manuscript like Codex Vaticanus:

1. Studying benefit. Here again is the website for the Vaticanus manuscript http://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1209?sid=a886faeb2d1af5d0a3b7ca841a5065bf#current_page.

The Codex Vaticanus’s entire contents is displayed on the home page and for anyone clicking on any of the listed books, instant access is granted to high quality, high definition digital photographs of each page of the manuscript. In the few minutes this author spent on the site today, tools such as magnifying portions of the manuscript and scrolling were made available.

2. Historical benefit. Since this blogger already has one fascimile page copy of the opening book of Hebrews, the thought was to compare the same page on the Vatican website. As mentioned above, the advantages over hardcopy are immediately apparent. For starters, the scribal note off to the side of the second column, eleventh line: ΧΑΡΑΚΤΗΡΤΗCΥΠΟΤΑCΕΩCΑΥΤΟΥ = χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ = “character of His being” (Hebrews 1:3) can be discerned up close and in detail, as opposed to the same note being barely discernable in a typical fascimile copy. The big deal here is that such a site brings students, scholars and pastors one step closer to the history and transmission of the precious text of God’s Word in the New Testament.

3. Apologetical benefit. 1 Peter 3:15 reminds us to be ready to give a defense of the hope within us. This blogger has read critics who have claimed that having open access to the manuscript evidence of the New Testament will only show how unreliable it is. If anything, this author tends to think the opposite, since people the world over can check the work of the critics and find out for themselves the textual integrity of the New Testament text.

4. Improving competency in the Biblical languages benefit. For those readers who study Greek, pouring over a text like Vaticanus causes the student to actually work with the manuscripts themselves. Since uncial manuscripts are not divided into words and paragraphs, the reader is forced to keep working on their Greek, which believe it or not is a good thing!

5. Increased respect for the English Bible benefit. To realize the care and beauty of such a manuscript cause this blogger to better appreciate how awesome it is to have unlimited access to the Bible in the English language. Such a manuscript took painstaking time and effort to produce. If anything, the reader ought to praise God for how in His providence He saw fit to have the scriptures preserved and to bring His people into a day and age wherein they can be studied, appreciated and hopefully applied!

Well this blogger hopes this review and set of reflections has whetted reader’s appetite to want to dig deeper into the scriptures and to be aware of how exciting it is to have greater access to the history of the text of the New Testament. To God be the glory!

About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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4 Responses to A pastor reviews and reflects on the recently released website of the World’s Oldest Bible – Codex Vaticanus

  1. Mahlon,
    I’ve cobbled together a list of links to the major uncial parchment Greek MSS that contain the Gospels at http://www.thetextofthegospels.com/2015/02/major-early-uncials-of-gospels-online.html . Links to some important online collections are provided too.

  2. Tony says:

    Great post Mahlon. Very well constructed and written. What an incredibly rich heritage our Christian faith carries.

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