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The manuscripts typically classified as “uncial” are so designated to differentiate them from papyrus manuscripts. In a sense, this is a misnomer because the real difference has to do with the material they are written on—vellum (treated animal hide) as compared to papyrus—not the kind of letters used. Indeed, the papyri are also written in uncials (capital letters), but the term “uncial” typically describes the majuscule lettering that was prominent in fourth-century biblical texts, such as in א, A, B, C.
Codex Sinaiticus (or א) This codex contains the entire OT and the NT in this order: the four Gospels, the Pauline Epistles (including Hebrews), Acts, the General Epistles, Revelation. It also includes the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The codex cannot be earlier than 340 (the year Eusebius died) because the Eusebian sections of the text are indicated in the margins of the Gospels by a contemporary hand. Most scholars date it 350–375.
This codex was discovered by Constantin von Tischendorf in St Catherine’s Monastery (situated at the foot of Mt Sinai). On a visit to the monastery in 1844 he noticed in a wastebasket some parchment leaves that were being used to light the lamps. He was allowed to take this waste paper, which proved to be 43 leaves from various parts of the Greek translation of the OT.
In 1853 he made a second trip to the monastery and found nothing. In 1859, however, on his third trip, he found not only other parts of the OT but also the complete NT. He was finally able to persuade the monastery authorities to present the manuscript to the czar, the great patron of the Greek Catholic Church, who placed it in the Imperial Library in St Petersburg. The czar gave great honors to the monastery and its authorities, and everybody seemed well pleased. Later Tischendorf was charged with having stolen the manuscript from its lawful owners, but the better textual scholars do not accept that story.
The manuscript remained in the Imperial Library until 1933, when it was purchased by the British Museum for the huge sum of £100,000 (about $500,000). Textual criticism made the headlines because one manuscript was bought for this much money, raised largely by public subscription during the Great Depression. The manuscript is now on display in the manuscript room of the museum, where it is considered one of its most prized possessions.
The text of Sinaiticus is very closely related to that of Codex Vaticanus. They agree in presenting the purest type of text, usually called the Alexandrian text type. Tischendorf greatly used the textual evidence of Codex Sinaiticus in preparing his critical editions of the Greek NT. Tischendorf thought four scribes had originally produced the codex, whom he named scribes A, B, C, D. After reinvestigation, H. J. Milne and T. C. Skeat identified only three scribes: A (who wrote the historical and poetical books of the OT, as well as most of the NT), B (who wrote the Prophets and the Shepherd of Hermas), and D (who wrote some Psalms, Tobit, Judith, and 4 Maccabees, and redid small sections of the NT). Milne and Skeat demonstrated that scribe A of Codex Vaticanus was likely the same scribe as scribe D of Codex Sinaiticus. If this true, then א is contemporary with B—perhaps produced in the same scriptorium in Alexandria. Codex Sinaiticus provides a fairly reliable witness to the NT; however, the scribe was not as careful as the scribe of B.
Codex Alexandrinus (A) This is one of the three most important codices containing early copies of the whole Bible in Greek (the other two being the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus codexes). The name Alexandrinus comes from ancient records suggesting that it was copied in Egypt during the early part of the fifth century ad. The early history of this manuscript and its Egyptian provenance is partially revealed by its flyleaves. A note by Cyril of Lucar (patriarch of Alexandria and then of Constantinople in the 1620s) states that, according to tradition, it was written by Thecla, a noble lady of Egypt shortly after the Council of Nicaea (325) and that her name was originally inscribed at the end of the volume but the last page was lost due to mutilation. An Arabic note of the 13th or 14th century also says that the manuscript was written by “Thecla the martyr.” Another Arabic note says that is was presented to the patriarchal cell of Alexandria (c. 1098). Cyril of Lucar took the manuscript from Alexandria to Constantinople in 1621 and then gave it to Charles I of England in 1627, where it became part of the Royal Library, then later the British Museum.
Only 773 of the original 820 or so pages still exist. The rest were lost as the book was passed down through the centuries. The surviving parts of Alexandrinus contain a Greek translation of the whole OT, the Apocrypha (including four books of Maccabees and Psalm 151), most of the NT, and some early Christian writings (of which the First and Second Epistles of Clement to the Corinthians are the most important).
Frederick Kenyon thought the codex was the work of five scribes, to each of whom he designated a Roman numeral. According to Kenyon, scribes I and II copied the OT; scribe III did Matthew, Mark, 1 Corinthians 10:8–Philemon 1:25; scribe IV did Luke—Acts, General Epistles, Romans 1:1–1 Corinthians 10:8; and scribe V did Revelation. Milne and Skeat, however, argued that the whole codex was the work of two copyists (I and II). W. H. P. Hatch noted that many corrections have been made in the manuscript, most of them at an early date. Some of these corrections were introduced by the scribe himself, and others came from later hands.
Evidently, the scribes of this codex used exemplars of varying quality for various sections of the NT. The exemplar used for the Gospels was of poor quality, reflecting a Byzantine text type. Its testimony in the Epistles is much better, and in Revelation it provides the best witness to the original text.
Codex Vaticanus (B) Codex Vaticanus is the Vatican Manuscript, so named because it is the most famous manuscript in the Vatican Library in Rome. This manuscript has been in the Vatican’s library since at least 1475, but it was not made available to scholars, such as Constantin von Tischendorf and Samuel Tregelles, until the middle of the 19th century.
At one time, the codex contained the whole Greek Bible, including most of the books of the Apocrypha, but it has lost many of its leaves. Originally it must have had about 820 leaves (1,640 pp), but now it has 759–617 in the OT and 142 in the NT. The major gaps of the manuscript are Genesis 1:1–46:28; 2 Samuel 2:5–7, 10–13; Psalms 106:27–138:6; Hebrews 9:14–13:25; the Pastoral Epistles; and Revelation. Each leaf measures ten and a half by ten inches (26.7 by 25.4 centimeters). Each page has three columns (two for the poetical books) with 40 to 44 lines to the column. The manuscript was written by two different scribes. It is dated in the early to middle part of the fourth century. It is not known where the manuscript originated, but it has been in the Vatican Library from the time of its earliest catalog in 1475.
When Napoleon conquered Rome, he brought its treasures to Paris, including this manuscript. The scholar Hug identified it and called the attention of other scholars to it. After the downfall of Napoleon, the manuscript was returned to the Vatican Library. Competent textual scholars were not allowed to do careful work on it until a photographic edition was published in 1890. It is now on exhibit in the Vatican Library.
The text of the Vatican Manuscript is much like that of Codex Sinaiticus. These are generally recognized as the two finest examples of the Alexandrian type of Greek text of the NT. The Greek text of the OT is very fine too, but it is not quite so important, as the original language of the OT was Hebrew. Virtually all the textual scholars since the days of Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort (who brought out their Greek Testament, including their theory of textual criticism, in 1881), recognize this neutral type of text as a very early text and a very pure text, an extremely accurate reproduction of what the original text must have been. Westcott and Hort called it a second-century text accurate in 999 out of 1,000 words so far as any matter of translatable difference was concerned. א and B are the finest examples of this type of text, but it is also found in a few other Greek uncial manuscripts, a few of the early translations, and in the writings of a few of the early church fathers. Since the days of Westcott and Hort, their theory has been confirmed by the discovery of some papyrus manuscripts, notably the Bodmer Papyri, discovered in the 1950s.
Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C) This codex is a palimpsest (the original writing was erased and different words written on the same material). It originally contained the entire Bible but now has only parts of six OT books and portions of all NT books except 2 Thessalonians and 2 John. The single-column Bible text, written in the 5th century ad, was erased in the 12th century and replaced by a two-column text of a Greek translation of sermons or treatises by a certain Ephraem, a 4th-century Syrian church leader. Such a practice was common in periods of economic depression or when parchment was scarce. The original writing was scraped from the writing surface and the surface smoothed. Then new compositions could be written on the prepared surface. Using chemicals Tischendorf was able to read much of the erased document.
The manuscript may have been brought from the east to Florence by a learned Greek named Andrew John Lascar in the time of Lorenzo de’Medici. Since Lascar was known as Rhyndacenus (from the river Rhyndacus), he probably came from the region of Phrygia (site of ancient Laodicea). Where the manuscript was prior to this is not known. The Ephraemi manuscript was brought to Italy in the early sixth century, where it became the property of the Medici family. Catherine de’Medici took it to France, where it remains today.
The text of this manuscript is mixed—it is compounded from all the major text types, agreeing frequently with the later koine of Byzantine type, which most scholars regard as the least valuable type of NT text.
Codex Bezae (D) This is a Greek-Latin diglot containing Matthew—Acts, 3 John, with lacunae. Most scholars date it late fourth or early fifth century (c. 400). Some scholars think the codex was produced in either Egypt or North Africa by a scribe whose mother tongue was Latin. Another scholar (D. C. Parker) has argued that it was copied in Beirut, a center of Latin legal studies during the fifth century, where both Latin and Greek were used. Evidently, it was produced by a scribe who knew Latin better than Greek, and then was corrected by several scribes. In any event, the codex somehow came into the hands of Theodore Beza, French scholar and successor to Calvin. Beza gave it to the Cambridge University Library in 1581.
This codex is probably the most controversial of the NT uncials because of its marked independence. Its many additions, omissions, and alterations (especially in Luke and Acts) are the work of a significant theologian. A few earlier manuscripts (P29, P38, P48, and 0171) appear to be precursors to the type of text found in D, which is considered the principal witness of the Western text-type. Thus, Codex Bezae could be a copy of an earlier revised edition. This reviser must have been a scholar who had a propensity for adding historical, biographical, and geographical details. More than anything, he was intent on filling in gaps in the narrative by adding circumstantial details.
Codex Washingtonianus, or The Freer Gospels (W) This codex, dated around 400, has the four Gospels and Acts. It is often referred to as the Freer Gospels—named after its owner, Charles Freer. The codex likely came from the ruins of a monastery near Giza. The handwriting is quite similar to that found in a fifth-century fragment of the book of Enoch found at Akhmim in 1886.
Codex W was copied from a parent manuscript (exemplar) that had been pieced together from several different manuscripts. This is obvious because the textual presentation of W is noticeably variegated and even the stratification of the text is matched by similar variations in paragraphing. The scribe who collated the parent manuscript drew upon various sources to put together his Gospel codex. It is likely that the scribe of the parent manuscript used a text that came from North Africa (the “Western” text) for the first part of Mark, and the scribe of W used manuscripts from Antioch for Matthew and the second part of Luke to fill the gaps in the more ancient manuscript he was copying. Detailed textual analysis reveals the variegated textual stratifications of W, as follows: in Matthew the text is Byzantine; in Mark the text is first Western (1:1–5:30), then Caesarean in Mark 5:31–16:20 (akin to P45); in Luke the text is first Alexandrian (1:1–8:12), then Byzantine. John is more complicated because the first part of John (1:1–5:11), which fills a quire, was the work of a seventh-century scribe who must have replaced a damaged quire. (Ws designates the work of this scribe.) This first section has a mixture of Alexandrian and Western readings, as does the rest of John.
Codex 1739 This tenth-century codex has Acts and the Epistles. The manuscript was discovered at Mt Athos in 1879 by E. von der Goltz. The manuscript has strong textual affinities with P46, B, 1739, Coptic Sahidic, Coptic Boharic, Clement, and Origen. The relationship between P46, B, and 1739 is remarkable because 1739 is a tenth-century manuscript that was copied from a fourth-century manuscript of excellent quality. According to a colophon, the scribe of 1739 for the Pauline Epistles followed a manuscript that came from Caesarea in the library of Pamphilus and that contained an Origenian text. The three manuscripts, P46, B, and 1739, form a clear textual line: from P46 (early second century) to B (early fourth century) to 1739 (tenth century based on fourth century).
By Philip Wesley Comfort