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A Brief History of the Bible

Bill East

NOTE: This lengthy article first appeared as a series of postings on the Medieval-Religion discussion list and is posted here with the kind permission of the author. Comments engendered by these postings may be accessed through the archives of the discussion list for September and October, 1998.

A Brief History of the Bible -1

The considerable interest generated by the Vulgate query suggests to me that there may be some benefit in writing a brief history of the Bible to the list. What I have in mind will be of no interest to specialists - who, I pray, will charitably click on their Delete icon - but may be of help to those who confess themselves beginners and prevent them getting bogged down in the mare's nests which lurk in the thievish alleys of our field, seeking whom they may devour.

To begin with, what is the Bible? What does the word mean? It derives from the Greek, Ta Biblia. This is a plural form; but what is To Biblion?

"Biblion" signifies the inner bark of the papyrus plant. Beneath the green outer bark lies a soft white membrane. Strips of these are laid side by side. Other strips are then pasted on at right angles. The resulting papyrus can be written on. It is rather brittle and hence not suitable for folding in our familiar "codex" form, but can be rolled up to make a scroll. These scrolls were usually kept in earthenware jars. A scroll is limited as to size, because it has to be unrolled in order to be read. It would be out of the question to write the whole of what we now call "The Bible" on one scroll. It would be the thickness of an oil drum, and most inconvenient to use. A "book" of the Bible would in principle be a single scroll.

In the ancient world therefore a "Bible" would be a collection of scrolls in earthenware jars, sitting on several shelves. Probably a single individual, unless he were very rich, would not own a complete "Bible". One might find such a collection in a library, or in a synagogue.

But the exact number of scrolls which one might find on the shelves of any particular library would vary, for several reasons.

  1. The limits of the canon of the Old Testament were not decided until the early Christian period. "The suggestion that a particular synod of Jamnia, held c. 100 A.D., finally settled the limits of the OT canon, was made by H.E. Ryle; though it has had a wide currency, there is no evidence to substantiate it" (ODCC).
  2. More than one book might be fitted on to a scroll. It is the Jewish custom nowadays to have the Torah, the five books of the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) all on one scroll. I do not know when this custom began. Furthermore the Minor Prophets (minor only in respect to the length of their work) were collected on one scroll. It was thought appropriate that there should be twelve such prophets, twelve being a number of some significance in Jewish tradition (twelve patriarchs, twelve tribes). Diligent search however revealed only eleven such prophets - Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai and Zechariah. There were however three short anonymous prophecies left over, each beginning with the phrase "An oracle:" Two of these were tacked on to the end of the Book of Zechariah (Zechariah 9-11 and 12-14). The third had the slightly longer opening, "An oracle: by my messenger". The Hebrew word for "my messenger" is "malachi" and so this final oracle became "Malachi".
  3. And of course, a particular collection might not be complete, because a book might not be available locally, or the owner of the library might not be able to afford it. In any case, the concept of a "Bible" was something vastly different from nowadays.

One must next appreciate that by the time of Christ, Hebrew was a dead language. The Jews of Palestine had long spoken Aramaic, the common language of the Middle East. The Hebrew scriptures were no longer even written in the Hebrew alphabet - what we call the Hebrew alphabet is in fact the Aramaic one. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel contain large portions written in the Aramaic language. There were translations, or rather paraphrases of the scriptures into Aramaic. These were known as Targums.

Jews of the "Diaspora" or dispersion, settled around the Mediterranean, spoke the common language of the region, i.e. Greek. Tomorrow, if your interest holds, we shall see how the Bible was translated into Greek for them.

A Brief History of the Bible - 2

From a Christian point of view, the most significant of the Greek translations of the Old Testament is what is called the Septuagint (Latin for "Seventy" and often abbreviated to "LXX"). This is traditionally credited to the initiative of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 BC) who wanted a translation of the Hebrew Law for his library at Alexandria. He is said to have engaged 70, or more exactly 72, translators for this work - hence the title.

They seem to have translated only the Torah, or Law - that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The tradition grew, as traditions do, in the telling. It was said that all 72 translators were miraculously inspired to produce exactly the same translation. Furthermore the title LXX came to be applied to a much more extensive work than simply the Law.

The LXX, as we now have it, differs in many respects from the Hebrew Bible:

  1. The Books are arranged in a different order. The threefold division observed in the Hebrew Bible, "Law" "Prophets" and "Writings", is abandoned.
  2. The text of some of the books differs considerably from that of the Hebrew. "The original LXX of Job is about one-sixth shorter than the Hebrew; there are several interesting passages in the LXX of 1 Kings that are not in the Hebrew; and there are considerable differences in order between the Hebrew and the LXX in Jeremiah" (ODCC).
  3. There are more books in the LXX than in the Hebrew. At least one of these, Ecclesiasticus, is a translation of a Hebrew original, now lost; others - Wisdom, Judith, Tobit, Baruch - seem not to be translations at all, but original compositions in Greek.

The early Christian Church inherited the LXX, and this, rather than the Hebrew scriptures, was its Bible. The New Testament, which is written entirely in Greek, usually quotes from the LXX. A famous instance is Matthew 1:23, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive", where virgin ("parthenos") is the Greek word, the Hebrew word meaning simply "young woman." The early Fathers almost all regarded the LXX as the norm, and few before Jerome took much interest in the Hebrew.

The one exception was Origen (185-254), about whom we must say a word. He produced his Hexapla, or sixfold version of the Old Testament.

In the first column was the Hebrew text.

In the second column was the Hebrew text, transliterated into Greek characters.

In the third column was the Greek version of Aquila, a native of Sinope in Pontus, who lived under Hadrian (117-38). He was converted to Christianity but excommunicated for dabbling in astrology, so he became a Jew. He learned Hebrew and rabbinic exegesis from the rabbis. He produced a new Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures to replace the LXX, which had lost favour with the Jewish community because it had been taken up so enthusiastically by the Christians. Aquila's version was painfully literal, staying faithful to the Hebrew idiom at the expense of any attempt at good Greek grammar.

In the fourth column was the Greek version of Symmachus, who lived in the later 2nd century AD. His version is freer, less literal and more readable than that of Aquila, but for that very reason is of less value for textual criticism.

In the fifth column was Origen's critical text of the LXX (referred to hereafter as the 'hexaplaric' text of the LXX).

In the sixth column was the Greek version of Theodotion, also of the 2nd century. His version has much in common with the LXX and may be regarded as a revision rather than an independent translation. It has special value for the study of Job and Jeremiah, where it was used by Origen to supply many gaps in the LXX text, while for Daniel from the 4th century onwards the Church used it in preference to the LXX.

For certain sections of the OT, up to three further versions were added, making at times a total of nine columns.

We shall go on to look at some of the principal surviving MSS of the Greek Bible, then at the various kinds of texts - "Byzantine", "Alexandrian", "Western" etc. - that they exhibit, before looking at the process of translation into Latin.

A Brief History of the Bible - 3

If you look at the critical apparatus of an edition of the Greek Bible - Old or New Testament - you will find that the editor has consulted a large number of manuscripts, which will be listed in the following order:

  1. Papyri, indicated by the sigla p1, p2, p3, p4 etc. These tend to be quite early in the tradition - third or fourth centuries of the Christian era.
  2. Uncials, i.e. Vellum codices in the Uncial ("inch high") script, a large, clear script. The earliest of these is of the fourth century. Most of these are indicated by Roman letters - A, B, C, D, etc. When the Roman letters run out, they are denoted by Greek letters, and then when the Greek letters run out, by numbers beginning with zero - 046, 047 etc. One of the most significant uncials is usually denoted by the Hebrew letter Aleph, or alternatively by the Roman letter S. I shall have to use S.
  3. Minuscules. The minuscule script is medieval in origin, and most of the minuscules cited in the apparatus before me are 12th century in origin, though some are 10th or 11th, and some are later. Minuscules are denoted by a number: 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . 2321, 2322. There are quite a lot of these.

After these primary witnesses, the editor may consult ancient versions (such as the Latin versions), lectionaries, quotations in the Fathers, early printed editions.

The number of witnesses cited may run into many hundreds, but a quite small number of the really significant ones will be the real basis of the text. Rahlfs' edition of the Septuagint is based mainly on "B" (Codex Vaticanus), "S" [ = Aleph] (Codex Sinaiticus), and "A" (Codex Alexandrinus).

I have it in mind to mention the more important manuscripts, in chronological order, not of their creation, but in the order in which they became known to scholars and so became an influence on the text of our modern bibles. This may seem an odd way of doing things, but it will save me doing it all over at a later stage.

The earliest printed Bibles were Jewish editions of the Hebrew Scriptures. I regret that my knowledge of them is confined to what is said in the Cambridge History of the Bible, vol.3, p. 48ff., to which I refer those who are interested.

The first printed edition of the Greek New Testament was published by Erasmus in March 1516. Actually it was a close run thing, for Cardinal Ximenes was at the time working on a far grander project, the 'Complutensian Polyglot' at the University he had founded at Alcalá ("Complutum" is the Latin for Alcalá - God knows how). This edition printed the Hebrew, Latin and Septuagint in parallel columns. The editors wrote: 'We have placed the Latin translation of Blessed Jerome as though between the synagogue and the Eastern Church, placing them like the two thieves one on each side, and Jesus, that is the Roman or Latin Church, between them.' (!!!)

The first printed edition of the whole Bible was the Aldine Press edition of 1518/19. This consisted of an edition of the Septuagint by Andreas Asolanus, established from manuscripts in Cardinal Bessarion's collection in the library of St Mark at Venice, together with Erasmus's edition of the NT.

Neither Erasmus nor Ximenes offered what we would regard as a critical text. Erasmus was no great shakes as a textual critic, and he knew only a few late, minuscule MSS. The Complutensian editors used MSS obtained from the Vatican library, the library of St Mark at Venice, and from the private collection of Ximenes. What they did not use was the best biblical MS in the Vatican library, the Codex Vaticanus, usually designated as "B". We'll discuss that MS next time.

A Brief History of the Bible - 4

"Codex Vaticanus" is the name usually given to the 4th century MS of the Greek Bible, Vat. gr. 1209, in the Vatican Library. I wonder if anyone on the list has actually seen it?

Its presence in the Vatican Library is vouched for by an entry in the 1481 catalogue, and probably by one in the 1475 catalogue; its previous history is unknown - at least to me!

It contains the Septuagint OT, and the Greek NT as far as Hebrews 9:14, after which the rest has been lost. "The sheets are of a fine vellum, said to be of antelopes' skins, each page being composed of three columns of over forty lines" (ODCC).

The Cambridge scholar F.J.A. Hort, thought that it was of Roman provenance, but more recent scholars believe it was written in Alexandria. Westcott and Hort, who edited the N.T. on the basis of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, thought that these represented a "Neutral" text, less subject to corrupting influences of editorial revision than any other. It is my understanding that more recent scholars do not attempt to distinguish between a "Neutral" text and the "Alexandrian" text; but of course I speak under the correction of the ever-vigilant Bob.

Vaticanus was the basis of the Sixtine edition of the Septuagint published at Rome in 1587. The complete text was first edited by A. Mai in 1857. The NT was edited, after Mai, by Constantine Tischendorf (Leipzig, 1867), the discoverer of Sinaiticus. More of him later.

As an undergraduate (reading English) I was required to read the Introduction to Westcott and Hort's "The New Testament in the Original Greek" (1881) as my introduction to textual criticism. Of course, a great deal of work has been done since then, but I have always regarded it as one of the books most necessary for all people to know.

Vaticanus is regularly indicated by the siglum "B" in the apparatus of critical editions of the Bible.

I might have started with another early MS, "Codex Bezae", now in the Cambridge University Library. It is a little later than Vaticanus, probably 5th century. It is a bilingual (Greek and Latin) MS of the Gospels, in the order Matthew, John, Luke, Mark, with Acts, and a small fragment of the Latin of the third letter of St John.

It was taken by the Bishop of Clermont to the Council of Trent and used by Stephanus for his edition of the NT published at Paris in 1550. Its earlier history is uncertain. It came into the possession of Theodore Beza, who presented it to the University of Cambridge in 1581.

This Beza (De Besze) was a Calvinist divine who published a number of editions of the scriptures. In 1565 he published his first edition of the Greek text of the NT, to which were added the Vulgate and his own Latin translation. This is regarded as the first critical edition of the NT; he had consulted 17 MSS, as well as the variants collected by H. Stephanus and the edition published by R. Stephanus (Estienne) in 1550. In 1582 he brought out a second edition, supplemented by the Codex Bezae, which he had picked up (I know not how) in Lyons, together with the Peshitta (a Syriac version), and his Latin translation of an Arabic version.

Codex Bezae represents what Westcott and Hort were to call the "Western" text of the NT. It is usually indicated by the siglum "D".

A Brief History of the Bible - 5


Cyril Lucar (1572-1638) was a Cretan by birth. He studied in Venice and Padua, where he became acquainted with Latin thought. He became Patriarch of Alexandria in 1601, and Patriarch of Constantinople in 1620. He became more and more well-disposed towards the Reformed Churches, particularly - mirabile dictu - the Church of England. He sent Metrophanes Critopoulos to study at Oxford. In January 1625 he gave a very ancient (early 5th century) MS of the Bible to Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador, as a present for King James I. In the event, James died in March 1625 and by the time the MS reached England Charles I was on the throne. Lucar himself eventually became a thorough-going Calvinist and was put to death accordingly.

The MS became part of the Royal Library, which was incorporated into the British Library. It is catalogued as Royal MS 1 D. vi, and is commonly known as the Codex Alexandrinus. Despite its name, it is far from certain that it was written in Alexandria, and it does not exhibit what Westcott and Hort were to call the "Alexandrian" text.

It contains the complete Bible, including the deuterocanonical books, except for nine leaves in the Psalms, the first twenty-five leaves of Matthew, and a few other leaves. It contains also a couple of non-canonical books, namely the two Letters of St Clement of Rome, and the canticles, those portions of Scripture which are commonly sung as hymns.

The MS consists of 773 large leaves, and once had about forty more. It is written throughout in two columns by two scribes, who differ in their handwriting, spelling and decorative styles.

The type and quality of text varies from book to book. In Deuteronomy and Revelation, Alexandrinus has the best text, agreeing with the Deuteronomy in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which was written on papyrus six centuries earlier. On the other hand, the text of the Gospels is well on the way to what Westcott and Hort were to call the Byzantine text, basically that which had already been used in the King James translation of 1611.

From its arrival in England until the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Codex Alexandrinus, bound in four volumes, was kept at St James's Palace with the rest of the Royal Library. During the Commonwealth (1649-1660) troops were quartered in the palace, and the books were allowed to 'lie upon the floor in confused heaps, so that not only the rain and the dust, but also the rats, mice and other vermin can easily get at them' as an official report noted in 1651.

Early in the eighteenth century the Royal Library was merged with the library of Sir Robert Cotton to form the nucleus of what was to become the British Library. It was rescued from the fire of 1731 (which charred the Beowulf MS and many others) by the librarian, Dr Bentley.

Alexandrinus was the first of the three great codices to have its New Testament published, in 1786, when an edition in uncial type specially cast for the purpose was produced by C.G. Wolde, a native of Poland who in 1782 was appointed assistant librarian in the British Museum. The Old Testament of Vaticanus had been published in Pope Sixtus V's edition ot the Septuagint in 1587; however its New Testament was not published until after that of Alexandrinus and Siniaticus.

Alexandrinus is indicated in the critical apparatus of Bibles by the siglum "A".

A Brief History of the Bible - 6

Codex Sinaiticus

In May 1844, the German scholar Constantine Tischendorf visited the monastery of St Catherine, at the foot of Mount Sinai. He writes:

"In visiting the library of the monastery . . . I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian, who was a man of information, told me that two heaps of papers like these, mouldered by time, had already been committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen. The authorities of the convent allowed me to possess myself of a third of these parchment, or about forty-three sheets, all the more readily as they were destined for the fire. But I could not get them to yield up possession of the remainder. The too lively satisfaction which I had displayed had aroused their suspicions as to the value of this manuscript."

He gave the sheets to Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, his patron, and they were deposited in the University Library, Leipzig, where they still are.

A second visit in 1853 brought to light eleven lines of Genesis, now in St Petersburg.

He visited the monastery for the third time in 1859. On 4th Februrary he was in conversation with the steward of the monastery, who produced

"a bulky kind of volume, wrapped up in a red cloth and laid it before me. I unrolled the cover, and discovered, to my great surprise, not only those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket, but also other parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete, and in addition the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Pastor of Hermas. Full of joy, which this time I had the self-command to conceal from the steward and the rest of the community, I asked, as if in a careless way, for permission to take the manuscript into my sleeping chamber to look over it more at leisure. There by myself I could give way to the transport of joy which I felt. I knew that I held in my hand the most important Biblical treasure in existence - a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined during twenty years' study of the subject."

Tischendorf "borrowed" the Manuscript (ho ho!) and presented it to the Tsar of Russia. This caused some ill feeling between the monastery and the Russian government, the monks feeling that they had been diddled. In 1869 the Russian diplomatic service came to an agreement with the new Archbishop of Sinai, Callistus, and some money passed hands. However, the monks on Sinai still resent the way in which their treasure was given away; although, to be fair, in Tischendorf had not alerted them to its value, they would have burnt it years earlier.

The Library was deposited in the library at St Petersburg. In 1933 the Soviet government, having no great interest in the Bible but being somewhat strapped for cash, sold it to the British government for £100,000. It is now in the British Library, where it is catalogued as Additional MS 43725. When the British Library was housed inside the British Museum, I often saw Codex Sinaiticus side by side with Codex Alexandrinus in a glass case. I haven't yet visited the new British Library, so I don't know if or how they are now displayed to view.

"It is a large manuscript and though it has lost over 300 leaves from the Old Testament, it is still the earliest complete New Testament, and is the earliest and best witness for some of the books of the Old Testament" [from a British Library pamphlet].

Tischendorf published an edition of his find in 1862. He had already published an edition of the 43 leaves in Leipzig. Both parts were published in 1911 in collotype facsimile by Kirsopp and Helen Lake.

Westcott and Hort used Vaticanus ("B") and Sinaiticus (Aleph or "S") for their edition of the Greek New Testament, and the readings of these MSS had a major influence on the Revised Version of 1881, the first new English translation since the King James Version of 1611 [I ignore for the moment various translations by private individuals and the various Catholic translations from the Vulgate]. Many of the differences between the King James Version and the Revised Version are accounted for by the discovery of these MSS.

To give just two examples [at this stage] of the way in which the text of these MSS differs from others: In both B and S, St Mark's Gospel ends at 16:8 with the words "ephobounto gar", "for they were afraid". This seems an awfully abrupt ending. It would be most unusual to end a sentence, let alone an entire book, with a conjunction, "gar." And St Mark has as yet described no encounter with the risen Christ, which would seem to be the point and climax of the Gospel story. And yet it does seem either that Mark ended his account there, or that his original ending has been lost - perhaps torn from the edge of his original papyrus scroll. There is a considerable scholarly discussion of the subject, into which I cannot now go. The various endings in other MSS (Mark 16:9-20) are manifestly summaries of the endings of the other gospels, added to Mark by later hands to "round off" his account. Read them and I think you will agree.

Again, there is a curious story in the gospels of a woman taken in adultery. It occurs at various points in St John's Gospel in various MSS. Some place it at John 7:58-8:11; others place it after John 7:36, or 7:52 or 21:24. Its language however is not like that of John at all, but more like that of the synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and some MSS place the story after Luke 21:38. It does appear to be an interpolation, and it is significant that B and S omit the story altogether.

A Brief History of the Bible - 7

The Chester Beatty Papyri - this is the name given to a group of papyri, in Codex form, most of which were acquired in 1931 by the American, A. Chester Beatty. He never let on exactly where he got hold of them, perhaps taking warning from Tischendorf's difference of opinion with the monks of Sinai.

It has been suggested that they may have formed part of the same library as the Bodmer papyri, but of this I know nothing. Perhaps Bob can enlighten us.

The surviving leaves comprise:

  1. 50 leaves (of an original 66) of Genesis, 4th century;
  2. 27 leaves (out of 84) of Genesis, 3rd century;
  3. 50 leaves (out of 108) of Numbers and Deuteronomy, early 2nd century;
  4. 1* leaves of Ecclesiasticus (yes, I know - Siracides), 4th century;
  5. portions of 33 leaves (out of 104) of Isaiah, 3rd century;
  6. two small fragments of Jeremiah, 2nd century;
  7. 50 leaves (out of 118) of Ezekiel, Daniel and Esther, 3rd century;
  8. portions of 30 leaves (out of 220) of the Gospels and Acts, early 3rd century;
  9. 86 leaves (out of 99) of the Pauline epistles, early 3rd century;
  10. ten leaves (out of 32) of Revelation, 3rd century;
  11. eight leaves containing the last eleven chapters of the apochryphal book of Enoch, and six containing part of a treatise on Christ's passion by Melito, Bishop of Sardis, 4th century.

Some of these predate by a century or more our great vellum codices. Since the papyri were discovered only in 1931, they have only affected editions and translations of the latter half of our century. I quote from "The Cambridge History of the Bible", vol. 3, p. 378, on the Revised Standard Version:

"In both Testaments use was made of the latest discoveries, both as to the text and as to the vocabulary, grammar and idioms of the biblical and related languages. In Isaiah, for example, the Revised Standard Version has thirteen readings drawn from the complete manuscript of Isaiah which is the best preserved of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947. In Rom. viii. 28, the decisive evidence for the Revised Standard Version rendering was afforded by the Chester Beatty Papyri discovered in 1931: 'We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.'" [cf. the King James Version, 'We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.']

A Brief History of the Bible - 8

The Textual Criticism of the New Testament is a quite different question from that of the Old Testament, which I must leave to Bob and others better qualified than myself.

As regards the NT, Westcott and Hort distinguished four texts: the "Neutral" text, represented by B and S, which they thought was less subject to corrupting influences of editorial revision than any other; the "Alexandrian" text, which goes back to an archetype which must be dated early in the second century; the "Western" text, so called because the chief witnesses to it are the Latin versions and citations in the Latin Fathers; and the "Byzantine" or "Syrian" text.

More recent scholars have dropped the idea of a "Neutral" text, not distinguishing between that and the "Alexandrian."

Lucian of Antioch who died in AD 312 founded an influential theological school of which Arius, founder of the Arian heresy, was a member. Lucian's own view on the Trinity may have been a bit dubious. However he was a keen biblical scholar, and produced what is called the Lucianic Text of the Greek Bible. It is marked by the elimination of barbarisms and obscurities, by intelligibility and smoothness. One needs to beware, however: some of those barbarisms and obscurities may well go back to the biblical authors themselves, who may perhaps not have written as intelligibly and smoothly as we would like. Lucian's text soon became the accepted standard text in Syria. It is probably identical with what Westcott and Hort called the Syrian Text.

St John Chrysostom (347-407) was educated at Antioch. He studied law under the pagan orator Libanus, and then Theology under Diodore of Tarsus, the leader of the Antiochene school. He was made deacon in 381, and served in Antioch under the bishop Flavian, who ordained him priest in 386, and it was in Antioch in the years 386-98 that he delivered his series of homilies on Genesis, Matthew, John, romans, Galatians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Timothy and Titus. He would have used the Antiochene text of the Bible, that is the Lucianic or Syrian Text. It may be that he took it with him when he became Patriarch of Constantinople in 398. It became the standard text of the Greek-speaking Church and, because it was disseminated from Constantinople, became known as the Byzantine Text.

It is the text preserved in the great majority of surviving Greek biblical MSS. It was the text printed by Erasmus in 1516 (more or less) which became known as the Textus Receptus, the "Received Text", usually designated by a minuscule Greek sigma - I can't do it down the line. So references to the Lucianic Text, the Syrian Text, the Byzantine Text, the Textus Receptus or "sigma" are all talking about more or less the same thing. It was the text underlying the English King James Version.

Since the days of Westcott and Hort, scholars have identified another text, the "Caesarean". It gets its name because in AD 231 Origen, having been exiled from Alexandria, settled in Caesarea; not Caesarea Philippi, but the centre of Roman administration on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, north of Joppa but south of Mount Carmel. It was thought that this was the text Origen took with him and used in Caesarea.

The discovery of this text came about as follows. In 1877 two scholars, W.H. Ferrar and T.K. Abbott, isolated four medieval minuscule Gospel MSS, nos. 13, 69, 124 and 346. These form a 'family', being apparently derived from the same exemplar, and are now collectively known as f.13. In 1902 K. Lake isolated a similar family, nos. 1, 118, 131 and 209. In 1906 attention was called to the Codex Koridethianus (represented by the Greek letter Theta), as having a connection with both families. B.H. Streeter argued that all of these were witnesses to a text Origen had used in Caesarea, hence the name given to this text, the Caesarean.

However, Lake and others corrected Streeter by showing that the text came from Alexandria. Furthermore the discovery and publication of the Chester Beatty Papyrus, p45, added another MS to this tradition; but it was known that this papyrus originated in Egypt and predated Origen's stay in Caesarea.

Modern scholars believe that the "Caesarean" witnesses should be divided into two groups, one pre-Caesarean, the other properly Caesarean. It would appear that the so-called Caesarean text originated in Egypt in the second century and was subsequently brought to Caesarea, perhaps by Origen.

A Brief History of the Bible - 9

Some textual cruces. Let's have a look at a few textual problems from St Mark's Gospel.

1. Did Mark call Jesus "Son of God" at 1:1?

Nestle's text of Mark 1:1 reads:

Arche tou euaggeliou Iesou Christou, 'Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,'

However Souter's text adds the words Yiou Theou, 'Son of God'.

Which is right? There is no great theological principle at stake; Mark called Jesus 'Son of God' a number of times elsewhere in his text. The question is, did he do so here?

The original text of Sinaiticus has the shorter form, though a later hand has added in 'Son of God'; the Koridethi MS ('Theta') also has the shorter form. It is also attested by quotations from Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Victorinus and Jerome.

The words Yiou Theou are found in Vaticanus, Bezae, Washingtonianus (a 5th century codex in the Freer Museum, Washington: = "W"), and a slight variant, Yiou tou Theou, is found in Alexandrinus, the f1 and f13 families of minuscules, and in the 'Textus Receptus'. Westcott and Hort relegated the words to the margin, but Vincent Taylor, editor of a fairly recent critical commentary on Mark, leaves them in. Every English translation I have consulted - KJV, RV, RSV, NEB, NIV, REB, GNB, JB, NAB - leaves them in.

As far as MSS evidence goes, it's a toss up. Sinaiticus has the shorter form, Vaticanus the longer. Despite the opinions of all the translators, (but with Westcott and Hort and Nestle on my side) I think I would leave the phrase out, on the grounds that it was more probably inserted than omitted by a later hand. One way or the other, we are surely dealing with a deliberate alteration. In the very first verse of the text, we cannot suppose the scribe had grown drowsy and carelessly missed out a couple of words.

If Mark had written 'Son of God' here, I cannot imagine why any scribe would have omitted such a striking testimony to Christ's divinity. On the other hand, if he had not written it, I can well imagine that a zealous copyist would have stuck it in.

2. Did Mark write 'The prophet Isaiah' or 'the prophets' at 1:2?

Nestle's text prints, Kathos gegraptai en to Esaia to prophete, 'as it is written in the prophet Isaiah'. Actually the first part of the quotation which follows, 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face to prepare your way' is not from Isaiah but from Malachi, 3:1. The rest of the quotation, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness . . .' is from Isaiah 40:3.

'the prophet Isaiah' is found in Sinaiticus and Vaticanus and a few other MSS, and is used in the Revised Version. A slight variant, omitting the first definite article, which is not significant, is found in Bezae and Koridethi, the f1 family and many others. Our reading is vouched for by the Vulgate and the Old Latin translations, the Coptic version, and quotations from Irenaeus and Origen.

The quite different reading, en tois prophetais, 'in the prophets', is found in Alexandrinus, Washingtonianus, the f13 family and other minuscules, and in the Textus Receptus - which is why the King James Version has 'in the prophets'.

Which is right? Undoubtedly, 'in the prophet Isaiah.' This is what Mark wrote. Somebody realising that the first quotation was not from Isaiah 'corrected' it to 'in the prophets'. It is easy to see why someone would want to correct Mark's mistake. One the other hand, if Mark had written 'In the prophets' it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to change it to 'In the prophet Isaiah'. Note that the 'corrected' reading is found predominantly in the Byzantine text, which has been worked over and corrected by scholars in the interest of smoothing out discrepancies - a process fatal to textual purity.

3. Did Mark write 'apostello' or 'ego apostello' at 1:2? This is a fairly trivial point; both mean 'I send'; there is no difference when translated into English. Still, we may as well get it right if we can. 'ego' is found in S, A and W, in several other uncials, and, perhaps significantly, in the Vulgate. The pronoun ego is no more necessary in Latin than in Greek, but Jerome was translating word for word and presumably had ego in the Greek text before him. Ego is found also in the Textus Receptus.

I think I would be inclined to leave it in. It is vouched for in S, our best codex, as well as in A and in the Byzantine tradition generally. The pronoun is not necessary, so it is difficult to see why anyone should put it in unless Mark had written it himself. The Byzantine tradition tends to smooth out grammatical anomalies, to produce better Greek. It might well have eliminated an unnecessary pronoun, but would hardly have stuck one in - the tendency was entirely the other way.

A Brief History of the Bible - 100

At last, we come to the Vulgate - and about time too, I hear you cry. Let us begin with a remark by St Augustine in the De Doctrina:

"For the translations of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators are out of all number. For in the early days of the faith every man who happened to get his hands upon a Greek manuscript, and who thought he had any knowledge, were it ever so little, of the two languages, ventured upon the work of translation." (Book II ch. 11).

So Jerome was by no means the first to translate the Bible into Latin. Augustine goes on:

"Now among translations themselves the Italian (Itala) is to be preferred to the others, for it keeps closer to the words without prejudice to clearness of expression." (Book II ch. 15)

The term "Itala" has been variously interpreted as (a) the Italian branch of the Old Latin text, as distinct from the African (so B.F. Westcott and J. Wordsworth); (b) the recension popular in North Italy, which Augustine is said to have adopted under the influence of Ambrose in Milan (so F.J.A. Hort); (c) St Jerome's Vulgate, of which the Gospels at least were published in Italy (so F.C. Burkitt).

Remember that St Jerome's translation was not called the "Vulgate" in his own day; it acquired this title much later, in the 13th century. When the early Fathers talk about the Vulgate, they mean, not Jerome's translation, but the Old Latin version which it replaced. Confused? You will be.

Augustine continues:

"And to correct the Latin we must use the Greek versions, among which the authority of the Septuagint is pre-eminent as far as the Old Testament is concerned; for it is reported through all the more learned churches that the seventy translators enjoyed so much of the power of the Holy Spirit in their work of translation, that among that number of men there was but one voice." (Book II ch. 15)

Augustine actually thinks - and this is important - that the authority of the Septuagint is greater than that of the original Hebrew:

"Wherefore, even if anything is found in the original Hebrew in a different form from that in which these men [the translators of the LXX] have expressed it, I think we must give way to the dispensation of Providence which used these men to bring it about, that books which the Jewish race were unwilling, either from religious scruple or from jealousy, to make known to other nations, were, with the assistance of the power of King Ptolemy, made known so long beforehand to the nations which in the future were to believe in the Lord. And thus it is possible that they translated in such a way as the Holy Spirit, who worked in them and had given them all one voice, thought most suitable for the Gentiles." (Book II ch. 15).

Augustine's list of the Canonical books therefore includes "Tobias, and Esther, and Judith, and the two books of Maccabees . . . two books, one called Wisdom and the other Ecclesiasticus, are ascribed to Solomon from a certain resemblance of style, but the most likely opinion is that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach" (Book II ch. 8) Augustine withdrew this incorrect ascription of Wisdom in his Retractions. These books are of course in the Septuagint, but form no part of the Hebrew Canon.

Jerome took a very different view. He talks of the "Hebraica Veritas", the Hebrew Truth. His translation of the Old Testament was made directly from the Hebrew. Now Christians were not accustomed to having a translation from the Hebrew; it was quite different from what they were used to.

"In a letter written to Jerome in 403, Augustine mentioned that in Eoa (Tripoli) a bishop had caused a disturbance, and had nearly lost his flock, though reading a lesson from Jonah in Jerome's new Latin version. Jerome replied that the trouble was doubtless due to his improved rendering of the Hebrew 'qiqqayon' (gourd), for which he had replaced the earlier 'cucurbita' by 'hedera', itself admittedly not a perfect rendering." (Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 2 p.102).

In an earlier letter Augustine had attracked the idea of translating from the Hebrew, and advised Jerome to stick to the LXX (Letter XXVIII, in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 1 p. 251).

Jerome set out his principles of translation in his Letter LVII, 'To Pammachius on the best method of translating." It can be found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 6 p. 112. I commend it to the brethren and sustren.

A Brief History of the Bible - 11

In 382 Jerome, who had been staying in Constantinople, paid a visit to Rome in the company of two bishops who were to attend a council there. Pope Damasus employed him as his secretary, and asked him to undertake the revision of the Latin Gospels. His brief was to make a revision, not a fresh translation. Jerome explains the situation in the preface to his version of the Gospels, addressed to Pope Damasus:

"You ask me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original . . . for there are almost as many texts as there are copies . . . [cf. Augustine's remark to the same effect]

"Why not go back to the Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake? I am not discussing the Old Testament, which was turned into Greek by the Seventy elders . . . I therefore promise in this short preface the four Gospels only, which are to be taken in the following order, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, as they have been revised by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts. Only early ones have been used. But to avoid any great divergences from the Latin which we are accustomed to read, I have used my pen with some restraint, and while I have corrected only such passages as seemed to convey a different meaning, I have allowed the rest to remain as they are." (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 6 pages 487-8.)

To summarise: Jerome had no intention at this stage of revising the Old Testament; he had worked only on the Gospels; he had used only ancient (veteres) manuscripts, that is, those which were already old in the later fourth century, which would be older than our surviving codices and makes Jerome's work of lasting value to the textual critic; and his revision had been a light one, leaving much of the Old Latin untouched.

There is no surviving preface to any of the other books of the New Testament, and opinions differ as to whether Jerome revised them or not. ODCC says [s.v. Vulgate]: "That he revised the remaining books of the NT is unlikely". Sed contra, in the Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, p.84,

"No preface to the revision of the rest of the New Testament is known to exist, but in various places Jerome states that he revised the New Testament to bring it into agreement with the authoritative Greek Text [e.g. Ep. 71.5 - footnote]. There is no sound reason for limiting the reference of all these statements to only a part of the New Testament; and there are good reasons for accepting them at their face value. the manuscripts of the Gospels and epistles all give the Vulgate version, and this unity of tradition indicates a unity of origin [but was the origin Jerome? - Bill]. This is supported by the uniformity of the recension, in which the same principles are followed, and also by the fact that it is all characterized by Jerome's style."

A Brief History of the Bible - 12

The next portion of the Scriptures which Jerome tackled was the Psalter. He was to produce no less than three versions. The first, a light revision of the Old Latin, is probably what is known as the Roman Psalter. About 392 he made a fresh translation, from the Hexaplaric text of the Septuagint. This is known as the Gallican Psalter. Finally, he made a translation directly from the original Hebrew in c. 400; this is known as the Hebraica. Medievalists therefore need to be familiar with four psalters:

  1. The Old Latin. The most ancient complete text of the Old Latin Psalter is preserved in the Verona Psalter, [Verona Capitular Library MS 1 (i)], of the 6th-7th century. This is the text used by Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms.

  2. The Roman Psalter. Jerome, in his preface to the Gallican Psalter, mentions that he had earlier worked on a correction of the Latin text with the aid of the Septuagint. "It was not a thorough revision, though the text was in large measure corrected. It is commonly held that this revision is that known today as the Roman Psalter, which is still in use in the Basilica of St Peter. The identification has been challenged by Dom de Bruyne; his arguments have not been found convincing, though they are not destitute of all probability." (Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 84). The Roman Psalter was used in all churches in Rome, as well as elsewhere in Italy, down to the time of Pope Pius V (1566-72), when it was virtually replaced, except at St Peter's, Rome, by the Gallican Psalter.

  3. The Gallican Psalter, a fresh translation made by Jerome from the Septuagint. This is the Psalter which you will find in a printed edition of the Vulgate. Possibly under the influence of Gregory of Tours, it became very popular in Gaul, hence the name Gallican.

  4. The Hebraica never replaced the older versions in public use; it became the province of scholars rather than of those who simply wanted to recite it. Herbert of Bosham wrote a commentary on the Hebraica; see Beryl Smalley, "The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages", p. 186ff; this section summarises her article in "Recherches Théologiques anciennes et médiévales", xviii (1951), 29-65.

A Brief History of the Bible - 13

It was not until Jerome settled in Bethlehem that he was able to devote himself to the translation of the OT from the original Hebrew. Fr Sutcliffe writes, in the Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, p.99:

"Jerome had the oral assistance of Jewish teachers, and this is reflected in the occasional agreement of his version with the Targum. He also had the existing Greek versions, not only of the Septuagint but also of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion. Aquila's may have been intended as a 'running vocabulary'. It was of the most slavish character, rendering the Hebrew word for word without regard for the exigencies of the Greek language. Aquila's work was thus of assistance in fixing the meaning of words, and his influence can still be traced in the Latin Version."

Sutcliffe comments on the term "Vulgate":

"The name 'Vulgate' has been avoided in the foregoing pages, as at the time of Jerome's activity the expression 'editio vulgata' meant the Old Latin version then commonly used in the West or, according to the context, the Septuagint from which it had been derived . . . it did not receive the title of 'Vulgate' till the sixteenth century, though long before that it had acquired the right to it. the 'textus vulgatus' spoken of in the thirteenth century was the particular recension drawn up in the University of Paris and received with wide favour." (p. 99)

As to the actual contents:

"The Vulgate, as we now know it, contains Jerome's translation of the Hebrew books of the Old Testament Canon, with the exception of the Psalms; of the Hebrew and Aramaic of Esdras and Daniel, as also of the Greek parts of the latter and Esther; and his translation from Aramaic of Tobit and Judith. The Psalms are those of the Gallican Psalter. And the remaining books, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, the two Books of Maccabees and Baruch, are in the Old Latin version. The New Testament is in the form revised by him." (pp. 99-100) vThe opinion of the ODCC is slightly different (s.v. Vulgate):

"When (prob. in the 6th cent.) the various books came to be collected into a single Bible (the Vulgate as we know it), it consisted of Jerome's translation from the Hebrew of the Jewish canonical books except the Psalter; the Gallican Psalter; Jerome's translation of Tobit and Judith; Old Latin translations of the rest of the Apocrypha; Jerome's revision of the Gospels; and a revised text of Acts, Epistles, and Rev. Various suggestions have been made about the identity of the reviser or revisers of the latter part of the NT . . . The fitrs unambiguous reference to a collection of Biblical books within one cover occurs in the work of Cassiodorus (Institutes, I, xii, 3); the oldest known MS containing the whole Vulgate is the Codex Amiatinus."

And in our next posting, after a word about Cassiodorus, we shall discuss that splendid MS, the Codex Amiatinus.

A Brief History of the Bible - 14

Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485-580) retired from public affairs in 540 and became a monk on his estate at Vivarium. He hoped to establish a theological school on the model of Alexandria, but it never quite came off. However, he made of his monastery a kind of academy and encouraged learning, secular as well as religious, and the copying of manuscripts.

We know that he had three Bibles:

  1. A nine-volume, Old Latin text, serving as his working copy.
  2. An illustrated one-volume 'Codex grandior littera clariore conscriptus', containing 'for the Old Testament the earlier, hexaplaric revision by Jerome based on the Septuagint, for the Gospels probably the Vulgate text, and for the remainder of the New Testament the Old Latin' [Camb. Dict. of the Bible, vol. 2 p. 116].
  3. A second, smaller, one-volume bible ('pandectem . . . minutiore manu') containing the Vulgate throughout. This is the earliest record of a complete Vulgate bible.

We know that the 'Codex grandior' was at one time in England, having been brought to Northumbria by Ceolfrith, who was also responsible for the Codex Amiatinus. Bede tells us that he himself had seen a picture of the Tabernacle in the Codex Grandior, and the Codex Amiatinus has just such a picture, on what are now its folios 2v-3r. However the Codex Amiatinus is not a straight copy of the Codex Grandior; it contains a different text, the Vulgate, and is our earliest surviving manuscript of the entire Vulgate.

We find in the Anonymous Life of Ceolfrith that he ordered 'tres pandectes novae translationis' - three one-volume bibles of the 'new translation', i.e. the Vulgate, to be copied at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Of these, one was placed in Wearmouth, one in Jarrow, and the third Ceolfrith took with him to Rome as a present for the Pope. In the event Ceolfrith died on the way to Rome, and the manuscript he took with him has been identified as the Codex Amiatinus, now in the Laurentian Library in Florence.

Three Jarrow Lectures address themselves to the Codex Amiatinus:

  1. "The Art of the Codex Amiatinus" by R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford (1967);

  2. "The Codex Amiatinus and the Byzantine Element in the Northumbrian Renaissance" by Per Jonas Nordhagen (1977);

  3. "The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow" by Malcolm Parkes (1982).

Bruce-Mitford writes:

"Having put in one's slip, and waited a respectable interval, one watches with awe two attendants, with a third to open doors, staggering in under the load. Half a dozen fat volumes have to be placed on the table, to take the strain off the binding, before one can open its cover. It is with trepidation that one ventures to produce the bicycle lamp with which one had planned to supplement, for minute scrutiny of the decoration, the inadequate light in Michelangel's octagonal reading room.

"The codex consists of 1,030 folios (that is, 2,060 pages) of calfskin. Each opening, or bifolium, measures 27* x 20* in. With covers the book is 10 in. thick. The leaves pressed flat without covers and 8* in. thick. the codex weighs 75* lb. With its protective wrappings and travelling case and original covers it must have weighed a good 90 lb., practically the same as a fully grown female Great Dane.

"Ceolfrith's great enterprise . . . was the production, not on one such pandect, but of three. Not 515 bifolia, or separate skins, but 1,545; not 2,060 great pages, but 7,180. If you kill a calf and seek to prepare from its skin a piece of soft, unstrained, undistorted vellum, suitable for a codex, only one skin of Amiatinus size, 27* x 20* in. when trimmed, is to be obtained from one animal . . . The three pandects, or great copies of the Holy Scriptures, would thus together represent the utilization of the skins of some 1,550 calves, implying the existence of great herds of cattle. Only rich and well-run communities could afford to produce books of this calibre."

A Brief History of the Bible - 15

The Council of Trent declared the Vulgate to be 'authentic' (authenticum). One could argue for a long time what 'authentic' meant. It did not mean infallible, or superior to the Greek or Hebrew. It did mean that it was a reliable source of dogma. It had never been found to be heretical, as some of the newer translations were already considered to be.

The first printed editions of the Vulgate were the 42-line Bible and 36-line Bible of Gutenberg, and there were many more editions - more than a hundred - before the end of the 15th century. The first critical text was that of Robert Stephanus (Paris, 1528). Pope Sixtus V issued an edition of the Vulgate in 1590, which he intended to be definitive and unchangeable. Even before its publication it was however perceived to be full of errors. An improved edition was issued by Pope Clement VIII in 1592, and the "Clementine Vulgate" remained in use until recently; indeed it still remains in use, where Latin is used in the Liturgy.

In the later 16th Century the Catholic Church felt the need for an acceptable English translation of the Vulgate. The two 15th-century Wycliffite translations had not, of course, found favour with the Church authorities. The NT was now translated by members of the English College at Reims. The chief translators were Gregory Martin and Richard Bristow, and it was issued in 1582; the OT was translated later, in 1609-10, by which time the College had moved to Douai. The "Douai-Reims" Bible is still used when a close translation of the Vulgate is required - as often by medievalists.

A modern critical edition of the Vulgate NT begun by John Wordsworth (d. 1911) and H.J. White (d. 1934), was published by the Oxford University Press between 1889 and 1954. In 1908 Pope Pius X appointed a Commission, presided over by F.A. Gasquet, an English Benedictine, to produce a new edition of the Vulgate. It is still in progress. A two-volume edition was produced in Stuttgart in 1969.

And so I end this very brief history of the Bible.

Copyright (C) 1998, Bill East. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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