manuscripts of the Bible

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Writing in the ancient world was usually either on papyrus (made from the stems of the papyrus plant; see papyrology) or on specially prepared skins of animals (‘parchment’ or ‘vellum’). For lengthy items, including most Books of the Bible, a number of sheets would be joined together to form either a roll or a ‘codex’ (in which the sheets were first folded in quires and then sewn together as in a modern book).

The earliest part of the OT about the writing of which we have definite information is the Book of Jeremiah; this is said to have been written on a roll ( Jer. 36: 2). It seems that the roll was the normal form of book used by Jews at the time (cf. Ezek. 2: 9) and it continued so until well into Christian times. The evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that both parchment and papyrus were used, but that parchment was preferred, particularly for biblical Books. The Jews eventually adopted the codex for private use, but for reading in synagogue they have remained faithful to the parchment roll to the present day.

The first Greek translations of the OT Books are likely to have been written on papyrus, since they seem to have been made in Egypt. The only certain survivals from the pre-Christian era are fragments of two papyrus rolls, both containing parts of Deut. and both dated 2nd–1st cent. bc. The many Christian biblical fragments datable in the 2nd and 3rd cents. ad, whether OT or NT Books, are all from codices. During the 4th cent. there was a tendency for parchment to replace papyrus, at least for MSS written for public reading in church. Such MSS might contain the whole Bible or only part of it; their text is arranged in columns (2, 3 or even 4 to a page); and they were written in the formal uncial script, roughly equivalent to our capitals. About the 9th cent. a new style of script was introduced (known as ‘minuscule’; see cursive script); the use of this script made it possible to accommodate the whole of the NT in one convenient volume.

The oldest known Latin biblical MS is the 4th-cent. Codex Vercellensis, a sumptuous volume written in uncial with silver ink on purple parchment, containing an almost complete Old Latin text of the Gospels. The most ancient complete Bible is the Codex Amiatinus, written in Northumbria at the end of the 7th cent. As in the East, minuscule types of script were developed, and in the 13th cent. the use of very thin parchment and small writing made it possible to accommodate the whole Bible within single conveniently sized volumes which are termed ‘pocket Bibles’.

There are also biblical MSS in Syriac (many dating from the 5th cent.), Coptic (dating from as early as the 4th cent.), and other languages. The ‘bilingual’ MSS are of three kinds: the secondary text is written immediately above the primary text, or the two texts are copied in parallel columns on the same page, or they are arranged to face each other on opposite pages.


Subjects: Christianity.

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