4343 entries. 93 themes. Last updated April 15, 2014.

2. Transitional Phases in the Form and Function of the Book before Gutenberg

2.D. An Achievement in Book Production That Some Have Compared to the Gutenberg Bible

Even though the transition from the roll to the codex was not yet complete, by about 350 CE the codex form of the book had advanced to the point where the entire Old and New Testaments could be incorporated into single codices that were monumental in size and scope. Two surviving codices from Late Antiquity accomplished this feat: the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. Of these, the Codex Sinaiticus remains the most monumental achievement in book production of all codices surviving from this transitional period-- an achievement that some have compared to the Gutenberg Bible, which initiated the transition from manuscript to print eleven hundred years later. Of course, because of its ancient age, there are many differences between our knowledge of this accomplishment and the Gutenberg Bible: the place of production of the Codex Sinaiticus, its exact date of production, and the patron or patrons, scribes and editors involved are all unknown. Furthermore, unlike printing by movable type and the Gutenberg Bible, which were the inventions primarily of one man, Johann Gutenberg, within a known time frame, by the fourth century CE producers of large codices built upon book production technologies which had evolved through continuous development by countless unknown hands for at least two hundred years. Beyond its significance in the development of the codex form of the book, the Codex Sinaiticus contains early versions of the Bible texts of incomparable value.

Formerly known as the Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus, the Codex Sinaiticus was written in Koine Greek in the mid-4th century by at least three scribes. What we know about this book has been reconstructed from its physical characteristics and its content. The book is so ancient that no other documented details of its origin have survived. The translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek was accomplished by Jews, possibly in the port of Alexandria, where Greek was spoken, or in some other city where Jews would have become fluent in both Greek and Hebrew, but the identity of the translators, their location, and the date of the translation remain unknown. The codex includes the complete text of the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Bible made into Koine Greek from circa 250 BCE to 50 CE. Among the earliest Greek texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus text is of fundamental significance for the text of the Old Testament in general, since only fragmentary Hebrew versions of the Bible survive from this period, and the translation was undoubtedly based on even earlier Hebrew and Greek manuscripts which are no longer extant. The translation has been called one of the lasting achievements of Jewish civilization, without which Christianity might not have spread as quickly and successfully. The Codex Sinaiticus was written in Biblical majuscule in scriptio continua (also called scriptura continua), without word division, punctuation or pagination; it incorporates two ancient methods for numbering its quires, and it also incorporates a version of the system of numbering the paragraphs of the Gospels developed by Eusebius of Caesarea.  It was written in a four-column format except for the poetical and wisdom literature in which a two-column format was used. This is the only surviving biblical manuscript employing the four-column page format, and it has been suggested that this format is reminiscent of the roll format rather than the codex. Without any evidence for more precise localization, it is thought that the codex was written somewhere in Asia Minor, Palestine (Caesarea?) or Egypt.

The Codex Sinaiticus is unique among ancient manuscripts for the number of corrections that were made to it by at least six different ancient correctors, roughly from 400 to 600 CE, though some corrections may be later. In his monograph on the codex D. C. Parker states that there may be as many as 27,000 corrections to the text, The number of corrections--greater than other ancient manuscripts--and the care in which they were made, confirms, according to Parker, the importance that must have been given to this manuscript early in its history. The nature of the corrections, and how they were made, provides insight into how the text was copied, how it was studied in the first centuries after its creation, and may provide variant readings from other manuscripts which are no longer extant. 2.D.1 Parker, Codex Sinaiticus. The Story of the World's Oldest Bible (2010).

Originally the Codex Sinaiticus contained the Old Testament, according to the canon of the Greek Septuagint, including the books known in English as the Apocrypha, (but without 2 and 3 Maccabees) along with the New Testament and two other early Christian books—the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. The complete codex originally incorporated 743 parchment leaves (1486 pages) with a page size of 43 cm. wide by 38 cm. high (16.9 x 15 inches). In size and extent the complete Codex Sinaiticus represented a quantum leap from the papyrus rolls of the Romans, and the papyrus codices in which early Christian documents were most typically written. Most papyrus codices are thought to have contained only one of the Gospels, and the most it is thought that could have been incorporated in the largest papyrus codex would have been the Gospels and Acts. However, just over half of the original Codex Sinaiticus survived, now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. At the British Library the largest surviving portion - 347 leaves, or 694 pages - includes the whole of the New Testament. This is the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. The other institutions hold portions of the Septuagint, which also survived almost complete, plus the Epistle of Barnabas, and portions of The Shepherd of Hermas. The surviving portions of the manuscript have been assembled virtually in a digital edition at codexsinaiticus.org, and were published in a new color printed facsimile in 2010. The story of how the surviving portions were rediscovered and dispersed in the mid-nineteenth century by biblical scholar Constantin von Tischendorf has all the elements of international intrigue and romance.

Were it not for the preservation of the bulk of the Codex Sinaiticus in the oldest and most remote Christian monastery-- St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, after which the codex was named, or in some other monastery or monasteries over the centuries, it probable that this manuscript would have been lost, especially after the style of writing in scriptio continua became archaic and illegible to readers, perhaps by the eighth century. To say that the monks in the monastery preserved the manuscript may imply a more active role than was actually taken after it ceased to be actively used; existence of the manuscript in the monastery may be a more appropriate designation. How long the manuscript was preserved at St. Catherine's is unknown, but Tischendorf told of finding the manuscript in a most neglected state in the monastery library there in 1859. On the one hand neglect could be responsible for the loss of portions of the manuscript; on the other hand, neglect could also be the reason why so much survived in its original state rather than, for example, as palimpsests. Assuming that the manuscript spent many centuries at St. Catherine's, we may attribute survival to the protected location, to the constancy of operation of the remote monastery over the centuries, which in itself is a remarkable survival, and probably also to the benign climate of the region. Undoubtedly an element of luck was also involved.

By circa 500 CE the transition from the papyrus roll to the codex was essentially complete, and with it came other changes in the form and function of the book. In papyrus bookrolls the author and title were customarily named in a colophon at the end of the roll, as that portion was better protected. This was done with larger script or ornamentation. Initially this feature of drawing graphic emphasis to the information in the colophon was continued in the codex form, but by about 500 CE the ornamentation of codices shifted towards the beginning of the work where the author's portrait, and for the gospels the canon tables, had their natural place. 2.D.2 "Various factors worked together here with varying rhythm. Thus connected with the colophon was a specifically Christian ornament, the cross as a staurogram, with Rho-bow on the shoulder, plus alpha and omega. It has already shifted to before the text in the miniature codex of John's Gospel. Following the example of the arch-framed canon tables, lists of contents are set under coloured arcades in the sixth century, and from the fifth /sixth century on they also acquire greater emphasis through such formulae as 'In hoc corpore (codice) continentur. . .' " (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and Middle Ages [1990] 188-89).

(This section was last revised on August 22, 2011.)

back to top