Codex Vaticanus and Me

Page from the 19th-century photo-facsimile of Vaticanus

I am currently engaged in the first semester of a year-long Master of Theology, ‘Theology in History’ at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity (hereafter known as ‘New College’).  In the year 2000, New College purchased a facsimile of Codex VaticanusVaticanus may well be the oldest manuscript of the Greek Bible we have (from the 300s).  If it isn’t, Codex Sinaiticus is.

I had the opportunity of sitting in a glass room at New College’s library (well within sight of the librarians, I can assure you) and perusing this 6000-dollar volume.

It is a beautiful book.  The pages are heavyweight paper with an exact image of what Vaticanus itself, off in the Vatican looks like (not on vellum — 365 goats for the original are enough, thank you very much).  The pages are all funny sizes and shapes.  They have the holes in the pages where the real codex has its holes.  The decorations are reproduced in full colour.  The rubber stamps from the Vatican Library are clearly visible on the opening pages.

It is a thing of beauty.

Most of Vaticanus is written in uncials — big, block letters that are fairly square in shape and quite easy to read.  You can take a look at the late 19th-century photo-facsimile here (it is much less awesome than the new facsimile).  The first bit and last bit of this old book went missing at some point, so in the fifteenth century someone recopied the missing bits.  Those bits are harder to read, written out in minuscules — tiny, flowy script that runs together and is beautiful yet illegible to the untrained eye.  I deciphered ‘In the beginning, made’ from Genesis 1 before giving up.  No doubt the next word was ‘theos‘.

The beginning of each book has a non-iconic decoration at the top of the column and the first letter written large and in colour.  This makes reading easier, since both uncials and minuscules leave no breaks between words and lack serious punctuation.  The result is large, rectangular columns of text.  Very geometric.

Of course, the Psalms are verse.  Rather than three columns of uncials, you get two.  And they have indentations and uneven lines.  I liked the look of the Psalms in Vaticanus.

Scattered throughout this massive book are scholia, marginal writings by scribes.  They are mostly in minuscule, and there is a page in Proverbs where the margins are entirely filled with text, including the gap between the columns.  I didn’t notice this fact during my own perusal but only later when our professor brought the facsimile to class.  I wonder if that page is Proverbs 8 …

One scholion was comprised of several brief lines of uncial text that got gradually smaller until coming to a point, sort of like the blade of a dagger.

People tend to use these beautiful old books as sources for disembodied texts such as the New Testament, the Septuagint, the ancient classics.  Yet a look at Vaticanus makes you realise that these manuscripts are pieces of material culture.  They are remnants of an age long-past, held together sometimes by sheer force of will (in the case of the sixth-century Codex Alexandrinus in the British Library, divided into four parts, so not even sheer force of will kept that one together).

They are lovely.  They are pieces of art.  They exhibit very fine craftsmanship.

These days, palaeography and textual criticism are starting to look a bit more attractive to me …

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