I Wanted to See for Myself
‘Where are the manuscripts from which my Bible was translated?’ I had often asked myself. How can it be determined how old they are? How have they been preserved through the ages? And after so many centuries, can we be sure that they accurately represent the original Bible writings? My own faith in the Bible is now secure, but having been brought up to believe that the Bible is a clever fraud, questions like these have always intrigued me. My curiosity led me to visit some of the most famous libraries in Europe while I was traveling there. My first visit was to Rome, Italy, where hundreds of Bible manuscripts are to be found.
BEHIND the towering walls and tight security of castlelike Vatican City, a person gets the impression that he is entering a real treasure-house. The Vatican Library is in the courtyard of the pope’s palace, and so special permission to enter is required of visitors.
Here is preserved the famous Vatican Manuscript No. 1209, or Codex Vaticanus, which usually is referred to by the symbol “B.” It contains the Hebrew Scriptures and much of the Christian Greek Scriptures dating back to the early fourth century C.E., less than 300 years after the days of the apostles. It has been in the possession of the Vatican Library at least since 1481, but it was not made available to the academic world until 1889-90.
My first impression was that the writing was surprisingly clear and unfaded. Apparently the original ink faded, and a later scribe traced over every letter, thereby robbing the codex of much of its original beauty. The Vaticanus, like practically all manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures in Greek, is a codex, a book with leaves, rather than a roll. It is written on vellum (a fine grade of parchment), a writing material prepared from the skins of young animals.
‘How can the age of such documents be determined?’ I wanted to know. The style of the handwriting is a key factor, I learned. The secretary of the library kindly showed me the two very distinct types of handwriting in the manuscript. Genesis to Hebrews is written in handwriting that is called uncial. This is the capital-letter style that was used in writing books from the fourth century B.C.E. through to the eighth or ninth century C.E. There are no spaces between the words, and there is no punctuation. On the other hand, Revelation (not part of the original manuscript) is written in minuscule handwriting, that is to say, in a cursive form with many of the letters joined together in a flowing manner. This smaller style became popular at the beginning of the ninth century C.E.
The science that studies ancient writing is called paleography. However, since the style of a person’s writing normally does not change greatly during his lifetime, a manuscript can never be dated more exactly than to about a 50-year period solely on the evidence of writing style.
“Rubbish” in a Monastery
Next on my itinerary was England. Here is to be found one of the greatest collections of Bible manuscripts. Climbing the steps in front of the grandiose entrance to the British Museum, London, certainly heightened my anticipation. This is the home of the famous Codex Sinaiticus. (The remarkable story of how some leaves of this manuscript were found in a rubbish basket in a monastery in Sinai in 1844 was told in the Awake! issue of October 8, 1979.) Along with the Vaticanus, this manuscript is the principal basis for the Greek text from which the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures was translated. I found it on display alongside the Codex Alexandrinus.
The Sinaiticus has a page area that is more than twice that of this magazine. It has four columns to a page, on fine vellum. The international symbol for Sinaiticus is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ’aʹleph, “א.” It has also been dated to the fourth century C.E., but it is considered to be slightly later than Vaticanus.
The discovery of manuscripts such as the Sinaiticus is important because prior to such finds, translations had to be made from much later copies that contained many errors from being copied and even spurious passages. For example, it was the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus that indicated that the account at John 7:53–8:11 about the adulterous woman was a later addition, since neither manuscript contains it.
Saved From a Fire
Sharing the same display case is Codex Alexandrinus (A), which is dated 400-450 C.E. It seemed to me the most beautifully written of all the manuscripts that I saw. It takes its name from the Patriarchal Library in Alexandria, Egypt, where it was kept before being offered to King James I of England, who sponsored the famous English version of the Bible of 1611. However, the Codex Alexandrinus did not arrive until 1627, well after the completion of that work. Charles I was then king.
It was not always well cared for in the Royal Library. In 1731 it narrowly escaped destruction. Fire broke out in the room below the one in which the codex was kept. However, some evidently appreciated the manuscript’s value, for an “eye-witness tells of the learned Doctor Bentley in ‘nightgown and great wig’ stalking out of the building with the Codex Alexandrinus under his arm.”
It was in the second half of the 19th century that the three great codices, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus, were published separately in the form of photographic facsimiles. The first two had been written at the very time that vellum began to be used as the principal material for book production. It seemed unlikely that anything older would ever be found in view of the perishable nature of papyrus—the writing material of earlier centuries. But then, in 1931, came the momentous appearance of 11 very ancient manuscripts on papyrus.
Treasures in Ireland
Housed in the residential area of Dublin, among beautiful green gardens that only the cool, damp climate of Ireland can encourage, is the museum and library of the American collector Chester Beatty. Being interested in historical manuscripts, he acquired what was the most important Biblical find since the Sinaiticus was discovered. It was apparently the collection of books of a fourth-century Christian community in Egypt. They were discovered “on the site of an ancient church near the Nile.”
Papyrus is quite different from vellum. It is made from the papyrus plant, which grew in the waters of the Nile in the delta region. Until the fourth century C.E., it was more widely used than vellum.
If you visit Dublin, you will be able to see on display a selection of the large collection of papyrus manuscripts. One of them, referred to as P45, though badly damaged, contains portions of the four Gospels and Acts. It is dated as coming from the early third century C.E.
Also from the third century is P47, consisting of ten leaves of a codex of Revelation, or Apocalypse. Of further interest is P46, dating from about 200 C.E. This is a codex containing nine of Paul’s letters. I noticed that Hebrews is included among the letters of Paul, placed after Romans. This fact shows that Hebrews, which does not contain Paul’s name, was accepted as of his authorship, a fact disputed by some modern critics.
A noticeable feature of all the Greek manuscripts that I had seen so far was that none of them contain God’s name, Jehovah. So why does the New World Translation contain it if these texts are the oldest and most reliable? Manuscript fragments that were first studied in Cambridge, England, provide part of the answer.
The Divine Name Uncovered
How I enjoyed my visit to Cambridge, where the cloisters of the old colleges can be seen framed by the arches of weeping willows! It was to this center of learning that much of the contents of the Cairo Genizah were brought. The genizah was a room in the synagogue, where the Jews kept old documents.
In old Cairo a superstition that a poisonous snake protected the entrance of the genizah, ready to attack would-be collectors, helped to preserve the contents until Dr. Solomon Schechter obtained permission to bring the contents to Cambridge in 1898. Documents that had accumulated over a period of nearly a thousand years were found. A librarian showed me a photograph of the manuscripts as they arrived, stuffed into tea chests like so much rubbish.
Among all of these was found a palimpsest, or reused scroll, of great interest. “Palimpsest” means “rescraped” and refers to a document that has had the original writing removed by washing or scraping so that the costly writing material could be reused. Frequently the original writing can still be discerned.
In this case, beneath a later writing was found a copy of part of the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek by Aquila, a Jewish proselyte who lived in the second century C.E. I was fascinated to observe in several places in the Greek text that Jehovah’s name was written in archaic Hebrew characters. This shows that as late as the second century C.E., Jehovah’s name in Hebrew was still being written in Greek manuscripts. There is therefore no reason to doubt that Jesus’ disciples would also have used it when they originally wrote the Christian Greek Scriptures under divine inspiration.
The late scholar of Bible texts F. G. Kenyon wrote that “in the case of the Bible books, as also of all works of the classical authors and of nearly all mediæval works, the original autographs and all early copies of them have disappeared.” Nevertheless, which is the oldest known manuscript of the Christian Greek Scriptures?
A Tiny Treasure in Manchester
It is but a fragment of John 18:31-34, 37, 38 and measures three and a half by two and a quarter inches [8.9 by 5.7 cm]. The Gospel of John was originally written about 98 C.E. This fragmentary copy was made only shortly afterward. It is dated 100-150 C.E. Where is it to be found? In the 19th-century boomtown of England’s cotton industry, Manchester. There in The John Rylands Library this fragment is displayed to the public only on rare occasions.
The librarian kindly explained to me how the original dimensions of the book could be calculated from such a fragment. It is estimated to have come from a codex of 130 pages of the Gospel of John, with a page size comparable to that of this magazine. Mounted between two glass plates, the fragment appears like an extremely fragile wafer. I was told that even so, many pieces of papyrus are surprisingly flexible.
How is its age determined? I learned that the type of papyrus used, its general appearance, and also the style of writing give clues. Even I could see that the hand, which is not considered to be that of a professional scribe, was different from the writing on the vellum manuscripts I had seen, in which the vertical strokes were thicker and the horizontal strokes had heavy dots on the end.
What is the significance of this tiny fragment? It disproves the theory of some critics that the Gospels are actually forgeries from the second century, not written by Jesus’ disciples at all. However, since it is universally agreed that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written before John, here we have evidence that they were all written in the first century. No group of frauds could possibly have produced them in the first century when eyewitnesses of the events they related could have refuted any false stories.
How remarkable that after so many centuries, we have accurate copies of God’s Word coming from such a short time after it was written! As noted scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote concerning the Bible: “No other ancient book has anything like such early and plentiful testimony to its text, and no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound.”
As a result of my visits, I felt an even greater confidence in the words that David was inspired to record: “The sayings of Jehovah are pure sayings, as silver refined in a smelting furnace of earth, clarified seven times.” (Psalm 12:6)—Contributed.
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The Codex Sinaiticus provided part of the basis for the Greek text from which the New World Translation was made
Courtesy of the British Museum, London
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The Codex Alexandrinus (A), which is dated 400-450 C.E., takes its name from the Patriarchal Library in Alexandria, Egypt
By permission of The British Library
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This early second-century fragment of a portion of John 18 is considered to be the oldest known text of the Christian Greek Scriptures
Courtesy of The John Rylands University Library, Manchester