Ancient Manuscripts—How Are They Dated?
IN 1844, Bible scholar Konstantin von Tischendorf visited St. Catherine’s monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. Combing through its libraries, he came upon some notable parchments. Being a student of paleography,* Tischendorf recognized the parchments as leaves from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament.” “I had seen nothing that could be judged as of greater antiquity than these Sinaitic pages,” he wrote.
Forming part of what later became known as the Sinaitic Manuscript (Codex Sinaiticus), the parchments have been dated to the fourth century C.E. The Sinaitic is just one of thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures that make up a truly vast reservoir for scholars to study.
The Development of Greek Paleography
A Benedictine monk, Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741), laid the foundation for the systematic study of Greek manuscripts. Later, other scholars added their contributions. Tischendorf took up the enormous task of compiling a list of the oldest Greek manuscripts of the Bible in the libraries of Europe. He also made several trips to the Middle East, studied hundreds of documents, and published his findings.
In the 20th century, additional tools became available to paleographers. One is the Marcel Richard list of some 900 catalogs that describe 55,000 Greek manuscripts, Biblical and non-Biblical, belonging to 820 libraries or private owners. This vast amount of information assists translators and also helps paleographers to date manuscripts more accurately.
How Manuscripts Are Dated
Imagine that you are cleaning the attic of an old house and find a handwritten, undated letter yellowed by time. ‘How old is it?’ you wonder? Then you spot another old letter. The general style, handwriting, punctuation, and other features resemble that of the first letter. But much to your delight, the second letter has a date on it. Although you are unable to determine the year that the first letter was written, you may now have a useful clue for estimating the general time period of the undated one.
Most ancient scribes did not mark their copies of Bible manuscripts with the date of completion. To determine an approximate date, scholars compare the texts with other works, including ancient non-Biblical documents for which dates are known, drawing inferences from handwriting, punctuation, abbreviations, and so on. However, several hundred dated manuscripts have been identified. Handwritten in Greek, they range from about 510 C.E. to 1593 C.E.
Clues From Handwriting
Paleographers divide ancient Greek handwriting into two basic categories—book hand, which is elegant and formal, and cursive, a form of running, or flowing, writing used in nonliterary documents. Greek scribes also used various styles of letters, which can be categorized as capitals, uncials (a form of capitals), cursives, and minuscules. One form of book hand, uncial writing, was used from the fourth century B.C.E. till the eighth or ninth century C.E. Minuscule writing, a small form of book hand, was employed from the 8th or 9th century C.E. till the middle of the 15th century, when printing by means of movable type began in Europe. Minuscule script could be written more rapidly and compactly, which saved both time and parchment.
Paleographers have their preferred methods of dating manuscripts. Generally speaking, they first take an overall look at the script—a wide-angle view, as it were—and then they examine it more closely, analyzing individual letters. Because it usually took a long time for significant changes to occur in the general style of handwriting, a close examination of the script, while useful, provides only a broad indication of the time of writing.
Thankfully, there are other ways to narrow down the date. These include identifying and dating the introduction of certain handwriting practices. For instance, in Greek texts after the year 900 C.E., scribes began to increase the use of ligatures (two or more characters joined together). Scribes also began to use infralinear writing (the writing of certain Greek letters below the line) as well as pronunciation aids called breathing marks.
A person’s handwriting tends to remain constant throughout his life. Therefore, texts often cannot be dated to within 50 years. What is more, scribes sometimes used earlier manuscripts as models, making the copy seem older than it is. Despite the many challenges, however, dates have been assigned to a number of important Bible manuscripts.
Dating Key Greek Bible Manuscripts
The Alexandrine Manuscript (Codex Alexandrinus), now held in the British Library, was the first of the major Bible manuscripts made available to scholars. It contains most of the Bible and is written in Greek uncials on vellum, a fine grade of parchment. This codex has been dated to the early fifth century C.E., largely because of the changes that occurred in uncial writing between the fifth and sixth centuries, as exemplified in a dated document called the Dioscorides of Vienna.*
A second major manuscript made available to scholars is the Sinaitic Manuscript (Codex Sinaiticus), acquired by Tischendorf at St. Catherine’s monastery. Penned in Greek uncials on parchment, it contains part of the Hebrew Scriptures from the Greek Septuagint version as well as all of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Of this codex, 43 leaves are held in Leipzig, Germany; 347 leaves at the British Library in London; and portions of 3 leaves in St. Petersburg, Russia. The manuscript has been dated to the latter part of the fourth century C.E. This date is supported by marginal tables in the Gospels known to have been devised by fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea.*
A third important work is the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209 (Codex Vaticanus), which originally contained the entire Bible in Greek. This codex appeared in the Vatican Library catalog for the first time in 1475. Written in Greek uncials on 759 leaves of fine parchment, or vellum, the codex contains much of the Bible, with the exception of most of Genesis, part of the Psalms, and portions of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Scholars have assigned the manuscript to the early fourth century C.E. How did they arrive at this date? The writing is similar to that of the Sinaitic Manuscript, also of the fourth century. The Vaticanus, though, is generally regarded as being a little older. Among other things, for example, it lacks the cross-references of the Eusebian canons.
Treasure From a Rubbish Heap
In 1920 the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England, acquired a pile of papyruses newly unearthed in an ancient Egyptian rubbish heap. While examining the items, which included letters, receipts, and census documents, scholar Colin Roberts saw a fragment inscribed with text he recognized—a few verses from John chapter 18. It was the earliest Christian Greek text identified up to that time.
The fragment came to be known as the John Rylands Papyrus 457, internationally designated as P52. Penned in Greek uncials, it has been dated to the early second century—within just a few decades of the original writing of the Gospel of John! Significantly, the text agrees almost exactly with that found in much later manuscripts.
Ancient but Accurate!
In his book The Bible and Archæology, British textual critic Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote concerning the Christian Greek Scriptures: “Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” Similarly, regarding the integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures, scholar William H. Green stated: “It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted.”
Those observations call to mind the words of the apostle Peter: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like a blossom of grass; the grass becomes withered, and the flower falls off, but the saying of Jehovah endures forever.”—1 Peter 1:24, 25.
“Paleography . . . is the study of ancient and medieval handwriting. It deals mainly with writing on perishable materials, such as papyrus, parchment, or paper.”—The World Book Encyclopedia.
The Dioscorides of Vienna was written for a certain Juliana Anicia, who died in either 527 or 528 C.E. The document “is the earliest example of uncial writing on vellum to which an approximate date can be given.”—An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography, by E. M. Thompson.
The so-called Eusebian canons are a set of tables, or a cross-reference system, “for showing which passages in each Gospel are similar to passages in other Gospels.”—Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, by Bruce M. Metzger.
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By carefully examining dated manuscripts, paleographers are able to assign dates to undated works
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Dating the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah
The first Dead Sea Scroll of the Bible book of Isaiah, discovered in 1947, was written on leather in a pre-Masoretic Hebrew script. It has been dated to the end of the second century B.C.E. How did scholars arrive at that date? They compared the writing with other Hebrew texts and inscriptions and assigned it a paleographic date between 125 B.C.E. and 100 B.C.E. Carbon-14 dating of the scroll provided additional evidence.
Amazingly, a comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Masoretic text, prepared many centuries later by scribes called Masoretes, shows no doctrinal change.* Many of the differences simply involve spelling and grammar. Also noteworthy, the Tetragrammaton—the four Hebrew consonants making up the divine name Jehovah—appears consistently in the Isaiah scroll.
The Masoretes, who were meticulous Jewish copyists, lived during the second half of the first millennium C.E.
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(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Book hand (uncial)
From the 4th century B.C.E. to the 8th or 9th century C.E.
From the 8th or 9th century C.E. to the 15th century C.E.
Dead Sea Scroll
Latter 2nd century B.C.E.
John Rylands Papyrus 457
Vatican Manuscript No. 1209
Early 4th century
The 4th century
Early 5th century
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Top: Konstantin von Tischendorf
Right: Bernard de Montfaucon
© Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY
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Dead Sea Scroll: Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
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Typographical facsimile of Vatican Manuscript No. 1209: From the book Bibliorum Sacrorum Graecus Codex Vaticanus, 1868; Reproduction of Sinaitic Manuscript: 1 Timothy 3:16, as it appears in the Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century C.E.; Alexandrine Manuscript: From The Codex Alexandrinus in Reduced Photographic Facsimile, 1909, by permission of the British Library