The Mystery of the Vatican Codex
CODEX Vaticanus 1209 appears in the first catalog of the Vatican Library, prepared in the year 1475. How it got there nobody knows. It is one of the three great Greek codices to have survived to today, ranking with its contemporary, the fourth-century Sinaiticus, and the early fifth-century Alexandrinus.
Although the importance of this Vatican manuscript was well-known to scholars early in the 16th century, few were ever permitted to examine it. The Vatican Library did prepare a collation of various readings of the manuscript in 1669, but this was lost and not rediscovered until 1819.
Emperor Napoleon of France captured Rome in 1809 and took the prized manuscript to Paris, where it was examined by Leonhard Hug, a celebrated scholar, but with Napoleon’s downfall the codex was returned to the Vatican in 1815. For the next 75 years it was again a mystery object, concealed by the Vatican.
Konstantin von Tischendorf, one of the world’s greatest manuscript scholars, was permitted to examine the manuscript in 1843 for a mere six hours, after being kept waiting for a number of months. Two years later, English scholar Dr. S. P. Tregelles was allowed to see the codex but not to study it. He stated: “It is true that I often saw the MS., but they would not allow me to use it; and they would not let me open it without searching my pockets, and depriving me of pen, ink, and paper; and at the same time two prelati [priests] kept me in constant conversation in Latin, and if I looked at a passage too long, they would snatch the book out of my hand.”
Why was the Roman Catholic Church so reluctant to show the world its priceless manuscript?
For the Roman Catholic Church, the Latin Vulgate version of the Holy Scriptures remains its “pre-eminent authority.” According to the encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pius XII, published in the year 1943, this fourth-century Latin translation by Jerome is also viewed as being “entirely immune from any error in matters of faith and morals.” What of the Hebrew and Greek texts from which the Vulgate was translated? These, the encyclical says, are of value to ‘corroborate’ the authority of the Vulgate. So any Greek manuscript, even the Vatican Codex, has never been considered to be as authoritative as the Latin Vulgate. This stand taken by the Roman Catholic Church has naturally caused problems.
For example, when the 16th-century scholar Erasmus translated his Greek “New Testament,” he appealed to the authority of the Vatican Codex to omit the spurious words from 1 John chapter 5, verses 7 and 8. Erasmus was right, yet as late as 1897 Pope Leo XIII upheld the corrupted Latin text of the Vulgate. Only with the publication of modern Roman Catholic translations has this textual error been acknowledged.
When the Codex Sinaiticus was revealed to the world in the latter part of the 19th century, it became apparent to the Roman Catholic authorities that their Codex Vaticanus was in danger of being eclipsed. By the turn of the century, good photographic copies were finally available.
The manuscript consists of 759 leaves. It lacks most of Genesis, some psalms, and the concluding parts of the Christian Greek Scriptures. It is written on very fine, thin parchment, thought to be from antelope skins, in a simple, elegant style. Its official designation is Codex B, and it can be seen today in the Vatican Library. It is hidden no longer, and its value is at last understood and appreciated throughout the world.
[Picture on page 31]
The important Codex Vaticanus 1209 was hidden by the Vatican for centuries
Facsimile from Codices E Vaticanis Selecti