The Washington Codex of the Gospels
IN DECEMBER 1906, Charles L. Freer, a wealthy American industrialist and art collector, purchased some old manuscripts from an Arab dealer named Ali, in Giza, Egypt. Ali said that they had come from the White Monastery near Sohâg, but it seems more likely that they were found in the ruins of the Monastery of the Vinedresser, near the third pyramid of Giza in the Nile Delta.
Freer was handed three manuscripts and “a blackened, decayed lump of parchment as hard and brittle on the exterior as glue.” This measured some 6.5 inches [17 cm] long, 4.5 inches [11 cm] wide, and 1.5 inches [4 cm] thick and was sold with the manuscripts simply because it was associated with them, not for any supposed value of its own. It was a painstaking, delicate operation to separate the coagulated mass of fragmentary leaves, but eventually 84 of them were revealed, all from a fifth or sixth century C.E. codex of Paul’s letters.
One of the remaining three manuscripts was of the books Deuteronomy and Joshua. Another was of the Psalms, from the Greek Septuagint translation. The third and most important of all, however, was a manuscript of the four Gospels.
This latter manuscript consists of 187 leaves of fine parchment, mostly sheepskin, written in slanting Greek uncials (capitals). Punctuation is rare, but there are frequently small spaces between phrases. The edges of the manuscript were all badly decayed, but most of the writing has been preserved. It was later presented to the Freer Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. Called the Washington Codex of the Gospels, it was given the identifying letter “W.”
The parchment has been dated to the late fourth or early fifth century C.E., so that it ranks not far behind the important trio of the Sinaitic, Vatican, and Alexandrine manuscripts. The Gospels (complete except for two lost leaves) are in the so-called Western order of Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark.
The reading of the manuscript discloses an unusual mixture of text types, each represented by large, continuous sections. It appears to have been copied from surviving fragments of several manuscripts, each with a different type of text. Professor H. A. Sanders suggested that this might go back to the sudden persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian in the year 303 C.E., by whose edict all copies of the Scriptures were ordered to be publicly burned. We know from historical records that some manuscripts were hidden at that time. It seems that an unknown person decades later copied surviving parts of different manuscripts to produce the text of the Washington Codex. Later, the first quire of John (John 1:1 to 5:11) was lost at some time and had to be rewritten in the seventh century C.E.
There are some interesting variations in the text and an unusual, but discounted, addition to Mark chapter 16 that probably originated as a marginal note. The manuscript’s special value lies in its affiliation with the old Latin and Syriac versions. Blots caused by candle tallow dropping onto the parchment indicate that it was well-used.
Despite persecution and opposition and the ravages of time, the Bible has been wonderfully preserved for us in many manuscript forms. Truly, “the saying of Jehovah endures forever.”—1 Peter 1:25; Isaiah 40:8.
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
Courtesy of Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution