The Vatican Codex—Why a Treasure?
THE Vatican is a veritable treasure trove. Its frescoes, sculptures, and architecture are prized for their beauty and splendor. Yet, access to one of its greatest treasures was limited for hundreds of years. Housed in the Vatican Library, a precious manuscript illuminates portions of God’s Word that were written thousands of years ago. It is known as the Vatican Codex.a
The Alexandrine and Sinaitic codices, two other early Bible manuscripts that are prized by scholars, have intriguing histories of discovery and rescue from destruction. The origin of the Vatican Codex, on the other hand, is murky at best.
A Hidden Treasure
Where did the Vatican Codex come from? The earliest reference to it is a 15th-century entry in the Vatican Library catalog. Scholars have suggested that it may have been produced in Egypt, Caesarea, or even Rome. After evaluating these theories, however, Professor J. Neville Birdsall of the University of Birmingham, England, concluded: “In short, we cannot be certain of the exact date nor the place of origin of Codex Vaticanus, nor, in spite of scholarly efforts, can its history before the fifteenth century be traced.” Nevertheless, the Vatican Codex has been called one of the most important single Bible manuscripts. Why?
Over the centuries, some copyists introduced errors into the Bible text. The challenge for translators seeking textual integrity, then, is to find reliable manuscripts that convey what appeared in the original writings. So imagine how eager scholars were to examine the Vatican Codex, a Greek manuscript dating from the fourth century C.E., less than 300 years after the Bible was completed! This codex contains a complete text of the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures, except for a few portions that were lost over time.
For a long time, Vatican authorities were reluctant to make the codex available to Bible scholars. Eminent textual scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon related: “In 1843 [Bible scholar Konstantin von] Tischendorf, after waiting for several months, was allowed to see it for six hours. . . . In 1845 the great English scholar Tregelles was allowed indeed to see it but not to copy a word.” Tischendorf applied to see the codex again, but he was denied permission after copying 20 pages. Yet, as Kenyon reported, “renewed entreaty procured him six days’ longer study, making in all fourteen days of three hours each; and by making the very most of his time Tischendorf was able in 1867 to publish the most perfect edition of the manuscript which had yet appeared.” The Vatican later made a better copy of the codex available.
What kind of text did the Vatican Codex reveal? The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible states that it “shows both consistency of spelling and accuracy of copying, and a quality in the text thus carefully reproduced.” The same reference work continues: “It is thus possible to conclude that this text is the product of a tradition of scholarly copying.”
Two noteworthy scholars who were struck by the virtues of the Vatican Codex were B. F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort. Their New Testament in the Original Greek, released in 1881 and based on the Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts, is still the primary text for several modern translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures, including The Emphasised Bible, by J. B. Rotherham, and the New World Translation.
Some critics, however, thought that Westcott and Hort’s trust in the Vatican Codex was misplaced. Was the codex an accurate rendering of the original text? The publication of the Bodmer papyri between 1956 and 1961 excited scholars because the papyri included portions of Luke and John from the early third century C.E. Would these support what later appeared in the Vatican Codex?
“There is a remarkable convergence between the text of Vaticanus and the surviving text of the Bodmer papyri,” wrote Philip B. Payne and Paul Canart in Novum Testamentum. “In light of this convergence, it is reasonable to conclude that the original scribe of Vaticanus copied a manuscript closely related to the Bodmer papyri. Thus, the scribe must have copied either a very old manuscript or one that was based on a very old manuscript.” Professor Birdsall stated: “The two manuscripts stand in close relationship with one another. . . . [The Codex] is a careful text: the editing lying behind it has a tradition of careful preservation of what has been received.”
Useful to Translators
Of course, the oldest manuscript does not always qualify as being closest to the original text. However, comparing the Vatican Codex with other manuscripts has been very helpful to scholars in determining what appeared in the original text. For example, the surviving part of the Sinaitic Manuscript, also produced in the fourth century C.E., is missing most of the historical books from Genesis to 1 Chronicles. But their appearance in the Vatican Codex helps to confirm their rightful place in the Bible canon.
According to The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible, “passages touching on the person of Christ and on the holy Trinity” were particularly controversial among scholars. How has the Vatican Codex helped to clarify these passages?
Consider an example. As recorded at John 3:13, Jesus said: “No man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man.” Some translators have added the words “which [or, who] is in heaven.” Those additional words suggest that Jesus was in heaven and on earth at the same time—a notion that supports the idea of the Trinity. That added phrase appears in a few manuscripts from the fifth and tenth centuries C.E. However, its omission in the earlier Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts has led many modern translators to remove the phrase. This clears up confusion about the identity of Christ and harmonizes with the rest of the Scriptures. Rather than being in two places at the same time, Jesus had come from the heavens and would soon return to the heavens, “ascending to” his Father.—John 20:17.
The Vatican Codex also sheds light on verses regarding God’s purpose for the earth. Note an example. According to the King James Version, the apostle Peter prophesied that “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10) Other translations read similarly, basing this rendering on the fifth-century Alexandrine Codex and later manuscripts. Many sincere Bible readers have thus concluded that God will destroy the earth.
However, about a century before the Alexandrine Codex was produced, the Vatican Codex (and the contemporary Sinaitic Manuscript) rendered Peter’s prophecy “earth and the works in it will be discovered.” Does this harmonize with the rest of the Bible? Certainly! The literal earth “will not be made to totter to time indefinite, or forever.” (Psalm 104:5) How, then, will the earth be “discovered”? Other scriptures show that the expression “earth” can be used figuratively. “The earth” can speak a language and sing songs. (Genesis 11:1; Psalm 96:1) So “earth” can refer to mankind, or human society. Is it not comforting to know that God will not destroy our planet but will thoroughly expose and bring an end to wickedness and those who promote it?
“It Will Last to Time Indefinite”
Sadly, access to the Vatican Codex was severely curtailed for centuries, and Bible readers were often misled as to the true meaning of certain Bible texts. However, since its publication, the Vatican Codex and modern, reliable Bible translations have helped truth-seekers to learn what the Bible really teaches.
Early copyists often included in their manuscripts the note: “The hand that wrote [this] moulders in a tomb, but what is written abides across the years.” Today we appreciate the tireless efforts of those anonymous copyists. But the credit for preserving the Bible ultimately goes to its Author, who long ago inspired his prophet to write: “The green grass has dried up, the blossom has withered; but as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.”—Isaiah 40:8.
a The Vatican Codex is also referred to as Vatican Manuscript 1209 or Codex Vaticanus and is designated “B” by most scholars. The codex was the prototype of today’s book. See “From Scroll to Codex—How the Bible Became a Book,” in the June 1, 2007, issue of this magazine.
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Dating Ancient Manuscripts
Although some copyists recorded the date they completed their work, most Greek manuscripts lack this specific information. How, then, do scholars determine when a Bible manuscript was produced? Just as language and artwork differ from one generation to the next, so too does handwriting. For example, uncial letters, characterized by curved capital letters and even lines of text, were used by the fourth century and continued for hundreds of years. Careful scholars who compare undated uncial manuscripts with similar dated documents can more precisely determine when early manuscripts were produced.
There are, of course, limits to this method. Princeton Theological Seminary Professor Bruce Metzger noted: “Since the style of a person’s handwriting may remain more or less constant throughout life, it is unrealistic to seek to fix upon a date narrower than a fifty-year spread.” Based on such careful analysis, there is general agreement among scholars that the Vatican Codex was produced in the fourth century C.E.