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Manuscripts of the Bible

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Manuscripts are written, as opposed to printed, copies of the original text or of a version either of the whole Bible or of a part thereof. After introductory remarks on manuscripts in general, we shall take up in detail the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic manuscripts of the Bible; manuscripts of other versions are not important enough to come within the scope of this article.

In general

Manuscripts may be conveniently divided into papyrus and vellum manuscripts.

Papyrus manuscripts

In the Roman Empire of the first three centuries of our era, papyrus was the ordinary writing material. Made out of strips of pith taken from the stem of the Egyptian water-plant of the same name, papyrus was very fragile, became brittle in air, crumbled with use, could not resist the disintegrating force of moisture and was quite impracticable for book-form. All papyrus manuscripts of every sort are lost to us save such as were buried in exceedingly dry soil, like that of Upper and Middle Egypt. Here the ignorant fellaheen at one time wantonly destroyed vast quantities of papyrus manuscripts. Egyptian excavators now prevent such destruction and keep on adding to our very considerable collections of papyri. It is more than likely that the New Testament sacred writers or their scribes used ink and rolls of fragile papyrus for their autographa (2 Corinthians 3:3; 2 John 12). These original manuscripts probably perished towards the end of the first or the opening of the second century. We find no trace of them in either the Apostolic or the apologetic Fathers, — unless we except Tertullian's words, "the authentic letters of the Apostles themselves", which are now generally set aside as rhetorical. A significant proof of the early loss of the autograph copies of the New Testament is the fact that Irenæus never appeals to the original writings but only to all the painstaking and ancient copies (en pasi tois spoudaiois kaiarchaiois antigraphois), to the witness of those that saw John face to face (kaimartyrounton auton ekeinon ton katopsin ton Ioannen heorakoton), and to the internal evidence of the written word (kai tou logou didaskontos hemas).

Vellum manuscripts

Egypt clung to her papyrus rolls until the eighth century and even later. Vellum had been used before the time of Christ (cf. Pliny, "Historia Naturalis", xiii, 11), and during the time of the Apostles (2 Timothy 4:13). In the third century, it began, outside of Egypt, to supersede papyrus; in the early part of the fourth century vellum and the codex, or book-form, gained complete victory over papyrus and the roll-form. When Constantine founded his capital of the Byzantine Empire, he ordered Eusebius to have fifty manuscripts of the Bible made on vellum (somatia en diphtherais) for use in the churches of Byzantium (Vita Constant., IV, 36). To the fourth century belong the earliest extant Biblical manuscripts of anything but fragmentary size.


Some vellum manuscripts of the greatest importance are palimpsests (from Lat. palimpsestum, Gr. palimpsestos, "scraped again"), — that is, they were long ago scraped a second time with pumice-stone and written upon anew. The discovery of palimpsests led to the reckless of bigoted charge of wholesale destruction of Biblical manuscripts by the monks of old. That there was some such destruction is clear enough from the decree of a Greek synod of A.D. 691, which forbade the use of palimpsest manuscripts either of the Bible or of the Fathers, unless they were utterly unserviceable (see Wattenbach, "Das Schriftwessen im Mittelalter", 1896, p. 299). That such destruction was not wholesale, but had to do with only worn or damaged manuscripts, is in like manner clear enough from the significant fact that as yet no complete work of any kind has been found on a palimpsest. The deciphering of a palimpsest may at times be accomplished merely by soaking it in clear water; generally speaking, some chemical reagent is required, in order to bring back the original writing. Such chemical reagents are an infusion of nutgalls, Gioberti's tincture and hydrosulphuret of ammonia; all do harm to the manuscript. Wattenbach, a leading authority on the subject, says: "More precious manuscripts, in proportion to the existing supply, have been destroyed by the learned experimenters of our time than by the much abused monks of old."

Hebrew manuscripts


(a) Pre-Massoretic text

The earliest Hebrew manuscript is the Nash papyrus. There are four fragments, which, when pieced together, give twenty-four lines of a pre-Massoretic text of the Ten Commandments and the shema (Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-19; 6:4-5). The writing is without vowels and seems palæographically to be not later than the second century. This is the oldest extant Bible manuscript (see Cook, "A Pre-Massoretic Biblical Papyrus" in "Proceed. of the Soc. of Bib. Arch.", Jan., 1903). It agrees at times with the Septuagint against the Massorah. Another pre-Massoretic text is the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritan recension is probably pre-exilic; it has come down to us free from Massoretic influences, is written without vowels and in Samaritan characters. The earliest Samaritan manuscript extant is that of Nablûs, which was formerly rated very much earlier than all Massoretic manuscripts, but is now assigned to the twelfth or thirteenth century A.D. Here mention should be made of the non-Massoretic Hebrew manuscripts of the Book of Ecclesiasticus. These fragments, obtained from a Cairo genizah (a box for wornout or cast-off manuscripts), belong to the tenth or eleventh century of our era. They provide us with more than a half of Ecclesiasticus and duplicate certain portions of the book. Many scholars deem that the Cairo fragments prove Hebrew to have been the original language of Ecclesiasticus (see "Facsimiles of the Fragments hitherto recovered of the Book of Ecclesiasticus in Hebrew", Oxford and Cambridge, 1901).

(b) Massoretic text

All other Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible are Massoretic (see MASSORAH), and belong to the tenth century or later. Some of these manuscripts are dated earlier. Text-critics consider these dates to be due either to intentional fraud or to uncritical transcription of dates of older manuscripts. For instance, a codex of the Former and Latter Prophets, how in the Karaite synagogue of Cairo, is dated A.D. 895; Neubauer assigns it to the eleventh or thirteenth century. The Cambridge manuscript no. 12, dated A.D. 856, he marks as a thirteenth-century work; the date A.D. 489, attached to the St. Petersburg Pentateuch, he rejects as utterly impossible (see Studia Biblica, III, 22). Probably the earliest Massoretic manuscripts are: "Prophetarium Posteriorum Codex Bablyonicus Petropolitanus", dated A.D. 916; the St. Petersburg Bible, written by Samuel ben Jacob and dated A.D. 1009; and "Codex Oriental. 4445" in the British Museum, which Ginsburg (Introduction, p. 469) assigns to A.D. 820-50. The text critics differ very widely in the dates they assign to certain Hebrew manuscripts. De Rossi is included to think that at most nine or ten Massoretic manuscripts are earlier than the twelfth century (Variæ Lectiones, I, p. xv).


Kennicott, the first critical student of the Massoretic text, either examined or had others examine 16 Samaritan manuscripts, some 40 printed texts and 638 Massoretic manuscripts (see "Dissertatio Generalis in Vetus Testam. Hebraicum", Oxford, 1780). He numbered these manuscripts in six groups: nos. 1-88, Oxford manuscripts; nos. 89-144, other manuscripts of English-speaking countries; nos. 145-254, manuscripts of continental Europe; nos. 255-300, printed texts and various manuscripts; nos. 301-694, manuscripts collated by Brunsius. De Rossi (Variæ Lectiones Vet. Test.) retained the numeration of Kennicott and added a list of 479 manuscripts, all his own personal property, of which unfortunately 17 had already received numbers from Kennicott. De Rossi later added four supplementary lists of 110, 52, 37, and 76 manuscripts. He brought the number of Massoretic manuscripts up to 1375. No one has since undertaken so colossal a critical study of the Hebrew manuscripts. A few of the chief manuscripts are more exactly collated and compared in the critical editions of the Massoretic text which were done by S. Baer and Fr. Delitzsch and by Ginsburg. To the vast number of Hebrew manuscripts examined by Kennicott and De Rossi must be added some 2000 manuscripts of the Imperial Library of St. Petersburg, which Firkowitsch collated at Tschufut-Kale ("Jews' Rock") in the Crimea (see Strack, "Die biblischen und massoretischen Handschriften zü Tschufut-Kale" in "Zeits. für luth. Theol. und Kirche", 1875).


The critical study of this rich assortment of about 3400 Massoretic rolls and codices is not so promising of important results as it would at first thought seem to be. The manuscripts are all of quite recent date, if compared with Greek, Latin, and Syriac codices. They are all singularly alike. Some few variants are found in copies made for private use; copies made for public service in the synagogues are so uniform as to deter the critic from comparing them. All Massoretic manuscripts bring us back to one editor — that of a textual tradition which probably began in the second century and became more and more minute until every jot and tittle of the text was almost absolutely fixed and sacred. R. Aqiba seems to have been the head of this Jewish school of the second century. Unprecedented means were taken to keep the text fixed. The scholars counted the words and consonants of each book, the middle word and middle consonants, the peculiarities of script, etc. Even when such peculiarities were clearly due to error or to accident, they were perpetuated and interpreted by a mystical meaning. Broken and inverted letters, consonants that were too small or too large, dots which were out of place — all these oddities were handed down as God-intended. In Genesis 2:4, bebram ("when they were created"), all manuscripts have a small . Jewish scholars looked upon this peculiarity as inspired; they interpreted it: "In the letter he created them"; and then set themselves to find out what that meant.This lack of variants in Massoretic manuscripts leaves us hopeless of reaching back to the original Hebrew text save through the versions. Kittel in his splendid Hebrew text gives such variants as the versions suggest.

Greek manuscripts

In general

Greek manuscripts are divided into two classes according to their style of writing — uncials and minuscules.

(a) Uncials were written between the fourth and tenth centuries, with large and disconnected letters. These letters were not capitals but had a distinctive form: epsilon, sigma, and omega were not written EPSILON, SIGMA, OMEGA, as are those capitals in inscriptions; rho, phi, psi, and at times upsilon were prolonged above or below the line. Words were not separated; neither accents nor punctuation marks were used; paragraphs were marked off only by a very small lacuna; the letters were uniform and artistic; ligatures were used only for the most ordinary words — IC (Iesous), KC (Kyrios), XC (Christos), ICL (Israel), PNA (pneuma), DLD (David), ANOC (anthropos), PER (pater), MER (mater), OUC (pater), CER (soter), OUNOC (ouranos). In the sixth century, began a decadence of the elegant uncial writing. Twists and turns were given to certain letters. In the seventh century, more letters received flourishes; accents and breathings were introduced; the writing leaned to the right.

(b) Minuscules

While uncials held sway in Biblical manuscripts, minuscules were employed in other works. During the ninth century, both uncial and minuscule manuscripts of the Bible were written. The latter show a form of writing so fully developed as to leave no doubt about its long standing use. The letters are small, connected, and written with a running hand. After the tenth century, minuscules were used until, in the fifteenth century, manuscripts were superceded by print.

Old Testament manuscripts

(a) Septuagint (LXX)

There are three families of Septuagint manuscripts — the Hexaplaric, Hesychian, and Lucianic. Manuscripts of Origen's Hexapla and Tetrapla were preserved at Cæsarea by his disciple Pamphilus. Some extant manuscripts (v.g. aleph and Q) refer in scholia to these gigantic works of Origen. In the fourth century, Pamphilus and his disciple Eusebius of Cæsarea reproduced the fifth column of the Hexapla, i.e. Origen's Hexaplaric Septuagint text, with all his critical signs. This copy is the source of the Hexaplaric family of Septuagint manuscripts. In course of time, scribes omitted the critical signs in part or entirely. Passages wanting in the Septuagint, but present in the Hebrew, and consequently supplied by Origen from either Aquila or Tehodotion, were hopelessly commingled with passages of the then extant Septuagint. Almost at the same time two other editions of the Septuagint were published — those of Hesychius at Alexandria and of Lucian at Antioch. From these three editions the extant manuscripts of the Septuagint have descended, but by ways that have not yet been accurately traced. Very few manuscripts can be assigned with more than probability to one of the three families. The Hexaplaric, Hesychian, and Lucianic manuscripts acted one upon the other. Most extant manuscripts of the Septuagint contain, as a result, readings of each and of none of the great families. The tracing of the influence of these three great manuscripts is a work yet to be done by the text-critics.

(b) Aquila

(See VERSIONS OF THE BIBLE). Manuscript traces of the text of Aquila are found in

(c) Theodotion

(See VERSIONS OF THE BIBLE). The Book of Daniel of Theodotion is found in the Septuagint manuscripts previously mentioned. The Milan palimpsest contains his text in part.

(d) Symmachus

(See VERSIONS OF THE BIBLE). Manuscript sources are the Milan palimpsest, Cambridge fragment, and Hexaplaric marginal notes, all of which are manuscript sources of Aquila.

New Testament manuscripts

(a) In General

There are, according to the latest authority on this subject, von Soden ("Die Schriften des N.T. in ihrer ältesten erreichbaren Textgestalt", Berlin, 1902), 2328 New Testament manuscripts extant. Only about 40 contain, either entire or in part, all the books of the New Testament. There are 1716 manuscript copies of the Gospels, 531 of the Act, 628 of the Pauline Epistles, 219 of the Apocalypse. The commonly received numeration of the New Testament manuscripts is that of Wettstein; uncials are designated by Roman and Greek capital, minuscules by Arabic numbers. These manuscripts are divided into the above-mentioned four groups — Gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, Apocalypse. In the case of uncials, an exponent is used to designate the group referred to. D or Dev is Cod. Bezæ, a manuscript of the Gospels; D3 or Dpaul is Cod. Claromontanus, a manuscript of the Pauline Epistles; E2 or Eact is Cod. Laudianus, a manuscript of the Acts. The nomenclature is less clear for minuscules. Each group has a different set of numbers. If a minuscule be a complete manuscript of the New Testament, it is designated by four different numbers. One and the same manuscript at Leicester is Evan. 69, Act. 31, Paul. 37, Apoc. 14. Wettestein's lists of New-Testament manuscripts were supplemented by Birch and Schols; later on Scrivener and Gregory continued the lists, each with his own nomenclature. Von Soden has introduced a new numeration, so as to indicate the contents and date of the manuscripts. If the content be more than the Gospels, it is marked delta (that is, diatheke, "testament"); if only the Gospels, eta (i.e., euangelion, "gospel"); if aught else save the Gospels, alpha (that is, apostolos). B is delta-1; aleph is delta-2; Q is epsilon-4, etc. No distinction is made between uncials and minuscules. Scholars admit the logic and scientific worth of this new numeration, but find it too unwieldy and impracticable.

(b) Payrus

In the Archduke Rainer collection, Vienna, are several very fragmentary bits of New Testament Greek phrases, which Wessely, the curator of that collection, assigns to the second century. The Grenfell and Hunt excavations in Oxyrhyncus brought to light various fragments of the New Testament which Kenyon, the assistant keeper of the manuscripts of the British Museum, assigns to the latter part of the third century. Only one papyrus manuscript of the New Testament is important to the text-critic — Oxyrhyncus Pap. 657, third-fourth century; it preserves to us about a third of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and epistle in which Codex B is defective.

(c) Vellum Uncials

There are about 160 vellum uncials of the New Testament; some 110 contain the Gospels or a part thereof. The chiefest of these uncials are the four great codices of the entire Greek Bible, aleph, A, B, C, for which, see above. The Vatican (B) is the oldest and probably the best New Testament manuscript.

(d) Vellum minuscules

The vast numbers of minuscule witnesses to the text of the New Testament would seem to indicate a rich field of investigation for the text-critic. The field is not so rich at all. Many of these minuscules have never been fully studies. Ninety-five per cent. of them are witnesses to the same type of text; that of the textus receptus. Only those minuscules interest the text-critic which are distinctive of or akin to one of the great uncials. Among the Gospel minuscules, according to Gregory's numeration, the type of B-aleph is seen more or less in 33; 1, 118, 131, 209; 59, 157, 431, 496, 892. The type of D is that of 235, 431, 473, 700, 1071; and of the "Ferrar group", 13, 69, 124, 346, 348, 543, 713, 788, 826, 828. Among the Acts minuscules, 31 and 61 show some kinship to B; 137, 180, 216, 224 to D. 15, 40, 83, 205, 317, 328, 329, 393 are grouped and traced to the fourth century text of Euthalius of Sulica. Among the Pauline minuscules, this same text (i.e. that of H3) is found in 81, 83, 93, 379, 381.

(e) Lectionaries

There are some 1100 manuscripts of readings from the Gospels (Evangelia or Evangeliaria) and 300 manuscripts of readings from Acts and Epistles (Praxapostoli). Although more than 100 of these lectionaries are uncials, they are of the ninth century or later. Very few of these books of the Epistles and Gospels have been critically examined. Such examination may later on serve to group the New Testament minuscules better and help to localize them.

Latin manuscripts

Biblical manuscripts are far more uniform in Greek than in Latin script. Palæography divides the Greek into uncials and minuscules; the Latin into uncials, semi-uncials, capitals, minuscules and cursives. Even these divisions have subdivisions. The time, place and even monastery of a Latin manuscript may be traced by the very distinct script of its text.

Old Latin

Some 40 manuscripts have preserved to us a text which antedates the translation of St. Jerome; they are designated by small letters. Unfortunately no two of these manuscripts represent to us quite the same text. Corrections introduced by scribes and the inevitable influence of the Vulgate have left it a very difficult matter to group the Old Latin manuscripts. Text-critics now agree upon an African, a European and an Italian type of text. The African text is that mentioned by Tertullian (c. 150-220) and used by St. Cyprian (c. 200-258); it is the earliest and crudest in style. The European text is less crude in style and vocabulary, and may be an entirely new translation. The Italian text is a version of the European and was revised by St. Jerome in parts of the Vulgate. The most important Old Latin manuscripts are the bilingual New Testament manuscripts D, D3, E2, E3, F3, G3, Delta.


It is estimated that there are more than 8000 manuscripts of the Vulgate extant. Most of these are later than the twelfth century and have very little worth for the reconstruction of the text. Tischendorf and Berger designate the chief manuscripts by abbreviations of the names: am. = Amiatinus; fu. or fuld. = Fuldensis. Wordsworth and White, in their critical edition of the Gospel and Acts (1899-1905); use Latin capitals to note the 40 manuscripts on which their text depends. Gregory (Textkritik, II, 634) numbers 2369 manuscripts. The most logical and useful grouping of these manuscripts is genealogical and geographical. The work of future critics will be to reconstruct the text by reconstructing the various types, Spanish, Italian, Irish, French, etc. The chief Vulgate manuscripts are:

Syriac manuscripts

Old Syriac (OS)

The Curetonian and Sinaitic Syriac manuscripts represent a version older than the Peshitto and bear witness to an earlier text, one closely akin to that of which D and the Old Latin are witnesses.

The Diatessaron

This harmony of the Gospels was written by Tatian, an Assyrian and the disciple of Justin Martyr, about A.D. 170, and was widely used in Syria. Our manuscript records are two Arabic versions, discovered one in Rome the other in Egypt, and published 1888. A Latin translation of an Armenian edition of St. Ephraem's commentary on the Diatessaron is in like manner witness to this early version of the Gospels. Scholars are inclined to make Tatian's to be the earliest Syriac translation of the Gospel.

The Peshitto

The earliest manuscript of this Syriac Vulgate is a Pentateuch dated A.D. 464; this is the earliest dated Biblical manuscripts; it is in the British Museum. There are two New Testament manuscripts of the fifth century. In all, the Peshitto manuscripts number 125 of Gospels, 58 of Acts and the Catholic Epistles, and 67 of the Pauline Epistles.

The Philoxenian Syriac version

The Philoxenian Syriac version of the New Testament has come down to us only in the four minor Catholic Epistles, not included in the original Peshitto, and a single manuscript of the Apoc., now at Trinity College, Dublin.

The Harklean Syriac version

This version of the New Testament is represented by some 35 manuscripts dating from the seventh century and later; they show kinship with a text like to D.

The Palestinian Syriac version

This version of the New Testament has reached us by lectionaries and other fragmentary manuscripts discovered within the past sixteen years. The three principal manuscripts are dated A.D. 1030, 1104, and 1118.

Armenian manuscripts

Armenian manuscripts date from A.D. 887, and are numerous.

Coptic manuscripts


The Apocalypse is the only book of the New Testament which has come down to us complete in a single manuscript of this dialect of Upper Egypt. Many isolated fragments have of recent years been recovered by excavation in Egypt; from these it may soon be possible to reconstruct the Sahidic New Testament. The earliest fragments seem to belong to the fifth century. Some of these manuscripts are bilingual (see T of New Testament manuscripts).


This version in the dialect of Lower Egypt is well represented by manuscripts of the same character as B-aleph. The Curzon Catena is the earliest extant Boh. manuscript of the Gospels; it is dated A.D. 889 and is in the Parham Library. Others are of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. None is at all so old as the Sah. fragments.

Middle Egyptian

Middle Egyptian fragments on vellum and papyrus, have been found in Fayum and near to Akhmim and to Memphis. The largest of these fragments is a British Museum sixth-century palimpsest of John 3 and 4.


HEBREW MANUSCRIPTS: STRACK AND HARKAVY, Catalog der hebr. Bibelhandschriften der kaiserlichen Bibliothek (Leipzig 1875); NEUBAUER, Facsimilies of Hebrew manuscripts in the Bodleian Library (Oxford, 1886); NEUBAUER, Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and in the College Libraries of Oxford (Oxford, 1886); KRAFT AND DEUTSCH, Die handschriftl. hebräischen Werke der K.K. Hofbibliothek (Vienna, 1857); STEINSCHNEIDER, Die hebräisch. Handschriften der K. Hof. und Staatsbibliothek (Munich, 1895); SCHILLER-SZINESSY, Catalogue of the Hebrew manuscripts preserved in the University Library (Cambridge, 1876); ASSEMANI, Bibliothecæ Apostolicæ Vaticanæ codices Orientales (Rome, 1756); MAI, Appendix to Assemani (Rome, 1831).
GREEK MANUSCRIPTS (OLD TESTAMENT): SWETE, Introduction to the O.T. in Greek; KENYON, Our Bible and the Ancient manuscripts (1898); NESTLE, Septuagintastudien (1886-1907); FIELD, Origenis Hexaplorum quæ supersunt (Oxford, 1875).
GREEK MANUSCRIPTS (NEW TESTAMENT): SCRIVENER, Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament (1894); GREGORY, Textkritik des N.T. (1900); Die Griechischen Handschriften des N.T. (1908); HARRIS, Further researches into the history of the Ferrar-group (1900).
LATIN MANUSCRIPTS: BURKITT, The Old Latin and the Itala (Cambridge, 1896); WORDSWORTH, SANDAY, AND WHITE, Old Latin Biblical Texts (Oxford, 1883-97); GREGORY, Textkritik des N.T. (1900). WORDSWORTH AND WHITE, Edition of the Vulgate (1889-1905)
SYRIAC MANUSCRIPTS: LEWIS, The Four Gospels translated from the Sinaitic Palimpsest (1894); WOODS AND GWILLIAM in Studia Biblica, vols. I and III.
COPTIC MANUSCRIPTS: CRUM, Catalogue of Coptic manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1905); HYVERNAT, Etude sur les versions coptes de la Bible in Rev. Bibl. (1896).

About this page

APA citation. Drum, W. (1910). Manuscripts of the Bible. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Drum, Walter. "Manuscripts of the Bible." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Bryan R. Johnson.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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