It is one thing to teach about Christian history, and it’s a entirely different experience when you actually behold the subject of your lesson right in front of you. And that’s the experience I had when I visited the British Library and saw on display several amazing biblical historical texts, dating as far back as c. 200 AD (only about 150 years after the last New Testament writing).
I recently lectured about the development of the Bible and the following Manuscripts and New Testament Versions of the Bible (you can find the presentation I used at this link). Allow me to share the significance of each of the following:
- Codex Sinaiticus
- Gospel of John piece
- Tyndale Bible
- Wycliffe Bible
- King James Version
Codex Sinaiticus (c. 360 AD)
The Codex Sinaiticus is a jewel beyond price, and most of that jewel is held today in the British Library in London. Copied around the middle of the 4th century (roughly the same time period as the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, contemporaneous with great early Christian bishops like St. Basil the Great of Cappadocia, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Athanasius the 20th Pope of the Church of Alexandria, all of whom would have relied on similar copies of the Bible). It is the earliest existing manuscript to contain the complete New Testament and the oldest and best witness for some of the books of the Greek version [aka Septuagint or LXX] of the Old Testament. The Codex originally contained the entire Bible in Greek and is named after the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai where it was discovered in the 19th century. The significance of the timing of its discovery is that in the midst of much criticism of how faithfully the original biblical texts were transmitted over time, this ancient manuscript was discovered and further corroborated the remarkable accuracy of the Bible translations we have today.
The exhibited opening shows a part of the gospel according to St. Matthew in four columns, with the title “Kata Matthaion” (“according to Matthew”) at the top of each page. The text contains several quotations from the Old Testament, most of which are highlighted with quotation marks, and some with the name of their sources written in the margins. As was common at the time, the “paper” you see is actually animal skin, bound together (instead of being in a scroll format) like modern books, which we refer to as a “Codex” (i.e., a book of parchment [specially prepared animal skins], which was the writing medium for over two millennia).
As you may have noticed, the early manuscripts of this time were written in big letters (called “UNCIAL”), by hand, with no spaces or punctuation between different words. Something many people do not realize also is that there are no chapters and verses as we have them today, which are quite modern editorial implementations that have become common today (Old Testament verses were not standardized until AD 900, New Testament verses were standardized dating back to only AD 1551). Paragraph headings, capital letters, and other such editing decisions as we see them in modern Bibles today were not part of original manuscripts. That is why when you read the writings of the earliest of Christians and Church Fathers, when they quote a biblical passage they do not include a chapter and verse reference.
What is even more interesting is you can see the Codex Sinaiticus online! Check it out here at CodexSinaiticus.org
Piece of Gospel of John (c. 200–300 AD)
These fragments are all that survive of a very early manuscript (dated to only about 100 years after the latest New Testament writing). They were found among the rubbish tips of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt (located 160 km south-southwest of Cairo in Minya Governorate), and were likely written there or nearby. (This finding evinces the early prevalence of Christianity in Egypt, which spread widely throughout Egypt after St. Mark the Evangelist preached the gospel there and eventually became the majority religion of Egypt which remained to be the case for several hundreds of years).
The left-hand fragment, which comprises the inner portion of a double-page opening, relates the baptism of Christ, the calling of the disciples Andrew and Peter (John 1:33–40), and also Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene after His death (John 20:11–17). The right-hand fragment preserves Christ’s words at the Mystical Supper (John 16:14–22). Such ancient recorded proof corroborating our present-day Bibles’ faithful transmission of the resurrected Christ and the Eucharist reaffirm and validate our trust in these stories having been relayed throughout the years.
Wycliffe Bible (c. 1382 AD)
We often take our Bible translations and versions we have today for granted, but in certain parts of the world, particularly in Europe, it was illegal to translate the Bible into the common language of the time. One brave soul who attempted to translate from the Latin Vulgate to Modern English was John Wycliffe. While his translation did not receive wide acceptance, after his death (of natural causes) a special Roman Catholic local council declared him a heretic, dug up his remains, and burned them and cast his ashes in a river, then decreed all his books to be burned. Only about 250 copies of the work survives (more than any other English medieval text). You’ll notice how much decoration plays a role in separating biblical texts in this book (displayed here is the opening chapter of the gospel of John).
Tyndale’s New Testament (c. 1525 AD)
While Wycliffe was lucky enough to die of natural causes despite his illegal pursuit to translate the Bible into English, William Tyndale was not so fortunate. Pictured here is the only surviving copy of the English New Testament which was printed for William Tyndale in Cologne in 1525. The printing of this edition was never completed because the printer’s shop was raided by the authorities as printing was in progress. Tyndale fled with the unfinished printed sheets and then tried to print a second edition the following year, of which only three copies survive. Since Tyndale’s translation was not authorized by Roman Catholic Church authorities, owning a copy of his work attracted the death penalty; many copies were confiscated and burned at the order of Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London. Betrayed to Catholic Church officials in 1536, Tyndale was defrocked in an elaborate public ceremony and turned over to the civil authorities to be strangled to death and burned at the stake. His last words are said to have been, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”
King James Version (KJV) Bible (c. 1611 AD)
Often people will refer to the King James (and the New King James Version, which was edited to accommodate modern language) as the “authorized” translation of the Bible, as if to say that it is the only or primary English translation that should be trusted. That is inaccurate, as the reason the King James Bible is referred to as such is because a Protestant King of England, King James, authorized a legally permissible translation of the Bible into English. He commissioned a committee of leading Bible Scholars in England at the time, instructing them to make sure the translation conformed to the theology of the Church of England (which should give you some concern, since the goal should have been to faithfully translate as accurately as possible).
Interestingly, the King James Bible was not even the first English translation authorized by a head of government, but was rather the third authorized version, the first being what is known as “the Great Bible,” the second called the “Bishop’s Bible” commissioned by Quen Elizabeth (which was relied on heavily by the translators of the King James Bible, seeking specifically to replace it).
Another interesting tidbit—the King James Bible included the so-called Apocrypha (“hidden” books), which had been deemed canonical since the early Church and are still canonical books of the Orthodox and Catholic Church today, despite their being excluded in modern times from Protestant versions of Bibles at present. It remained printed as part of the KJV for 274 years, until 1885 AD, at which time it appears that they may have been removed simply for efficiency and to reduce printing costs. Note that Martin Luther himself considered the “Apocrypha” as at the least “profitable and good to read.”
Pictured above is a copy of the first edition of the King James Bible, in a large format that was appointed to be read in England’s churches. The translation relied on Latin, Greek, and Hebrew sources, but based their version of the New Testament largely on the 1534 revision of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament. The King James Bible is still the most widely published book in the English language.
If you ever get a chance to visit London, please be sure to check out the British Library, where you can see amazing ancient manuscripts, and much more, as part of their free exhibit they keep on display for the public. During a later visit to the British Library I actually got to see a piece of pottery that had a hymn used by the Coptic Church in the first few hundred years of its existence, written in Greek, related to St. John the Baptist.
Note that segments of the text above describing the manuscripts at the British Library are derived directly from the captions and explanations printed near the particular historical item.