If you were to ask a “bible only” Catholic-basher if he owns a hand-written copy of the bible in Greek dating back to the fourth century AD, he may be quite confused. A bible…uh…in Greek?

Even sincere “bible only” believers may never have thought about where the bible actually came from. Your question may challenge the unthinking belief that Jesus personally dictated the King James Bible in English to Martin Luther (who spoke German) in 1611. The facts may cause the “bible only” Christian some discomfort, and he may be surprised that the facts are all on the side of the Catholic Church.

Catholics don’t just read the bible; our Church produced the bible (with help from the Holy Spirit of course!) Which may also explain why the “nefarious” and “secretive” and “apostate” Vatican in Rome does, in fact, own a hand-written copy of the bible in Greek dating back to the fourth century AD. It’s called the Codex Vaticanus, and it’s the single most elaborate and complete ancient bible in existence.

Nothing on earth like it

Apologetics lesson aside, the Codex in question is one of the wonders of the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say there is nothing quite like it on earth, and only two or three others that come close. The Codex is kept in a vault in the Vatican Library for safekeeping. (You don’t just leave fourth century manuscripts lying around on desktops for anyone to run off with, you know.)

In contrast to its contemporary, Codex Sinaiticus (see my earlier article, “Not Just Any Old Codex”), whose pages are divided among four different libraries and museums throughout the world, Codex Vaticanus is fully intact, one single book, and has been sitting in one place, the Vatican archives, since at least 1475.

If you calculate the time frame from the 4th century to 1475, you’ll see that the Codex was over 1000 years old by the time it reached the Vatican. It’s not clear where the book resided for those 1000 years, but it’s also not important, for we know it resided in the heart of the Church. A living church with a continuous existence from the time of Christ kept this unique document safe. No government could possibly have done that because no single government has lasted that long.

The peculiarities of a codex

As noted in the previous article, a codex is an early form of a book, when bookmaking was a new science. The word “codex” (plural, codices) comes from the Latin term caudex which means “tree trunk” which gave its name to wax covered wooden writing tablets common in the ancient world, the humble precursors of books.

Notwithstanding the stone tablets and wall paintings of ancient cultures, writing for publication in antiquity was usually done on a paper-like substance called papyrus, which made it possible to preserve and disseminate documents (such as the original writings of the Old and New Testaments). But that was a fragile and cumbersome way to store written materials and few if any papyrus documents survive intact. Finally, someone came up with the great idea of writing on dried-out skins of animals called parchment (or vellum), and the concept of the “book” was born.

Parchment made books possible because of three advantages it had over papyrus:

  • The material was more durable than papyrus, so it lasted longer;
  • Scribes could write on both the front and the back of parchment because the ink didn’t sink through, which allowed for the formation of pages (or folios) that could be bound into leaves of a book; and
  • Bound folios could be transported more easily than scrolls for the purposes of teaching and evangelization.

The book: what a great invention!

One more advantage of parchment is that, since the ink didn’t fully penetrate the page, previous writings could be erased so the parchment could be used again (a re-used parchment is known as a palimpsest).

All of this was courtesy of the ancient Catholic Church, whose scribes, bishops and monks left us an amazing array of manuscripts documenting the early centuries of Christianity. (There were also many legal codices – compilations of laws and decrees – created by secular governments.)

The greatest of all these ancient manuscripts, however, are the biblical codices, the queen of which is the Codex Vaticanus, the most complete of all ancient books.

A few facts about Codex Vaticanus

The pages of ancient codices were square or nearly square and divided into several vertical columns of text on each folio. Vaticanus features three columns per page, Sinaiticus four. The text is written entirely in capital letters and the columns consist of 12 to 14 letters each, totally without punctuation or breaks between chapters: imagine trying to read a text like that, even if you knew Greek! The chapter and verse divisions of the bible were added much later, in the 12th and 14th centuries.

The folios of Codex Vaticanus measure a perfectly square 10.6” x 10.6”, which is a relatively large book by today’s standards but not oversized, compared to the larger Sinaiticus which measures 15” x 13.6”, roughly the size of a coffee table book today.

Scholars believe the Codex Vaticanus was composed in the early 4th Century (about 50 years before Sinaiticus) and recognize it as the best and most complete witness to the early texts of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s writings. It is missing some of the later books of the New Testament including the Book of Revelation which someone added to the Codex at a later time. That part is clearly written in a different hand and uses small case letters rather than the uppercase letters of the rest of the Codex. (The Wikipedia entry on Codex Vaticanus provides more detail on the contents.)

Vaticanus represents the most comprehensive Greek version of the Old Testament too (known as the Septuagint), although that is not complete. The first twenty leaves of the Book of Genesis have been lost to history, and it is missing the books of Maccabees and a few other minor parts.

For a book that is 1700 years old, the Codex is remarkably well preserved, perhaps owing to its jealous guarding by Church authorities through the ages. There are many humorous accounts from annoyed Protestant scholars who received permission to study the Codex only to be assigned two or three Vatican officials to look over their shoulders and watch their every move while examining the great book. I guess that’s what it takes to keep an ancient manuscript intact for 1700 years!

One interesting historical tidbit: when Napoleon overran Rome in 1809, he sacked the Vatican library and art collection. (He was a tyrant but not a fool.) One of the precious treasures he stole from the Library was the Codex Vaticanus which he brought back with him to Paris. Thankfully, the French returned the manuscript to the Vatican when Napoleon fell in 1815.

The Vatican recently digitized photos of the Codex Vaticanus so you can see pictures of every leaf of it at this website. (Make sure you click the dropdown menu on the upper left of the screen to see a list of all the books. Sorry, the names of the books are in Latin, but most are recognizable to anyone familiar with the bible.)

The significance of the Codex Vaticanus

In addition to the incredible testimony to God’s written Word that this Codex represents, I hinted in the opening at its other significance for Catholics. No one can fairly accuse the Catholic Church of being “unbiblical”. Let’s just state for the record several concise facts:

  • Were it not for the Catholic Church, Christianity would have no New Testament scriptures at all; that is the same as saying that members of the Catholic Church produced those writings under the guidance of the Holy Spirit;
  • Were it not for the Catholic Church, numerous books of the Old Testament would likely have been lost when the rabbis destroyed all ancient scriptures that were not written in Hebrew (here we refer to the books that remain in the Catholic version of the Old Testament: Judith, Tobit, 1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and parts of Daniel and Esther);
  • Were it not for the Catholic Church, we would not even know what books make up the bible – this list was determined authoritatively by Church councils in the early centuries and confirmed by Church councils in later centuries;
  • Were it not for the Catholic Church, we would have no ancient manuscripts of the bible; these have been handed down faithfully for centuries by Church authorities and help us know with precision what Our Lord meant for His written word to communicate to us.

In short, the Catholic Church produced, preserved, translated, venerated and has made available the sacred written word of God to twenty centuries of believers and non-believers alike. This custody of the sacred gift of the scriptures sets the Catholic Church apart from all others (with the exception of generations of rabbis who preserved the Hebrew Scriptures) as the most zealous guardian and promoter of scripture in history.

Most importantly, were it not for the Catholic Church, we wouldn’t even know that Jesus was incarnated as a man to live among us. After the eyewitnesses of the first century died out, all future generations had to learn about that event from something called the bible.

Soul Work

Ask yourself how long it’s been since you’ve picked up the bible and read it. What a gift it is to have the written Word of God at our side every day, contained as it is in one simple book that anyone can read.

We don’t need to be scripture scholars to become familiar with the bible. We only need to reverence the Word, who is Christ Himself. What we reverence, we love, and what we love, we wish to make our own. We should strive to read some part of the bible each and every day!

When we read scripture, we are putting ourselves into contact with truth Himself, with God’s way of thinking. It is a personal encounter with Him, not just a chore. He forms our thinking and gives us our values. “Reverence for scripture,” said St. Jerome, “is reverence for Christ.”

A few minutes a day spent reading scripture will bear great fruit in your spiritual life.