Monday, March 14, 2011

Redating Codex W based on the Obvious...

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Consider if you will, Codex W.  This is a surprisingly handsome and refreshing codex, with its own distinct style of "slanted Uncial" script.  Although not unique, it certainly stands out in a crowd of 4th to 6th century manuscripts, for this striking feature alone.   As well, one must consider the great shape the codex is in, something not so obvious from the poor quality photos of the past.  But, apart from the appearance of heavily burnt edges on every page, the bulk of both the parchment and the text itself is quite excellent, almost 'new' looking by comparison with many a fade page of other manuscripts, including the likes of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (4th century).   Recently, the better quality photos available at CNTSM etc. have allowed a much kinder view of the manuscript.
Like Codex Sinaiticus, the seeming 'newness' of the MS raises an eyebrow next to others of supposed similar date.
Even the burnt edges look suspiciously like either (relatively recent?) fire-damage, or else the kind of oxidation expected in a harsh but dry climate, but where the book remained closed and unused for centuries, protecting its contents.   Of course, dating any manuscript palaeographically is difficult, and one can only hope for a 50 to 150 year range of plausible dates for its making.  As well, even the so-called "best" manuscripts have murky and suspicious origins, and show a complex history of use, travel, correction and even abuse and neglect by various unknowable hands.

Comparative Palaeography:

One of the best checks and balances available for palaeographical dating estimates is a comparison to other existing documents of better known date and origin.   That is why the little-known last few pages of another manuscript become important...

Turn to Codex Nitriensis now for a moment.  This is a 6th century Greek parchment, scraped off and re-used to copy a Syriac commentary.   It sits in the British Museum.    Most of its text is from Luke, and this part of the manuscript has been dated to the 6th century with strong certainty.

 Sometime between the late 8th and early 9th century AD, Simeon, a monk at the convent of Mar Simeon of Kartamin, copied a Syriac text for Daniel, episcopal visitor (periodeutes) of the district of Amid in Mesopotamia (see notes in Add. MS 17211, ff. 53r and 49r). We owe to this event the partial survival of several older copies of Greek works, since Simeon reused parchment sheets from which Greek text had been scraped or washed off to copy the treatise against Joannes Grammaticus of Caesarea by the author Severus of Antioch. Today, Simeon's Syriac copy survives in two manuscripts at the British Library. The Syriac text has been rebound to reconstruct the sequence of the underlying (scriptio inferior), barely visible Greek texts of a 5th century copy of Homer's Iliad (Add. MS 17210) and a 7th century copy of the Gospel of Luke (Add. MS 17211, ff.1-48) as well as a 7th or 8th century copy of Euclid's Elements (Add. MS 17211, ff.49-53).

Add. MS 17211 is, of course, better known as 'Codex Nitriensis', betraying the fact that Simeon's manuscript once belonged to the convent library of St Mary Deipara in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt. Its text, containing parts the Gospel of Luke, is also known in New Testament scholarly circles under its Gregory-Aland 'number' R or 027.

Many ancient texts survive as palimpsests, the faint remains of texts on reused parchment that sometimes reappear over time or are recovered with the help of modern technology.
 The British Museum gives the following information:
6th century, 'Codex Nitriensis', a palimpsest, 9th century, containing Severus, Patriarch of Antioch, Treatise against John Grammatikos, chapters I-VIII, XX-XXI (Syriac) written over parts of the Gospel of Luke (Greek) (Gregory-Aland R = Gregory-Aland 027)

The style of the writing and caligraphy closely resembles Codex Alexandrinus and portions of Codex Sinaiticus.  Here is a sample:

Codex Nitriensis - Luke: Click to Enlarge

What is rarely noted however, is that the last few pages of this palimpsest have another work hidden under the Syriac, in another script:   Its a fragment of the Elements of Euclid, and it also has been firmly dated, to the 7th or 8th century:

The British Museum describes this portion as follows:
Euclid, Elementa (TLG 1799.001) , books X and XIII (7th century or 8th century)

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How was this date arrived at?   By a knowledge of the scriptorium/monastery where it came from, and most importantly, by the palaeography of its writing!
And that's the point:  This style of writing has been positively identified as 8th century, and it is the very same style of writing as found in Codex W.

Textual critics had originally wanted to date Codex W as much earlier, i.e. 5th century, because of course it was an interesting copy of the Gospels with unusual readings. (It was classed as a "Caesarean" text-type by Streeter etc.).

But palaeographically, this date appears pretty unrealistic, given that the unusual style of writing has been pegged at the 7th or 8th century, at the very location where in the 4th and 5th centuries the style of Alexandrinus was produced instead.



  1. See Ulrich Schmid, "Reassessing the Palaeography...", in _The Free Biblical Manuscripts..._, ed. Larry W. Hurtado (SBL: Atlanta, 2006).

  2. Thanks Tim! We'll give it look.