One of the three oldest manuscripts of the entire bible in Greek, Codex Alexandrinus was made in the 5th century. Although known as Codex Alexandrinus (literally, ‘the book from Alexandria’), its exact place of origin is unknown, though numerous suggestions have been made, including Ephesus and Constantinople. It is especially noteworthy for preserving one of the best texts of Deuteronomy and Revelation, and it is the oldest manuscript of the second and third books of Maccabees.
What is a codex?
'Codex' is a grand word for a book in the form that we know it today. In Latin 'codex', or 'caudex', once meant tree trunk. Thin wooden writing tablets were used in ancient Roman times as informal notebooks. When, during the second century, Christian texts began to be written down in books rather than on rolls, the name 'codex' was transferred to them. The pages that formed the earliest Christian books were made from the reeds of the papyrus plant. The pages of the Codex Alexandrinus are of prepared animal skin called parchment.
What is in the book?
The Codex Alexandrinus contains the Septuagint (the Koine Greek version of the Old Testament) and the New Testament, in addition to a few additional pieces of text that do not appear in standard Bibles, such as part of the Epistles of Clement. The manuscript was probably the work of three scribes.The beginning lines of each book are written in red ink and sections within the book are marked by a larger letter set into the margin. Words are written continuously in a large square uncial hand with no accents and only some breathing marks. The Codex is laid out in two columns, usually of 50 or 51 lines each, and contains 773 folios, 630 for the Old Testament and 143 for the New Testament. Each page measures 320mm x 280 mm.
On the left-hand page shown here, the end of the Gospel of St Luke is marked by a stylised decorative colophone (a distinctive ornamental tailpiece). Similar tailpieces accompany the titles of each of the books of the Bible throughout the manuscript. The colophons frequently contain images of fruit of vegetation.
How did the Codex Alexandrinus come to the British Library?
Codex Alexandrinus gets its name from its location in the 14th century, when it was part of the patriarchal library at Alexandria. Cyril Lucar (1572–1638), successively Patriarch of Alexandria and of Constantinople, brought the manuscript with him from Egypt to Constantinople in 1621, and gave it as a gift to Charles I of England (1600–1649) in 1627. It then entered the Royal Library, and was almost lost in the great fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. It subsequently entered the British Museum and then the British Library.
The manuscript is bound in four volumes, housed as Royal 1 D V–VIII. Codex Alexandrinus is extremely fragile and as a result, only the volume containing the New Testament, Royal 1 D VIII, has been digitised.