Detail from the illuminated Cnut Gospels.

Manuscripts of the Christian Bible

Dr Scot McKendrick looks at manuscripts of the Bible prior to the invention of printing, exploring their contents and uses and answering the question of why there are so few manuscripts of the whole Bible.

Manuscripts, or hand-written copies, of parts of what we know as the New Testament apparently began to circulate amongst the faithful in the late 1st century. The content mainly consisted of the letters of St Paul to specific early Christian communities and stories of the life and teaching of Jesus passed by word of mouth, committed to memory by the earliest Christians and written down by the Evangelists. In format they were rather humble copies, similar in size to modern pocket paperbacks, and comprising mainly single books of the Bible and only occasionally small groups of books such as the Four Gospels. Although typical of Graeco-Roman books in their use of papyrus for writing material, early Christian books were distinctive in their use of the codex format (an assemblage of single folded leaves of papyrus or parchment held together at the spine) rather than the roll format. In this respect they form part of a critical transition in the history of the book, when the traditional format of the roll, used by all literate cultures in the Mediterranean world for many millennia, was replaced by the book. Although electronic text has brought about a return of the roll, the book format continues to shape much of the text that we read today.

Codex Sinaiticus

A page from Codex Sinaiticus, featuring details about Christ’s passion from the Greek text of Luke’s gospel, arranged in four columns.

The Gospel of St Luke, from the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus.

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The triumph of the codex is most evident in the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus. Originally intended to contain the whole of the Old and New Testaments, this massive volume aimed to establish beyond dispute which texts formed part of the canon of Scripture. The overall contents of this manuscript signalled what was approved by the Christian Church as newly authorised by Emperor Constantine the Great in the first half of the 4th century. After so many years of persecution by the Roman authorities and threats of internal schism, Christians at last had physically, as well as in principle, a single book of Scripture. To achieve this significant step in the history of the Bible, book technology also had to develop further, papyrus being replaced by the more robust parchment, and binding structures becoming more complex and resilient. Such advances enabled the canon of Scripture to be captured in its further recensions over succeeding centuries.

Why are there so few manuscripts of the whole Bible?

The large-format Bible, in one or several volumes like Codex Sinaiticus, was not, however, the most common form of Bible produced during the manuscript era. During these 1,500 years, the most common book was not a complete Bible, but a portion of the Bible. This fact may seem strange to a modern owner of a Bible. Yet frequency of use was a much stronger factor in determining which books were produced in the era before printing, when every word entailed significant cost or labour and was the result of painstaking copying by hand.

Gospel lectionary with ekphonetic notation

A page from a 10th-century Greek Gospel Lectionary, featuring a decorated initial and ekphonetic notation in red ink above the lines.

This fine 10th-century Gospel lectionary contains extensive decoration.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK. Please consider cultural, religious & ethical sensitivities when re-using this material.

The most ubiquitous Christian book was the Four Gospels, either preserving the distinct sequence of each text or comprising selected passages re-ordered in line with the readings employed in the Church year to form a lectionary. The popularity of the Gospels is attested by the large number that survive to this day – there are over two thousand copies of the Greek Gospels alone. The Four Gospels were also combined into a single narrative in what are known as Gospel Harmonies. Although suppressed as heretical in the 2nd century, harmonised versions of the Gospels circulated throughout the medieval period. Also particularly numerous were psalters, copies of the Psalms structured to mirror their daily use in monastic liturgy. The Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, appeared in separate volumes or combined with various biblical or non-biblical texts. Of the three hundred or so surviving copies of the Greek text of Revelation over forty appear in otherwise non-biblical compilations. In the West the Book of Revelation was most often copied together with a commentary explaining it when not part of the Vulgate; most surviving Greek copies of Revelation include or relate to a commentary. Moreover, in the West many copies of an individual book or groups of books of the Bible, such as the Psalms, Gospels or Pauline Epistles, included commentaries.

Old English Hexateuch

A page from the Old English Hexateuch, featuring an illustration of the construction of the Tower of Babel.

The story of the Tower of Babel as depicted in the Old English Hexateuch, an illustrated vernacular translation of the first six books of the Old Testament.

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Other manuscripts encompassed small textual groupings, such as the first five, six or eight books of the Old Testament; examples are the Old English Hexateuch of the 11th century and the Ethiopic Octateuch of the late 17th century. In the West readings from several New Testament books were presented in a separate volume, known as an epistolary. Even when such works covered both the Old and the New Testaments, some copies of them comprised only a particular part of the text. Many of the so-called Bibles with extensive illumination are in fact mere paraphrases. The texts of the Bible moralisée, for example, focus on their moralised and typological interpretations of the Bible. The Holkham Bible Picture Book includes only brief captions to accompany its images.

Holkham Bible Picture Book

Illustrations that show the story of the Fall in the Book of Genesis, from the Holkham Bible Picture Book

Captions in Anglo-Norman French accompany the illustrations of the Fall in the Holkham Bible Picture Book.

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What were complete Bibles used for?

When, therefore, we encounter manuscripts containing the whole Bible, we should seek to understand the particular reasons behind their production. The huge one-volume Bibles, or pandects, produced in Northumbria under Abbot Ceolfrith and at Tours under the Emperor Charlemagne and his successors, came into being as much to progress the political ambitions of their sponsors as to preserve the biblical text. Confronted with such vast monuments of high artistic skill and cultural sophistication who could fail to be impressed and stand in awe of their makers? Similarly, the enormous Romanesque Bibles stand testament to the power and wealth of the great monastic houses for which they were produced, as well as to the central importance of Scripture to the lives of the monks. The massive Great Bible from the English royal library, with pages over two feet tall, is a late rarity, redolent of Lancastrian ambition and affluence.

Great Bible

Great Bible

A historiated initial 'I', including a representation of God creating the sun and moon, from the 15th-century Great Bible.

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Small Bibles require an entirely different explanation. The so-called pocket Bibles produced in the 13th century appear to have arisen to address the specific context of preaching and the evangelistic mission of the friars. In this context a complete, portable text of the Bible was a great advantage. As in the case of modern Bibles, that crucial portability was achieved through the use of tiny script and pages of lightweight, very thin material. Although large in number, illustrations in these pocket Bibles are proportionately small in scale and more reflective of mass production. Strikingly, all such traditions of complete Bible production arise only in Western Europe. From the Byzantine world, for example, we have evidence of only seven complete Greek Bibles. Although a more important feature of the Armenian tradition, the total number of complete Bibles is negligible in comparison to those of the Latin West.

How were manuscript Bibles referenced and numbered?

Whereas today we take for granted the comprehensive system of biblical reference by chapter and verse, this system was not in use for most of the manuscript era. Numbering parts of the Gospels was introduced at an early date and further exploited by the Christian writer Eusebius (d. 340). His ten canon tables employed the numbering system attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria (3rd century), and they made it possible to compare similar episodes in the four texts, as seen in the Golden Canon Tables.

Golden Canon Tables

One of the Golden Canon Tables, written on gold paint, with elaborate floral decoration and a small portrait of a haloed man.

This 12th-century Greek manuscript contains two fragments of 6th- or 7th-century Canon Tables written on gold.

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The Psalms were also individually numbered early on, and, thanks to an editorial system attributed to Euthalius (c. 4th–7th century), chapter numbers were assigned within Greek manuscripts of the Book of Acts and the Epistles. Other systems of dividing biblical texts either by headings or numbers were used in individual copies or by individual commentators, but these were of very limited use for comparison given the varying methods employed. Only in the early 13th century did teachers and students at the University of Paris begin to employ the standardised system of chapter numbering that we now use. Often ascribed to Stephen Langton (d. 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, this means of referencing biblical text remained the principal one until the introduction of verse numbers by Robert Estienne for his edition of the Bible in French, printed at Geneva in 1553.

How were manuscript Bibles used?

Like modern printed Bibles, manuscript Bibles were used for many different purposes. Within the Mass the appointed readings from the Gospels and Epistles were made by the celebrant from Gospel books, Gospel lectionaries, epistolaries or, in the West, from the relevant parts of Missals. For the recitation of all the Psalms each week during the Western Divine Office it was essential to have the psalter or the other book that contained the whole of the Psalms, the Breviary. In monastic refectories across Europe the prescribed readings that accompanied the daily eating of meals regularly drew on Scripture to nourish the spiritual well-being of the community. Large volumes, like modern lectern Bibles, enabled easy reading in the communal setting of the liturgy, chapter meetings, mealtimes and teaching.

Small volumes also had distinctive purposes. Shaped to fit easily into the palm of a hand, they enabled private reading, devotion or study wherever it was required, as well as preaching to others in various formal and informal settings.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The upper cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, made from red goatskin and decorated with panels of interlace.

The St Cuthbert Gospel is a small copy of the Gospel of St John. It is the earliest European book with an original, intact binding.

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Such portability established a direct connection between an individual and the biblical text, and sometimes encouraged subsequent generations to credit a talismanic power to a particular manuscript, as in the case of the early 8th-century St Cuthbert Gospel of St John. Such biblical manuscripts were only made for a relatively small literate minority. As literacy widened, printing enabled more people to have their own copy of the Bible. The lower cost and wider availability of printed Bibles facilitated this.

  • Scot McKendrick
  • Dr Scot McKendrick is Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library. His recent publications include Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript (BL Pubs, 2015) and The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (Thames and Hudson, 2016).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.