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A Newly-Published Detailed Study of Codex Alexandrinus

March 12, 2015

Codex Alexandrinus is a fifth-century “pandect,” that is, the Greek Old Testament and the Greek New Testament writings in one manuscript.  From its original provenance (still uncertain), it came to England in 1627, presented to King Charles I as a gift by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Lucar, and is now housed in the British Library (London).  Alexandrinus is well known to students of the Greek NT, especially those who study NT textual history and textual variants.  It is the “fountain head” of what became the “Byzantine” text-type of the Gospels.  But, as strange as it may seem, there has been no study of the codex of equivalent depth prior to the newly-published work by  W. Andrew Smith:  A Study of the Gospels in Codex Alexandrinus: Codicology, Palaeography, and Scribal Hands (Leiden: Brill, 2014).  The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

Smith, a recently-minted PhD, whom I supervised here, has produced what will now certainly be the “must consult” study on practically all aspects of this famous codex.  I recall reading his work as he handed it in, chapter-by-chapter, but seeing it in published form (and kitted out with additional data not included in the thesis) I’m again impressed with his dedication to the project and to the quality of what he produced.  It is not practical here to mention more than some larger results of his study, and I assure you that there is much more of interest than I can relate here.  His analysis yields conclusions that require some ideas held earlier to be revised.

His detailed study of the features of the handwriting leads him to insist that we can no longer hold confidently to an Egyptian provenance for the manuscript.  Using a combination of palaeographical analysis and statistical analysis of various copyist devices, he contends also that there were three copyists involved in producing the NT writings, two who copied the Gospels and much of the NT, and a third copyist who produced Revelation (correcting the judgements of a number of previous scholars such as Kenyon,  Skeat and Milne).

One of the features of Alexandrinus is the abundance of para-textual features (what Smith refers to as “a rich feature set”), including black and red inks, marked quotations from the OT, a chapter-numbering system, the “Eusebian Canons,” and “supplemental texts” such as the Odes, the Hypotheses, the epistles of Clement, and the Psalms of Solomon.

As well, there are features intended to facilitate the (most likely liturgical) reading of the manuscript, such as division of the text into paragraphs, initial vowels marked with a “diaeresis” (looks like a German Umlaut), unusual word endings marked with a book or apostrophe, liberal use of punctuation and “paragraphus” marks to indicate breaks in lists, sentences and portions of text.

As well as giving now the most in-depth study of Alexandrinus available (with special focus on the Gospels), Smith has also produced what I think must be seen as a model for the detailed analysis of other important manuscripts.  I’m pleased and proud to have served as supervisor for this landmark project.


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  1. Wieland Willker permalink

    What is his suggestion for provenance then?

    • Smith judges that we can’t (yet) judge. But there is no basis for linking it so confidently to Alexandria.

  2. Indeed. The usual UK price for the Sinaiticus facsimile is extremely high (between £525 and £625 is what I have seen), but it has repeatedly been on sale in the U.S. for a few cents under US$200, which I would regard as a bargain for such a large, beautifully-produced and rather specialist-interest facsimile.

  3. Larry
    Thank you for this information. This study by Andrew Smith is clearly extremely important.

    I wonder if you are aware if the British Library has published or has plans to publish a full-sized colour facsimile of Alexandrinus, rather as they did with Sinaiticus a few years ago.

    In the early years of the 20th Century the British Museum produced a black and white photographic facsimile of Alexandrinus, which I have consulted in the British Library, but a newly-photographed copy would improve on the resolution of that edition. I am aware that they have photographed the whole of the MS in colour in order to put it on their website, but comparing the web-based version of Sinaiticus with the printed version that I have, the resolution is far superior in the printed edition, and I believe that the same would be the case with Alexandrinus. (I must admit that I also still prefer consulting a print on a page to an image on a screen!)

    Thank you for all the recent postings on a wide range of subjects!

    • I have no knowledge whether a printed facsimile is on the cards. Obviously, that would depend in part on how many people would want one, and whether it could be produced for a price that people would pay.

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