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Copying Uncial Manuscripts

Written by Ronald J. Gordon Published: April, 1997 ~ Last Updated: February, 2016 ©
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Imagef ancient scribes flawlessly copied biblical manuscripts producing exact copies each time, the entire discussion of Textual Criticism would be meaningless. However, this is just the problem, for well intending scribes repeatedly lost their place or unknowingly introduced words from a similar account, such as incorporating Luke's description from memory while actually copying Matthew. Whole lines and paragraphs were often skipped because two lines started with the exact same construction of letters. Incorrectly copied single letters resulting in different words dramatically changed meanings. But errors of this type are not limited to early centuries, for modern typists can do the very same thing with computers since this type of error is occasioned by human inattentiveness.

Where is Betsy?

A milk specialist was taking samples of milk from each cow at a farm during the evening milking. Afterwards, the number of cows that had been milked correctly matched the number of vials recorded. When the specialist returned the next morning to gather another round of samples that needed to be mixed with those of the previous evening, he could not find the vial for a cow named Betsy, although she had definitely been milked the previous evening. The farmer tried to wait patiently as the frantic specialist endeavored to resolve the matter of the missing cow. Finally, he noticed a vial for a Laura, to which the farmer replied that he did not have a cow by the name of Laura. The surprised and embarrassed milk specialist had to confess that Laura was the name of his girl-friend. The previous evening he had been thinking about her and mistakenly wrote down Laura instead of the cow's name. Inattentiveness is a human frailty that affects scribes copying manuscripts, milk specialists taking samples, and just about anyone else who succumbs to lack of focus. Ernest Colwell did an extensive study of scribal habits in early manuscripts and compiled statistics on the number of times that scribes lost their place, and upon restarting, whether they resumed by skipping forwards (omissions) or backwards (duplication) of where they should have started. See results at Comparing Translations:Textual Considerations.


Also contributing to this problem was the fact that most early Uncials were written in large letters that were bunched together in order to save paper, a very precious commodity in ancient times. Look at the following example and observe how easy it would be to make a mistake while hand-copying, especially if one is frequently interrupted. Insert your mouse arrow in the Text Box and move the letters with the Space Bar to better understand what is being stated.

Some of the more professionally copied works had the same number of columns and lines per page, with the same count of letters per line; such as Codex Sinaiticus which was produced about 350-370 AD in Saint Catherines Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It is on a thinner vellum than most Uncials and the only one to include nearly all of the New Testament. There are 346 delicate leaves, in four columns of 48 lines on each 15" x 13" page. German scholar Constantine Tischendorf discovered the first forty-three of its pages in the monastery wastebasket in 1844 but was denied the remainder by the skeptical monks, who also resisted his pleas on a return trip in 1853.

Codex Sinaiticus
Codex Sinaiticus

Finally, under the patronage of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, patron of the Greek Orthodox Church, Tischendorf was able to convince the monks to donate the manuscript to the Tsar (head of the Greek Church) for safe keeping. For years it was encased in the Imperial Museum in St. Petersburg. In 1933, the Soviet government (apparently strapped for cash) sold it to the British Museum for £100,000. He judged that four separate individuals contributed to writing the basic text, and that seven later Correctors placed their alterations on its face (currently deemed to be nine). Tischendorf further stated that these alterations involved a total of over 15,000 changes, including multiple changes in the same place. It is the most textually blighted manuscript in existence. Since most manuscripts have incurred some type of correction and often by multiple scribes, identification methods (sigla) are used by Committees producing Greek Texts to distinguish the original scribe from the Corrector(s). Sinaiticus is a revered member of the Big Five: Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, Bezae Cantabrigiensis, and Ephraemi Rescriptus. Before the ascendancy of the Papyri in New Testament scholarship, textual critics of previous generations most often appealed to Vaticanus and Sinaiticus for determining the selection of readings. In the days of Westcott & Hort, these two Uncials almost became touchstones for deciding which readings most closely resembled the originals. Although the Big Five have enjoyed a prestigious niche in the history of Textual Criticism, it may be confidently stated that there are more textual disagreements among these Five Uncials in just the four Gospels, than all the hundreds of Byzantine Cursives combined in all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. A glaring testimony to the difficulty of copying Uncial manuscripts. With the rise in importance of the Papyri, the reverence for this type of manuscript has greatly diminished. The late Kurt Aland had been responsible for assigning official numbers to all newly discovered manuscripts and listed a total of 5,255 Greek manuscripts in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 87, p. 184, where there are currently 267 numbered Uncials.

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,
rightly dividing the word of truth.”
2 Timothy 2:15