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Codex Vaticanus

Codex Vaticanus

Codex Vaticanus

The Codex Vaticanus is one of the oldest surviving copies of the Bible and only one of the four surviving codices that containing the entire text of the Greek Old and New Testament Bible.

The Codex is named after the Vatican Library, where it has been kept since at least the 15th century. It is written on 759 leaves of vellum in uncial letters and has been dated to 325–350.

Scholars consider the Codex Vaticanus to be one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the New Testament. The most widely sold editions of the Greek New Testament are primarily based on the text of the Codex Vaticanus. 

The manuscript is in a quarto volume, composed initially of 830 parchment leaves, but it appears that 71 sheets have been lost.

The parchment is fine and thin. The Codex is written in three columns per page. In the poetical books of the Old Testament, there are only two columns to a page.

The lettering in the Codex is small and neat, without ornamentation or capitals. The Greek is written continuously; all the letters are equidistant from each other; no word is separated from the other; each line appears to be one long word.

There are no enlarged initials, no stops or accents, no divisions into chapters or sections such as are found in later manuscripts.

Codex Vaticanus

Page from Codex Vaticanus

The provenance and early history of the Codex are uncertain. Most probably, the book was brought to Rome from Constantinople around the time of the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

The manuscript has been housed in the Vatican Library for as long as it has been known, possibly appearing in the library’s earliest catalog of 1475.

The original writing was re-traced by a later scribe in the 10th or 11th century, and the beauty of the original script was spoiled. Accents and breathing marks, as well as punctuation, have been added by a later hand.

Codex Vaticanus is one of the most important manuscripts for the text of the Greek Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. In 2015, a digitized copy of the Codex was available online from the Vatican Library.

Four Great Uncials

The great uncial codices are the only remaining uncial codices that contain or originally contained the entire text of the Greek Bible.

These handwritten copies of a Christian Bible in Greek, although discovered at different times and places, share many similarities.

They are written in a particular uncial style of calligraphy without regular gaps between words. All these manuscripts were made at great expense of material and labor, written on vellum by professional scribes.

All of the great uncials had the leaves arranged in quarto form:

  • Codex Vaticanus –  c. 325–350 – Vatican Library
  • Codex Sinaiticus – c. 330–360 – discovered in 1844 at St Catherine Monastery in Sinai.
  • Codex Alexandrinus – c. 400–440 – British Library – from Alexandria to Constantinople, then given to Charles I of England in the 17th century.
  • Codex Ephraemi –  c. 450 – Bibliothèque Nationale de France – After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Codex was brought to Florence by an émigré scholar. Catherine de’ Medici brought it to France as part of her dowry,

It has been speculated that the first two were part of a project ordered by Emperor Constantine the Great to produce 50 copies of the Bible.

Codex Vaticanus

Ending of Luke and Beginning of John in Codex Vaticanus


Vellum is prepared animal skin or “membrane,” typically used as a material for writing on. Parchment is another term for this material.

Vellum is prepared for writing to produce single pages, scrolls, or codices and was used for all the great uncial codices.

Vellum is generally smooth and durable, although significant variations are dependent on the preparation and the quality of the skin.

The manufacture involves the cleaning, bleaching, stretching, and scraping of the skin. A final finish may be treating it with lime or chalk to make it accept writing or printing ink.

Modern “paper vellum” is made of synthetic plant material, and is called such for its usage and quality similarities. 

Uncial script

Uncial is a script written entirely in capital letters commonly used from the 4th to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. Uncial letters were used to write Greek, Latin, and Gothic.

Early forms are characterized by broad single stroke letters using simple round forms taking advantage of the new parchment and vellum surfaces, as opposed to the angular, multiple-stroke letters, which are more suited for rougher surfaces, such as papyrus.

In the oldest examples of uncial, all of the letters are disconnected from one another, and word separation is typically not used. Word separation, however, is characteristic of later uncial usage.

Uncial was still used, particularly for copies of the Bible, tapering off until around the 10th century. There are over 500 surviving copies of the uncial script.

Codex Vaticanus

  • Title:                  Codex Vaticanus
  • Dated:               300–325
  • Writing:             Greek 
  • Materials:          vellum
  • Dimensions:      27 × 27 cm (10.6 × 10.6 in)
  • Museum:           Vatican Library


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Codex Vaticanus – the basis for all modern bible translations


“I have never looked into the Greek New Testament five minutes without finding something I never saw before.”
– A. T. Robertson


Photo Credit: 1)Leszek Jańczuk / CC BY-SA (

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