Recovering the text of the earliest Greek New Testament Commentary manuscript

The University of Birmingham’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing and Cambridge University Library are delighted to announce the launch of the digital edition of Codex Zacynthius making the text of this eighth-century manuscript available in full for the first time.

The manuscript first came to scholarly attention two hundred years ago this year, when it was presented to a British dignitary on the Greek island of Zakynthos. On the face of it, the manuscript is a lectionary containing the portions of the gospels used in Christian worship throughout the year. However, this twelfth-century document is a palimpsest, created by erasing the ink from an earlier manuscript in order to re-use the parchment to make another book. The original text is a commentary on the Gospel according to Luke known as a catena, bringing together extracts from early Christian writers which explain the biblical text. However, given the overwriting of the manuscript and the fading of the ink, much of the commentary is unreadable to the naked eye.

When the manuscript was put up for sale by the Bible Society in 2013 in order to fund the building of a visitor centre in North Wales, a public campaign was launched by Cambridge University Library which raised 1.1 million to keep the manuscript in the United Kingdom. This provided scholars with the opportunity to study it afresh through the application of state-of-the art imaging techniques. Professor David Parke r and Professor Hugh Houghton at the University of Birmingham were awarded 383,000 by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council for a twenty-four month project to produce a full digital edition of the manuscript. In July 2018, a team of specialists from the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library created multispectral images, based on fifty-one high resolution images of each page taken under different wavelengths of light, in order to render the undertext of Codex Zacynthius legible.

These images formed the basis for a full transcription of the manuscript, which enabled the identification of the extracts in the commentary. Of the 343 passages, no fewer than 300 are from early Christian writings which are not otherwise preserved in Greek outside this tradition. These include commentaries on Luke by the fourth-century Bishop Titus of Bostra and fifth-century Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria. Most striking are 38 lengthy extracts from Severus of Antioch, a theologian whose books were banned by the emperor Justinian in the year 536. The excerpts from his letters and sermons in Codex Zacynthius are the only evidence for these writings known to survive in Greek, and will offer scholars new insights into doctrinal controversies in the early sixth century.

Professor Hugh Houghton, Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing said: “We are delighted that this project has been so successful in enabling this important manuscript to be read once again, and to take its place in scholarship on the transmission and interpretation of the New Testament in the early Church."

The online edition, published in the Cambridge Digital Library, comprises the new multispectral images, full text transcriptions of the Greek undertext and overtext, and the first ever English translation of a Greek New Testament catena. It was created in collaboration with Cambridge University Library by ten researchers at ITSEE , including two postgraduate students. In addition to the free-to-view edition, all the project data has been made openly available on the University of Birmingham Institutional Research Archive. The project has also produced two open access monographs on Codex Zacynthius, published in autumn 2020. In conjunction with this project, Codex Zacynthius will be featured in “Ghost Words: Reading the Past? , an exhibition of palimpsest manuscripts at Cambridge University Library, to open in November 2020.


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