The Canon, Text, and Manuscripts of the New Testament

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Chapter 3

The Forms in which the Manuscripts are Preserved


Section I. The Roll

It has already appeared (p. 63) that papyrus manuscripts took most readily the roll form. The only additional facts to be noted are that it engaged both hands to manipulate the roll in reading, the right unrolling, εἱλεῖν, ἐλίσσειν, ἐξελεῖν, ἀνελίσσειν, while the left rolled up, and that when the reading was done it was necessary to roll the document back tightly upon the ὄμφαλος, the reader "holding the roll beneath his chin and turning with both hands."1

The writing was done, as a rule, in parallel columns, at right angles with the length of the roll, of lines averaging thirty-eight letters, so that in reading seven or eight columns were ordinarily exposed to the reader's eye.

As some of the earliest codices upon parchment are written in narrow columns, three or four to the page, so that when open to the reader they presented six or eight columns respectively to view, it has been thought, other things being equal, that the codices having the larger number of columns to the page possess the greater antiquity, the fashion having risen in imitation of the older papyrus rolls. Thus Codex Sinaiticus and a beautiful exemplar of a Psalter mentioned by Dr. Scrivener have four columns on a page;2 while Codex Vaticanus, the Milan fragment of Genesis, two copies of the Samaritan Pentateuch at Nablous, the last part of Evan. 429, and a number of other Hebrew, Greek, and Latin manuscripts are arranged in three columns.3 Codex Alexandrinus, of the sixth century, has two columns to the page, as well as numberless minor codices for the next thousand years ; and even in printed works down to the present century the custom has prevailed, especially, it would seem, in the printing of Bibles.

Section II. The Codex

The codex, or book of parchment, was far less simple in its construction than the papyrus roll.

The structural unit of the codex, from the earliest times, has been the quire of four sheets, τετράς or τετράδιον, which when folded once made eight leaves or sixteen pages. Perhaps the most notable exception to this form is that of Codex Vaticanus, which is made up of quires of five sheets or ten leaves and twenty pages. There are also examples of quires of three sheets and a few sporadic cases ranging as high as ten sheets to the quire.

Great care was exercised in making up the quires that the flesh and hair side of the parchment should not face one another. The flesh side presenting, as we have seen, the lighter and fairer surface, the first sheet in Greek manuscripts was, as a rule, laid flesh side down. This would bring the darker, hair side uppermost, and the second sheet was therefore placed with the hair side down, the third sheet as the first, and the fourth as the second. Thus, when the quires were bound up, no matter where the book was opened, the colors of every two adjacent pages would be alike. - The practical value of bearing in mind this rule is apparent not only in the process of rearranging a disordered manuscript, but in detecting, at a glance, the loss of a sheet from one otherwise apparently perfect.

In the Greek Codex Alexandrinus and in most Latin manuscripts this rule is modified by uniformly beginning the quires with the hair side of the skin outermost.

Ruling was necessary in the case of parchment, and was done before the sheets were made up into quires, and generally on the hair side of the skin only, as the pressure of the bodkin was sufficient to make the lines appear on the reverse side ; indeed, to save the trouble of repeated measurements, two or more sheets were often laid the one upon the other and ruled together. As the sheets were not yet broken into pages the horizontal ruling ran clear across them, thus making the page lines uniform in number and spacing. Vertical lines were also drawn to confine the columns of writing, laterally.

Section III. Palimpsests

After the fall of Rome the expense of procuring vellum and the decline of literary interest in previous authors led to the custom of washing or scraping off the original writing from many choice books and using their pages anew. Such a manuscript was called a palimpsest, παλίμψηστος, and several authentic cases are extant where this process was repeated, making what is called a double palimpsest.

So common did this custom become in the Eastern empire that the Greek Church was compelled at the end of the seventh century to forbid such destruction of manuscripts of the Scriptures or of the Church fathers, imperfect or injured volumes excepted.4

No less than eight valuable and ancient uncials of the New Testament are palimpsests, the most notable being Codex Ephraemi, of the National Library in Paris.



1) Johnston, H. W., Latin Manuscripts, p. 19.

2) Scrivener, F. H. A., Introduction, vol. i, p. 28, note.

3) Ibid.

4) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography ; p. 76.