The Originals and Their Disappearance

I. Now, you may naturally enough ask me: “But how do you know all this? Where has the Bible come from? Have you got the original writings that came from the hand of Moses, or Paul, or John?” No, none of it, not a scrap or a letter, but we know from the Church’s Tradition that these were the books they wrote, and they have been handed down to us in a most wonderful way. What we have now is the printed Bible; but before the invention of printing in 1450, the Bible existed only in handwriting – what we call manuscript – and we have in our possession now copies of the Bible in manuscript (MS.) which were made as early as the 4th century, and these copies, which you can see with your own eyes at this day, contain the books which the Catholic Bible contains today, and that is another way we know we are right in receiving these books as Scripture, as genuinely the work of the Apostles and Evangelists. Why is it that we have not the originals written by St. John and St. Paul and the rest? Well, there are several reasons to account for the disappearance of the originals.

(1) The persecutors of the Church for the first 300 years of Christianity destroyed everything Christian that they could lay their hands on. Over and over again, barbarous pagans burst in upon Christian cities, and villages and churches, and burned all the sacred things they could find. And not only so, but they especially compelled Christians (as we saw before) to deliver up their sacred books, under pain of death, and then consigned them to the flames. Among these, doubtless, some of the writings that came from the hand of the Apostle and Evangelist perished.

(2) Again, we must remember, the material which inspired authors used for writing their Gospels and Epistles was very easily destroyed; it was perishable to a degree. It was called papyrus (I shall explain what it was made of in a moment), very frail and brittle, and not made to last to any great age; and its delicate quality, no doubt, accounts for the loss of some of the choicest treasures of ancient literature, as well as of the original handwriting of the New Testament writers. We know of no MS of the New Testament existing now which is written on papyrus.

(3) Furthermore, when in various churches throughout the first centuries copies were made of the inspired writings, there was not the same necessity for preserving the originals. The first Christians had no superstitious or idolatrous veneration for the Sacred Scriptures, such as seems to prevail among some people today; they did not consider it necessary for salvation that the very handwriting of St. Paul or St. Matthew should be preserved, inspired by God though these men were; they had the living, infallible Church to teach and guide them by the mouth of her Popes and Bishops and to teach them not only all that could be found in the Sacred Scriptures, but the true meaning of it as well; so that we need not be surprised that they were content with mere copies of the original works of the inspired writers.

As of the original works of the inspired writers. As soon as a more beautiful or correct copy was made, an earlier and rougher one was simply allowed to perish. There is nothing strange or unusual in all this; it is just what holds good in the secular world. We do not doubt the terms or provisions of the Magna Charta because we have not seen the original; a copy, if we are sure it is correct, is good enough for us.

II. Well, then, the originals, as they came from the hand of Apostle and Evangelist, have totally disappeared. This is what infidels and skeptics taunt us with and cast on our teeth: “You cannot produce,” they say, “the handwriting of those from whom you derive your religion, neither the Founder nor His Apostles; your Gospels and Epistles are a fraud; they were not written by these men at all, but are the invention of a later age; and consequently we cannot depend upon the contents of them or believe what they tell us about Jesus Christ.” Now, of course, these attacks fall harmlessly upon us Catholics, because we do not profess to rest our religion upon the Bible alone, and are independent of it, and would be just as we are and what we are though there were no Bible at all. It is those who have staked their very existence upon that Book, and must stand or fall with it, that are called upon to defend themselves against the critics. But I shall only remark here that the argument of infidel and skeptics would, if logically applied, discredit not only the Bible, but many other books which they themselves accept and believe without hesitation. There is far more evidence for the Bible than there is for certain books of classical antiquity which no one dreams of disputing. There are, for example, only 15 manuscripts of the works of Herodotus, and none earlier than the 10th century A.D.; yet he lived 400 years before Christ. The oldest manuscript of the works of Thucydides is of the 11th century A.D.; yet he flourished and wrote more than 400 years before Christ. Shall we say, then, “I want to see the handwriting of Thucydides and Herodotus, else I shall not believe these are their genuine works. You have no copy of their writings near the time they lived; none, indeed, till 1400 years after them; they must be a fraud and a forgery”? Scholars with no religion at all would say we were fit for an asylum if we took up the position; yet it would be a far more reasonable attitude than that which they take up toward the Bible. Why? Because there are known to have been many thousand copies of the New Testament in existence by the 3rd century – i.e., only a century or two after St. John – and we know for certain there are 3000 existing at the present day, ranging from the fourth century downward. The fact is, the wealth of evidence for the genuineness of the New Testament is simply stupendous; and in comparison with many ancient histories which are received without question on the authority of late and few and bad copies, the Sacred Volume is founded on a rock. But let us pass on; it is enough for us to know that God has willed that the handiwork of every inspired writer, from Moses down to St. John, should have perished from among men, and that He entrusted our salvation to something more stable and enduring than a dead book or an undecipherable manuscript – that is, the living and infallible Church of Christ: Ubi Ecclesia, ibi Christus. [“Where the Church is, there Christ is.”]

Now I wish to devote what remains of this chapter to say something about the material instruments that were used for the writing and transmission of Holy Scriptures in the earliest days; and a brief review of the materials employed, and the dangers of loss and of corruption which necessarily accompanied the work, will convince us more than ever of the absolute need of some divinely protected authority like the Catholic Church to guard the Gospel from error and destruction, and preserve “the Apostolic deposit” (as it is called) from sharing the fate which is liable to overtake all things that are, as says St. Paul, contained in “earthen vessels.”

III. Various materials were used in ancient times for writing, as, e.g., stone, pottery, bark of trees, leather, and clay tablets among the Babylonians and Egyptians. (1) But before Christianity, and for the first few ages of our era, Papyrus was used, which has given its name to our “paper.” It was formed of the bark of the reed or bukrush, which once grew plentifully on the Nile banks. First split into layers, it was then glued by overlapping the edges, and another layer glued to this at right angles to prevent splitting, and, after sizing and drying, it formed a suitable writing surface. Thousands of rolls of papyrus have been found in Egyptian and Babylonian tombs and beneath the buried city of Herculaneum, owing their preservation probably to the very fact of being buried, because, as I said, the substance was very brittle, frail and perishable, and unsuited for rough usage. Though probably many copies of the Bible were originally written on this papyrus (and most likely the inspired writers used it themselves), none have survived the the wreck of ages. It is this material St. John is referring to when he says to his correspondent in his second Epistle, verse 12; “Having more things to write to you, I would not by paper and ink.”

(2) When in the course of time, papyrus fell into comparative disuse from its unsuitableness and fragility, the skins of animals came to be used. This material had two names; if it was made out of the skin of sheep or goats, it was called Parchment; if made of the skin of delicate young calves, it was called Vellum. Vellum was used in earlier days, but being very dear and hard to obtain, gave place to a large extent to the coarser parchment. St. Paul speaks about this stuff when he tells St. Timothy to “bring the books, but especially the parchments.” (2 Tim. 4:13). Most of the New Testament manuscripts which we possess today are written on this material. A curious consequence of the costliness of this substance was this, that the same sheet of vellum was made to do duty twice over, and became what is termed a palimpsest, which means “rubbed again.” A scribe, say, of the tenth century, unable to purchase a new supply of vellum, would take a sheet containing, perhaps, a writing of the second century, which had become worn out through age and difficult to decipher; he would wash or scrape out the old ink, and use the surface over again for copying out some other work in which the living generation felt more interest. It goes without saying that in many cases the writing thus blotted out was of far greater value than that which replaced it; indeed, some of the most precious monuments of sacred learning are of this description, and they were discovered in this way. The process of erasing or sponging out the ancient ink was seldom so perfectly done as to prevent all traces of it still remaining, and some strokes of the older hand might often be seen peeping out beneath the more modern writing. In 1834 some chemical mixture was discovered which was applied with much success and had the effect of restoring the faded lines and letters of those venerable records. Cardinal Mai, a man of colossal scholarship and untiring industry, and a member of the Sacred College in Rome under Pope Gregory XVI, was a perfect expert in this branch of research, and by his ceaseless labors and ferret-like hunts in the Vatican library brought to light some remarkable old manuscripts and some priceless works of antiquity. Among these, all students have to thank him for restoring a long lost work of Cicero (De Republica) that was known to have existed previously and which the Cardinal unearthed from beneath St. Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms! The most important MS. of the New Testament of this description is called Codex of Ephraem. About 200 years ago it was noticed that this curious-looking vellum, all soiled and stained, and hitherto thought to contain only the theological discourses of St. Ephraem, an old Syrian Father, was showing dim traces and faint lines of some older writing beneath. The chemical mixture was applied, and lo, what should appear but a most ancient and valuable copy of Holy Scriptures of handwriting not later than the fifth century! This had been coolly scrubbed out by some impecunious scribe of the twelfth century to make room for his favorite work, the discourses of St. Ephraem! Let us charitably hope that the good monk (as he probably was) did not know what he was scrubbing out. At all events, it was brought into France by Queen Catherine de Medici and is now safely preserved in the Royal Library at Paris, containing on the same page two works, one written on top of the other with a period of 700 years between them. I have told you about the sheets used by the earliest writers of the New Testament. What kind of pen and ink had they?

(1) Well, for the brittle papyrus, a reed was used, much the same as that still in use in the East; but of course for writing on hard, tough parchment or vellum a metal pen, or stylus, was required. It is to this St. John refers in his third Epistle (verse 12) when he says,”Having more things to write unto you, I would not by paper and ink.” The strokes of these pens may still be seen quite clearly impressed on the parchment, even though all trace of the ink has utterly vanished. Besides this, a bodkin or needle was employed, by means of which, a long with a ruler, a blank leaf or sheet was carefully divided into columns and lines; and on nearly all the manuscripts these lines and marks may still be seen, sometimes so firmly and deeply drawn that those on one side of the leaf have penetrated through to the other side, without, however, cutting the vellum.

(2) The ink used was a composition of soot or lampback or burnt shavings of ivory, mixed with gum or wineless or alum (for all these elements entered into it). In most ancient manuscripts, unfortunately, the ink has for the most part turned red or brown, or become very pale, or peeled off or eaten through the vellum, and in many cases later hands have ruthlessly retraced the ancient letters, making the original writing look much coarser. But we know that many colored inks were used, such as red, green, blue or purple, and they are often quite brilliant to this day.

(3) As to the shape of the MSS., the oldest form was that of a roll. They were generally fixed on two rollers, so that the part read (for example, in public worship) could be wound out of sight and a new portion brought to view. This was the kind of thing that was handed to Our Lord when He went into the synagogue at Nazareth on the Sabbath. “He unfolded the book”, and read: and then “when he had folded the book, he restored it to the minister.” (Luke 4:17, 20.) When not in use, these rolls were kept in round boxes or cylinders, and some times in cases of silver or cloth of great value. The leaves of parchment were sometimes of considerable size, such as folio; but generally the shape was what we know as quarto [about 9 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches] or smaller folio, and some were octavo. The skin of one animal, especially if an antelope, could furnish many sheets of parchment; but if the animal was a small calf, then its skin could only furnish very few sheets; and an instance of this is the manuscript called the Sinaitic (now in St. Petersburg), whose sheets are so large that the skin of a single animal (believed to have been the youngest and finest antelope) could only provide two sheets (8 pages).

(4) The page was divided into two or three or four columns (though the latter is very rare). The writing was of two distinct kinds, one called Unocal (meaning an inch), consisting entirely of capital letters, with no connection between the letters, and no space between words at all; the other style, which is later, was cursive (that is, a running hand) like our ordinary handwriting, with capitals only at the beginning of sentences; and in this case the letters are joined together and there is a space between words. The uncial style (consisting of capitals only) was prevalent for the first three centuries of our era; in the fourth century the cursive began and continued till the invention of printing.

(5) Originally, I need hardly say, there was no such thing in the MSS as divisions into chapters and verses, and no points or full stops [i.e., periods] or commas, to let you know where one sentence began and the next finished: hence the reading of one of these ancient records is a matter of some difficulty to the unscholarly. The division into chapters so familiar to us in our modern Bibles was the invention either of Cardinal Hugo, a Dominican, in 1248, or more probably of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1227); and it is no calumny upon the reputation of either of these great men to say that the division is not very satisfactory. He is not fortunate in his method of splitting up the page of Scripture; the chapters are of very unequal length and frequently interrupt a narrative or argument or an incident in an inconvenient way, as anyone may see for himself by looking up such passages as Acts 21:40; or Acts 4 and 5, or 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. The division again into verses was the work of one Robert Stephens, and the first English version in which it appeared was the Geneva Bible, 1560. This gentleman seems to have completed his performance on a journey between Paris and Lyons (inter equitandum, as the Latin biographer phrases it), probably while stopping overnights in inns and hotels. “I think,” an old commentator quaintly remarks, “it had been better done on his knees in the closet.” To this I would venture to add that his achievement must share the same criticism of inappropriateness as the arrangement into chapters.

(6) The manuscripts of the Bible, as I before remarked, now known to be in existence, number about 3000, of which the vast majority are in running hand, and hence are subsequent to the fourth century. There are none of course later than the sixteenth century, for then the book began to be printed; and none have yet been found earlier than the fourth. Their age, that is, the precise century in which they were written, it is not always easy to determine. About the tenth century the scribes who copied them began to notify the date in a corner of the page; but before that time we can only judge by various characteristics that appear in the MSS. For example, the more simple and upright and regular the letters are, the less flourish and ornamentation they have about them, the nearer equality there is between the height and breadth of the characters-the more ancient we may be sure is the MS. Then, of course, we can often tell the age of a MS – approximately, at least – by the kind of pictures the scribe had painted in it, the illustrations he had introduced, and the ornamenting of the first letter of a sentence or on the top of a page; for we know in what century that particular style of illumination prevailed. It would be impossible to give anyone who had never seen any specimens of these wonderful old manuscripts a proper idea of their appearance or make him realize their unique beauty. There they are today, perfect marvels of human skill and workmanship, manuscripts of every kind: old parchment all stained and worn; books of faded purple lettered with silver, and their pages beautifully designed and ornamented; bundles of finest vellum, yellow with age, and bright even yet with the gold and vermilion laid on by pious hands 1000 years ago – in many shapes, in many colors, in many languages.

There they are, scattered throughout the libraries and museums of Europe, challenging the admiration of everyone that beholds them for the astonishing beauty, clearness and regularity of their lettering, and the incomparable illumination of their capitals and headings – still at this day, after so many centuries of change and chance, charming the eye of all with their soft yet brilliant colors and defying our modern scribes to produce anything the least approaching them in loveliness. There lie the sacred records, hoary with age, fragile, slender, time-worn, bearing upon their front clear proofs of their ancient birth; yet with the bloom of youth still clinging about them. We simply stand and wonder; and we also despair. We speak glibly of the “Dark Ages” and despise their monks and friars (and I shall, with your leave, speak a little more about them immediately), but one thing at least is certain, and that is, that not in the wide world today could any of their critics find a craftsman to make a copy of Holy Scripture worthy to be compared for beauty, clearness and finish with any one of the hundreds of copies produced in the contents and monasteries of medieval Europe.

Taken from Where We Got The Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church by RT REV HENRY G. GRAHAM I am not the Author merely the distributor. God Bless BJS!!

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