Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s, the earliest extant biblical manuscripts came from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint, and the pages exhibited here from the Chester Beatty Numbers and Deuteronomy Codex was regarded as the oldest extant manuscript of any bible. That accolade has now passed to other manuscripts but this codex, dating from the middle of the second century C.E. (or at the very latest the beginning of the third century), is still the most extensive second-century Christian codex. It is of great interest for providing evidence of the transition from roll to codex and is among the earliest examples in the world of the codex form of book production. It is possibly the earliest book to have page numbers, which are clearly visible written in Greek letters on the folios shown.
The portion of the text shown here is Deuteronomy 4:6-23. Analysis suggests that the scribe copied the biblical text from two different rolls, as the textual characteristics of Numbers are quite different from those of Deuteronomy. The exemplars were probably of varying dates and originated from different scribal centers. The text for Numbers largely corresponds to Codex Vaticanus but the Deuteronomy text does not; it largely agrees with the much later fifth-century Freer manuscript of Deuteronomy.
The codex originally consisted of 216 pages, of which about 100 survive. It is in a very fine hand, written by an accomplished scribe, on good-quality papyrus that has been carefully prepared so that the direction of the papyrus fibers aligns correctly on each facing page. Just as medieval scribes ensured that the hair side and flesh side of vellum manuscripts matched on each opening, so this earlier scribe has ensured that the direction of the papyrus fibers match. The elegance of the script and the generous margins mark it as a superior specimen of book production demonstrating that, even before Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, a Christian community in Roman Egypt could occasionally command the services of skilled professional scribes. Several other characteristics of the manuscript point to its Christian origin, particularly the abbreviations used for the “nomina sacra” or holy names, where the abbreviation for Joshua is the same as that for Jesus.
CH (author bios)
Kenyon, 1935–58; Kenyon, 1939; Turner, 1977; Roberts and Skeat, 1983.