Digitized Hebrew and Greek Manuscripts: Access and Issues

Biblical work obviously primarily relies on working with “the text.” However, as anyone involved in biblical studies knows, there really isn’t one biblical text for any given pericope. Rather, we find ourselves before a plethora of manuscripts and variants. Fortunately, many of these manuscripts—particularly the most important ones—are now available online as digitized photographic (and less often, typographical) facsimiles. The online availability of these manuscripts, a few of which I would like to focus on here, affords biblical scholars an unprecedented opportunity for research and teaching. At the same time, the online condition of most manuscripts leaves much to be desired. My focus here is on the most important Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translation (the Septuagint)—those that are generally used as the primary texts for either diplomatic or eclectic critical editions—and the problems their online presence has not solved. (For New Testament manuscripts, cf. the VMR of the INTF and the CSNTM). Without further ado…

The Aleppo Codex presents the oldest (formerly) complete Hebrew bible manuscript. Housed at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, this manuscript provides the basis for the editorial project of the Hebrew University Bible, a long-running diplomatic edition of the Hebrew text with extensive apparatuses that is, as of yet, far from complete (and without a current official website). Until recently the Aleppo Codex had an official website, aleppocodex.org. However, due to this site’s reliance on Flash technology, which is currently being phased out, it is currently defunct. (According to a personal communication from the site’s administrators, a new version is anticipated in the near future). For the time being, calling up the site redirects to the raw digital photographs of the individual folios in the order they appear in the manuscript with no hyperlinks to a specific book, chapter, or verse. It is also not possible to perform lexical searching or copy text from the manuscript. This remains particularly disadvantageous, as no typographical facsimile of the Aleppo Codex is available to date. Also, each image includes a note in the center toward the bottom about who owns and photographed the image.

Aleppo Codex: The End of Joshua and the Beginning of Judges.
(An older screencap from before the watermark was added).

The claimant to the title of “oldest complete Hebrew bible manuscript” is Codex B 19A of the Russian State Library in St. Petersburg, more commonly known as Codex Leningradensis. Since this manuscript is—in fact—fully complete, it serves as the basis of the most important diplomatic edition of the Hebrew Bible: the Biblia Hebraica Series, beginning with the third edition (i.e., BHK). While I have thus far been unable to find an online photographic facsimile from the library itself, there is a digitized photographic facsimile available at archive.org. In contrast to the images of the Aleppo Codex, one immediately notes the lack of color and the generally poor, though still usable, quality of the digitized images. Thankfully, it lacks any added watermark or the like on the images. Again, searching or copying the facsimile’s text remains impossible, and hyperlinks to any divisions into books, chapters, and verses are lacking as well. In this case, however, one has the added advantage that the main text (that is, without the Masorot) is available in a typographical facsimile, though only at other sites (see my previous post). Nonetheless, this typographical facsimile is not keyed to the photographical facsimile, meaning that one still has to search the text manually to find any passage or term one might like. These circumstances are hardly ideal.

Screenshot of Codex Leningradensis from archive.org.

On the Greek side, three uncial codices generally serve as the most important witnesses for the (eclectic) editions of the Septuagint: B, S, and A. They collate the Greek text of the most significant witnesses with other variants reflected in the apparatus. The oldest of these manuscripts come from the fourth century CE, fully six centuries older than the oldest extant complete Hebrew Bible.

The oldest known complete Greek Bible is found in manuscript Vat.gr.1209 of the Vatican Library, more commonly known as Codex Vaticanus (B). This fourth century codex (with later additions) is fully available online from the Vatican Library. Looking up passages remains somewhat difficult, but hyperlinks (in the menu in the upper left corner) at least permit opening the facsimile to the correct book. From there, it remains a matter of manually flipping through the pages looking for chapters and verses. Once again, the photographic facsimile features no coding, meaning that it is impossible to search or copy text. And unfortunately—like the online Aleppo Codex, though even more ridiculously prominent—a huge watermark corrupts each page of the facsimile. This superfluous watermark is in addition to the copyright information included on the bottom of each photograph. (I have not linked or provided an image here, since the Vatican Library forbids that).

The situation is markedly different for another early (previously) complete full Bible manuscript in Greek, namely Codex Sinaiticus (S). This codex is also—like Vaticanus—from the fourth century CE and originally contained the whole Bible, both the Septuagint and the New Testament (in addition to some pieces that are not regarded as canonical, like the Shepherd of Hermas). Portions of this manuscript are currently housed at several locations in Europe and on the Sinai peninsula, making it particularly difficult to view “in person.” For that reason, we can be thankful that it is housed in a complete edition online. This online edition has the added benefit of featuring typographical transcriptions of all of the folios (including reconstructions of missing text) adjacent to the photographic facsimiles. The text can therefore be copied and inserted into other applications. Nonetheless, it still remains impossible to search for a word or phrase in the manuscript, though it is possible to easily look up any attested passage through the dropdown menus at the top of the page.

Screenshot of the Codex Sinaiticus site.

Somewhat later, but still one of the most important biblical manuscripts is Codex Alexandrinus (A), currently housed at the British Library. This fifth-century manuscript also contains a complete Greek Bible in uncial script. The uncial text has been divided into four volumes, only the fourth of which has been digitized and placed online by the British Library (and it is unfortunately missing the first 25 folios). There has been no effort, as far as I can tell, to digitize the Septuagint portion of the manuscript in order to make it available online. That is especially tragic, since the text of the Former Prophets in Alexandrinus contains a number of idiosyncratic readings. Even in the digitized New Testament portion, however, there are no typographical facsimiles nor the ability to quickly look up a passage.

Screenshot of Codex Alexandrinus from the British Library.

After this brief overview, we can draw some preliminary conclusions about the state of online biblical manuscript facsimiles. Fortunately, the most important manuscripts, with the exception of the Septuagint portion of Alexandrinus, are all readily available online, most of them from the institutions that house them. That is, they generally come from reliable sources, making them usable for research and teaching. Nonetheless, the condition in which they are available leaves much to be desired. Occasionally, these manuscripts have been defaced with (totally unnecessary) watermarks. More substantially, with the obvious exception of Sinaiticus, they are essentially unusable for finding a particular text or searching within the text. They leave much to be desired in terms of their user interfaces and the ability to download or manipulate the images. So, while it is good that they are available, much work is required to bring them up to more user-friendly standards. Currently, I am working on some options to this end, so I would encourage you to watch this space in the future.

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