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The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Codex Amiatinus

The Bibliotheca Laurentiana at Florence is a repository for ancient writing. It contains a vast collection of more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books. None is more precious than the fine volume labeled Codex Amiatinus. This is the most celebrated of the myriad manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate Bible and an important witness to the history of the Christian church. It is the fifth of the twenty-five objects through which we are tracing the history of Christianity.

As the Christian church grew and matured and moved beyond its infancy, early believers had to grapple with many theological questions and controversies. Creeds and councils were convened. Debates raged. Every Christian turned to the Bible to support his beliefs and yet a foundational question remained: What was the Bible? Codex Amiatinus is an important part of the answer.

Codex Amiatinus
In 382, Pope Damascus I concluded that the church was in desperate need of a new translation of the Scriptures. The church had begun to divide into two parts, the Latin-speaking church of the West and the Greek-speaking church of the East. As the Western church distanced itself from the East, it also distanced itself from the Greek language. As knowledge of Greek faded, the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament were no longer easily understood. Meanwhile, even though there were many translations of the Bible into Latin, none of them was of good quality. For these reasons Pope Damascus commissioned a new, authoritative translation of the entire Bible.

Jerome, a scholar from northern Italy who was skilled in both Hebrew and Greek, was assigned to this task. He had at first intended to translate the Old Testament from the Greek Septuagint, but as he worked he came to see that the Septuagint had many weaknesses. For that reason he reached back to the Hebrew text to “give my Latin readers the hidden treasures of Hebrew erudition.” He also realized that the Septuagint included several books, together called the apocrypha, that were absent from the Hebrew Old Testament. Jerome argued that Christians must follow Jews and exclude the apocryphal books from the Bible; it was only in 1546 at the Council of Trent, that the Roman Catholic Church would decree that the apocrypha was also part of the inspired text.

It took Jerome fully twenty-three years to complete his project, but he finally presented a full translation of both the Old and New Testaments in 405. It was received as the authoritative biblical text. This translation became known as the Vulgate, a word derived from the Latin word for common, indicating that this was to be the Bible for common use. It was to serve that purpose for more than a thousand years.

Codex Amiatinus was produced in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and was prepared as a gift for the pope. It dates from the early 8th century, making it the earliest surviving translation of both the Old Testament and the New. It is considered the most accurate surviving copy of Jerome’s original work. Printed on thick, clear vellum, it is an immense work that measures 19¼ inches high, almost 13½ inches wide, and 7 inches thick. It weighs over 75 pounds. It survives as a reminder of the enduring legacy of the Vulgate and the faithful labor of those who translated and copied the text of Scripture.

Modern Bible translations tend to be short-lived. Many of us have used a series of translations even over the course of a single lifetime, perhaps transitioning from the King James to the New American Standard Bible and then to the English Standard Version. What is popular today may have fallen out of favor a decade from now, replaced by a superior translation. In sharp contrast, the Vulgate was used almost exclusively from the fifth century until the sixteenth. For over one thousand years it was the Bible. It was the Bible over the medieval church and its scholars and was the Bible that launched the Reformation.

Yet there was an unexpected consequence to the Vulgate. The Vulgate was a vernacular translation, written in the common language of the fifth century. However, as the years passed, Latin faded away as the common language, to be replaced by many Romance and Germanic languages. As Latin died out, the common people could no longer read nor understand this common translation of Scripture. Latin survived, but only among the religious and intellectual elite. This meant that for centuries the Bible was closed to the people and was in the hand of scholars and clerics. Those who dared prepare new translations into other common tongues would face the wrath of the Church. It was only at the time of the Reformation, after the break with the Roman Catholic Church, that Protestants could once again allow the Bible to be translated to the common language of the common man. The church would be forever transformed.

The Bible is so widely available today that we may take it for granted and assume that this is how it has always been. Codex Amiatinus reminds us that for over one thousand years, very few people had access to it and fewer still had the ability to read it. And it reassures us that God’s hand was upon his Word all the while, protecting and preserving it, for our good and for his glory.