From the Library: GA 807

3/10/2020

By: Andrew J. Patton and Leigh Ann Thompson

Every single Greek New Testament manuscript teems with valuable information about the New Testament’s text and history. Manuscripts play a pivotal role in moving words from the author’s pen to the many translations available today. Even more, in each manuscript we find a unique artifact from a historical moment that tells a story of the people who interacted with the words on its pages.

In 2018, CSNTM digitized the collection of the Library of the Hellenic Parliament in Athens, Greece. One of the medieval manuscripts in their collection is a twelfth century Gospels manuscript numbered as GA 807 according to the Gregory-Aland system used by text critics around the world. This manuscript was copied in the cursive minuscule script common in the medieval era and includes most of the text of the four Gospels.

As we feature this manuscript in our From the Library series, we will give our attention to the process of digitizing this manuscript, see how it handles the story of the woman caught in adultery, and discuss the commentary included throughout. Taken together, these aspects of GA 807 reflect the ways Christian readers interacted with the New Testament.

Digitizing GA 807 

I (Andrew Patton) had the pleasure of digitizing this manuscript with Andrew Bobo during our 2018 digitization project at the Library of the Hellenic Parliament. We are always captivated by the unique aspects of each manuscript as we work our way through the document. In this case, there were a few features that caught our eye:

  • The alternating ink colors for biblical text and commentary
  • A four-column layout for Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3
  • The decorative headpiece at the beginning of John’s Gospel

As exciting as the details in a manuscript might be, you can’t get too distracted by them. Imaging manuscripts requires precision and problem solving, and every artifact presents its own challenges. In this case, the manuscript is bound between leather covers that are different on the front and back. The leather on the back cover wraps around a wooden board with two remaining metal studs affixed. While the front cover is made of flexible leather without a board.

During digitization, there were a few points where we used small wedges or blocks to compensate for the missing studs on the back cover to create a squarer image. You might be surprised to see how even small differences like having a metal stud in one corner and not the other can have a significant impact on an image before the discrepancy is corrected for the final image. Small adjustments are the rule in digitization!

We experienced a different issue while photographing the back of the page (the verso). The flexible covers did not provide a solid base for the pages to lay on, making it more difficult to capture consistent images. So we placed a piece of cardboard underneath the black cloth to form a sturdier place for the leaves to rest upon. This helped us capture better images in a more time-efficient manner.

The result is a set of useful images that are aesthetically pleasing to view and, most importantly, accurately reproduce the manuscript at the point in time of digitization. Now, this medieval manuscript is available for anyone to examine online.

The Pericope Adulterae

In the Gospel of John, GA 807 includes the text of the pericope adulterae—the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7.53–8.11). Even if you do not know Greek or read the apparatus included in Greek New Testaments, you probably are familiar with this textual problem because of the footnotes and bracketing in English translations. For example, the NIV notes:

“[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]”

The majority of New Testament scholars agree that this story was not originally part of John’s Gospel and was inserted into the text sometime in the third century. (If you want to learn more about how New Testament text critics address this variant, you can watch CSNTM’s Executive Director, Dan Wallace, in this podcast.)

The scribe of GA 807 included the pericope in the text of this manuscript but also left signals that indicate his or her awareness of the debate surrounding the passage. The scribe’s work was described in a significant recent book by Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman called To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel StoryThey wrote:

“Minuscule 807 (Athens Parlamentsbibliothek 1, fol. 230r) incorporates an arche sign at (modern) 8:3 and a telos sign above (modern) 8:11, indicating where the lection ‘about the adulteress’ begins and ends, followed by an instruction to skip the passage at Pentecost. . . . Such a direction reiterates a practice that had, by then, been in place for more than six hundred years” (pg. 293).

What they are describing is that at some point, a reader of this manuscript added guides indicating when to begin (arche) and stop (telos) reading according to the lectionary system. Notice the markings on the page:

The markings around this portion of the text reveal how Christians interacted with and used the text. Further, as Knust and Wasserman demonstrate, it also indicates that the story entered the text of John after the church had established the proper order for reading Scripture—sometime around the fourth century. This minuscule carries with it, as other manuscripts that came before it, indications of how the community read the text of the New Testament throughout the year. And it reveals their awareness of differences between copies of the New Testament. Ancient and modern notes about the history and reading of John 7.53–8.11 show that the Scriptures have often been read in connection to the past.

A Catena Manuscript 

As we noted above, this medieval manuscript includes both biblical text (in red ink) and commentary (in black ink). We find that scribes generally gave priority of prominence to the biblical text over other elements within the manuscript. In this case, the biblical text was written in red ink and the commentary in the more commonplace black ink.

We call chains of commentary from various commentators a catena. Generally, Greek manuscripts with commentary point back to the authoritative tradition of biblical interpretation rather than offering the glosses and reflections of the person preparing a particular copy. According to a checklist of manuscripts including biblical commentary produced by Dr. Georgi Parpulov, GA 807 includes commentary from Theophylact, an important church father from the medieval era (d. 1107).

Some researchers question whether or not some catena manuscripts belong in the official list of New Testament manuscripts (the Kurzgefasste Liste) managed by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research. One of the primary issues is that some catenae seem to have been produced as commentaries that include biblical text rather than a copy of the biblical text with added commentaries. A current project at the University of Birmingham, called CATENA, seeks to identify, classify, and analyze these manuscripts with biblical commentary. This research project will help us better understand the role of commentaries in Greek New Testament manuscripts and how catenae may have shaped the process of transmitting the biblical text from generation to generation. Additionally, they have already found manuscripts that were not on the official list, which now have been assigned Gregory-Aland numbers—adding to the wealth of Greek New Testament manuscripts available for study on the text of the New Testament.

Reading in Dialogue

The 12th century manuscript GA 807 is an interesting example of how Christians copied and interacted with the text of the New Testament. As two text critics observe, the manuscript includes the story of the woman caught in adultery, but the scribe instructed readers not to read the text in the liturgy. This shows awareness of a significant textual problem and how a scribe offered a pragmatic solution for reading. Additionally, the biblical commentary shows how readers were connecting the Scriptures to their tradition. Both the scribe who copied the text and the reader(s) of this manuscript were engaged in dialogue with the past—and they leave us a window into the text and history of the New Testament. It was a privilege for us to digitize this unique artifact at the Library of the Hellenic Parliament. And we extend our gratitude to the curatorial staff and librarians for their collaboration with CSNTM to digitally preserve their collection.