As Christmas approaches each year, Christians around the world turn once again to the account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1–2. This beloved passage occupies a privileged position at the beginning of the NT. However, because of its prominent place at the front of each Gospels codex, it was also the portion of the Scriptures most likely to be damaged or destroyed. Nearly every codex has at least some deterioration on the first few and last few leaves, since these are the most exposed to the elements.
In our own collection of medieval minuscules, a quick review shows that the Christmas story in Matthew has often experienced significant fading, water or other damage, and sometimes it was even completely destroyed and lost. For instance, GA 790, GA 764, and GA 898 are missing the first leaf of Matthew. GA 798 is missing the first two leaves. GA 768, GA 771, GA 784, GA 897, GA 1417, and GA 2526—though they once contained the entire Gospel of Matthew—are now missing the Christmas story entirely!
GA 898 begins at Matthew 1:17.
GA 768 begins at Matthew 3:6.
GA 784 begins at Matthew 5:3.
Damage to the Christmas story in Matthew occurred in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was from water (GA 758, GA 782), dirt (GA 785, GA 791, GA 792, GA 793, GA 796, GA 799, GA 2524), wax drippings when readers read by candlelight (GA 763, GA 781, GA 783), fire (GA 786, GA 800, GA 1416), or some other kind of trauma (GA 798).
Water damage to the first leaf of Matthew in GA 782.
Dirt damage to the beginning of GA 2524.
Damage from wax drippings on the third leaf of Matthew in GA 781.
Significant fire damage to the edges of the first leaf of Matthew in GA 1416.
An unknown event caused the first few leaves to be torn away completely from GA 798.
With the variety of ways that the Christmas story could be lost or damaged, it was essential that scribes who cared for these damaged manuscripts devise a number of ways to save the Christmas story from disappearing altogether from the codex. Sometimes scribes would trace back over faded or damaged ink, such as in GA 758 and GA 787. In GA 757, GA 772, GA 789, GA 1686, and GA 2528, a later scribe has remade lost leaves and placed them back where they go.
A scribe retraced over a water-damaged leaf near the beginning of GA 758.
A scribe retraced over the faded first verse of Matthew in GA 787.
The beginning of Matthew was recreated and placed back into GA 789 (left) to replace a damaged or unreadable page. An original leaf from later in the Gospel is shown on the right.
The first leaf of GA 1686 was remade and replaced (left). The next leaf, continuing the Christmas story, is on the right.
The Christmas story in Matthew 1–2 is an ancient narrative that has been handed down for generations in New Testament manuscripts. We are thankful for the work that nameless scribes throughout history did to ensure that this portion of the Christian Scriptures survived intact. This Christmas season, as you turn to read about Jesus’ birth in Matthew, remember the care and creativity required to preserve this story so that we could read it today.