Manuscripts 101: GA Numbers

Whether or not you self-identify as an “organized person,” every human uses organized systems to navigate life. Most stores arrange products by type, brand, use, or another relationship. Traffic laws and signs allow us to navigate without the danger or chaos that would ensue without them. Your own work desk and home involve some organization so you know where to find things, even if looks more like unrelated piles to an outsider.

The Gregory-Aland numbering system organizes all recognized Greek New Testament manuscripts into a list with categories. The list—also known as the Kurzgefasste Liste, “short list” in German—serves as a reference point for those wishing to study the New Testament text. Furthermore, the categories in the K-Liste enable readers to recognize certain features of a particular manuscript simply through notation. In this Manuscripts 101 post, we will discuss the origins, numbering system, categories, and uses of the ever-growing K-Liste of Gregory-Aland numbered manuscripts.

The History
The Gregory-Aland numbering system grew out of the need for organizing a growing pool of witnesses text critics could draw on when evaluating the text. In 1908, Caspar René Gregory published Die griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments (The Greek manuscripts of the New Testament), in which he assigned a number to each known Greek New Testament manuscript with specific notations for different categories of manuscripts (more on the categories in a bit).

Photograph of Gregory.
Caspar René Gregory, image from Wikipedia

Before Gregory’s work, some critical editions of the Greek New Testament included systems for indicating different manuscripts. Robert Stephanus assigned a Greek number to each of the manuscripts he used, noting them in the margin of the text at places of variation. J.J. Wettstein assigned a Latin capital letter to majuscules (A, B, C, etc.) and an Arabic number to minuscule manuscripts (1, 2, 3, etc.). Unfortunately, majuscules were limited to the number of letters in the alphabet and lacked clear direction for labeling when new majuscule manuscripts were discovered.

Page from Stephanus's Greek New Testament edition. Zoom in on the margin. Greek letters β (beta), ζ (zeta), Η (eta), and Α (alpha) are written to indicate manuscripts containing a variant.
Zoom in on apparatus from Wettstein's Greek New Testament edition illustrating his use of Roman numerals for majuscule manuscripts and numbers for minuscule manuscripts.

Constantin von Tischendorf similarly used letters and numbers, assigning Hebrew letters to new majuscules, most notably indicating Codex Sinaiticus with א. In his numbering system, Tischendorf assigned new numbers to different sections within the same minuscule manuscript, resulting in a single minuscule manuscript associated with multiple numbers.

Page from Tischendorf's edition with list indicating the number he assigned to each manuscript he used.
Page from Tischendorf’s edition on which he begins a list of manuscripts he used and the number he assigned to them for his apparatus.

The infamously complicated system of labeling manuscripts developed by Hermann von Soden for his edition communicated a lot of information. Unfortunately, it was too intricate for many text critics to use effectively. Other editions and works referred to a manuscript by its owning institution or a common name of reference, like Codex Vaticanus (B) or Codex Alexandrinus (A). Even where systems contained similar features, differences and overlaps caused problems when attempting to reference a particular manuscript or understand an edition’s reference to a particular manuscript. New Testament textual scholars sorely needed a common reference system for the growing pool of witnesses they studied.

We return to Gregory. He eliminated the letters and names and assigned an Arabic number preceded by a 0 for each majuscule manuscript (GA 01, GA 02, etc.). He assigned each minuscule manuscript a single an Arabic number, without dividing them by sections as Tischendorf had. He also marked papyri with a P and lectionaries with an L. The simple system allows for the easy addition of new discoveries, provides clear indications of different categories, and produces an easy-to-find reference for any New Testament manuscript regardless of its shelf number or other name. 

What about Aland in “Gregory-Aland?” Kurt Aland continued Gregory’s cataloging work in the mid-20th century. In 1963, he and some colleagues published Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments, or (Short list of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament), which included many updates to Gregory’s initial work. Today, the Institüt fur Neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) in Münster, Germany, continues to maintain the K-Liste. Thanks to technology, the INTF can present the Liste in an online, regularly updated, format.

The Categories and Numbers

The K-Liste continues to employ the categories Gregory initially assigned. Each New Testament manuscript falls into one of the following four categories:

Papyri – Indicated by a “P” preceding a number, manuscripts written on papyrus fall into this category. The oldest copies of the New Testament are papyri manuscripts.

P52, John Rylands University Library, Manchester, United Kingdom
P46, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Majuscules – Handwriting serves as the criteria for the next category of manuscripts. Majuscule is the Greek equivalent to capital lettering. In ancient culture, majuscule script was prevalent in earlier centuries. Majuscule manuscripts are typically older than the categories that follow. While all papyri manuscripts were written in majuscule, only the majuscules written on a different surface (parchment) fall into this category. Papyri trumps the handwriting designation when it comes to categorization. Majuscule manuscripts are indicated by a “0” preceding an Arabic number.

GA 032
GA 032, Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Minuscules – Also a handwriting-based distinction, the minuscule manuscripts are the large group of documents written in lowercase letters. Minuscule script took on different styles and patterns over the centuries. The large group encompasses all forms of minuscule Greek script in New Testament manuscripts. A simple Arabic number without any other notation signifies a minuscule manuscript.

GA 777
GA 777, National Library, Athens, Greece
Sidebar explains that papyri are sometimes signified by a Gothic P and lectionaries by a cursive l.

Lectionaries – A number following an upper-case “L” indicates a lectionary. Different than any of the preceding categories, lectionaries are grouped based on the function of the book. New Testament lectionaries were arranged and copied for special use in churches and monasteries. These books arranged specific Scripture readings that aligned with the church calendar. Some included readings for every day of the week, while others only included readings for Saturday and Sunday or special church holidays. While different from a continuous text manuscripts in many ways, lectionaries still provide a useful witness to the New Testament text for scholars to employ in their work. These can be written in either majuscule or minuscule handwriting.

GA L 426 (lectionary 429)
GA L 429, National Library, Athens, Greece

The Use and Importance of the Gregory-Aland Numbering System

The Gregory-Aland numbering system provides a common point of reference for New Testament textual scholars. Greek New Testament manuscripts reside in collections all over the world, each with a unique cataloging system. Among the variety of shelf numbers and locations, finding certain artifacts can prove difficult. Both Gregory and Aland contributed to the the single list containing each Greek New Testament manuscript with numerical designations and categories to aid researchers in finding what they’re looking for. 

The K-Liste, begun by Aland and carried on by the team at INTF, includes data about each manuscript—its date, location, shelf number, leaf count, biblical content, material, and more. Today, with the help of online tools, scholars may search among different data points and features to find artifacts. With more than 5,700 extant Greek New Testament manuscripts to work with, the searchable data, categories, and numbering system aid researchers in effectively using the great wealth of information available. 

The system, however, is not flawless. The K-Liste grows with every new discovery. Among discovering new additions to the list, researchers have also identified changes within the list. With more study, scholars have determined on occasion that certain manuscripts with different GA numbers originally belonged to the same manuscript. For example, P67 was determined to be a part of P64. Leaves from L2434 reside in 24 different locations, some of which had different GA numbers until recently. 

Besides problems arising from the need to “combine” manuscripts in the list, sometimes multiple works are discovered in a single codex. One artifact may hold two copies of New Testament text made from different exemplars, at different times, and, sometimes, by different scribes. The CSNTM team encountered this situation with a few different codices in Athens, Greece, at the National Library. The INTF must decide whether the additional material is a supplement or an entirely different manuscript. 

Furthermore, catena manuscripts take forms that differ from most continuous text manuscripts. With commentary integrated into the document alongside or among the New Testament text, scholars sometimes find it difficult to determine whether the manuscript should be considered a New Testament manuscript with commentary or a commentary manuscript containing some NT text and allusions. 

We mentioned just three complicating factors, and we could mention more. The manuscripts of the New Testament were copied, used, shared, and kept in an active and interactive world. The result is complex situations lacking clear-cut distinctions for where they belong. As Gregory wrestled with the complexity of a growing collection of manuscripts when he devised the numbering system, so scholars today navigate the complexities that come with new discoveries. Even so, textual critics continue to use and refer to the Gregory-Aland system when working with New Testament manuscripts. With new tools and increased data, the K-Liste of GA numbers remains a necessary help in working with the text and manuscripts of the New Testament.