Manuscripts 101: Greek New Testament Catena Manuscripts

By: Andrew J. Patton

When asked by the apostle Philip if he understood what he was reading, the Ethiopian Eunuch replied, “How can I . . . unless someone explains it to me” (Acts 8:31). As long as biblical writings have existed, people have sought explanations of them. Many Greek New Testament manuscripts come with a commentary on the Scriptures alongside the biblical text called a catena (plural: catenae). In this Manuscripts 101 post, we will discuss what these commentaries are and why they are important for textual criticism.

GA 34 (Paris, BnF, Coislin 95)

Catenae: A Type of Byzantine Commentary

What is a catena? Catenae are a type of biblical commentary composed of a series of comments from multiple early Christian writers linked together to form a united commentary. The word catena is the Latin word meaning chain. The term aptly describes the way comments are linked together to form a chain of commentary. The Greek-speaking Byzantines who invented this type of literature often called them exegetical excerpts (ἐξηγητικαὶ ἐκλογαί).

The origins of catenae remain somewhat mysterious. This form of commentary seems to have been invented in the sixth century, initially for Old Testament books, and then applied to the New Testament. Traditionally, Procopius of Gaza has been called the “Father of the Catenae.”

Their chain-like format is the defining characteristic of catenae. In more technical language, the comments are called scholia (singular: scholium) or extracts. The persons who compiled catenae drew on the works of many early Christian writers like John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and Origen, taking excerpts from their commentaries or sermons and forming them into a new compilation. The final text is not the original words of the catenist—the person who made the catena—or the study notes or opinions of the manuscript’s scribe. Christians in Byzantium valued having a trustworthy interpretation of the New Testament from authoritative sources over the fresh insights of the compiler. 
Curiously, catenae often include comments from people condemned as heretics such as Apollinaris and Severus of Antioch. Alert to the ways this could bother readers, the preface to the catena on Luke in Codex Zacynthius and other catena manuscripts quotes Cyril of Alexandria’s Letter to Eulogius: “One ought not to avoid and refuse everything which heretics say. For they grant many things which we also grant” (translated by Houghton, Manafis, and Myshrall, 2020). The catenae offer a spectrum of exegetical insights usually presented as one harmonious voice despite the differences of opinion between the writers included and the occasional comments which explicitly highlight differences of interpretation.

GA 362 (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Conv. Soppr. 176)

In many catena manuscripts, comments are introduced with an attribution of its source. In the image above, the copyist indicated that the comments come from Isidore of Pelusia and Gregory of Nyssa in red letters. Some catenists gave these attributions when they created their work, and sometimes the attributions were added by scribes in later copies.

The text of the scholia creates more challenges for researchers than the biblical text because it was transmitted with a higher degree of flexibility. For example, scribes would amend the catena by abbreviating comments or inserting new ones, along with the usual litany of intentional or unintentional changes to the text that come in any manuscript. Researchers classify different catenae in a system used for patristic, medieval, and Byzantine Greek literature called the Clavis Patrum Graecorum which helps us identify the contents of a manuscript and the differences between the text in each catena.

“not every New Testament manuscript with a commentary is a catena manuscript, and not all commentaries are catenae.”

Greek New Testament Catena Manuscripts

Approximately one in five Greek New Testament minuscule manuscripts with a continuous biblical text is a catena manuscript. In addition, a handful of older majuscule manuscripts also include catenae. Codex Zacynthius, an 8th century majuscule codex, is the oldest known catena manuscript.

GA 044, Codex Zacynthius (Cambridge, University Library MS Add. 10062)
Zacynthius is a palimpsest manuscript—meaning its text was scraped off and the parchment reused to form a new manuscript. Recent multispectral images allowed researchers to fully study the biblical text and catena of this important manuscript for the first time.

For nearly 500 years, catenae were the most popular form of commentary in Byzantine manuscripts. While some catenae continued to be copied in the late Byzantine era, preferences definitively shifted to so-called single-author commentaries by theologians like Theophylact the Archbishop of Bulgaria (11th century) and Euthymius Zigabenus (12th century), even though their work was also largely based on earlier commentaries. Thus, not every New Testament manuscript with a commentary is a catena manuscript, and not all commentaries are catenae.

Georgi Parpulov prepared the most extensive catalogue of Greek New Testament catena manuscripts in 2021. It can be searched in an online database maintained by the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham. While Parpulov identifies more than 400 catena manuscripts, not all of them count as Greek New Testament manuscripts because they don’t always include the full biblical text; sometimes only short quotations from the New Testament are used before comments.

Catenae and New Testament Textual Criticism

As a distinct corpus within the mass of Greek New Testament manuscripts, catena manuscripts offer several angles for study in New Testament textual criticism and manuscript studies. First, some catena manuscripts are considered important witnesses to the text of the New Testament, and it is worth exploring whether the fact that the same codex also contains a catena has any bearing on the kinds of variants found in the biblical text. Likewise, recent research has found that many catena manuscripts form textual clusters with related readings so that even those considered less important for reconstructing the text of the New Testament can be further explored as a distinct group and situated within the textual history of the New Testament. 

Second, for much of the twentieth century, the scholia were studied separately by Byzantine or patristic scholars while the biblical text in the same manuscript was studied by New Testament text critics. A more wholistic approach integrates the two studies to see how the two texts relate to one another, what can be learned from the various layouts and paratextual devices used, and what the catenae indicate about making and reading New Testament manuscripts in Byzantium. Studying the whole manuscript will illuminate each area of interest in new ways. 

And finally, though the catena commentaries should be treated and examined as a unique work, studying them can help us cautiously recover the works of early Christian writers which may not have been transmitted completely or at all in Greek. For example, comments from Severus of Antioch in catenae remain the most important Greek witnesses to his writings, which have primarily survived only in Syriac translation. In these ways, the study of Greek New Testament catena manuscripts could generate new findings and deeper knowledge about the text of the New Testament and shed new light on the people who produced and read them.

Read the follow-up blog written by Andrew J. Patton, “The Layout of Greek New Testament Catena Manuscripts.”

Andrew J. Patton is a PhD candidate studying Greek catena manuscripts on the Gospels through the CATENA Project at ITSEE in the University of Birmingham. He has published on catena manuscripts with the so-called ‘Western’ order of the Gospels, collaborated on a catalogue of the Greek manuscripts in Birmingham, and is a co-editor and contributor to That Nothing May Be Lost: Fragments and the New Testament Text. Prior to studying at Birmingham, he worked for CSNTM as the Development Manager and on digitization expeditions.