Bible puzzle from the 5th century
This medieval book is quite something. Let me explain. The most important and prolific Bible translation of the Middle Ages was made by St Jerome, who used Greek and Hebrew sources to produce a Latin text that would remain the standard for a thousand years. The translation, known as the Vulgate, was commissioned by Pope Damasus, in 382, and Jerome finished his work not long before 400. When he died, in 420, his translation had already begun to spread over the map of Europe, replacing various inferior translations.
Now behold these fragments from the Gospel of Mark. Admittedly, it does not look like much. They once belonged to a complete manuscript but were recycled to support a later medieval book binding, which explains the glue traces on the page’s surface. Don’t be fooled by the artifact’s appearance, however: the snippets are the earliest witness of the Gospels in Jerome’s translation. The book they were part of was written in Italy around 410, so before Jerome died and in his native country. It is very unusual to have a medieval witness so close in time and space to the original.
What strikes me most as a book historian is that the fragments show how the first proper Latin Bible text was presented to its readers, some 1600 years ago. Notable are for example the cross references to the other Gospels: the detail image shows tiny abbreviations for Matthew, Luke and John with chapter numbers next to it (detail image, left margin). In other words, right from the start the “perfect” Latin Bible came in a user-friendly format. As Jerome would have said: it was about time.
Pic: St Gall, Kantonsbibliothek, Vadianische Sammlung, VadSlg Ms. 292a (c. 410-20). More information, and more images, here. More about such medieval manuscript fragments in this blog I wrote a while back.