Medieval manuscripts blog

09 October 2023

The largest Greek manuscript?

We are always pleased to announce the digitisation of our manuscripts but this blogpost marks a particularly special milestone. Thanks to generous support by Kimberley and David Martin and the Hellenic League, we have been able to digitise one of the largest (and heaviest!) Greek manuscripts in our collections.

A photograph of a very large manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, next to a pencil and pencil sharpener to show the scale.

One of the largest volumes in the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts: Add MS 35123

Add MS 35123 comprises more than 600 leaves, almost 1,300 larger-than-A4 pages, bound tightly between heavy medieval wooden boards that weigh almost 10 kilograms. This giant tome is a late-12th century Biblical manuscript, containing the first eight books of the Old Testament: the five from Moses appended by Joshua, Judges and Ruth.

So if this manuscript only contains part of the Bible, what makes it so enormous? A glance at just one of the volume’s pages will provide the answer: the biblical text in the manuscript is actually enclosed by an extensive commentary, which appears on three margins of every single leaf.

A page from a medieval manuscript of the Greek Octateuch with extensive commentary.

Octateuch with Catena: Add MS 35123, f. 84v

Translated from Hebrew in the 3rd century BC, the Greek text of the books of Moses and the other Old Testament scriptures, known as the Septuagint, was not an easy read for an ordinary Greek reader. Some help was needed to understand its grammar, which reflected the original Hebrew text, and, even more importantly, the unique vocabulary used by its translators. New commentaries were also required to highlight the complex relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Unsurprisingly, many of these commentaries were written by the most renowned and learned of the Church Fathers. By the 7th and 8th centuries, the volume of interpretative Biblical material had grown enough to fill entire libraries. Thankfully, an effective and ‘user-friendly’ way of navigating this material had  been invented many centuries before by ancient scholars working on the Greek classics, particularly the work of the poet Homer.


Homer’s Iliad with marginal commentaries: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v

Scholars working in the library of Alexandria between the 3rd and 1st century BC established a way for students and readers to navigate the enormous amount of scholarship on Homer’s epics. They extracted the most important elements from these commentaries and placed them in the margins of the texts they interpreted. They also devised an elaborate system of symbols emphasising the connection between the main text written in the centre of each page and the commentary excerpts placed in the surrounding margins. The commentaries became very popular elements of school education, being named scholia (‘school material’) as a result.

A detail from the Towneley Homer, showing the system of signs used to link the text with the commentary.

Signs written in red ink connecting marginal commentaries to the main text: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v (detail)

Christian commentators adopted a  similar system. They placed the Biblical text in the centre of each page, written in larger, more prominent characters, adding the commentary around it in smaller letters, so that as much as possible could fit on the page. These Christian commentators also used symbols to connect a particular item in the marginal commentary with the relevant place or line in the Biblical text.

The source of each commentary was more important for Christian compilers than it had been for the ancients. They placed particular emphasis on recording the source of each extract, usually writing them at the beginning of each paragraph in red ink. This commentary, presented as a series of inter-connected extracts accompanying the Biblical text, was later called ’catena’, after the Latin word meaning ‘chain’.

A detail from a manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, showing numerical signs in red ink, connecting the text and commentary.

Numbers in red ink in the left margin connecting the commentary to the central text: Add MS 35123, f. 83v (detail)

Over time, many of the original texts used by these compilers were lost — in some cases they were condemned explicitly as heretical and were deliberately destroyed. The extracts found in the margins of these ‘Catena-Bibles’ have become increasingly valuable to modern biblical scholars. In many cases, they are the only witnesses for once-celebrated works, such as the Commentary on Genesis by Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), both condemned as heretics in the 6th century, and the Commentary on Exodus by Gennadius of Constantinople (d. 471), which is also now lost.


Excerpts from the lost commentary of Diodorus (upper right-hand corner) and Gennadius of Constantinople (abbreviated in the lower right-hand corner): Add MS 35123, f. 84v (detail)

These are just a few of the many exciting sources preserved in this manuscript. A systematic survey of all Catena manuscripts has yet to be completed so there may be more to discover. We invite you to take a look at the online images. If you're lucky, you may be able to spot a new fragment of a lost text.


Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval