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What Is the Codex Vaticanus?

The Codex Vaticanus, which belongs to the Vatican library. Arguably one of the most important translations of the Bible, and one of the oldest, this book, supposedly written in the fourth century AD, contains most of the books of the Greek Bible, with a few exceptions.

Hope Bolinger
What Is the Codex Vaticanus?

In previous articles on Christianity.com, we’ve covered important translations of the Bible throughout the history of the church that have been innovators of translation, literature, or history. These books have ranged from wacky and strange, like the one linked above, to works that have brought forth innovations in technology, such as the Gutenberg Bible.

Today, we’ll cover the Codex Vaticanus, which belongs to the Vatican library. Arguably one of the most important translations of the Bible, and one of the oldest, this book, supposedly written in the fourth century AD, contains most of the books of the Greek Bible, with a few exceptions.

It also goes by the name “B,” while the Codex Sinaiticus goes by the name “A.”

We’ll discuss the historicity of this document, why it’s important, and what we can learn from it in this article.

What Do We Know about the Codex Vaticanus?

We know that it is a 759-page document that had been dated back to the mid-300s AD. However, many of the documents within the Codex Vaticanus appear to have other dates ranging from AD 800-1400s, which has stirred some controversy over the veracity and historicity of the documents.

Some have conjectured that it was written around the time of Constantine when the Emperor “ordered 50 copies of the Scriptures.” This being the case, some of the ways that the text is framed without “ornamentation” can prove that it’s older than many other copies we have of Scriptural texts.

It is considered, by some denominations, to be among one of the holiest documents in the church’s current possession.

We do also know that the book lacks some passages that we may find in our Bibles today. Some of these include the Book of Philemon, Revelation, passages of Hebrews, among others.

Each page of the document has three columns with 40 lines on each, with the exception of books of poetry that would have different line lengths and number of words per line.

Why Is the Codex Vaticanus Important?

Why do scholars put so much stock into a translation that doesn’t even have some of the books of the Bible within it?

It boils down to a number of factors.

First, the closer the document is to the time the events happen, the more likely they can establish the historicity of those events. Think of it this way: the earliest copy we have of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars was written 900 years after the events took place. And yet, historians still use the copies as viable historical documents.

Compare those to the gospels, which were written a few decades after the time of Jesus’ ministry. 

So, if we have a copy of Scripture a mere few hundred years after the events of Jesus, this boosts the evidence of the veracity of the gospels more.

Second, we can do a little compare and contrast with documents from different dates. Say, we have the Codex Vaticanus (AD 350s) and we compare it with the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (AD 400-500). We could see if people added onto the manuscripts. Exaggerated certain details, etc.

Manuscripts from throughout the centuries have been compared and contain very few deviations. We can show that God’s word has not been tampered with over time by pointing at the earliest manuscripts and saying, “See? Scripture now is saying the same thing that Scripture back then said.”

And finally, we have a precious piece of history. If it did, indeed, come from the reign of Constantine, we have an important piece of church history at the Vatican.

Even if it had not, we have a document that is in excellent shape that shows us the writing styles of the time and shows that God’s word can last the test of time.

Why Should We Care about the Codex Vaticanus?

As mentioned above, the closer a manuscript dates back to the time of Jesus, the more of a case for Christ we can make. It’s easy for legends to evolve after several hundred or even thousands of years. But the closer we get to that AD 30 date, the more likely we can prove that Christ existed, was who he said he was and did what he claimed he would do.

We can also compare this old manuscript with newer manuscripts to show that God’s word has not changed over time. Future copiers of manuscripts didn’t add in editorial details to match their whims. They meticulously copied the manuscripts to ensure that the holiness and sanctity of God’s word was preserved, from the time of the Early Church to Constantine and onward.

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Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 500 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, Blaze, (Illuminate YA) Den (releasing July 2020), Dear Hero (releasing September 2020), and Dear Henchman (releasing 2021)  Find out more about her here.


Originally published March 18, 2020.