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Palimpsest Codex stays in Cambridge

19 September 2014


ONE of the most important early biblical manuscripts, the Codex Zacynthius, is to stay in the UK, after Cambridge University Library successfully raised the £1.1 million needed to buy it.

The manuscript, which dates from the end of the seventh century, was owned by the Bible Society, but has been housed in the Library for 30 years. It was donated to the Society in 1921 by General Colin Macaulay, as a gift from Prince Comuto of Zakynthos, after which is it named.

The Bible Society put the Codex up for sale in order to raise money for a visitor centre in Wales, and scholars feared that a new buyer might take it abroad. But the University Library was able to raise the funds after the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) recognised the importance of the manuscript, and donated £550,000 to secure its home in Britain.

The Codex is a palimpsest - a manuscript from which the original text has been scraped or washed off to allow it to be used again. On the surface, the vellum manuscript contains a 13th-century text, but underneath, the "undertext" reveals that it originally held a fragment of St Luke's Gospel, copied in the seventh century. The recycling of manuscripts was common at the time when writing materials were expensive.

The overtext contained the evangeliarium, portions of the four Gospels read during services. Although the undertext was first deciphered in the 19th century, it is hoped that new techniques will throw fresh light on its contents.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, who supported the fund-raising campaign by Cambridge, said: "The discovery and identification of the undertext represents a fascinating detective story. By securing the manuscript, we hope that multispectral imaging techniques will enable scholars to recover fully the hidden text."

The head of the NHMF, Fiona Talbott, said: "The Codex Zacynthius has been part of the UK's heritage for over 200 years and is a truly fascinating and unique object. Our trustees felt it was incredibly important that it should be safeguarded so future generations can explore its undiscovered secrets."

A spokesman for the University of Cambridge said that the remainder of the £1.1 million had been raised in individual donations and money from trust funds.

The sale of the Codex means that the Bible Society has now raised the money needed to build its visitor centre in Wales, which will tell the story of the Bible's impact in Wales and the rest of the world. A spokeswoman for the Bible Society said that no other manuscripts were being sold.

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