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Scholars criticise sale of early Christian manuscript

03 January 2014

by a staff reporter


AN EARLY Christian manuscript, the Codex Zacynthius, has been put up for sale by the Bible Society with a price tag of £1.1 million, in order to fund a new visitor centre.

The sale of the Codex, which dates from the sixth or seventh century, has been criticised by British scholars, who fear that it may end up abroad.

Cambridge University Library - where the Codex has been housed since 1985, when the Bible Society moved from London to Swindon - has been given the first refusal on the manuscript, if it can raise the £1.1-million asking price by February.

The Codex is a palimpsest, a manuscript from which the text has been scraped off, or washed off, to allow it to be used again. On the surface this document - made of vellum - contains a 13th-century text, but the "undertext" reveals that it originally held a fragment of St Luke's Gospel, written six or seven hundred years earlier.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, has joined the campaign to raise funds for Cambridge University Library to purchase the Codex. "The presence of the undertext . . . places Codex Zacynthius among the top flight of biblical manuscripts," he said. "Furthermore, it is the oldest extant New Testament manuscript with a commentary alongside the text, making it a witness to both the development and interpretation of St Luke's Gospel."

The Bible Society is selling the Codex, along with eight other manuscripts. Cambridge University Library is considering buying six manuscripts, including the Codex. The anticipated £1.8-million gained by selling all the manuscripts will go towards establishing a new visitor centre in North Wales on Lake Bala.

The Bible Society said in a statement: "The Codex Zacynthius was presented to Bible Society in 1821 by General Colin Macaulay, as a gift from Prince Comuto of Zakynthos. . .

"Bible Society would like to see the manuscripts remain available to the public, and, therefore, Cambridge University Library has been given first refusal. Bible Society's royal charter requires us to use our resources to promote the 'circulation and use' of the scriptures. We will ensure that any proceeds from a sale are used to support this important work.

"The centre in Wales will tell the story of the Bible's impact in Wales, the birthplace of the Bible Society movement, and, through Wales, the rest of the world. The cost is over £1 million. The funding is not only coming through the sale, but through donations from national Bible societies throughout the world, and some generous individuals. General charitable donations are not being used."

But the former head of collections at the British Library, now president of the religious archives group, Dr Clive Field, said that the sale of the manuscript by the Bible Society was "regrettable".

"If the Bible Society starts creaming off items for a project, however worthy, it is the start of a slippery slope. I believe the Codex could be the single most valuable item in the Bible Society's collection.

"The Bible Society's decision to sell important and unique biblical items from its heritage collection is regrettable, and some of its donors and legators may well feel a betrayal of the Society's past. It also begs the question of what further sales from the collection the Society may contemplate in future."

The Library had little time in which to raise the money, he said, and "there is a fair chance that it will be sold to a foreign institution, or a private collector, and thus be lost for the nation".

The sale of the manuscript is being handled by Christie's.

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