British Library – United Kingdom

The British Library is the National library of the United Kingdom. It is the single largest library in the world in terms of the number of items catalogued. It holds 170 million items from many countries, in many languages and in many formats, both print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings. The Library’s collections include 14 million books, along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 B C.

The British Library receives copies of all books produced in both the United Kingdom and Ireland. It also receives a significant portion of overseas books distributed in the UK. The library adds about 3 million new works every year.

In 1973, the British Library Act formally detached the library department from the British Museum. This would eventually become the British Library. In 1997, the British Library was moved to a new location.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is widely regarded as a cornerstone document on liberty and self-determination in the English-speaking world. From the Latin meaning “Great Charter,” the Magna Carta was a charter agreed to by King John England on June 12, 1215. This afforded protection of church rights, protection against illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. 

Though several iterations of it ensued, the Magna Carta became part of English political life. Each monarch renewed the carter,  although as Parliament gained it power and passed new laws – the document lost some of its practical significance. Its symbolism and importance was set.

“At the end of the 16th century there was an upsurge in interest in Magna Carta. Lawyers and historians at the time believed that there was an ancient English constitution, going back to the days of the Anglo-Saxons, that protected individual English freedoms. They argued that the Norman invasion of 1066 had overthrown these rights, and that Magna Carta had been a popular attempt to restore them, making the charter an essential foundation for the contemporary powers of Parliament and legal principles such as habeas corpus. Although this historical account was badly flawed, jurists such as Sir Edward Coke used Magna Carta extensively in the early 17th century, arguing against the divine right of kings propounded by the Stuart monarchs. Both James I and his son Charles I attempted to suppress the discussion of Magna Carta, until the issue was curtailed by the English Civil War of the 1640s and the execution of Charles.

The political myth of Magna Carta and its protection of ancient personal liberties persisted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until well into the 19th century. It influenced the early American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the formation of the American Constitution in 1787, which became the supreme law of the land in the new republic of the United States.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Did You Know?

In the world today, there are only 24 known copies to be in existence. Once the Magna Carta was ratified, copies were made and distributed throughout England.

Gutenberg Bible 

The Library has two copies of Johann Gutenberg’s Bible, the first book to be printed using his printing technique and press, which came about in the 1450s.

Johann Gutenberg’s (1395 – 1468) Bible is probably the most famous Bible in the world. It is the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type.

Gutenberg’s invention allowed the mass production of books for the first time and changed the world. Before Gutenberg, every book (outside of Asia where some printed books had been produced much earlier) had to be copied by hand. Now it was possible to speed up the process without sacrificing quality. His invention did not make him rich, but it laid the foundation for the commercial mass production of books, which subsequently meant that books soon became cheaper, and available to a much broader spectrum of society.

What’s the Point?

Arguably the most important invention in history, the printing press ensured that texts no longer had to be transcribed by hand. This forever removed human error at least in so far as making copies of manuscripts and other documents. Interestingly enough, the first Book ever to be produced off the press was the Latin language Bible.

In its last edition of the 20th Century, Time Magazine considered who was the most important/influential person of the previous millennium. The managing editor of the magazine selected Johannes Gutenberg. He was the clear-cut choice. What was the reason? He invented the movable type Printing Press in 1445.

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Johann Gutenberg and his associates, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, printed the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. Only 48 copies are known to have survived, of which 12 are printed on vellum and 36 on paper. Twenty are complete, two of them at the British Library, one printed on paper and another on vellum. Many copies, including the British Library’s paper copy, married the new technology of printing with the old, and contain hand-painted decorations to imitate the appearance of an illuminated manuscript. 

This opening page begins with a large letter ‘l’ which fills most of the left-hand margin. Similarly, in the second column the letter ‘P’ extends into the space between the columns. Inside the letter is King Solomon wearing a white crown and red-and-white cape. In addition, the page is decorated with birds and a climbing monkey.

Codex Sinaiticus 

Early Versions of the New Testament testify to its authenticity. The Apostles wrote the New Testament in Koine Greek. There are several copies of the entire New Testament that date within a few hundred years of its writing. Some of the earliest versions are shown here. Note that the term “codex” simply means “book form”.  At this point in history, books began to be used as opposed to scrolls or parchment.

The Codex Sinaiticus (350AD): the oldest copy to date that has been found of the entire New and Old Testaments.

Did You Know?

The Codex Vaticanus (325AD) is a bit older and contains all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. This is located in the Vatican – hence the name.

The literal meaning of ‘Codex Sinaiticus’ is the Sinai Book. The word ‘Sinaiticus’ derives from the fact that the sacred manuscript was preserved for centuries at St Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai in Egypt.

The Codex is the remains of a huge hand-written book that contained the entire Old and New Testaments along with a few other 1st Century Christian writings. The Codex has over 1,460 pages.

Just over half of the original book has survived, now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University Library (Germany), and the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg. The British Library has the largest surviving portion (i.e., 347 leaves, or 694 pages). The library has the entire New Testament.

All the texts written down in the Codex are in Greek. They include the translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The Greek text is written using a form of capital or upper case letters known as Biblical “majuscule” and without word division or punctuation marks. The pages of the Codex are of prepared animal skin called parchment. 

It is believed that four scribes were responsible for copying the Greek text. This is the conclusion after painstaking analysis of handwriting, spelling and method of marking the end of each of the books of the Bible.

During the production of the Codex, each scribe corrected his own work. One may also have corrected and rewrote parts by another. Further extensive corrections appear to have been undertaken later in the 7th Century. 

The Codex is critical to our understanding of the history of the Christian Bible and the development of Christianity. It is one of the two earliest surviving manuscripts into which the full ‘canon’ (collection of accepted texts) of the Christian Bible was copied into one volume. It is thus the antecedent of modern Christian Bibles. Before this date the individual books of the Bible were copied into much smaller volumes, often comprising only one or a handful of texts. The ambition of the Codex to include the entire canon of Christian scriptures coincides with the adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine the Great and an attempt to formally recognize the texts that qualified as sacred scripture.

The Codex also marks a pivotal point in the history of the book. It is arguably the first large bound book to have been produced. For one volume to contain all the Christian scriptures book technology had to make a great technological leap forward. This advance was something akin to the introduction of printing with movable type or the introduction of personal computers. Whereas most previous bound books, as opposed to rolls, were relatively short and small in page size, the Codex was huge in length and large in page size.

The Codex Sinaiticus may have been the world’s first large bound book into one volume. 

The British Library acquired its portion of the Codex Sinaiticus in 1933. Over half of the price paid, £100,000, was raised via a public fund-raising campaign. The Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin, sold the Codex to obtain needed foreign capital.

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When you compare early versions of the New Testament with one another, they are virtually identical!