Harold Idris Bell - 1942 - defends binding by Douglas Cockerell properly ripped by Kirsopp Lake

Steven Avery

JSTOR - A Reply - Harold Idris Bell

These are on copyright, so I plan to use fair use extracts

Kirsopp Lake Review, Jan 1942

Plus I count about 15 possibly interesting articles with a search like this:

This could be done at a University Library.


27th April, 1942
To the Editor of “Classical Philology’’

In the issue of Classical Philology for January, 1942, appeared a valuable review by Prof. Kirsopp Lake of Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus by H. J. M. Milne and T. C. Skeat, published by the Trustees of the British Museum. I should be grateful if you would allow space in which to reply to one criticism which the reviewer levels, not indeed against the authors of the book in question, but against the policy of the British Museum in the binding of the Codex.

I should like, however, first to express the appreciation which the two authors, no less than myself, feel for Prof. Kirsopp Lake’s review. It was, if I may say so, by far the most helpful and constructive notice which the volume has so far received, and such dissentient criticism as it contains of views expressed by Messrs. Milne and Skeat will be very carefully considered by them.

It is in regard to the binding of the Codex that Prof. Kirsopp Lake’s opinions seem especially to call for an answer; and since I was Keeper of the Manuscripts at the time of the acquisition and in that capacity advised the Trustees to have the manuscript bound, I feel that it is on me that the duty falls of stating the case for this policy.

After quoting the authors’ remark that “the process of binding would present such an opportunity for examining the book, both from the technical and paleographical standpoint, as would never occur again,” Prof. Kirsopp Lake writes: “Why, after enjoying this opportunity themselves, have they acquiesced in the policy of rebinding the Codex and so prevented all others from seeing it under the same advantageous conditions? To me, at least, it seems certain that a codex such as the Sinaiticus ought not to be bound but kept in a box. This was the policy of the librarian at Leningrad, and the result was that I was able to photograph it under favorable conditions.”

It is undeniably true that for certain purposes it is more convenient to handle unbound leaves than a bound volume. But Prof. Kirsopp Lake seems to forget that this is but one side of the position; he ignores another, and in my view even more important, responsibility of a librarian. A librarian’s first duty is surely that of conservation: he is responsible for seeing that the treasures committed to his care are preserved safely for the use not merely of contemporary scholars but of an indefinite number of future generations. Only subject to that over-riding responsibility can he make a volume accessible to any individual student or for any particular purpose. Now from this point of view I do not think that there can be any doubt as to which is the preferable policy. The leaves of the Codex Sinaiticus are extremely thin and often very brittle. At every handling there was a risk that portions of the edges would break away, and the vellum was constantly tending to “cockle” and the corners to turn inwards. Moreover it is very much more difficult to guarantee the safety of single leaves than of a bound volume. A collection of unbound leaves must be carefully counted (which, given the fallibility of man, means in effect counting at least twice) every time it is used, and both before and after issue to a reader. And the risk of the theft or loss of single leaves, even while they are reposing in their box, is considerably greater than with a bound volume. I may remind Prof. Kirsopp Lake that when he saw the Codex in Leningrad he was still able to photograph some scraps from Genesis and Numbers. These scraps never reached the British Museum. It is possible that they are still at Leningrad, but I have no information on this point, and we must, I fear, provisionally allow for their disappearance at some date between the photographing and the sale to the British Museum.

There is another consideration on which I would lay no great stress, for it is of a less ponderable kind than the risk of physical loss; but it is worth mentioning and is not without weight for any librarian or bibliophil. The Codex Sinaiticus is not just an article, a mere tool of textual criticism; it is a book, of venerable age and hallowed by its history and associations. It was bound in antiquity and later rebound at least once, and it was by a mere accident of fortune that it came into Tischendorf’s hands as a collection of loose leaves. To bind it, even in its imperfect state, with all the skill of the best modern craftsmanship (and Mr. Douglas Cockerell’s competence and taste are everywhere acknowledged), will seem to many an act of piety.

I do not forget that, as Prof. Kirsopp Lake remarks, the librarian at Leningrad did not bind the Codex. It is not for me to criticise the Russian authorities, particularly as I do not know whether their policy was temporary only or intended to be permanent. I can only say that each librarian must settle his own problems to the satisfaction of his own conscience. It seems likely that demands for access to the Codex will be more frequent, and the risks of loss or damage consequently greater, in London than at Leningrad. I cannot expect Prof. Kirsopp Lake, whose case is, from his own point of view, unanswerable, to agree with the decision of the Trustees, but I ask him to believe that that decision was not taken without full consideration of various points of view. It is perhaps the greatest of human difficulties that we are so often confronted with a conflict of responsibilities, one of which must be sacrificed to the other; and librarians are no more exempt than their fellow men from this problem.

I am, Sir,

Yours truly,
H. Idris Bell
Keeper of Manuscripts

Department op Manuscripts

British Museum London,
W.C. 1
Book Reviews

Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus.
By H. J. M. Milne and T. C. Skeat.
Published by the Trustees of the British Museum, 1938.

The Codex Sinaiticus was acquired from the Monastery of Mount Sinai by the Czar, through his representative, Constantine Tischendorf, under conditions which have never been fully cleared up. It was published by Tischendorf and, more recently, in photographic facsimile by myself; and it remained safely in the great public library in Leningrad until 1933, when, after rather prolonged negotiations, it was sold by the government of the U.S.S.R.

The reason for the sale has not always been quite understood. The Russian government needed money, of course, but it was willing to let go this great Codex because it is trying to concentrate its powers on the collection of manuscripts belonging to peoples more closely associated with its past history. Thus, for example, Leningrad and Moscow have become primarily collectors of Slavonic manuscripts, while their Georgian codices have been sent to Tiflis and their Armenian to Etchmiadzin. Greek manuscripts, being non-Russian, were regarded as suitable for trading purposes, to obtain money which was badly needed for the renovation of libraries and museums.

Thus the Codex Sinaiticus came on the market. It was offered to at least one American library, but the price asked was too high. Ultimately, the highest bidder was the British Museum. The Codex reached London on December 27, 1933, and the present volume by Milne and Skeat, prepared on the basis of a study of the manuscript in its new home, is a magnificent example of exact scholarship and lucid exposition.

The most permanent contribution of Milne and Skeat to paleography will probably be the new light they have thrown on the importance of the ornamentation which goes with the subscriptions of the individual books. Their contention is that the coronis is so fixed an element in the method of each scribe that it amounts to a signature. This section of their works seems to me to be most convincing and provides a clue for the identification of scribal schools which will be enormously valuable.

But more spectacular is a discovery by the use of the ultraviolet lamp. Tischendorf always thought that the last verse of John looked unnatural and believed that it was written by a different scribe, inferring that it was missing in the original text. The opinion of other scholars who had seen the Codex was, on the whole, adverse to Tischendorf’s view, though they agreed that there was something queer in the appearance of that verse. Milne and Skeat, plus the ultraviolet lamp, have solved the problem. It is now absolutely certain that the last verse of the Gospel was omitted and a coronis added to show the end had been reached—but the original scribe noted the omission, washed out what he had drawn, and put in the missing verse. There can be no further doubt on the subject. Tischendorf’s insight has been remarkably confirmed; but, of course, the omission of the verse has now no critical importance. It was merely a scribal error, corrected immediately.

On two points the treatment given the Codex by the British Museum seems to me to be open to criticism. It reached London in the same condition as it was in when Tischendorf saw it on Mount Sinai and I saw it in Leningrad—unbound. The editors say: “Since the process of binding would present such an opportunity for examining the book, both from the technical and palaeographical standpoint, as would never occur again, it was decided that the entire description given in Tischendorf s great edition should be compared afresh with the original.” The new comparison has not been reprinted, but the main results are given in this book. The complete comparison has merely been handed over to the editors of the Cambridge Septuagint and the Oxford "New Tischendorf.”

This seems to me to be unfortunate. The two editors, Dr. Milne and Dr. Skeat, are among the most competent in the world, but they are human. Questions will surely arise which, as they admit, can be investigated only when the leaves are loose. Why, after enjoying this opportunity themselves, have they acquiesced in the policy of rebinding the Codex and so prevented all others from seeing it under the same advantageous conditions? To me, at least, it seems certain that a codex such as the Sinaiticus ought not to be bound but kept in a box. This was the policy of the librarian at Leningrad, and the result was that I was able to photograph it under favorable conditions.

It is also a pity that the British Museum made no effort, so far as is known, to complete this publication by a study of the leaves which are in Leipzig. These are in some ways the most important of all, because they have been so thoroughly corrected and because of their close connection with the Codex Pamphili. When I published the photographic facsimile of the Codex Sinaiticus I included the Leipzig leaves, and surely the editors of the present volume could have gone to Leipzig for a week to complete their study. German scholars, before the war, were always hospitable, and there could have been no difficulty.

Moreover, in merely handing over their corrections to the editors of the Septuagint at Cambridge and of the “New Tischendorf” at Oxford, Milne and Skeat (or more probably the trustees of the British Museum) have missed a chance of really benefiting students of the Septuagint and the New Testament. The paleographical commentary on the Codex which Tischendorf published was one of the most perfect examples that have ever been published of what such a commentary should be. But it is now almost unattainable and very expensive. To have republished it with Milne’s and Skeat’s corrections and notations would have given us a great book, and it ought not to have been terribly expensive. To pass these corrections over to be incorporated in the Cambridge Septuagint or in the “New Tischendorf” merely means that in future we must take the opinion of the editors of these books, instead of being given the evidence.

The problems concerning the Codex—apart from its textual value—are in the main three: (1) Where was it written? (2) How many scribes wrote it? (3) How often was it corrected?


The provenance of the Codex has recently been dealt with by Rendel Harris, Lagrange, and myself. Lagrange discussed the point in an article in the Revue biblique for 1926 (pp. 91 IT.), but his argument is merely that, since the manuscript was in Caesarea in the sixth century, it probably was written there.

Rendel Harris first discussed the matter in a paper, never published in full, which he read to the University Philological Association in Baltimore in 1884, but he elaborated the theme in a lecture given in Oxford in 1893 and published his argument in an appendix to his very valuable book on stichometry. Some of his points cannot be appreciated without a full discussion of Euthalius, which, in turn, cannot be undertaken until we have a proper critical edition of Euthalius. But his main contention is that Euthalius was connected with Caesarea and that the Codex Vaticanus was connected both with Euthalius and with the Codex Sinaiticus. Therefore, א and B and Euthalius all came from Caesarea. Moreover, he argued that a mistake in Matt. 13:54 indicates that the Codex Sinaiticus comes from Caesarea.

(continues - available online)

Kirsopp Lake

In my Codex Sinaiticus I took a different view. Accepting the fact that B came from the same scriptorium as א I argued that this suggested that both of them came from Egypt, probably from Alexandria, because the text of the Psalms in the Codex Sinaiticus is the same as that in the Coptic text of the Pistis Sophia and also because the chapter numeration in the Pauline epistles shows that the Codex Vaticanus had originally accepted a strange order found in the Coptic version but had corrected it in accordance with the advice given by Athanasius.

The treatment of this question by Milne and Skeat seems to me inadequate and even misleading. They do not give the arguments which have been presented either for Caesarea or for Alexandria but dismiss them by saying that the discussion of these points lies outside the scope of their work and that they are, in any case, very indecisive. But they then go on to quote the mistake in Matt. 13:54 and apparently regard that as having great weight in favor of Caesarea. Surely, however, this point has very little importance for the solution of the problem of where the scribe was writing. The Empire was largely a unit, and scribes were not bound to remain in the place where they were born and brought up. A notable illustration of this is the Codex Amiatinus, written by an Italian scribe, but in Northumbria. Similarly, the scribe of the Codex Sinaiticus may have been born or have, at some time, lived in or near Antipatris and have been thinking of it as he worked, but this proves nothing as to the place where he was writing.


Moreover, I fail to see why Milne and Skeat think that textual evidence should be ignored in an article on the provenance of a manuscript, for such evidence is often much the best. At the same time, I would be far from wishing to claim that the matter is settled. The arguments for Alexandria are not decisive, any more than those for Caesarea. I merely regret that Milne and Skeat have not discussed the matter more fully.


Milne and Skeat have had an opportunity such as no one else has had since Tischendorf, for they have been able to sit down, day by day, and compare one page with another. Tischendorf had this opportunity. I did not. except in one curious way—the process of developing the plates gave me a clearer impression of variation than anything else, because the difference between scribes is represented and even magnified by the difference in the way that the image “comes up.” I found that Tischendorf was marvelously correct, and Milne and Skeat agree, with one serious exception. They distinguish three scribes (A, B, and D), as did Tischendorf, but they do not think that there was also a fourth (C), who wrote the poetical books of the Old Testament. Thev maintain that these were written partly by D (Pss. 1:1—92:3) and partly by A, who wrote the rest. When I was in ILeningrad I found it difficult to recognize C, but in the end thought that Tischendorf was probably right. I quite failed to note the change of script after Ps. 92:3 but do not doubt that Milne and Skeat are right on this point, though I still have some slight qualms about their rejection of C.

Milne and Skeat give an interesting discussion of another doubtful point —as to whether the scribes of the Codex wrote from dictation. They think that orthographic mistakes are often due to this practice. They seem to overlook the mental procedure of copyists. Some copy letter by letter, others word by word, still others phrase by phrase. In effect, the two latter types are dictating to themselves, and they spell according to their own fashion. Milne and Skeat refer to this on page 57, but only to pass it over. Thus, perhaps, the writers are hardly justified in stating that the Sinaiticus was undoubtedly written from dictation. Moreover, in the preceding paragraph they suggest that dictation dropped out of use with the rise of monasticism. When do they think that monasticism began? Personally, I think that the use of dictation in scriptoria is very doubtful. I accept most of Ohly’s reasoning and am inclined to hold that the argument from orthography is nearly worthless. Some people can copy correctly, others cannot. In the Codex Sinaiticus, scribe B spelled differently from A, and worse. Surely that does not prove that B was listening to dictation and A was not, but merely that B spelled badly. Probably Milne and Skeat have very good secretaries in the British Museum; but there are other kinds, and their mistakes are not made only when they are listening to dictation.


Tischendorf correctly laid the true foundation for the discrimination of the correctors by showing that there were two groups (A and B), contemporary with the Codex, and a third (C), possibly as much as three centuries later. I argued that these can be subdivided still further. Milne and Skeat, on the contrary, think that the differences of script in correctors A and B do not point to multiplicity of scribes. They believe that all the corrections grouped as A and B were made by scribes A and D of the original manuscript, who merely made the corrections less carefully and varied their handwriting from time to time.

I would not flatly deny their conclusion, because I have great respect for their judgment, but I hesitate to accept it. Their argument is that certain slight peculiarities of the original scribes are reproduced in the corrections of group A. This had been noted already, so far as the correctors A1 and A2 are concerned. But are the corrections in the A group also by the same hand? No one denies that they are in a different script, but Milne and Skeat argue that this merely shows that the original scribe used a variety of forms. “Hard to believe, but not impossible”—to my mind—and I think that Milne and Skeat are too much influenced by their belief that the Codex was the work of professional scribes, not of monks.

Why? There were plenty of monks by 360, and there was surely a scriptorium in connection with the library of Caesarea and another in the Catechetical School at Alexandria. Both Eusebius and Athanasius busied themselves with the mass production of manuscripts, and I see no reason to suppose that this production was not in the hands of ecclesiastical scribes. Of course, there may have been no inclosed convents, such as at Sinai or S. Saba, until later—but there were monks; and monks, not the buildings they lived in, are the important thing. Altogether the treatment of the A corrections seems to me to lack the certainty which Milne and Skeat assert for it, and I still incline to the belief that the variation in script points to a variety of scribes.

The case of B corrections is similar. Milne and Skeat think that all the B corrections are by the same hand and that this can be identified with that of scribe A of the manuscript. I am much more inclined to accept this than the identification of all the A corrections with the hand of scribe D of the manuscript.

The corrections called C are a different matter. Here Milne and Skeat do not differ greatly from the views entertained by Tischendorf and somewhat further elaborated by myself. Especially important is the fact that they are inclined to agree that the scribe who used the manuscript of Pamphilus to correct the text or a part of the Old Testament is not identical with any of the other C scribes. I think that this is right, and it is, of course, of great importance for the textual value of this part of the Codex.

It would be improper to finish this review without again expressing the gratitude which all scholars will feel to Milne and Skeat for the extremely valuable book which they have given us. They have dealt with a series of difficult and delicate problems in an extremely lucid manner; and, if I have ventured to differ from some of their views, it is not because I am certain that they are wrong but because I think that there is still room for doubt.

Kirsopp Lake
Haverford, Pennsylvania
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Steven Avery


Today I would like to share a little aside about the celebrated book-binding of Sinaiticus done by Douglas Bennett Cockerell (1870-1945) of the British Museum in the 1930s.

One place where the comments were clear-cut were in a review by Kirsopp Lake (1872-1946), who was very well informed on the ms., having photographed Sinaiticus in London and Leipzig, and published in 1911 and 1922.

The excerpts will be from:

Classical Philology
Reviewed Work: Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus by H. J. M. Milne, T. C. Skeat
Review by: Kirsopp Lake
Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 1942), pp. 91-96

Harold Idris Bell (1879-1967) gave a response, but it was rather milquetoast and unconvincing.
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Steven Avery

Newsreel Footage of Codex Sinaiticus from 1933
Brent Nongbri - Feb 13, 2019

From comments like Lake’s and Bell’s, I had been under the impression that the British Museum received a box of completely disconnected leaves with only fragments of earlier bindings surviving. But some fascinating newsreel footage from British Movietone (courtesy of the AP) shows that when the British Museum received the manuscript, the individual quires were still intact. If you listen closely, you can hear the leaves crinkle as the happy new owners mash the delicate leaves:

Oldest Bible Comes To British Museum (1933)
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