Codex "B" - Its History
By Dr. James Sightler
Given at the Dean Burgon Society 17th Annual Meeting
Calvary Baptist Church, Brampton, Ontario, Canada

Last year in Hagerstown I spoke about gnosticism, or the ancient theology, and how it has played the roles of antagonist, imitator, and infiltrator of Christianity. In particular it influenced the choice of Greek manuscripts by Westcott and Hort for the English Committee of Revision.

Now we may examine more closely the history of Codex B, the Vatican codex, which is the primary basis of the critical text. F. H. A. Scrivener states "Since the missing portions at the end of the New Testament are believed to have been supplied in the fifteenth century from a manuscript belonging to Cardinal Bessarion, we may be allowed to conjecture, if we please, that this learned Greek brought the codex into the West of Europe.'' This occurred sometime between the establishment of the Vatican Library in 1448 and the earliest catalog of the library, made in 1475, which lists Codex B. As you know Codex B ended at Hebrews 9:14, thus the requirement for the missing portion. W. H. P. Hatch of Harvard, writing in 1939, also believed that Codex B belonged to Bessarion, and Kirsopp Lake and F. Foakes Jackson had earlier expressed the same opinion.

First, we must ask, who was Bessarion? He was born in Trebizond, a city on the Black Sea in Northeast Turkey, or Anatolia, and was christened Basileus. He was educated by the Bishop of Trebizond and later at Constantinople, where he entered the Greek orthodox Basilean order in 1423 and took the name Bessarion, after an Egyptian anchorite of the fourth century. From 1423 to 1433 he studied at Mistra, in the Peloponnesus, under Gemistos Plethon, the neoplatonist professor who had been exiled for heresy by the Emperor of Constantinople.

At this time the Byzantine empire was being pressed on the one hand by the Seljuk Turks who had conquered most of Anatolia, or modern Turkey, and were threatening Constantinople itself, and on the other by the Roman Catholic Church, which wished to impose its temporal authority and theology on the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Roman church promised one fifth of the papal fortune to mount a crusade against the Turks, proposed a council on reunion of the churches, and the hapless Byzantine emperor, John Palaeologus, decided to attend. He made Bessarion Bishop of Nicea in 1437 and in 1439 the Greek delegation traveled to Florence to begin the council. Here we may quote from M'Clintock and Strong's article on Bessarion "at Florence, the two most distinguished former speakers present were Marcus Eugenius, archbishop of Ephesus, and Bessarion--the former firm and resolute against any union with Rome on the terms proposed; the latter, at first vacillating, at last declared for the Latins. He was immediately employed by the pope to corrupt others; and by rewards, persuasions, threats, and promises, eighteen of the Eastern bishops were induced to sign the decree made in the tenth session, declaring that the Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father and the Son; that the Sacrament is validly consecrated in unleavened as well as in leavened bread; that there is a purgatory; and that the Roman pontiff is primate and head of the whole church.

The Greek deputies returned to Constantinople, and were received there with a burst of indignation. The Greek Church rejected all that had been done, and in a council at Constantinople, held, according to their own account, a year and a half after the termination of that of Florence, all the Florentine proceedings were declared null and void, and the synod was condemned. Bessarion was branded as an apostate, and found his native home so uncomfortable that he returned to Italy, where Pope Eugenius IV created him cardinal...and in 1463, Pope Pius II conferred upon him the rank of titular patriarch of Constantinople. " Of course it was the weakened and disorganized state of the Eastern Orthodox Church after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 which made it possible for the Roman pontiff to impose Bessarion as Patriarch by fiat. Many of the Eastern Orthodox leaders had been forced to seek asylum in Italy after the Turkish conquest and were dependent upon the pope's largesse. This position as Patriarch of Constantinople gave Bessarion the authority to take the valuable Codex B from its resting place, of relative disuse, and deliver it to the Vatican library, as we shall see. Scrivener also notes that Bessarion had with him at Florence Codex 209, which is one of the 22 Alexandrian minuscules, so that even at that early stage of his career he was drawn to minority manuscripts.
At the Council of Florence Cosimo de Medici met Bessarion and his mentor, Plethon, and was moved by them to back the establishment of a school at Florence for the study and dissemination of neoplatonic philosophy. Bessarion and Plethon in 1442 founded the Academia Platonica at Florence. Cosimo provided funds for the acquisition of rare manuscripts, including copies of the Corpus Hermeticum, Plato, and Plutarch, as well as biblical manuscripts. He later gave a villa at Careggi, near Florence, to a student and colleague of Plethon and Bessarion, Marsilio Ficino, who was the first to translate the Corpus, Plato, and Plotinus into Latin and carried on the work of the academy. Bessarion himself collected a library of 900 Greek manuscripts which is said to have cost 30,000 gold Florins, and Erasmus was familiar with that library.

Bessarion's penchant for collecting is further manifest by his bringing the head of St. Andrew from Narni to Rome in a great Holy Week procession in 1462, where it was duly deposited in front of the Confession at St. Peter's. The head had been brought to Italy from Patras, in Greece, by Thomas, the Despot of Morea, when his district, the last to be conquered, finally fell to the Turks some years after their victory at Constantinople. Bessarion then had Thomas rewarded with an allowance of 500 eucs d'or a month and supervised the education of his children after his death. When thinking of Bessarion's successes in collecting, whether of skulls or of manuscripts, his rich and varied connections in the Byzantine empire must be remembered.

Cardinal Bessarion was almost elected pope on two occasions, at the death of Nicholas and later at the death of Pius II. The Roman promise of a crusade against the Turks never materialized, and Bessarion died in 1472 at Ravenna and was buried in Rome.

Bessarion's most important literary work was In Calumniatorem Platonis 7 written in 1469 in response to an attack on Plato by the Eastern orthodox theologian George of Trebizond. According to D. P. Walker, Bessarion and Ficino, his colleague and successor at Cosimo de Medici's Florentine Academy, both had derived from Gemistos Plethon the conception of a genealogy of ancient theologians extending from Zoroaster to Plato. In addition Plethon was the source of Ficino's devotion to Orphic magic. Bessarion owned a copy of the Orphic Hymns and Argonautica. In his book Bessarion notes that Plato was a follower of Orpheus and also that Plato, when in Egypt, had learned much from Mosaic writings. Here is syncretism hard at work in the fifteenth century in the highest levels of the Roman church. He suggests that Plato would have been more Christian if he had not been deterred from clearly stating his true religious views by the example of Socrates' forced suicide. To quote Walker "He examines with great detail the resemblances and the differences between Platonic and Neoplatonic triads and the Christian Trinity. All these are typical and persistent themes of the syncretists with whom we are concerned", that is Plethon, Bessarion, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and their patron Cosimo de Medici.

One of George of Trebizond's accusations against Plato was that he practiced and encouraged pederasty. Bessarion thought this charge serious enough to use most of one volume, of the four of which In Calumniatorem consists, refuting it; and, in clearing Platonic homosexual love from imputations of vice, he gives as examples of pure love Orpheus and Musaeus and Socrates and Alcibiades.

You will remember that Orpheus used his music in the seduction of the Thracian youths. Bessarion also excuses Plato for regarding the anima mundi, or Soul of the World, as the third hypostasis, or Third Person of the Trinity. However, it must be stated that Bessarion himself retained orthodox, or more accurately, Roman Catholic Trinitarian views. Bessarion did state, however, that is "Plato, illuminated by the light of nature, wrote these things concerning the One and the first principle of all things and the simplicity and unity of God...Plato sometimes both thought and wrote rightly of divine matters." And again "there is in Plato some semblance of our religion."

According to Robert Byron Bessarion obtained for Plato the official approval of the Roman Catholic Church, by invoking, as a precedent, the neoplatonic doctrines of Michael Psellus and others. Psellus was an eleventh century professor of philosophy and Primer Minister in Constantinople under the Emperor Isaac Comnenus, about twenty years before the Turks had conquered any of Anatolia. It was of course the maladministration of Psellus' ruling group which caused. the defeat of the Greeks by the Turks at Manzikert in 1079 with the loss of most of Anatolia, putting the Turks for the first time on the Aegean coast.

We must now make a brief digression to discuss Gemistos Plethon. He was born in 1360 in Constantinople, and his father was protonotary of the great Cathedral of St. Sophia. In the course of his education he became a neoplatonist and took the name Plethon in honor of Plato. In 1405, as we have noted, he was exiled to Mistra by the Emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Palaeologus, because the Orthodox clergy were outraged at his neoplatonic doctrines. Mistra, a city in the southern portion of the Peloponnesus just three miles from ancient Sparta, was capital of the autonomous despotat of Morea. This district thus bore a relation to Constantinople like that of Canada to Great Britain. It had a long tradition of gnosticism and neoplatonism and was therefore a very congenial place for Plethon. Indeed it was not punishment at all. Bessarion spent ten years with him there, and Plethon's reputation and esteem grew until he was asked, at the age of 80, to accompany Bessarion and the Greek delegation, led by Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, to the Council of Florence in 1439.

Plethon became a judge at Mistra, and Byron states "at Mistra, he was the centre of a secret and exclusive neoplatonic society, and his last years were devoted to the elaboration of a new religion, which he confidently hoped would soon supplant both Christianity and Mahomedanism. ..the intelligentsia of Mistra were the initiates. "

Gennadios, Patriarch of Constantinople, in 1460 said this of Plethon's Book Of The Laws "After God's revelation of Himself, how is it possible that there should be men willing to construct new gods, and attempt to rekindle the unreasoning theogonies that have long been quenched? How can they go back to Zoroaster, and Plato, and the Stoics, gathering a crowd of senseless words?" He then burned Plethon's book. When Plethon died in 1452 Cardinal Bessarion wrote a letter of condolence to his sons in which he said " I hear that our common father and guide, laying aside all mortal garments, has removed to heaven and the unsullied land, to take his part in the mystic dance with the Olympian gods," and called Plethon the reincarnation of Plato.

Now to illustrate the penetration of neoplatonism into Italy, partly as a result of the coming of the Greeks to the Council of Florence, and the character of its influence we may recall that the infamous Sigismondo Malatesta in 1457 disinterred Plethon's bones and buried them in a sarcophagus in the wall of the elaborate church in the city of Rimini which he had built as a memorial to his third wife Isotta. The initials S and I were intertwined around the exterior walls of this church. Malatesta had murdered his first two wives. Plethon's inscription read "the chief philosopher of his time".

There are two sites of literary and monastic effort in the Byzantine empire where Codex B might have been when Bessarion found it. The first, Mistra, which we have already spoken of, is built into the side of a 900 foot mountain and is no longer inhabited. Here there are many ancient churches with many intact frescoes still visible. There are also several monasteries and convents.

According to Scrivener Codex 18, a Byzantine manuscript, was given to one of the monasteries of Mistra by Nicephorus Cannabetes, and it is likely that there were numerous manuscripts in these institutions. Since Bessarion at the Council of Florence already possessed one of the Alexandrian minuscules, I feel that he may have learned of the location of Codex B as well during his tenure at Mistra with Plethon.

The second site where Codex B might have been found is Mt. Athos. There are numerous connections between these two places. Byron states that Manuel Cantacuzene, the first Despot of Morea, presented a jasper cup to the monastery of Vatopedi on Mt. Athos in 1351 during the Hesychast controversy, of which we will say more later. Bryon also points out the similarities between the frescoed decorations of monasteries on Mt. Athos and at Mistra. These links were forged long before the coming of Plethon to Mistra, but Plethon's neoplatonism was clearly related to the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos.

Mt. Athos is a marble and granite mountain which rises some 6700 feet out of the Aegean Sea, three miles long and six miles wide, connected to Thessalonica, or Macedonia, by a narrow isthmus. It is forested and is said to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Mt. Athos is to the Greek Orthodox Church what JERUSALEM is to the Jews or Mecca to the Arabs. According to monastic legend the mother of God, with St. John, sailing to visit Lazarus, was attracted to the beauty of the mountain and claimed it for herself. Since Mary claimed it, no other woman may set foot on it, and by law today no females of any species are allowed except cats, to control rats, and hens, to produce eggs for those monks who are vegetarian. Mrs. Riplinger would certainly not be welcome, but some of her detractors, who attempt to show that the writing of books is equivalent to preaching, might find it a congenial place. Mules are allowed for transportation over the steep trails.

There are today twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries on the mountain and a number of independent sketes or outlying monastic communities with a total population of some 2000. Before the fall of Constantinople there were many more monasteries, as many as 200, and the maximum population was 7,432 in 1903. According to Robert Byron there were in the fifteenth century about 5000 monks from all parts of the Byzantine empire.

At the present time eleven of the monasteries have a cenobitic organization with rule by an abbot, no private personal property, and all monks living and eating in the monastery. Nine have an idiorhythmic organization, so that monks may live, dine, and study independently in their own houses. Many of the monks earn a living by carving icons for sale by mail order throughout the world. There are of course no radios or telephones or phonographs. Athos is visited by thousands of male tourists each year, mostly Greek and European.

There are thousands of Greek manuscripts on Mt. Athos, but before discussing these we must say more about the early history of the monastic movement there.  Within one hundred years of the conquest of Alexandria by the Muhammadans in 640 A.D. there were hermits or anchorites on Athos. Kourilas, as quoted in Choukas, believes that some of the early monks on Athos came there directly from the Egyptian and Syrian deserts. It is also possible that Egyptian monks sought refuge from the Arab conquest by removing to the island of Crete or to Constantinople and remained there for some time.

Then, when in the seventh century the iconoclasts gained control of Constantinople, and in the early ninth century when the Saracens seized portions of Crete, the monks removed to Mt. Athos. In any case when the synod at Constantinople in 842 A.D. celebrated the defeat of the iconoclasts, monks from Athos were present. By 850 A.D. Peter the Athonite and Euthymius of Salonica had established themselves on Athos as hermits. In 875 John Kolobos established a monastery and secured a charter, from the Emperor Basil the Macedonian, which declared the independence of the monastic establishments and made Kolobos the protector of the eremitical monks. In 959 Athanasius the Athonite, a native of Trebizond as was Bessarion four centuries later, settled on Athos and established the Lavra, which was the first of the cenobitic monasteries.

There are over 900 churches and chapels in the monasteries, their walls covered from top to bottom with richly painted Byzantine frescoes, bearing many similarities to those of the churches of Mistra.

As mysticism and neoplatonism were seen in Mistra in the days of Plethon, so it was on Mt. Athos from at least the tenth century and quite possibly earlier, made manifest in the Hesychast movement. Hesychast is a Greek word for quiet or silence. Influenced by the mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius and Simeon Neotheologus, a tenth century abbot in Constantinople, some of the monks of Athos began to practice, and here I quote Adeney " the self-hypnotism of an Indian fakir. Sitting in a corner of his cell, pressing his chin firmly into his breast, fixing his eyes on his navel, and holding his breath as long as possible, till his vision became dim, the devotee passed into... an ecstasy in which he saw himself surrounded by a halo of light, the light of God that shone around Christ at the Transfiguration...he felt himself brought into the presence of God... he sat enthralled, without thought or wish. " This is exactly like New Age Transcendental Meditation, and I believe it is further evidence of the Egyptian origin of some of the early hermits who came to Mt. Athos. These mystics were called omphalopsychoi, that is, one whose soul is in his navel. What better epithet could be found for those who today practice transcendental meditation?

Through the efforts of St. Gregory Palamas in 1351 the Hesychasts were declared by a council in Constantinople to be within the bounds of orthodoxy, and their practice persisted on Athos well into the nineteenth century. Nicolas Zenon notes that this mystical movement was accompanied by a revival of art at both Mistra and Athos, and it is therefore not surprising that in the refectory of the Lavra monastery on Athos there is a fresco with obvious Hermetic influence. This painting is of a family tree and shows a spiritual relationship, or descent, of Jesus to the ancient Greek philosophers, these latter being considered as prophets. Plato in particular is included in the painting, as well as Plutarch. Of course a large majority of monks on Athos were not Hesychasts, or Herrneticists, or neoplatonists, just as the great majority of biblical manuscripts there were of the received text or Byzantine type.

Francis Yates relates that a monk from Macedonia, Leonardo da Pistoria, working for Cosimo de Medici, brought the Corpus Hermeticum to Florence about 1460, where it was translated by Marsilio Ficino. Michael Psellus knew of this manuscript in his day in the eleventh century, and I believe that the Corpus actually came from Mt. Athos, which is a peninsula of Macedonia. I say this because of the mystical and Hermetic influences in religious practice and art on Athos which we have just noted, and I am also convinced that Codex B was found there by Bessarion at just about the same time as the discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum.

Let us now turn to a brief examination of biblical manuscripts at Mt. Athos. Choukas states that Spyridon Lampros in his book, Catalog Of The Greek Manuscripts On Mt. Athos (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1895-1900), found 6000 ms. in 18 of the monasteries and estimated that the libraries of the two monasteries he was not allowed to see, Lavra and Vatopedi, contained 6000 more. These are not all biblical manuscripts; many are homilies, liturgies, works of ancient philosophers, and secular or historical documents. It is interesting that F. H. A. Scrivener's book, A Plain Introduction To The Criticism Of The New Testament, shows in its index 30 references to Mt. Athos covering 53 manuscripts which were found there. At the time of publication of this book in 1883 about 650 New Testament Manuscripts had been found. Therefore about eight per cent were from Athos. The index lists 5 ms. from Patmos, 20 from St., Saba in Jerusalem, 16 from the monastery of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, 20 from Jamina in Epirus, and 6 from St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. For those manuscripts whose origin is known Mt. Athos seems to be the most frequent source. Examination of Hatch's catalog of minuscules shows two more from Athos which were not listed by Scrivener, and still no other source approaches Athos. Furthermore, Hatch's catalog of uncials of 1939, cited previously, lists a total of 7 uncials from Athos, only 4 of which had been cataloged by Scrivener. Of these 6 are Byzantine and one, Codex Alexandrinus, is mixed. Scrivener states that Wetstein, on the authority of Matthew Muttis, a deacon attached to Cyril Lucar, believed that Cyril had obtained Codex A from Mt. Athos. Muttis was instructor in Greek to Wetstein's great-uncle. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake agree with Scrivener and point out that Cyril was on Mt. Athos in 1612-1613. I believe that Codex B as well had been removed from Athos l 50 years before by Bessarion.

From the day that Wycliff published his translation in 1380, the Rolman Catholic Church began to experience anxiety over the maintenance of the authority of the Latin Vulgate. Wycliff’s translation and his theology soon spread to Bohemia, and the followers of Has actually made contacts with the Greek Orthodox Church. This probably served as a spur to the Roman church to attempt reunion with the Eastern church and led to the Council of Florence, which we spoke of earlier. During that council Pope Eugenius IV, who was soon to make Bessarion a cardinal, issued a bull which declared all the books of the Latin Vulgate equally inspired of the Holy Spirit, specifically including the apocrypha. That bull claimed to speak for both branches, East and West, of the church and was the first official statement by the popes on the authenticity and inspiration of the entire canon. It was a transparent attempt at hegemony over the Eastern church, which, while it included the apocrypha in its bibles, had never considered these books inspired or authoritative on the same level as the Hebrew canon. If the Greek church had permanently accepted the Florence agreement, the Roman church eventually would have had a clear path to impose the Latin Vulgate and destroy the Received Text. After the Reformation there was again contact between European Protestants and the Eastern church as the life of Cyril Lukar, Patriarch at first of Alexandria and then of Constantinople, so well illustrates. He had accepted much of Protestant theology and, in 1629, published a confession of faith which rejected the apocrypha and accepted the Apocalypse. In 1624 he presented Codex Alexandrinus, which was Byzantine in the Gospels, to King James. This was intolerable to the Roman church, and so the Jesuits demanded that the Turkish Sultan drown him. It was not until 1672, long after Cyril's assassination, that the Eastern church formally canonized the apocrypha.

Jerome had used manuscripts resembling B and Aleph to prepare the Vulgate. Therefore in I Tim. 3:16 the Vulgate and the Rheims-Douay version do not have " God was manifest in flesh" but " It is a great sacrament of pie~:y which was manifested in flesh. " In Hebrews 7:21 the Rheims-Douay reads only "thou art a priest forever" and omits "after the order of Melchisidek." There are many other instances where the Rheims-Douay approaches the reading of the critical text, and it is easy to see why modern Roman Catholicism can accept the NIV.

Therefore it became the policy of the popes in the century after Wycliff to search out Alexandrian manuscripts for their own sake and for support of the Vulgate. This was also consistent with the syncretism and Hermeticism which had permeated the highest level of the Roman church during this period.  At the Council of Florence in 1439, as we have seen, the Catholic hierarchy found one such Alexandrian minuscule codex, 209, in the hands of Bessarion.

It is an extremely important point to note, as Choukas has, that there were monks from Athos at the Council of Florence with Bessarion and Plethon and the Greek delegation. It may be that Bessarion had obtained Codex 209 from Athos, and it nay also be that he learned at that time or earlier during his sojourn with Plethon at Mistra of the existence and location of Codex B. It is plausible to speculate that Bessarion's elevation to Cardinal after the council and his later appointment as Patriarch of Constantinople in 1463 were facilitated by the Roman church to further its aim of obtaining manuscripts that would support the Vulgate.

It is now no longer necessary to believe that Codices B and Aleph were ever located in Constantinople. Jackson and Lake give the opinion that Codex B "was brought from Alexandria to Sicily by fugitives from the conquering Arabs, in the seventh century, and thence to Calabria. Nothing is known which suggests that it remained in the East until the fifteenth century and was then brought to Rome under the influence of the revival of letters. " Kirsopp Lake demonstrated that Tischendorf was wrong in supposing that the scribe D of Aleph was the same hand that wrote the whole New Testament of Codex B. Furthermore, Herman Hoskier, in Codex B And Its Allies, shows over 3000 differences between B and Aleph in the Gospels alone, which would hardly be expected if these two codices had been written in the same location or under the supervision of one person and as part of a single order from Constantine the Great. These authors also believe that Aleph was written fifty years after B. Even though Tischendorf claimed that B and Aleph were two of the order of fifty bibles delivered to the churches of Constantinople by Eusebius, prepared under his direction, there is no proof of this statement, and I believe he made this claim simply to make it appear that these two manuscripts were respectable enough to be used in the Eastern Orthodox services. No other manuscripts which could be considered to be one of the other forty-eight have ever been found.

Constantinople was not the safest place for manuscripts. It was sacked in 1204 by the crusaders of Pope Innocent III, who also slew all the Albigensians in a later crusade, and again in 1453 by the Turks. The iconoclast controversy in the eighth century sent many monks, along with their treasured possessions which would have included elaborately decorated manuscripts, fleeing for safer abodes. Finally there were nine outbreaks of plague in Constantinople between 1347 and 1431 which reduced the population by over ninety per cent, from one million in 1204 to sixty thousand in 1453.

Both B and Aleph were written in Egypt. I believe that both were there, probably in Alexandria, in 640 A.D. when the Arabs under Amrou captured the city after a siege of fourteen months. I believe they were removed by Egyptian anchorites before the city fell and taken to the island of Crete to be kept, perhaps in the famous Labyrinth cave, known from antiquity, by the monks and their successors until 823 A.D., when the Saracens captured portions of the island. At that time Codex B was taken to Mt. Athos, where the earliest monastic communities were just then arising. The Corpus Hermeticum could have been carried along with it as well. Aleph was taken by other monks to Mt. Sinai, where the monastery of St. Catherine had been built by Justinian in the eighth century. These codices then remained in their respective places until Bessarion took Codex B from Athos in 1463 and Tischendorf retrieved Aleph in 1859.

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