- Codex "B" - Its History
By Dr. James Sightler
- Given at the Dean Burgon Society 17th Annual
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
From the day that Wycliff published his translation in 1380, the Roman
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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