Readers of Bible commentaries and articles on the Bible are often informed by learned authors that a particular word or phrase is found in the Septuagint—and that, therefore, the Septuagint substantiates the learned author’s point. Readings from this ancient Greek translation are often cited when a modern researcher feels that they are superior to the wording preserved in the traditional Hebrew Bible, known as the Masoretic text.

Unsuspecting readers may think Greek text of the Septuagint has been transmitted in only one form and that it is an easy matter for scholars to determine its original wording in every instance. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As is true of any written work from antiquity, the text of the Septuagint has been subjected to innumerable changes, conscious and accidental, as it was copied and recopied over the centuries. It is the textual critics’ job to collect and evaluate the thousands of variant readings thus produced, in an effort to arrive at the earliest recoverable reading for each verse of the Greek Old Testament.

In this task, textual critics of the Septuagint are confronted with hundreds of manuscripts, some almost complete, others extant only in fragments. When textual critics find distinctive readings in several manuscripts, they are able to join them together to form textual “families.” These families may be described in terms of origin and text-type, and individual manuscripts may also be characterized these ways. However, any such general comments must be carefully nuanced. Today we recognize that the textual character of many manuscripts varies considerably from book to book, or section to section, of the Bible. Moreover, an authentic, original reading of the Septuagint may be uniquely preserved in a late manuscirpt of generally poor quality.

In the study of Septuagint manuscripts, pride of place has traditionally been given to a few copies that are relatively old, relatively complete and quite beautifully written. The most famous are the trio known as Codex Vaticanus (top photo), Codex Sinaiticus (bottom photo) and Codex Alexandrinus (middle photo). The first two date to the fourth century and the third to about a century later. They appear to have a common Egyptian origin. They also share several other characteristics: Each is a codex, or leaf book, a form made popular (if not invented) by Christians; each is written on vellum, specially prepared lamb skin; the scribe of each used an uncial script (a modification of the all-capital letter formations used primarily in inscriptions); finally, each was subjected to numerous alterations and corrections through erasures, interlinear markings and marginal notations.

The scribes of these manuscripts made only sporadic use of many features that we take for granted in modern printed texts: punctuation marks, word divisions, verse and paragraph divisions, initial capital letters for proper names, breathing marks (for Greek texts), quotation marks and so forth. The lack of these features (and they are missing in virtually all manuscripts of the Septuagint) doubtless caused confusion in antiquity and continues to allow for considerable differences of opinion among researchers to this day.

Interestingly enough, these three so-called greater uncial manuscripts are not copies of each other. In external format and in text-type, they vary. Our knowledge of their origins is largely a matter of scholarly guesswork. We are somewhat better informed of their subsequent history, at least from the early modern period on. Of Codex Alexandrinus, for example, we know that it was sent to England in the early 17th century by one Cyril Lucar, patriarch of Alexandria (and of Constantinople). Earlier, it had belonged to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, hence its designation as Alexandrinus. It has been housed at the British Museum since 1757.

It is unclear how and exactly when Codex Vaticanus reached the Vatican (from which it takes its name). It is catalogued in some early, 15th-century lists of prized possessions of the Vatican Library, and has been housed there ever since, except for a brief sojourn in Paris as a prize of war during the Napoleonic period.

Codex Sinaiticus became known to Western scholars much later than the other two—in the mid-1800s. The honor of discovery, in the Convent of St. Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai (hence its designation, Sinaiticus), belongs to a colorful German scholar and adventurer, Konstantin von Tischendorf. There is still controversy and some rancor over the means he used to obtain this important ancient witness to the Septuagint. It is now on view at the British Museum.

Earlier generations of textual critics tended to rely almost exclusively on these admittedly impressive uncial manuscripts. And there can be no doubt that they frequently retain original readings in their text or corrections. However, today’s critics also study these manuscripts that number more than 1,500 (including fragmentary remains) and are to be found in museums and libraries throughout the world. But scholars recognize something that their predecessors tended to overlook: The age or condition of a manuscript is not an infallible guide to the age or condition of its text. A late copy may preserve an early reading.

Today’s critics also have the advantage of looking at material even older than the fourth- and fifth-century uncials. Included in this material are fragments written on papyrus and discovered in large numbers, mostly in Egypt, over the past century or so. Although the papyrus fragments vary considerably in age and quality, some take us well back in to the pre-Christian era, to a period near the time of the original Greek translation of some parts of the Bible. Fragmentary remains in Greek have also been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Finally, the Septuagint itself was translated into other languages. A full exploration of the Septuagint text would require us to take into account manuscripts translated from Greek into other languages. But that is another complex story for another time.