Codex Climaci Rescriptus to be sold at Sothebys

Here is the lengthy catalogue entry, with images of the text; what follows is a small subset of this truly excellent catalogue:

THE CODEX CLIMACI RESCRIPTUS, PALIMPSEST MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM, IN CHRISTIAN PALESTINIAN ARAMAIC, GREEK AND SYRIAC.  [Judea (probably Jerusalem), sixth century AD. and Egypt (probably St. Catherine’s, Sinai), early ninth century AD.]

137 leaves (including 52 bifolia), approximately 230mm. by 185mm., with foliation according to the overtext in the hand of Agnes Lewis, written space of underscript 210mm. by 160mm., double column, 18 lines of faded brown ink in Christian Palestinian Aramaic uncials (a script most probably created from Estrangelo script for this Biblical translation, reflecting in its square monumental characters the Greek uncials in the manuscript that the translator worked from), written space of overscript 175mm. by 135mm., single column, 19 lines of black ink in Syriac Estrangelo script, underscript in varying states of fading, some slight water damage and crumbling to edges of some leaves, else in outstanding condition for age, each gathering of leaves within folders, the whole within three archival cloth-covered drop-back boxes, with the picnic basket in which Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson themselves kept it.


The celebrated Codex Climaci Rescriptus is a valuable witness to the Old and New Testament, made within an Aramaic tradition one and a half millennia ago, and most probably surviving the centuries in the library of St. Catherine’s, Sinai; it contains substantial parts of the New Testament in the closest surviving dialect to that spoken by Jesus Christ


1. The main body of this volume is written in Christian Palestinian Aramaic, almost certainly in Judea the mountainous southern region of modern Israel, in the sixth century. The quality of the uncial script as well as the size and grandeur of the original volume indicate that it was created by an experienced scriptorium within a wealthy centre, and this appears to rule out all those outside Jerusalem.

2. Subsequently, the manuscript appears to have passed to one of the early monasteries of the Sinai Peninsula or the north-west of mainland Egypt, most probably that of St. Catherine’s, Sinai (built by the Emperor Justinian I between 527 and 565). Moir states in his edition of the Greek section of the palimpsest states, “I feel certain that this manuscript was there [St. Catherine’s] in the course of its travels” (1956, p. 4). It may have been carried by Christian refugees fleeing from the Arab advance in the seventh century. The ancient and venerable library of St. Catherine’s has preserved a significant amount of Christian Palestinian Aramaic material, including the only other sixth-century manuscript in the language to survive, the Codex sinaiticus Zosimi rescriptus (a palimpsest manuscript whose colophon identifies its copyist as a monk of Sinai and dates his work to 979; it is now scattered and divided in ownership between The National Library of Russia, St. Petersberg; the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universtätsbibliothek, Göttingen; and the Schøyen collection, London & Oslo), as well as some further small fragments of Christian Palestinian Aramaic, which are also mostly palimpsest (see Müller-Kessler & Sokoloff, 1998, p. 3 & S. Brock, Catalogue of Syriac Fragments (new finds) in the library of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, 1995). It appears that at some time in the distant past St. Catherine’s took into their library a sizeable parcel of books written in that language, which some centuries later, having become outdated and perhaps unreadable, were set aside and their vellum reused.

3. Acquired by the pioneering Biblical scholars and twins, Agnes Smith Lewis (1843-1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843-1920) in three stages between 1895 and 1906 (all in the vicinity of Cairo, the manuscript having presumably been ‘liberated’ from its monastic home in order to supply leaves for the antiquity trade there). They were staunch Scottish Presbyterians with a consuming interest in the early versions of the Bible, and a profound belief in female-education, in an age when it practically did not exist. They used their own fortune to become celebrated scholars in the fields of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Syriac, and, thrilled by Tischendorf’s discoveries at Sinai, they set off to St. Catherine’s on a ‘manuscript-hunting’ expedition in 1892. They won over the difficult patriarch, partly through their insistence that nothing was to be abstracted from the library there, but only photographs taken; and on that expedition they returned with pictures of the Syriac manuscript which would make them famous, the fourth-century Syriac Sinaiticus (their lives and its discovery are the subject of a recent book, J. Soskice, Sisters of Sinai, 2009, which was adapted for BBC Radio 4 this April). Having returned home to Cambridge they were tipped off by a mysterious informant that spectacular manuscripts were to be had through various dealers in Cairo. This was quite different from the questionable removal of manuscripts from ancient libraries, and the twins regarded it as a rescue mission, returning to Egypt and acquiring a single leaf of the present codex (now fol. 24; published by them in Studia Sinaitica 6, p. cxxxix) in 1895. They acquired a further 89 leaves from the present manuscript in October 1905, and in April of the following year, while passing through Port Tewfik, Agnes Lewis bought two palimpsest-manuscripts on a whim. Upon returning home she discovered that one contained another 48 leaves of the present manuscript, and that the two portions were separated by only a single leaf – that which the twins had acquired first in 1895. They published the entire text in 1909. Only one other leaf of this scattered manuscript has emerged in the last century: in a collection of palimpsest fragments sold by Eric von Scherling to the collector Dr. A. Mingana, now in Selly Oak, Birmingham: his Syriac MS. 637 (the fragment contains Acts 21:14-26 in its underscript, and should attach to fol. 131 here; Rotulus 5, 1949; Catalogue of the Mingana Collection of Manuscripts, 1939, III: xxv & Bulletin John Rylands Libr. 23 April 1939, pp. 201-14). On the death of the twins the manuscript was left to Westminster College, Cambridge. 



A. Smith Lewis, Codex Climaci rescriptus, Horae Semiticae 8 (Cambridge, 1909)

A. Smith Lewis, A Palestinian Syriac Lectionary containing Lessons from the Pentateuch, Job, Proverbs, Prophets, Acts and Epistles, Studia Sinaitica 6 (1895), p. cxxxix

A. Mingana, A Catalogue of the Mingana Collection of Manuscripts (1939) 

M. Black, ‘A Palestinian Syriac Palimpsest leaf of Acts XXI (14-26), Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 23 April 1939, pp. 201-14 

A. Moir, Codex Climaci rescriptus (Ms. Gregory 1561, L) (1956)

K. Aland and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism (1995), p. 126

K. Aland, Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum. Locis parallelis evangeliorum apocryphorum et patrum adhibitis edidit (1996), p. xxvi

C. Müller-Kressler, ‘Christian Palestinian Aramaic and its significance to the Western Aramaic dialect group’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 119 (1999), pp. 631-6 

C. Müller-Kressler, ‘Die Frühe Christlich-Palästinisch-Aramäische Evangelienhandschrift CCR1 übersetzt durch einen Ostaramäischen (Syrischen) Schreiber?’, Journal for the Aramaic Bible 1 (1999), pp. 79-86 

C. Müller-Kressler and M. Sokoloff, The Christian Palestinian Aramaic Old Testament and Apocrypha, Corpus of Christian Palestinian Aramaic 1 (1999) 

C. Müller-Kressler and M. Sokoloff, The Christian Palestinian Aramaic New Testament version from the early period Gospels, Corpus of Christian Palestinian Aramaic 2 (1998) 

J. Soskice, Sisters of Sinai, 2009, p. 236 

The volume today is made up from eight original manuscripts, six of which are in Christian Palestinian Aramaic and two of which are in Greek. The Christian Palestinian Aramaic volumes all date to no later than the sixth century, and the Greek to the seventh. The surviving contents of the eight original books are as follows:…

Leave a Reply