The Codex Alexandrinus dates from the 5th century AD, say, 480 AD. Alongside the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, it is considered one of the three oldest New Testaments. It may not have been chained in a fortress in Alexandria, as claimed, but resided in Antioch or Beirut, or even on holy Mount Athos, for 1200 years.
It was written at a time when the Canon of Scripture was still rather fluid. So it includes The First Epistle of Clement, from Clement of Rome to the chaotic Church of Corinth, in which he appeals to the Epistles and teachings of Paul and the words of Jesus. It did not make it into the eventual Bible.
The Codex also contains the Second Epistle of Clement, a homily of the early church, of dubious authorship. There is also the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint and the Book of Odes, one of which is the wonderful “Benedicite” which is in the Book of Common Prayer and also set to sumptuous choral music in the Church of England.
This Codex was certainly written by those living in the continuing Roman Eastern Empire which was well ordered i.e. it had libraries and devoted librarians (a mark of civilisation, perhaps?). Finally, after 1200 years, it was given to King Charles 1st for preservation in the British Royal Collection.
The Royal Librarians have honoured their obligations to it and it now bears the royal arms on its cover, as a mark of its protection. Their track record is good: the Codex was rescued from the Cotton Library fire by the Royal Librarian, a Mr Bennett. Its survival is a small miracle.
It was written by three scribes living who wrote in capitalised Greek, without word spacing, just 500 years after the death of Antony and Cleopatra, only 450 years after Jesus walked the fields of Palestine.
400 years is not a long time in terms of history: for us it is December 1612. It is perhaps the lives of five rather long-lived people. That falls almost within the realms of the oral tradition. The lives of three long lived people, in the same place, might recall accurate details about someone’s life. For example, I find it sufficient that a researcher (Rowe) went to Stratford in 1708 and heard some accurate things about Shakespeare’s family. His last daughter Judith, who knew the family history, had died only thirty before. There would be a few elderly people living then who had known her in their old age.
But five generations is simply not reliable: time soon outstrips oral tradition. It is at this stage that one needs books. Books are a kind of way of defying the mildew and mould of creeping Time. They preserve the key thoughts and stories of our present, which is someone's else's distant past. When someone writes a book they are defying Time and writing for “eyes not yet created” (see Shakespeare's Sonnet 81).
Another delight about this book is that it is handwritten: you can see the strokes of the Greek scribes’ pens, and even the little decorative doodles at the end of each Gospel in this fine digitalised edition (below).
I still think that if a writer wants to leap over Time, he or she must still ensure that his or her books are aimed at libraries. I cannot help but feel that all our thoughts on Facebook, blogs, theses, letters and emails will soon vanish into an “electronic soup of files" to be flushed down the “electronic plughole” as servers change, and systems modernise. I will be simply too costly to transfer them.
If we think to preserve in any way our life in our age, which has its value in cultural terms, perhaps we should still be transferring our thoughts to parchment or skins, with fountain pens filled with permanent black ink?
Digitalised copy of Codex Alexandrinus