Arthur Hunt, Harold Idris Bell, and Edward Maunde Thompson on the Date of Codex Sinaiticus

When it comes to the question of assigning palaeographic dates to Greek literary manuscripts of the Roman period, British papyrologists in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem to show some different tendencies. One of the most respected of the early palaeographers, Arthur S. Hunt (1871-1934) tended to favor relatively wide date ranges and often allowed for somewhat later dates for particular manuscripts than did his contemporaries. The equally esteemed Harold Idris Bell (1879-1967) and Frederic Kenyon (1863-1952) tended to approve of narrower ranges and earlier dates (a related point is discussed with regard to a particular cluster of early Christian manuscripts in Roger Bagnall’s Early Christian Books in Egypt, pp. 10-16).

This usual difference between Hunt and Bell makes their evaluations of the writing of Codex Sinaiticus all the more interesting.

Arthur S. Hunt, Harold Idris Bell, and Edward Maunde Thompson; source of images: National Portrait Gallery, London, U.K.

It is worth noting that these opinions were probably expressed when neither man had seen the actual manuscript itself, but only facsimile images.

In the preface to his facsimile volume of the New Testament in Codex Sinaiticus published in 1911, Kirsopp Lake reported Hunt’s opinion of the writing:

“Dr. Hunt, indeed, expressed the view that if it had not been for the evidence of the Eusebian apparatus he should have not regarded the third century as an impossible date.” (p. x)

Bell, on the other hand, in a passing remark made in a 1909 publication, simply described the codex without comment as “early fifth century”:

“It is noticeable that…the Codex Sinaiticus of the Bible (early fifth century) has four [columns to the page].” (p. 307)

Bell would of course come to regard Sinaiticus as a product of the fourth century after the British Museum acquired the manuscript and Milne and Skeat had carried out their detailed study of the codex. In this earlier statement, Bell was probably just following a common opinion of the time, namely that the writing of Codex Sinaiticus was not quite as old as that of Codex Vaticanus, which was assigned to the fourth century. The opinion of Edward Maunde Thompson (1840-1929) expressed in his Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography of 1893 is representative:

“The Codex Sinaiticus, Tischendorf’s great discovery, is probably somewhat younger than the Vatican MS. and may be placed early in the 5th century.” (p. 150)

But note the shift in Thompson’s opinion 20 years later in An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography:

“The Codex Sinaiticus, Tischendorf’s great discovery in the monastery of St. Catherine of Mount Sinai, is generally regarded as somewhat younger than the Vatican MS…The period of the MS. may be the latter part of the fourth century.” (p. 200)

It is instructive to recall how fluid opinions about the possible date of Codex Sinaiticus were in those days.


Bagnall, Roger S. Early Christian Books in Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Bell, Harold Idris. “Early Codices from Egypt.” The Library 10 (1909), 303-313.

Lake, Kirsopp. Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus: The New Testament, The Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Oxford: Clarendon, 1911.

Milne, H.J.M. and Theodore C. Skeat. Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1938.

Thompson, Edward Maunde. Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography. New York: D. Appleton, 1893.

Thompson, Edward Maunde. An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912.

This entry was posted in Codex Sinaiticus, Codices, Palaeography. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Arthur Hunt, Harold Idris Bell, and Edward Maunde Thompson on the Date of Codex Sinaiticus

  1. Steven Avery says:

    Thanks, Brent!
    Wonderful studies.

    Here is an earlier comment by Edward Maunde Thompson:in 1879:


    The Sunday at Home (1879)
    Codex Sinaiticus

    “It may very properly be placed midway between the Vatican and Alexandrian manuscripts, that is to say at about tho end of the fourth, or beginning of the fifth, century.

    While touching on the date of this codex, we may recall to our readers the impudent claim set up by Constantino Simonides, whoso forgeries of Greek manuscripts have made his name so notorious, as its real scribe, He declared that he had written with his own hand the whole of the manuscript as late as the years 1839 and 1840. But as it was proved that the writing was clearly executed by more than one hand, his statement did not go for much, although it had the good result of causing a more thorough examination of the volume to be undertaken than might have been. To any one who has had any experience of manuscripts such a claim is simply ridiculous, for he knows that to imitate a manuscript of this ago and avoid detection is impossible.”


    The last sentence is a bold claim … “impossible”.
    And I doubt that would be claimed today.

    Especially having never even seen the actual physical parchment and ink!

    And being rather ill-informed about the controversies that had swirled about the production of the manuscript. (Simonides did acknowledge others working on the ms.)

    Steven Avery
    Dutchess County, NY

  2. William says:

    I see we again have the ignorance of Steven Avery parading itself all over the Internet. Let’s note a few problems in his so-called response:

    1) Picking an article you didn’t actually read out of an 1879 book LONG BEFORE it was examined by others is, quite frankly, ludicrous although par for the course

    2) It’s every bit as impossible today, which is why you conveniently didn’t mention here that even though you’ve NEVER seen Sinaticus with your own eyes, even you have to admit his tale is a lie

    3) “Simonides did acknowledge others working on the ms.”

    Not really. He threw out some names, but he never gave a single specific. Common sense ought to tell most people that Benedict couldn’t have done anything after he died, and someone trying to play games with Simonides (as Avery does here) can simply cherry pick which version he wants since the man told so many lies that the only truth we discovered was, well, he didn’t write it.

  3. Steven Avery says:

    Thanks, William.

    Bill Brown gives us a type of (modern ad hominem) trolling attack and diversion post, with one goal being that real discussion will be shut down by the moderator 🙂 . This is an old trick.

    And I will suggest the PureBible Facebook group as a good spot for Sinaiticus-Simonides inquiries, also the Biblical Christian and History Forum (largely skeptics).

    Let this be a suggestion that those with background and insight on the full gamut of palaeography (including, but not at all limited to script analysis) should best approach the Sinaiticus and Simonides and Tischendorf issues with a tabula rasa! The studies are multi-dimensional and quite fascinating, with historical imperative elements. And with quite unusual ink and parchment, which has been actually examined by few, and with no chemical tests (2015 BAM tests planned for Leipzig were quietly cancelled.).

    So who can study more objectively?
    Perhaps the emphasis will be on a few Australian scholars around and about Macquerie :).

    One gentleman put it like this, in a 2014 email:

    As for how we “know” Sinaiticus is from the 4th century, this is actually something I have wondered myself, but this dating seems too deeply entrenched in the scholarship of early Christianity to have a rational discussion about it …

    hmm… too deeply entrenched .. for some.

    Similarly Brent has encouraged ongoing research involving Sinaiticus, noting that it is always good to scrutinize these well-known “discovery stories.”

    Thus, since we are in the top-notch palaeography land here, we should write cordially, in respect to our host. With a nod to Brent and this post and others touching on the Sinaiticus history, such as the amazing 1933 Newsreel, with the fast-turning, crinkling pages, quite discordant with with its purported history.

    Steven Avery
    Dutchess County, NY, USA

  4. Ken Willy says:

    Is this place for “Sinaiticus is a 19th century forgery” nonsense? I believe it would be more appropriate on a King James Only blog.

  5. Dave Korinek says:

    Thank you for some of the history of paleography on Sinaiticus. Does anyone know if there are any Carbon-14 radioisotope dating results for either Sinaiticus or Vaticanus?

    • No radiocarbon analysis has been carried out on these books. Hopefully, the holding institutions can be convinced to allow this analysis in the coming years.

      • Alexander Thomson says:

        But, exactly why has no radiocarbon analysis been done? Should it not be de rigeur for every manuscript? Why is it not done? Are we always to be kept in the dark over technical matters in cases where simple tests would shine light?

      • The AMS analysis is destructive and expensive. We need funding and willing curators.

  6. Pingback: A New Article on the Date of Codex Sinaiticus | Variant Readings

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