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.

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