Cambridge University Library plans to buy Codex Zacynthius

Cambridge University Library wants to raise £1.1m to purchase the Codex Zacynthius, a medieval manuscript that offers new insights early Christianity. Last week they announced a public campaign for donations to buy this manuscript from the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Codex Zacynthius - photo courtesy Cambridge University Library

The Codex Zacynthius is a palimpsest – on the surface you can read a text compiled in the 13th century from passages taken from the New Testament. However, there is also an ‘undertext’ – writing from the 6th or 7th century that was the first half of the Gospel of Luke.


“The presence of the undertext, first discovered in the 19th century and critical to establishing the transmission of St Luke’s Gospel, places Codex Zacynthius among the top flight of Biblical manuscripts. Furthermore, it is the oldest extant New Testament manuscript with a commentary alongside the text, making it a witness to both the development and interpretation of St Luke’s Gospel,” said Lord Williams of Oystermouth, Master of Magdalene College and former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Unusually, the Greek undertext, written in uncials (capital letters) contains very few copying errors, suggesting that it was the product of an expert scribe. The text would have looked remarkably beautiful in its day and the Codex would have been an extremely precious item.


Lord Williams added, “The discovery and identification of the undertext represents a fascinating detective story. By saving the manuscript, we hope that multispectral imaging techniques – such as those used on the Archimedes Palimpsest to reveal mathematical theorems written in the 10th century under Christian texts written in the 13th – will enable scholars to recover fully the hidden text.”

Codex Zacynthius - photo courtesy Cambridge University LibraryThe Codex, measuring 35 cm by 28 cm, is 176 leaves of vellum bound in a 16th-century Greek-style goatskin binding that includes traces of a cross and other decorations.

The British and Foreign Bible Society has owned the Codex Zacynthius since 1821, and in 1984 they deposited the manuscript at Cambridge University Library. The society is now looking to sell the manuscript in order to raise funds for a new visitor centre in Wales. They have given Cambridge University Library the first opportunity to buy the manuscript.

Anne Jarvis, a librarian at the University of Cambridge, explains “Codex Zacynthius would greatly enhance the UL’s magnificent faith collections which include important texts from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism as well as from Christianity. In 2011 we launched a programme to make these collections freely accessible to students, researchers and the public through the Cambridge Digital Library,” said Anne Jarvis, University Librarian.


“Purchasing Codex Zacynthius would give us the opportunity to digitise the manuscript and share it on a global scale as well as creating an exciting virtual exhibition to tell the fascinating story of a unique document that can still shed new light on the text of the Christian Bible after more than 1300 years.”

Click here to donate to Codex Zacynthius Acquisition fund

Source: University of Cambridge