The Crosby-Schøyen Codex: the oldest known book in private hands

Written between the middle of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th, the Codex is also ‘the earliest Christian liturgical book in existence’. Jonathan Bastable picks through its 136 pages

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus (Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century into 4th century A.D.). Estimate: £2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection on 11 June 2024 at Christie’s in London. The left column on the right-hand page is headlined, ‘The Letter of Peter’

One morning around the beginning of the 4th century, close to where the Nile loops eastward through the southern desert, an Egyptian monk went to begin his day’s work in his monastery’s scriptorium. He was a trained scribe, fluent in Greek as well as in his native Coptic tongue, and today he was to embark on a new task. He had been charged with copying a set of sacred writings into a freshly bound quire of folded papyrus.

The first of his texts, a Coptic translation of On the Passover by Melito of Sardis, lay open and ready at his bench. The monk took a fresh-cut reed, dipped it in a well of ink, and carefully began to transcribe the opening sentence: ‘The scripture of the exodus of the Hebrews has been read, and the words of the mystery have been declared…’

In that time and place, the monk and the manuscript were both new categories in the world. The innovative thing about his planned anthology was its physical form. This was was not a scroll — which for centuries had been the standard medium for writing in the Graeco-Roman world. It was a codex. It consisted of rectangles of papyrus stitched together to make a kind of pamphlet, 136 pages long. This was, in other words, an early exemplar of the book as we now know it.

The Crosby-Schoyen Codex, offered in Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schoyen Collection on 11 June at Christie's London

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex represents a development in the history of the book that would not be rivalled in significance until the 15th-century innovation of Johannes Gutenberg and the 20th-century revolution in electronic publishing

The monk, meanwhile, would have been one of the first generation of men to join a religious community dedicated to a life of austerity and religious devotion. The idea had only recently begun to take shape under the influence of the so-called ‘Desert Father’ Pachomius, who is held to be the founder of the Christian monastic tradition. The scribe may have been among his disciples.

And as for that slim volume, created by a nameless copyist 1,700 years ago, it is now known as the Crosby-Schøyen Codex, and it will be auctioned in Manuscript Masterpieces from The Schøyen Collection on 11 June 2024 at Christie’s in London.

‘A unique object in the history of Christianity’

‘This is the oldest known book in private hands, and at the same time one of the oldest books in existence,’ says Eugenio Donadoni, Christie’s senior specialist in Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. ‘There is evidence that codices existed earlier, but none has survived. That makes this a unique object in the history of Christianity and of information technology.’

What of the contents of this proto-book? ‘We can call it the earliest Christian liturgical book in existence,’ says Donadoni, ‘because it is the first example we have of a compilation of texts that has been specifically put together for a religious celebration.

‘Melito’s meditation on the Passover is a 2nd-century attempt to reconcile the Jewish Pesach with the Christian Easter. Then you have an apocryphal story from Maccabees in which Jews are put to death by King Antiochus for refusing to eat pork — one of the earliest examples of monotheists suffering martyrdom, and therefore consequential in both Jewish and Christian martyrologies. And there is a previously unknown fourth-century homily, which is monastic in tone, but contains themes appropriate to Easter.’

Halfway down the final column on the right-hand page, ‘The Letter of Peter’ and ‘Jonah the Prophet’ are framed in a decorative flourish. Sheet 15 from The Crosby-Schøyen Codex

The two best-known texts in the Codex are the Old Testament Book of Jonah and the First Epistle of Peter — which is still read in Easter services today. ‘What we are seeing here is a community that is steeped in Jewish tradition, trying to figure out how to be Christians in the world,’ says Donadoni.

At the time the Codex was written, Peter’s first epistle was not yet holy scripture. The books that would make up the New Testament were still in the process of coalescing into a fixed canon. And the heading in the Codex — ‘The Letter of Peter’ — implies that the source text was written before the second letter attributed to Peter was in circulation. So far as the scribe knew, he was copying the apostle’s only letter, and the Codex remains the earliest extant witness for this book of the Bible.

‘The Codex is of monumental importance — it tells us about the spread of the new faith within a few generations of the life of Christ’

On the pages of the Codex, Jonah follows Peter. The story of the Bible’s most reluctant prophet chimes with the Easter leitmotif: the three dark days and nights that Jonah spends in the belly of a ‘great fish’ prefigure the death and resurrection of Christ, while the underlying message of Jonah — that God’s will is paramount and inescapable — is both an oblique commentary on Christ’s Passion and a core principle of the monastic life. So the Codex is ‘of monumental importance’, according to Donadoni. ‘It tells us about the spread of the new faith within a few generations of the life of Christ, and little more than 100 years after the last gospel was written.’

Buried in the dry Egyptian sands for a millennium and a half

But sometimes the most magical thing about an ancient artefact is not what it says, but the fact that it is here at all — that chance and time, accident and carelessness, have somehow failed to obliterate it.

The Crosby-Schoyen Codex, offered in Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schoyen Collection on 11 June at Christie's London

Discovered in an ancient jar intact apart from the outermost leaves, the Codex was purchased in the 1950s by the University of Mississippi

According to James M. Robinson, a distinguished American professor of religion who was investigating the modern provenance of the Codex for a comprehensive monograph published in 1990, the story behind its survival is bizarre. It begins when the manuscript was already about 300 years old, and was buried with other texts, most probably to keep it from being destroyed during the Arab conquest of Egypt.

That cache of books lay concealed in the dry Egyptians sands for a millennium and a half. Robinson’s account suggests that it was unearthed early in the 1950s by two Egyptian farmers.

‘To preserve it for the ages, the sheets of the Codex were unbound, flattened, and separately vacuum-sealed within Plexiglas’

Donadoni says that ‘Robinson was very assiduous, but in the end it’s all stories.’ Yet this is a narrative that is somehow familiar, too. Twentieth-century art history is littered with instances where masterpieces have gone unrecognised — a Ming vase used casually as an umbrella stand, a Rembrandt portrait hanging anonymously on a farmhouse wall.

‘The key fact,’ says Donadoni, ‘is that by 1954 the Codex had been acquired by Maguid Sameda, a licensed dealer in Cairo, who offered it to David Moore Robinson of the University of Mississippi.’

The oldest known book in private hands and among the earliest in existence, the Codex bears a family resemblance to its distant bibliographic descendants — from illuminated gospels and psalters to mass-produced paperbacks

Dispersal of the papyri to Geneva and Mississippi

While most of the papyri were acquired by Martin Bodmer and are now in the Martin Bodmer Foundation in Geneva, the Codex was bought by the University of Mississippi. It was paid for with donations from Friends of the Library, the most generous of which came from a lady named Margaret Reed Crosby. When she saw what her munificence had paid for, she declared it ‘the ugliest book I have ever seen’ — and so became the second party, after the Egyptian farmers, to feel slightly let down by the find.

To be fair to Mrs Crosby, the true depth and beauty of the Codex only became apparent once it was conserved. It had emerged from its ancient jar intact apart from the outermost leaves — but the pages were dry and crumbly like layer upon layer of overbaked filo pastry. To preserve it for the ages, the sheets of the Codex were unbound, flattened, and separately vacuum-sealed within Plexiglas.

In their transparent armour, the pages bring to mind specimens on a microscopic slide — though each pane is the size of a laptop, and every deft pen stroke and vegetal fibre beneath is entirely visible to the naked eye. All kinds of telling details are there to be seen. Down the centre of each papyrus sheet are the needle holes where the pages were stitched together. Look closely at the meticulous, even penmanship, and you can discern occasional stray inkspots where the scribe overloaded his pen and let droplets fall as he worked.

The scribe’s mistakes, corrections — and decorative touches

Everywhere there is evidence of the fallibility of the scribe. Scholars have noted that he sometimes missed out a letter (an error termed ‘haplography’) or confused the Greek khi with the Coptic dzaudzia: both characters resemble an ‘X’. Occasionally he noticed his own mistakes — in which case he would ink the correct letter over the top. Sometimes he struck through blunders, and squeezed in a correction above the line.

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6483578

Occasionally the scribe noticed his own mistakes — in which case he would ink the correct letter over the top, as illustrated above

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6483578

Here, he missed out a letter (an error termed ‘haplography’) or confused the Greek khi with the Coptic dzaudzia: both characters resemble an ‘X’

All these little errata, seen through the long lens of history, make the Codex more human. The scribe was not a great artist, but he was a skilled artisan, someone who took admirable pride in his labour.

The pages contain a few tiny decorative touches — too minimal and austere to be described as ornaments. When he began copying Jonah, for example, the scribe enclosed the title of the book in a little design made of chevrons on a central line. This cartouche is probably entirely abstract, but it would be easy to read it — given the subject matter — as the spine and ribs of a fish.

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6483578

The decorative hatched line marking the end of the Jewish Martyrs

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6483578

Further ornamental details mark the end of Melito’s On the Passover

The Codex reveals the creative process of its maker in other ways. In the earliest surviving pages of the book, the penmanship is tight and economical, with as many as 18 lines to the column. Evidently, the copyist was concerned at the outset to ensure that all the texts would fit. But towards the end of the book the hand is much more open, and there are rarely more than a dozen lines to the column — because by now the scribe had realised that he wasn’t going to run out of pages, so could afford to make the text more spacious and readable.

Pages to spare: the addition of a fifth text

In fact, he had pages to spare, enough for something more. It was perhaps years later that he added the fifth text, a monastic sermon that some scholars have surmised might be the work of Pachomius the Great himself. This address to the monastic community — contemporary at the time it was committed to the page — sits well with the four more ancient pieces of writing. It brings the Codex into its own present, and completes the book in every sense.

The ‘Pachomian’ homily, probably intended to be the liturgy for the annual Easter celebration of the koinonia (communion)

The Coptic writings are a closed book to all but specialists in that extinct language. For most of us, the truly astonishing thing about the Crosby-Schøyen Codex is how entirely modern it appears to a 21st-century eye. Its two-column layout is familiar to anyone who has ever read a glossy magazine; the pages are numbered, as in a novel or a newspaper; the scribe has even done his best to justify the text, so it all looks straight and even.

Sign up for Going Once, a weekly newsletter delivering our top stories and art market insights to your inbox

It is strangely moving that a papyrus codex so very old should bear so close a family resemblance to its distant bibliographic descendants — among which are to be counted every illuminated gospel or psaltery, every mass-produced paperback, all the questioning books of ideas ever printed in black type on white paper.

On view at Christie’s in London from 6 to 10 June 2024 before the sale on 11 June, Manuscript Masterpieces from The Schøyen Collection spans 1,300 years of cultural history and includes world heritage manuscripts including the Crosby-Schøyen Codex, as well as the Holkham Hebrew Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus Rescriptus and the Geraardsbergen Bible, Greek literature and more

Related lots

Related auctions

Related stories

Related departments