Monday, August 07, 2006

Colour-coded Manuscript

It is well-known that the Jesus Seminar used a colour-coding system in their edition of the Gospels. Designed to reflect ironically on the traditional (mostly KJV) red-letter Bibles in which Jesus' words were in red ink while the rest of the text was in black, the Jesus Seminar used red, pink, grey and black ink to show the varied levels of confidence the Seminar had in the authenticity of the words of Jesus in the Gospels.

It is less well-known that at least one Gospel manuscript had attempted a colour-coding of its presentation. This is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Codex Grec 54 (bilingual diglot; 13th Cent. = Gregory/Aland minuscule 16), dubbed by Gregory 'the rainbow manuscript' (Canon and Text, 372). It uses a range of different colour to indicate different speakers:

  • bright red ink: simple narrative text
  • darker red/crimson ink: the genealogy of Christ, the words of angels, the words of Jesus
  • blue ink: OT passages, words of disciples, Zachariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon, John the Baptist
  • dark brown ink: words of Pharisees, people from crowd, Judas Iscariot, the devil, shepherds, scribes, the Centurion

For full discussion of the manuscript and its production see Kathleen Maxwell, 'Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Codex Grec 54: Modus Operandi of Scribes and Artists in a Palaiologan Gospel Book' in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 54(2000) 117-138; esp. p. 123 for the four colours and speakers (pdf here). It is a particularly interesting manuscript because it was unfinished and therefore reveals more of the scribes workings than is usually seen.

Unfortunately I have not been able to find colour pictures (black and white plates published with Maxwell's article are here).

Maxwell doesn't discuss the hermeneutical impact of such a colour-coding scheme on readers/viewers.


  1. Two minor observations: curiously, Gregory (whom Maxwell cites) describes the fourth ink as black, rather than dark brown; and second, he does not term the MS the "rainbow" MS--he says, "The Hebrew Bible printed in colours, the rainbow Bible, might be compared to this volume. But in this volume ... the writing itself is of the given colour, not the parchment ..." (C. Gregory, Text and Canon, 372).
    Question: does anyone know anything about this "Hebrew Bible printed in colours" to which Gregory refers?

    Finally, a variation on multiple colors of ink in one MS: there is a 12th c. MS in which the words of the Gospels are in gold ink, and the commentary of St. Theophylact are in red/crimson.

  2. Two more observations:
    1) I can see variations in the tone of the ink of the Latin column that seem to signify a change in colour, but none such in the Greek column across the page. Does the research specifically state which text is coloured?

    2) I once saw a page of a Wycliffe Bible (I Corinthians iIrc) that used a lot of red ink. It seemed to me that there was some sort of scheme behind it, but not being a credentialed scholar, I wasn't allowed to examine the rest of the mss. I did notice, though, that 'God' wasn't capitalized.

  3. On the "Hebrew Bible printed in colours"

    The term "Rainbow Bible" or "Polychrome Bible" has sometimes been used for "Old Testament" editions or translations with the text set in multiple colors to show the Higher Critical division into sources at a glance: e.g. "Sacred Books of the Old Testament," ed. P. Haupt (Baltimore, London, and Leipsic, 1894 sqq.).

    "Polychrome Bible" now may be a better choice for referring to this project, since a Google search will show "Rainbow Bible" has been pre-empted for other purposes entirely.

    By the way, there is also a "Polychrome Haggadah" (Jacob Freedman Liturgy Research Foundation, 1971) much less controversially color-coded to indicate whether a given passage is from the Biblical text, found in early Rabbinic or later Rabbinic authorities, known to be medieval, or early modern, etc.

  4. BTW, Maxwell read an interesting paper at the Int. SBL Meeting in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago on this MS and its relationship to Princeton, Garrett 3. She had little experience of the theoretical aspects of textual criticism, but had approached these MSS as an art historian, and she had found a remarkable link in regard to the illuminations. In Garrett's texts there were curious red crosses which, as it turned out, indicated the exact places of the illuminations in Paris 54, and she demonstrated (with too few examples, however) that they were textually related too. If I recall correctly, there was a third related MS with nearly identical illuminations.

    Anyway, at one point she had phoned Bart Ehrman and asked him if he had seen similar red crosses with this function elsewhere. Ehrman had not, but told her to phone Metzger, which she did (it was almost like calling God - she remarked), and Metzger kindly replied that he had not seen anything of the like either ...

    It seems to me that textcritics have generally tended to disregard paratextual features which can be quite crucial, even for our understanding of the textual history.

  5. Thanks for these notes/corrections.
    From the hermeneutical angle two things stand out as odd to me. First, that OT passages are not given in the same colour as angelic sayings and the words of Christ. I would have thought they could be placed on the side of the angels as reflecting a divine witness to Christ. (But perhaps the scribe credited the human author)
    Secondly, that the Centurion's saying, generally recognised as expressing the ultimate authorial perspective on the identity of Jesus is given in the same colour as words of those who are more or less opposed to Jesus.

    1. ...which points to a rather fundamental problem with this interpretive approach...?

  6. TW said: 'It seems to me that textcritics have generally tended to disregard paratextual features which can be quite crucial, even for our understanding of the textual history.'

    Yes, I think you are absolutely right on this one. For hundreds of years texts have been compared on the basis of the collated text. The next century will see a broader based set of comparisons on the basis of the whole presentation of the manuscript (paratextual features and all); and (eventually?) DNA and other analyses of the skins and inks.

  7. I enjoyed reading your comments on my work on Paris 54. I want you to know that eight good quality color photos of Paris 54 were published in my article in Dumbarton Oaks Papers (vol. 54) 2000: 117-138. They are not reproduced in color in the on-line version, but may be seen in the hard cover version. Also, figure 18 in that article is incorrect. I can fax or mail the correct figure upon request. Best wishes, Kathleen Maxwell (