One of Oldest Books in Existence Will Be Sold, Worrying Scholars

An ancient codex, containing perhaps the earliest complete versions of Jonah and 1 Peter, goes up for auction in June. Will it disappear?

One of the oldest books in existence, which contains what is perhaps the oldest complete versions of Jonah and 1 Peter, is going up for auction in June. The sale of the Crosby-Schøyen Codex has scholars excited to talk about its uniqueness—and nervous about whether it could go into private hands and disappear.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex is a primary example of the invention of books, which coincided with the spread of Christianity, said Eugenio Donadoni, a specialist in books and manuscripts at Christie’s London, which is auctioning the codex. The growth of Christianity spurred the need to “maximize the text you can write down and transmit … around the Mediterranean,” Donadoni said.

Before codices appeared in roughly the third century, scrolls “for several thousand years were the primary vehicle for transmitting literature,” said Brent Nongbri, an expert in early Christian manuscripts and a professor at the Norwegian School of Theology.

Codices were a technological advancement that “that wouldn’t be surpassed until the discovery of the printing press,” Donadoni added. Donadoni just finished touring the codex for potential buyers in New York and Paris before returning it to London, where it will be auctioned on June 11. About the codex he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

A single scribe wrote out the texts of the codex on papyrus leaves in Sahidic Coptic somewhere between A.D. 250 and 350, according to carbon dating of the codex conducted in 2020. That means it’s likely the text was written before the late-fourth-century councils, when the canon of Scripture began to be established.

“This is being used at a time when …

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