The Silver Bible (The Gothic Bible) was found in a Benedictine monastery in Werden in Ruhr, Germany. It was in Prague when Swedish forces stormed the city in 1648. Swedish war-booty it was brought as war-booty to Stockholm and ended up in Queen Christina’s library. After the queen’s abdication Isaac Vossius, a royal librarian, brought it to Holland. From Vossius in Holland it It was bought by Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, the Swedish Chancellor. He in turn donated it to the University of Uppsala.

Originally, the Silver Bible had at least 336 leaves. 187 of these are in Uppsala today. One leaf is kept in Speyer in Germany. This leaf was found in 1970 in the cathedral of Speyer. Between Ravenna in the sixth century and Werden in the sixteenth century the Silver Bible has a history of more than a thousand years.

The text of the Codex argenteus is edited several times. The latest and most importand edition was made in 1927. It is a photographic facsimile edition made by means of the most advanced technology and equipment of that time.

The Goths were a Germanic people, which likely emigrated from the southern parts of Scandinavia. At the end of the first century they migrated to the south. In the 3rd century they operated around the Black Sea attacking the Roman empire. They divided into two main branches: Visigoths and Ostrogoths or Westerngoths and Eastern Goths. The Visigoths later migrated to the west and formed a kingdom in Spain. The Ostrogoths stayed in Ukraine and became for a time subjects of the Huns. Later they migrated to Italy and founded a kingdom.

The Language and the Bible

The Gothic language was Germanic or rather East Germanic (English and German are West Germanic and the Scandinavian languages are Norh Germanic). No written records. They did however leave a translation of the Bible. This version of the Holy Book is very fragmentarily preserved, so called the Silver Bible mentioned above.

Beside the Silver Bible there are a few Gothic texts today in some palimpsests, some marginal notes in a manuscript plus a fragment of the Old Testament. The palimpsests are the Codex Carolinus in Wolfenbüttel, the Codices Ambrosiani in Milan, the Codex Taurinensis in Torino, and the Skeireins, a commentary on the bible, in Milan and in the Vatican Library. The marginal notes are found in the so called Codex Veronensis, and a short fragment is for instance the Codex Gissensis, a Gothic-Latin dubble leaf found in Egypt, now destroyed.

Bishop Wulfila

The Gothic bible translation was made by the Visigothic bishop Wulfila, meaning »The Little Wolf«. He died around 381 AD and was bishop of »Gothia«. Gothic Christians settled north of the river Danube. The Goths were Arians, a Christian sect. One of the reasons that the Gothia people is held in such low historic esteem is that they were heretics and in their time persecuted by the Catholic Church. At the same time the Arians were responsible for violence themselves. Wulfila translated the Bible from Greek. He probably did the entire Bible except for the Books of Kings. The Bishop was also a Christian missionary but at the same time a typographic pioneer. He constructed (we think) the Gothic alphabet. The Goths had earlier used the runic alphabet and the runes contributed to Wulfila’s Gothic alphabet.

King Theoderic

The Ostrogothic King Theoderic the Great was the most important Germanic ruler in Italy. He was born around 450 AD, and he died in 526 AD. Theoderic was both king of the Goths in Italy and king of the Romans in Italy (Gothorum romanorumque rex). The king built churches and palaces and he minted coins with his own picture. His capital was Ravenna in Italy. The city at the time became a center for book-writing. Thirty years after Theodoric’s death in 526 the Gothic kingdom had disappeared. The Bible manuscript was then probably brought to Monte Cassino in Italy, a monestary destroyed by the Langobards in 589 AD.

The Fate of a Bible and the Numbers Art

Before 1600 the Gothic Bible was taken to Prague and the library of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II. From there, as mentioned above, the manuscript of the four Gospels made for Theoderic the Great in Ravenna in the early 6th century ended up in Sweden as war-booty.

One of the fascinating details of the Gothic Bible is the richly decorated numbers in the marginals. Although the Bible was translated from Greek the Goths were influenced by the Latin cultural sphere when they migrated to Italy. The Bible was likely used also by the Vandals and the Langobards, other Germanic peoples in the Mediterranean area.

A system of horizontal lines was used. Every system formed a pyramid. The upper pyramid is pointing upwards and the lower pyramid is pointing downwards. Above the upper pyramid is a snake-like ornament. The lower pyramid ends with a flash-like symbol. There is obviously a Byzantian influence but the art of the numbers developed to its full extent in northern Italy.

The decorated numbers can for instance be fond in Bible manuscripts. No. 3 is from Cod. Veronensis I of the 4th to 5th century. No. 39 is an unusual ancient Greek sign (see journal Aegyptus 1 [1920], pp. 226 f.).


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