Old Church Slavonic Manuscripts

Jan 4, 2015 by

The corpus of OCS texts dating from 860-1100 CE is rather small. The oldest dated Slavic text is a gravestone inscription erected in 993 CE by Samuel, who later became Tsar and established the so-called Western Bulgarian Empire in what is now Macedonia. As for manuscripts, there are only eight fairly complete manuscripts. In addition, the OCS corpus includes two sizeable fragments and a number of single pages or parts of pages. In terms of their contents, five of the manuscripts contain various portions of the Gospel, while three other manuscripts contain a prayer-book, part of a missal, hymns, sermons, and saints’ lives. Several manuscripts from Russian-speaking areas are dated before 1100 (e.g. Ostromirovo Evangelie dated 1056-1057 CE), but contain East Slavic characteristics and are therefore excluded from the OCS corpus proper. It should also be noted that because the surviving manuscripts, especially those from the South Slavic lands, date from the period after the destruction of the Western Bulgarian Empire and the attendant religious culture, they represent only remnants of that culture. It appears that scribes were poorly trained, and some manuscripts contain such scribal errors which cannot be brought into accord with a plausible linguistic system. Some of these scribal errors, however, reveal regional and individual variations in speech.


Perhaps the oldest OCS manuscripts are the two manuscripts written in Glagolitic: the depicted on the left Codex Zographensis (named after the Zograph Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece) and the Codex Marianus (as it was kept in the skete of the Virgin Mary in the same monastery).* Both are now in Russia: the Codex Zographensis at the Russian State Library in St. Petersburg, while the Codex Marianus at the Russian National Library in Moscow. The Codex Zographensis is presumed to have been written in the 1020s, and the Codex Marianus in the 1030s, but these dates are not certain. Both the Codex Zographensis and the Codex Marianus contain full versions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (aka the tetraevangelia).

Quite a different arrangement of texts is found in the other three gospel manuscripts, which are so-called gospel lectionaries, that is compendiums of excerpts from the four gospels presented as lessons to be read on specific days of the year. A lectionary is a general plan containing over 350 slots designating specific readings that may or should be read that day. Selections provided for all Saturdays and Sundays of the year and for the weekdays of the six weeks from the Great Fast (Lent) and the seven weeks from Easter to Ascension are fairly standard, but readings suggested for certain Feast Days defined by day of the month vary considerably from one lectionary to another because the needs of a particular region or even individual church or monastery were taken into account.


OCS lectionaries include the Codex Assemanius (see image on the left), written after 1038 (and perhaps even after 1050) in Glagolitic, almost certainly in Macedonia; the Vatican palimpsest Cyrillic lectionary, where the original OCS text, written ca. 1040, is only partially legible, as chunks of the text were washed off and a Greek lectionary text was written over it; and Sava’s Book, or Savvina Kniga, written in Cyrillic ca. 1030s (see image on the right). Savas_BookThe Codex Assemanius was discovered in Jerusalem and is now housed in the Vatican Library, which is also home to the Vatican palimpsest Cyrillic lectionary. Sava’s Book, discovered in Pskov and now kept in Moscow, was written in East Slavic lands, and some of its folia were later replaced by pages containing text in East Slavic.






The three non-gospel manuscripts are:

  • the Psalterium Sinaiticum (named after Mount Sinai, where it was discovered), written in Glagolitic and containing 151 psalms plus some other liturgical texts;
  • the Euchologium Sinaiticum, also in Glagolitic, containing 137 folia of a once-larger book;
  • the Codex Suprasliensis, the largest OCS manuscript, with 285 folia, written in Cyrillic and containing a collection of saints’ lives for daily reading and a series of sermons for Holy Week and Easter—this manuscript was found in 1823 in a monastery in Poland, but later broken up: part of it is kept in Slovenia, another part in Russia, and the largest chunk in Poland.

The readings in this course will be passages from the gospel texts in Cyrillic.

For more details on OCS manuscripts, see Lunt (2001: 4-11).



* As explained in the Wikipedia article, a skete is “a monastic community in Eastern Christianity that allows relative isolation for monks, but also allows for communal services and the safety of shared resources and protection. It is one of four early monastic orders along with the eremitic, lavritic and coenobitic that became popular during the early formation of the Christian Church. Skete communities usually consist of a number of small cells or caves that act as the living quarters with a centralized church or chapel. These communities are thought of as a bridge between strict hermetic lifestyle and communal lifestyles since it was a blend of the two. These communities were a direct response to the ascetic lifestyle that early Christians aspired to live.”



Lunt, Horace G. (2001) Old Church Slavonic Grammar. Mouton de Gruyter.


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