One of the most important ancient manuscripts has just gone on-line. The manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus, was penned in Greek in the mid-fourth century and originally contained the whole Bible as well as some writings of the apostolic fathers. The manuscript is currently in four locations: St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai, Egypt; British Library, London; National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg; and Leipzig University, Germany. The British Library has the largest portion (about 350 leaves), Leipzig University has 43 leaves, St. Catherine’s has something like 18 complete or fragmentary leaves, and St. Petersburg has just a few leaves. This week marked the first time that all these leaves could be seen since the manuscript was dissembled 150 years ago.
I’ve written about the story of its discovery in previous blogs, noting that the well-known tale of Tischendorf stopping the monks from using leaves of this codex as kindling for the ovens needed significant revision in light of discoveries made at St. Catherine’s in 1975. But I’ll not go into that now.
The significance of the manuscript can hardly be overestimated. Some highlights are as follows:
- Sinaiticus contains the oldest complete New Testament in the world; the next oldest is half a millennium younger.
- In the opinion of most New Testament scholars, Sinaiticus is one of two or three of the most important manuscripts for establishing the wording of the autographic text of the NT.
- Like the other fourth-century majuscule manuscript, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus lacks the story of the woman caught in adultery and Mark 16.9–20.
The manuscript has been in the news of late because of going on-line. Unfortunately, the media tend to get a lot of facts mixed up. A perusal of a few newspapers, magazines, and on-line sites revealed the following incorrect statements about the manuscript (with corrections following):
- “The world’s oldest Bible”—a headline in countless newspaper articles. It is the world’s oldest complete New Testament, but Codex Vaticanus is probably older than Sinaiticus. Both are incomplete in the Old Testament, and Vaticanus is also incomplete in the New Testament. Thus, if an incomplete manuscript can be considered as the oldest Bible, Vaticanus would be the one.
- “The earliest surviving copy of the Gospels”—numerous sources, including New York Daily News and Welt (7-6-09). No, there are several manuscripts, especially papyrus fragments, that are older: P52 (c. 100-150 CE, thus a good 200 years older than Sinaiticus) contains five verses from John’s Gospel; P66 (c. 175 CE) contains most of John; P75 (early third century) contains most of John and Luke; P45 (third century) contains large portions of all four Gospels, etc. There are well over twenty papyri that are both older than Sinaiticus and have portions of at least one of the Gospels. In addition, Codex B has the complete Gospels and is probably older than Sinaiticus.
- “In earlier centuries there were all manner of documents in scroll form of gospels, epistles and other Christian writings. As time went by, some were judged to be authoritative and included in the canon; others were deemed to be apocryphal or errant” (The Independent, 7-7-09). This is not exactly true. There are only three or four early Greek New Testament manuscripts on scrolls, and each of them is on the back side (or verso) or some other manuscript. From all the evidence available, Christians used the codex as the book-form of choice rather than the scroll. To be sure, some apocryphal books are on scrolls, but no early Greek New Testament books are. If the form of the book is any indication, this may suggest that very early on Christians recognized certain books as intrinsically of more worth than others. At the same time, some apocryphal books are also in codices. Nevertheless, the consistency of having the NT books in codex form while non-NT Christian and subchristian books were often on scrolls may suggest a trend that mirrors how the early church viewed the New Testament books.
- “It includes two works which have since been dropped from both Catholic and Protestant Bibles”—the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas (The Independent, 7-7-09). This presupposes that these books were considered canonical in the fourth century. But that is doubtful in the extreme. It is, in fact, doubtful whether such books would have been considered scripture at any time by a majority of Christian churches. That they are under the same cover as the OT and NT does not necessarily indicate that they were regarded as scripture, especially since we have no corroborating evidence to suggest this. In the least, the reason why Barnabas and Hermas are within Sinaiticus’s covers is open to more than one interpretation.
- The same article says that Sinaiticus says that Jesus was angry, rather than compassionate, when he healed a leper (Mark 1.41), but this is not the case. Codex Bezae says this, but not Sinaiticus. The article also says that Sinaiticus omits “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever” from the Lord’s Prayer, even though these are “words which Protestants add to the end of the Lord’s Prayer.” In this instance, the author is right about Sinaiticus, but what his basis is for saying that Protestants add these words is not given. It certainly is not based on modern Bibles that Protestants use: neither the ASV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, NIV, TNIV, TEV, NEB, REB, or NET have this sentence, yet these translations account for the great majority of modern English Bibles in use today.
- “You might suppose it [the virtual reunification of Sinaticus] would upset those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, since the Codex shows there have over the centuries been thousands of alterations to today’s Bible. But they can counter that there are earlier, individual manuscripts of almost all the books in the Bible; the Codex just pulls them together into a single volume. In any case, fundamentalists have long been adept at ignoring the evidence of historical biblical scholarship” (ibid.). A whole host of faulty assumptions occur in this paragraph, such as that inerrantists and fundamentalists are synonymous, that the changes made to the codex in later centuries can have any impact on one’s belief in the inerrancy of the autographs, that the whole issue of canonicity is in some way altered by this codex, or even that knowledge of this manuscript is only now coming to light. All this really shows is that the author is ignorant of both inerrantists and Sinaiticus.
- “The first part of what is now considered the Bible — from Genesis to 1 Chronicles — is missing” (CBC News [Canada], 7-6-09). Not completely true. Portions of the early books of the Old Testament were discovered in 1975 at St. Catherine’s Monastery and are now on-line. As far as the extant Sinaiticus, this statement was true prior to 1975, but the article is a bit behind the times.
- “The Codex is not a work of perfection but a work in progress, bearing the material traces of emendation and construction. You can see how the Christian narrative was constructed and revised” (The Guardian, 7-8-09). This is not exactly false, but it is misleading. It sounds as if the author is saying that the Christian faith was materially affected by the ‘corrections’ in this manuscript. But textual critics know that later corrections to a manuscript are generally done by a different standard and do nothing to help us determine the wording of the original text of said manuscript. In this case, as Klaus Wachtel of Muenster demonstrated at the Sinaiticus Conference in London this last week, the later correctors (after the manuscript left the scriptorium) were conforming the text of Sinaiticus to the medieval Byzantine standard text, not to the text(s) from which it was copied.
- “And some familiar—very important—passages are missing, including verses dealing with the resurrection of Jesus” (CNN, 7-6-09). Another rather misleading statement. The one text that refers to the resurrection that CNN has in mind is Mark 16.9–20, a passage that biblical scholars for the past 125 have increasingly come to view as inauthentic. Yet, what is lacking in Sinaiticus has been known for centuries, since the same passage is not found in Codex Vaticanus, a manuscript known since 1475. Further, it’s not the resurrection, but resurrection appearances to the disciples that is missing from Sinaiticus’s ending of Mark. However, three times in Mark (in Sinaiticus) Jesus predicts his own resurrection, and the abrupt end of the Gospel at 16.8 thus seems to function as an open-ended invitation to those who would follow Christ. (See my chapter, ““Mark 16:8 as the Conclusion to the Second Gospel,” in Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: Four Views, ed. D. A. Black [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008]).
- “Juan Garces, the British Library project curator, said it should be no surprise that the ancient text is not quite the same as the modern one, since the Bible has developed and changed over the years” (ibid.). I can only assume that CNN garbled what Garces actually said. As this statement scans now, it seems that Garces is saying that modern Bibles are based on the latest copies of manuscripts, rather than the earliest ones. Of course that’s not true, nor would Garces have suggested that it is. In the past 125+ years, scholars are getting closer and closer to the wording of the autographic text of the New Testament because of improved methods of investigation, better historical reconstructions, new discoveries, and clearer photographs of these manuscripts.
The above are just samples of faulty reporting on this manuscript; many more examples could be produced. As a blog post, this is already too long though!
Codex Sinaiticus is of inestimable value. Its importance for establishing the text of the New Testament, as well as the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) and the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, for giving us a window on ancient bookmaking, for being a milestone in the cultural shift of the ancient world from the scroll to the codex, and for many other reasons cannot be denied. But when journalists go beyond these remarkable facts and imply that Sinaiticus will alter how we view the Christian faith now that it is completely on-line is sloppy journalism… at best.