Friday, October 10, 2008

Codex Sinaiticus: It's Greek to Me!

image Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest and most famous Bibles in existence, is indeed written in Greek. Friends of mine were alarmed by a BBC article which claimed that Codex Sinaiticus was "The Rival to the Bible." I too was quite alarmed by this article and its apparent aim to pose "some very uncomfortable questions" to "those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God." I've chosen to use this blog entry to respond to some of these very uncomfortable questions which are nothing more than an attempt to sensationalize and distort the simple truth.

What's this about? Well, this is actually old news that the BBC is reporting. This summer a new website was launched which by next July will give full access to the full text of the Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth century Christian "bible", written in Greek, containing the New Testament, much of the Old Testament and a couple post-apostolic writings. Back in July they launched the site, giving access to high tech images of the Gospel of Mark and the book of Psalms. At that time CNN published the article, "World's oldest Bible goes online"; it's a better article than the BBC one as it is more factual, less distorting and less sensationalized.

There's quite a story behind the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus; it could almost be a script for Indiana Jones and the Keepers of An Amazing Bible. The discoverer, Constantine Tischendorf, somehow persuaded/extorted/tricked some Egyptians monks into giving him pieces of this Bible and they ended up in Russia, Germany & Britain. (You can read more about this exciting story in the Connected Photographer.) The website project will bring together high tech photos of all the pages and reunite the parts of this book, plus they are also transcribing and translating it, as well as giving us photos enabling us to see alterations and amendments made to the text. I think this is great news! I'm thrilled by the website and consider it to be quite a privilege to be able to actually view the pages of this very elegant, very important New Testament manuscript. Eight years ago I remember being in a Grand Rapids Bible bookstore with a colleague. We happened to find a book which was a transcribed copy of Codex Vaticanus, a manuscript equally as famous and important as Sinaiticus. My friend bought it for $120. I was quite jealous, but I knew there was no way my budget at that time would ever allow me to make such a purchase. Now, I'll have full access to Sinaiticus and not have to go broke buying a copied version. In preparing this article I discovered that The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts already has photographs of Sinaiticus and many others online (just not at the high tech quality being offered by the new Codex Sinaiticus website).

So what about this BBC article was so alarming? They claimed that Codex Sinaiticus contains "anti-semitic writings" and many "discrepancies" with the Bible as we know it. Does the Codex contain "two extra books in the New Testament"? Well, the Codex includes two post-apostolic writings, The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas. I think the BBC artcle is stretching the evidence to say that the Codex includes these writings in the New Testament; no comment on the canonicity of these writings is being made. The Old Testament also "includes" the Apocryphal writings, as this was common in Greek versions of the Hebrew Old Testament. Books were hard to make in the fourth century, they wrote on every page, even if that meant adding writings!

I wouldn't agree with the BBC article that the Epistle of Barnabas is "full of anti-Semitic kindling ready to be lit." It is certainly opposed to any sort of Judaizing of the Christian faith, but you can check out the Wikipedia article for another perspective. The BBC supports their claim by quoting Barnabas, "His blood be upon us." I guess they didn't realize that the Gospel of Matthew actually has the Jews say, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25)

"The Codex - and other early manuscripts - do not mention the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and omit key references to the Resurrection..." This is the most incredible claim in the BBC article and it is false. Sinaiticus does not include the "longer ending" of Mark's Gospel, but ends at Mark 16:8, at which point you will find the NIV and most modern Bible translations noting that this is the end of Mark according to the earliest manuscripts. This means that Mark's gospel lacks an account of the ascension or any resurrection appearances, but it would still be incorrect to say that Mark "omits key references to the Resurrection." The Codex Sinaiticus records Mark 16:6 including the words, "ηγερθη ουκ εϲτιν ωδε" translated, "He has risen! He is not here,"; you can see for yourself at the website! The Codex Sinaiticus also includes Matthew, Luke and John's accounts of the resurrection, and Matthew & Luke's accounts of the ascension, as well as numerous other verses in the NT testifying the the resurrection of Jesus!

I find it hard to believe that Roger Bolton of the BBC actually interviewed Bart Ehrman or David Parker. The errors in this article are beyond unacceptable. Even a Greek NT hack like me devoting a couple hours to research can show how mistaken the claims in this article are. I was surprised when Bolton claimed that "other differences concern how Jesus behaved." Really? "In one passage of the Codex, Jesus is said to be 'angry' as he healed a leper, whereas the modern text records him as healing with 'compassion.'" It's not only our modern English text, but almost all of the Greek manuscripts we have of Mark 1:41 which refer to Jesus' compassion, not anger. But here's the kicker: it is NOT Codex Sinaiticus which refers to Jesus being angry, it's actually Codex Bezae of the 5th/6th century!!! Sinaiticus clearly says και ϲπλαγχνιϲθειϲ, translated "Filled with compassion...," but you don't have to take my word for it, check it out: the photo of Sinaiticus' Mark 1:41 is online.

What about "the story of the woman taken in adultery"? It is missing from the Codex as is claimed by the BBC article, but I would emphasize that John 7:53 - 8:11 is not in our earliest NT manuscripts and this is well noted in the NIV and other modern translations. The story is best understood as a Christian tradition appended to John's Gospel in later manuscripts.

Jesus does not say, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" in the Codex according to the BBC article. This is not exactly correct. These words of Luke 23:34a were originally in the Sinaiticus manuscript. Then someone editing the manuscript erased them, but then another editor put them back in! One of the amazing things being done by the Codex Sinaiticus Project is to take photos which will help reveal these layers of editing with greater clarity.

I've just shown that the Codex Sinaiticus does not make any of the changes or omissions as claimed by the BBC article. Now, I'd like to comment on the article's claim that Codex Sinaiticus is "the rival to the Bible." Not true. I would be quite willing to say that Codex Sinaiticus IS the Bible, an early 4th century Bible, copied by hand, and therefore subject to normal human copying mistakes. I could mention some of them, but rest assured, none of them are nearly as BIG as the ones falsely presented in the article! In my second year of Greek studies, I remember being taught that the pioneers of NT textual criticism, Westcott and Hort said that, 'When Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus agree (they have the same words exactly), you have the original text.' We have found many more NT manuscripts since then, but their observation still holds some weight today.

The publication of Codex Sinaiticus on the web should not give any Christian today any reason to be fearful or concerned that their faith is going to be undermined. If the Bible you read is the NIV or NLT or TNIV or or NET or NASB or NRSV, you've already been reading from Codex Sinaiticus! It has had an influence on basically every English translation of the Bible to come after the King James Version. Sure, "when the different parts" of the Codex Sinaiticus "are digitally united next year in a £1m project, anyone will be able to compare and contrast the Codex and the modern Bible," but don't expect to find anything earth shattering. We've been comparing and contrasting Sinaiticus and another 5000+ Greek NT manuscripts for quite a long time now! Textual criticism is "the study of the manuscript evidence for a written work for which the original is no longer extant, with the intent to discern the original text" (Matthew DeMoss). I agree with other NT scholars who claim that we have the NT today to be 99.5% pure original. Not to shock you, but that's actually better than many of the works of Shakespeare!

BBC 0, CNN 1. In closing, few explain it as well as Josh McDowell. Here's part of a recent interview he gave:

Do we have any of the original New Testament documents?

McDowell: If we did they would be beyond priceless. What we have is early manuscript copies of the originals.

Then how do we know for sure what was in the original documents?

McDowell: To discover the accuracy of copying for the New Testament material and see whether or not it has been “changed,” you have to look at two factors: One, the number of manuscripts existing today; and two, the time period between the original document and the earliest manuscripts still in existence today. The more manuscripts we have and the closer the manuscripts are to the original, the more we are able to determine where copyist errors happened and which copies reflect the original.

For example, the book Natural History, written by Pliny Secundus, has 7 manuscript copies with a 750-year gap between the earliest copy and the original text. The number two book in all of history in manuscript authority is The Iliad, written by Homer, which has 643 copies with a 400-year gap.

Now this is a little startling: the New Testament has currently 24,970 manuscript copies, completely towering over all other works of antiquity. In addition, we have one fragment of the New Testament (NT) with only a 50-year gap from the original, whole books with only a 100-year gap, and the whole NT with only a 225-250-year gap. I don’t think there is any question from all of these early copies that we know exactly what the original documents said.


  1. Thanks Ken, it's amazing that the Bible is as well preserved as it is. I don't think very many people are aware how well it stands up against other ancient documents, including BBC reporters.

  2. Thanks Orlando. You know I really enjoyed writing that posting.

    It was surprising to me how poorly researched the BBC article was. I haven't been in seminary for many years now, and I'm just a hack at Greek these days, but I had no trouble investigating the BBC claims and proving them incorrect or misguided.

    I still marvel at Mark 1:41 where they were claiming that Codex Sinaiticus says Jesus was angry rather than compassionate. I was startled as I am sure you were to discover that they weren't even quoting the right source; the "anger" was from was Codex Bezae not Sinaiticus.

    I don't think we have anything to fear from investigating all the manuscripts. Indeed, I think we have much to gain by establishing the New Testament text the best that we can.



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