What Can We Learn from Old Books?

Lessons to be understood in this day of multiple translations

In the late 19th century, textual scholars Westcott and Hort established a classification of types of ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The reason for the classification was an attempt to understand the history of the development of the Greek text and determine the earliest witness to the text. Three of the oldest and most complete codices (Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus) had come from Egypt and so were placed in one group which was classified as Alexandrian texts. The conclusion that they were of the same type was based on the comparison of these texts with the majority of what were classified as the Byzantine texts. But in making the classification, little consideration was given to the comparison of the three codices to one another.

With the digitization of the Vaticanus in 1999, and now that of the Sinaiticus,  comparison has become a possibility.  The result is that the three manuscripts, although closely related in terms of geographic origin and time of composition, are in fact now considered three distinct types of text. That finding provides an interesting commentary to the statement of Origen of Alexandria, Egypt, who lamented:

‘. . . the differences among the manuscripts [of the Gospels] have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they lengthen or shorten, as they please.[1]

Origen’s comments are well displayed in the case of the Apocalypse represented in the Sinaiticus. Juan Hernandez Jr. of Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, presented a paper titled “Codex Sinaiticus: The Earliest Greek Christian Commentary on John’s Apocalypse?”  In an abstract he states:

The Apocalypse in codex Sinaiticus is a striking example of a fourth-century text that differs substantially from modern critical editions. It exhibits dozens of differences at key points, reflecting the concerns, interests, and idiosyncrasies of its earliest copyists and readers. Taken as a whole, Sinaiticus’s text of Revelation may constitute one of our earliest Christian commentaries on the book, disclosing its fourth-century milieu and anticipating the later concerns of Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea. This is no commentary in the contemporary sense, however. Sinaiticus’s readings range from the spectacular to the mundane and include the theological, the liturgical, the commonplace and even the infelicitous. It is a text ever in tension with itself, effective both in its capacity to obscure as well as in its regulation of meaning. Clarity and confusion co-reign and compete for our attention. Despite that, we can discern a concerted effort to elucidate the Apocalypse’s message by scores of changes throughout. Some of these are inherited. Others created. All affected the reading of the text.

So what can really be learned from old texts?  It’s apparent that scribes used their role to establish ideas that supported their views of scripture just as translators may do today. It’s our job to cut through the confusion and establish what may have been intended given our understanding of the milieu of the first century. It will be interesting to see what impact this realization of the differences between Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus will have on the establishment of future eclectic texts. For the last century they have been given first priority in view of their age. But now that the extent of variation and text type has been established, that could well change.

[1]Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transition, Corruption and Restoration (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 152.

Tags: new testament, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Origen, Textual Study, translation

Codex Sinaiticus: The Book from Sinai

Review of British Library Seminar
Codex Sinaiticus

An international conference was conducted by the British Library to celebrate the digitizing of one of the oldest known Bibles still extant. Since 1933, the British Library has held most of the known pages of the Codex Sinaiticus. A few pages remained in the National Library of Russia and others were held by the University of Leipzig in Germany.

The Codex Sinaiticus, which is now nearing its 18th Century of existence, has held star status with the British Library since its acquisition from Russia during the depths of the great depression. With the movement to digitize books as a means of preserving them for future generations and with an eye toward expanding access to the Codex, the British Library set up a collaborative effort with the other holders of material from the Codex Sinaiticus and proceeded with the major undertaking of its conservation and digitizing.

To celebrate the completion of the project and to present the digitized version to the world at large, the Library organized aconference to communicate the results of its work. This was conducted at the British Library in London, July 6 and 7, 2009.

Textual scholars from across Europe and North America gathered to discuss the place of Codex Sinaiticus within the biblical tradition. The key-note address was given by Professor Eldon Jay Epp, Visiting Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School and formerly president of the Society of Biblical Literature (2003).  Professor Epp chose as his title “Codex Sinaiticus in Modern Biblical Scholarship.”  He then proceeded to outline the role of four New Testament majuscules and their impact on New Testament studies. The first addressed was Codex Bezae, held at Cambridge.  To Professor Epp, Codex Bezae, known from the mid sixteenth century was an “Unwelcomed Stranger” to those involved in textual studies.  Codex Alexandrinus, held by the British Library, he characterized by the term “Familiarity Breeds Success.”  This was the best known of the codices and was given priority from the 17th century. Vaticanus was a “Sleeping Giant,” probably the earliest of the four codices but hidden from view and access in the Vatican Library. Although known since the 15th century, access was only granted after Codex Sinaiticus had been discovered in the 19th century. Sinaiticus was “A Late Bloomer,” yet became an instant celebrity. Having traced the impact of these four codices on the textual development of the New Testament translations, Professor Epp considered the impact of even older papyri that had been discovered in the 20th Century. Both Vaticanus and Sinaiticus appear to have their beginnings in several of these papyri.

The seminar was informed about the discovery of additional pages of Sinaiticus during building repairs at St. Catherine’s in 1975. Details of the conservation and digitization of the Codex were also covered.

The seminar marked the opening of an exhibition about the Sinaiticus: From Parchment to Pixel.  Podcasts relating to this exhibition are also available online. A discussion and display of the creation of the Sinaiticus Materials of the Codex Sinaiticus: How was the oldest surviving Bible made? scheduled for August has been sold out.

Tags: British Library, Codex Sinaiticus, Eldon Jay Epp, New Testament text, Sinai, Textual Studies

The Book from Sinai

The oldest known Bible in the world becomes available digitally.
Google News
Details: The Book from Sinai
Codex Sinaiticus

“Book from Sinai” is what Codex Sinaiticus means. Produced in the middle of the 4th century, it was found almost 15 centuries later in Sinai's St. Catherine's Monastery by Count Tischendorff. The Codex, which was written in Greek, contains a complete copy of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament plus other non-canonical books. It is considered the oldest copy of the Bible. Presented by Count Tischendorff to the sponsor of his searches for ancient Biblical manuscripts, the Czar of Russia, the majority of the Codex became part of the National Library of Russia. Some pages ended up with the University of Leipzig, Germany, Tischendorff’s first sponsor.

When the cash-strapped Soviet Union chose to sell the manuscript in 1933 as a means of raising funds for investment in its five year plan, it was offered to the British Museum for £100,000 (in todays currency approximately £4,000,000). Once it became known that the British had agreed to buy the codex, other would-be buyers came forward at double the price, giving it a value of some £8,000,000 in today's value.

But the museum only had £7,000 available in its budget for any purchases, and with the world mired in the Great Depression, Neville Chamberlain—then Chancellor of the Exchequer—opposed the use of public money to undertake the purchase of the text. However, eventually the Treasury loaned funds to the British Museum to purchase the codex on the condition that a public subscription would be undertaken to raise the funds, thus enabling the British Museum to become the owner of the majority of the manuscript. Over £53,000.00 was raised in the succeeding months, much of it from very small donations. Some 12 pages stayed in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. The pages of the codex arrived in London in a box, loose and unbound. So having purchased the most expensive book in the world, the library staff then had to undertake the conservation and binding of the new acquisition.

The codex remained split among libraries in Germany, Russia and Britain until 1975, when more pages were discovered during a restoration project at St. Catherine’s. Now four nations held part of this codex.

The British Library, which has held the collection since its establishment as separate institution from the Museum in 1973, has since spearheaded an attempt to digitize the codex so that it can be placed online for all to appreciate. This past week marked the culmination of that project. Attendant publicity has created a level of interest that echoes that developed in Britain during the 1930’s. As a result, some 450 news organizations carried a news release on the project which result in another massive public response. During the first 24 hours the project was fully online, the Web site received 20 million hits of which some 170,000 translated into continuing visits. (The site has been available for several months as the project has progressed towards completion.)

Sadly, finances once again prevented any Russian parties joining in the conference conducted and hosted by the British Library. But the British Library is planning a second conference in St. Petersburg to enable Russian involvement.

Tags: bible, British Library, Greek manuscripts, Sinaiticus, St Catherine's Monastery

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