The 1,600-year-old online Bible

11 Jul
  1. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the faint erasure mark.
  2. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the erasure on the third line. 

Robert Hull, professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, has spent much of his three-decade academic career studying ancient biblical texts, how they were first written down and how they changed from copy to copy. What was added? What was deleted? Maybe most important: why?

Such work, formally known as text criticism, might seem like an obscure exercise in eggheadism, but the findings trickle down to the Bibles people read and even to what they believe.

“Studying the early texts presumably gives us a better idea of what the original text said,” Hull said as we sat in the Emmanuel library this week, looking at facsimiles of ancient Bibles. “It also gives us an insight into the early church’s handling and thinking about the texts.”

Scholars like Hull, whose doctoral work at Princeton specialized in text criticism, were given a new tool this week when a Web site was launched that presents the entire text of one of the most important ancient Bibles.

The Codex Sinaiticus – literally “the book of Sinai” – dates from about the year 350 and contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Old Testament. About 800 pages of the original 1,400 pages remain, all handwritten in Greek.

The book got its name from its earliest home, the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The manuscript came to the world’s attention 150 years ago when a Russian scholar named Constantine Tischendorf obtained pages from the monastery and had them published. While some pages remained in the monastery, most eventually landed at institutions in Russia, Germany and England.

So until now, scholars wanting to study the text had to undertake long and difficult travels, perhaps to all four locations and with no way to directly compare passages housed in different countries.

But in 2005, the four institutions agreed to put the entire text online, digitally reuniting the book. That project was unveiled last week (www.codex-sinaiticus.net/en/).

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

The site not only includes detailed photos of the pages, but transcriptions of the text, translations into four languages, including English, a search engine, and even different types of lighting, which allows viewers see page textures, faint notations or flaws – all hints about the history of the text.

The site is a boon to scholars, letting them see details they may have missed before, if they ever had a chance to see them at all.

“Remember that until now, when someone looked at a lot of these pages, they were limited to using natural light or candles,” Hull said. “With digitizing (Sinaiticus) on the Web, paleographers (scholars of ancient texts) possibly can confirm a reading that was dubious or challenge something we thought was established. It will give us a clue about the history of the passage.”

No absolutely original texts of the Bible, or autographs, are known to exist, only copies of copies, and just a few of them the size and scope of Sinaiticus. Many fragments are the size of a postage stamp.

While some pieces date from close to the originals, with each copy scribes could mistakenly introduce an error, or someone might add comments that worked their way into the text.

Scholars estimate that the Greek New Testament as we now have it contains about 300,000 variations. About 90 percent of them are trivial, Hull said, such as misspelled names or grammatical errors.

But that still leaves thousands of more substantial differences. Variant readings in the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, for instance, can affect the theological overtones of the Christian communion service. Does it matter that the earliest copies of Revelation say the number of the mysterious beast is 616, not 666?

Is the Christian message compromised because the earliest texts of the Gospel of Mark, including Sinaiticus, end with the women who visit Jesus’ empty tomb “afraid”? (Scholars are convinced the familiar final dozen verses were added later, perhaps to harmonize with the later books of Matthew and Luke.)

Not at all, according to Hull.

“No single variation by itself would overturn Christian doctrine,” Hull said. “The Gospel of Mark still has Jesus raised from the dead.”

But studying the ancient texts – a task made immensely easier with the online Sinaiticus – can help clarify Christian history and thought, and perhaps even help believers better understand what is essential to their faith.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 July 2009.

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