The Joyce Hill Column
The Oldest Complete New Testament
Lent, beginning this year on 2 March, has traditionally been a time for exploring and learning about our faith. In early times the instruction was designed for those being prepared for adult baptism, which took place at Easter. But existing members of the Christian community soon began to join in, refreshing and perhaps extending their own understanding. The practice of Lent courses continues today, and this has led me at times to use the article falling in Lent to explore the background to some of the fundamental elements of Christianity, such as the various Creeds, or even where the name of ‘Christian’ comes from. This year I’ve decided to look at the mid-fourth century manuscript which gives us our oldest complete New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus.
We don’t know under what circumstances it was written, or where. But it is certainly a handsome bible, in Greek throughout and arranged in four columns per page; and it is in book form, not written as a roll. Incidentally, it was the production of biblical manuscripts which led to the codex replacing the roll — although rolls are still used in synagogues. The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered in St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, where it was recognised as an important early text by the great biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf. He acquired it by degrees, in 1844, 1853 and 1859. The circumstances of the acquisition are contentious, but by 1859 his searches were under the patronage of Tsar Alexander II, and so the Codex ended up in the Imperial Library at St Petersburg. However, in1933 the Soviet Government sold it to the British Museum, and it is now one of the great treasures of the British Library. Twelve leaves and 143 fragments remain in St Catherine’s Monastery, there are 43 leaves in Leipzig University Library, and there are three fragments in St Petersburg Library. Since 2008 the four libraries have been collaborating on a digital edition of the whole, and there is a public website which you can explore.
The Codex Sinaiticus greatly influenced the Revised Version of the English Bible published in 1881 since it was recognised that, being as early as the mid-fourth century and created as a careful text of the whole bible, it was in various ways better than the source-texts available to the translators of the King James Bible. However, its value was greatest for the New Testament since its Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) was already a translation from the original Hebrew, even though one that was regarded as an authoritative. Nonetheless, despite being the earliest known complete New Testament, it post-dates Jesus’ life by over 300 years. What might have happened in the transmission of the text in that time? There are several details in the Codex’s version of the gospels, at the level of phrase, sentence and sometimes even longer passages, that are different from what we are familiar with. Are they closer to an original text, or are they additions and modifications that have crept in over time? Sometimes we can work out the answer, but not always. And so the Codex reminds us that even the gospels have a complex and changing history. If you want to see what the differences are, a convenient place to look is the Wikipedia entry for the Codex Sinaiticus. The manuscript also reminds us that the bible’s content was still not fixed by the mid-fourth century: some books are in a different order, and its New Testament includes two works we no longer accept.