Reading Very, Very Old Books

I am currently a student at McMaster Divinity College studying for a Master’s Degree of Divinity.  I sometimes get people asking me how school is going and I say, “Good, its going good; lots of reading, but I enjoy it.”  Sometimes though, I can’t help myself…  I just snap and dump all this obscure stuff on them that I am learning. Seriously though, I do get asked stuff about NT Greek so I thought I would write a little bit about the world I am in every Tuesday afternoon.  Let me tell you about a book I am currently reading.  It is the oldest book I have ever read.

Constantine's giant stone head

In A.D. 325 Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and in A.D. 331 he asked a historian named Eusebius to have 50 copies made of the collection of writings that all the Christians were reading at that time (the New Testament). These books had been commonly circulated amongst churches for over 100 years (unlike what Dan Brown would have you believe).  Nobody knows what happened to these 50 books ….

In 1761, an Italian traveller named Vitaliano Donati visited the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.  He wrote in his diary about seeing a beautiful, ancient copy of the Bible written in Greek with four columns and rounded letters written on thin sheets.  More than 80 years later a famous Bible Scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf from Germany visited the Monastery and noticed some sheets in the garbage.  He immediately recognized them as ancient copies of the Old Testament translated into Greek.

He saved 43 pages out of the garbage and after repeated attempts, finally acquired a collection of pages (in 1861) that make up the entire New Testament and most of the Old Testament.  This collection is called the Codex Sinaiticus (Codex is Latin for book).  It is likely the oldest complete New Testament in the world.  It is breathtakingly well maintained in spite of being over 1 600 years old!

Scholars have carefully studied the Codex Sinaiticus for more than 100 years. They won’t let just anyone look at it and only four humans have touched it in the past 20 years. It’s pages are made of donkey or antelope skins and are written in a kind of lettering that was used in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th Century.  Like all books back then, the Greek is written in all upper case, with no punctuation, and no spaces.  Experts have determined that it must have been written after A.D. 325 (it uses an organizational structure that was invented after A.D. 325 ) and before A.D. 350 (because of some of the margIn notes).  Because of this many believe that this book is one of the 50 copies that Eusebius helped produce.

Either way, it is one of the oldest books in the world.  It is positively priceless, so valuable in fact that parts of it are kept in four different locations: Leipzig, London, St. Petersburg, and the monastary where it was found in Sinai. What is amazing is that it is now searchable on the Internet! Imagine it, there were scholars 50 years ago that would have given their right eye to see what you can see by clicking on that link.  That is so amazing that I don’t think it could be overstated.

The project of scanning each page was begun last summer and won’t be complete until July 2009 but you can load specific pages and zoom in and study the words and margin notes.  Here is one example:

parchment whole

I zoomed in on a section on the bottom right corner that has some interesting features.  Notice how each of the columns have almost the same number of letters in each line, and no spaces between the words.  When you get to the end of one line you continue the word you were reading on the next line.  If you were reading this you were expected to know where each word ended and the next word began.  I started underlining individual words staring with Mark 9: 47.  it says:




Greek scholars today would clean it up, add the punctuation, spaces and it would look like this:

καὶ ἐὰν ὀφθαλμός σου σκανδαλίζῃ σε,

What it says (literally) is, “and if the eye your causes to stumble you throw away it”.  Properly grammaticallized you would say, “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it away!”  There are three things I think are amazing (and possibly scary) about this example:

  1. There is a spelling mistake in this verse!  The word VKADALIZHVE should have been spelt. VKANDALIZHVE It is missing an ‘N’.  The scribe missed it when he changed lines.
  2. Right before the red lines I drew is the end of verse 45.  That’s right! No verse 46!  If you look in an English Study Bible it will often have brackets around v. 46 and some note that says, “earlier manuscripts do not contain v. 46”.  Codex Sinaiticus is one of two earlier manuscript that skip this verse.  That is why it is thought to not be part of the original text.
  3. Right at the bottom of the picture you can see a word written differently (about 300 years later).  A scribe corrected the text when he noticed that the word  EIVELqIN was missing from later in verse 47.  The faint sqiggle in the last line is where he inserted it.  Also there another spelling correction in the last two letters on this page.

After seeing that you might be thinking:  ” Holy smokes!  There are WAY to many mistakes in this.  How do I know that my Bible is actually correct?” Two things are very important to remember when you look at this:

Firstly,  in the world of analyzing Biblical texts there are six ‘big guns’ and this is one of them. Five other very, very old texts are used to determine what the original Bible said.  When you compare those 6 and settle on which spellings are correct you have a text that is 99.5% consistent with the text that the English New Testament Translation is built on. In addition to that there are thousands of partial texts and fragments that are used to decide what the original must have been.  For example, Mark 9: 47 has 48 different manuscripts that are over 1000 years old that scholars use in deciding what this verse says.  Virtually all of them say exactly the same thing.   The ones that are different have a spelling mistake, or the words are written in a different order.

Secondly, scholars are delighted that there are so many corrections to this text.  It is invaluable to a historian to see what an original Alexandrian Text from A.D. 350 looks like and also to see how it has been corrected over the centuries.  These corrections were not flippantly added but were very carefully deliberated over and nothing has likely been added to them for the past 800 years.

We have a remarkably accurate text to read and can have very very high confidence in it’s consistency.  If you want to talk further about this I would love to but be warned… you asked for it!


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