CODEX SINAITICUS: One of the Most Reliable Witnesses to the Greek New Testament Text

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 120 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Codex Sinaiticus (01, א) alone has a complete text of the New Testament. It is dated to c. 330–360 C.E.

The codex is an Alexandrian text-type manuscript written in uncial letters on parchment in the 4th century. Scholarship considers the Codex Sinaiticus to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament,[1] along with the Codex Vaticanus. Until Constantin von Tischendorf’s discovery of the Sinaiticus text, the Codex Vaticanus was unrivaled.[2]

The Codex Sinaiticus came to the attention of scholars in the 19th century at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, with further material discovered in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although parts of the codex are scattered across four libraries around the world, most of the manuscript is held today in the British Library in London, where it is on public display.[3] Since its discovery, the study of the Codex Sinaiticus has proven to be useful to scholars for critical studies of the biblical text.

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While large portions of the Old Testament are missing, it is assumed that the codex originally contained the whole of both Testaments.[4] About half of the Greek Old Testament (or Septuagint) survived, along with a complete New Testament, the entire Deuterocanonical books, the Epistle of Barnabas and portions of The Shepherd of Hermas.

220px-Codex_Sinaiticus-small - Luke 11.2 in Codex Sinaiticus
Luke 11:2 in Codex Sinaiticus

Description

The codex consists of parchment, originally in double sheets, which may have measured about 40 by 70 cm. The whole codex consists, with a few exceptions, of quires of eight leaves, a format popular throughout the Middle Ages.[5] Each line of the text has some twelve to fourteen Greek uncial letters, arranged in four columns (48 lines per column) with carefully chosen line breaks and slightly ragged right edges.[6] When opened, the eight columns thus presented to the reader have much the same appearance as the succession of columns in a papyrus roll.[7] The poetical books of the Old Testament are written stichometrically, in only two columns per page. The codex has almost 4,000,000 uncial letters. (estimated by Tischendorf and used by Scrivener in his Introduction to the Sinaitic Codex, 1867)

The work was written in scriptio continua with neither breathings nor polytonic accents.[8] Occasional points and a few ligatures are used, though nomina Sacra with overlines are employed throughout. Some words usually abbreviated in other manuscripts (such as πατηρ and δαυειδ), are in this codex written in both full and abbreviated forms. The following nomina sacra are written in abbreviated forms:
[9]

NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL STUDIES: What Are the Nomina Sacra and Their Origin?

Almost regularly, a plain iota is replaced by the epsilon-iota diphthong (commonly if imprecisely known as itacism), e.g., ΔΑΥΕΙΔ instead οf ΔΑΥΙΔ, ΠΕΙΛΑΤΟΣ instead of ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ, ΦΑΡΕΙΣΑΙΟΙ instead of ΦΑΡΙΣΑΙΟΙ, etc.[10]

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Each rectangular page has the proportions 1.1 to 1, while the block of text has the reciprocal proportions, 0.91 (the same proportions, rotated 90°). If the gutters between the columns were removed, the text block would mirror the page’s proportions. Typographer Robert Bringhurst referred to the codex as a “subtle piece of craftsmanship.”[11]

Adulteress - John 7.52–8.12 without the pericope 7.53–8.11 in Sinaiticus
John 7:52–8:12 without the pericope 7:53–8:11 in Sinaiticus

The folios are made of vellum parchment primarily from calf skins, secondarily from sheepskins.[12] (Tischendorf himself thought that the parchment had been made from antelope skins, but modern microscopic examination has shown otherwise.) Most of the quires or signatures contain four sheets, save two containing five. It is estimated that the hides of about 360 animals were employed for making the folios of this codex. As for the cost of the material, time of scribes and binding, it equals the lifetime wages of one individual at the time.[13]

The portion of the codex held by the British Library consists of 346½ folios, 694 pages (38.1 cm x 34.5 cm), constituting over half of the original work. Of these folios, 199 belong to the Old Testament, including the apocrypha (deuterocanonical), and 147½ belong to the New Testament, along with two other books, the Epistle of Barnabas and part of The Shepherd of Hermas. The apocryphal books present in the surviving part of the Septuagint are 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 4 Maccabees, Wisdom, and Sirach.[14] The books of the New Testament are arranged in this order: the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul (Hebrews follows 2 Thess.), the Acts of the Apostles,* the General Epistles, and the Book of Revelation. The fact that some parts of the codex are preserved in good condition while others are in very poor condition implies, they were separated and stored in several places.[15]

* Also in Minuscule 69, Minuscule 336, and several other manuscripts, Pauline epistles precede Acts.

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

A Jewel in the Wilderness

The Codex Sinaiticus Project has described the Sinaiticus as “one of the most important books in the world.”[16] F. J. A. Hort felt that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (as well as a few other early manuscripts) represented a text that reflected the original writing. Textual scholars have repeatedly told the story of how Constantin von Tischendorf rediscovered Codex Sinaiticus. We might begin with a short biography. Tischendorf was born in Lengenfeld, Saxony, near Plauen, in the year 1815. In 1834, he was educated in Greek at the University of Leipzig, and largely influenced by Georg Benedikt Winer. He soon took a special interest in New Testament criticism. However, Tischendorf became troubled by higher criticism of the Bible, which was at the root of German theologians’ efforts to undermine the Greek New Testament as not authentic. To the contrary, Tischendorf was certain that a study of early manuscripts would enable textual scholars to restore the originals. Accordingly, he went on a quest to research all known manuscripts himself, believing that he would find others throughout his travels.

Saint Catherine's Monastery
Lithography of Saint Catherine’s Monastery based on sketches made by Uspensky in 1857.

Tischendorf spent four years searching through some of the finest libraries in Europe. It was in May of 1844 that he reached the Monastery of St. Catherine, located 4,500 feet above the Red Sea in Sinai. Gaining access to this impregnable fortress sanctuary was by way of a basket being lowered by a rope through a small opening in the wall.

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Tischendorf was given permission to search their three libraries, which produced nothing noteworthy for some days. Then, as he was about to give up and continue his journey, he caught sight of exactly what he was looking for, ancient parchments, which filled a large basket in the hall of the main library. Likely shocking him to his very core, he listened as the librarian told him that they were going to be burned as two full baskets had already met the same fate. He spent hours on the manuscript, poring over the details and Tischendorf was shocked to find 129 leaves from the oldest manuscript that he had ever seen. It was a Greek translation of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. The librarian gave him 43 sheets but denied him the rest.

Saint Catherine's Monastery; lithograph from the album of Uspensky
Saint Catherine’s Monastery; lithograph from the album of Uspensky

Tischendorf came back in 1853 when he found a mere fragment of the same manuscript that we now know dates to c. 330–360 C.E. He “deposited in the library of the University of Leipzig, in the shape of a collection which bears his name, fifty manuscripts, some of which convinced him that the manuscript originally contained the entire Old Testament, but that the greater part had been long since destroyed.”[17] Codex Sinaiticus most likely consisted of 730 leaves. It was written in Greek uncial. Some six years later, Tischendorf returned to visit the monks at Mount Sinai for the third time. Just before he was scheduled to leave, he was shown the leaves that he had saved from the fire some fifteen years earlier, but also many others as well. They consisted of the entire Greek New Testament, as well as part of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.

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Eventually, Tischendorf was given permission to take the manuscript to Cairo, Egypt, to make a copy, and ultimately, he carried the manuscript to the czar of Russia, to whom it was presented as a gift from the monks. Today, it can be found in the British Museum alongside Codex Alexandrinus. Modern textual scholars have identified at least three scribes (A, B, and C) who worked on Codex Sinaiticus, with at least seven correctors (a, b, c, ca, cb, cc, e).[18] James H. Ropes describes the quality of Codex Sinaiticus:

Codex Sinaiticus is carelessly written, with many lapses of spelling due to the influence of dialectal and vulgar speech, and many plain errors and crude vagaries. Omissions by homeoteleuton abound, and there are many other careless omissions. All these gave a large field for the work of correctors, and the manuscript does not stand by any means on the same level of workmanship as B.[19]

National Library of Russia
A two-thirds portion of the codex was held in the National Library of Russia from 1859 until 1933

It can still be said that Codex Sinaiticus is considered one of the most reliable witnesses to the Greek New Testament text. However, it is true that the scribe of Sinaiticus was not as careful as the scribe of the Vaticanus. Not only was he more inclined to errors, but to creative corrections as well. F. J. A. Hort offered a comparison between the scribe of Vaticanus (B) and the scribe of the Sinaiticus (א): “Turning from B to א, we find ourselves dealing with the handiwork of a scribe of a different character. The omissions and repetitions of small groups of letters are rarely to be seen; but on the other hand, all the ordinary lapses due to rapid and careless transcription are more numerous, including substitutions of one word for another.… The singular readings are very numerous, especially in the Apocalypse, and scarcely ever commend themselves on internal grounds. It can hardly be doubted that many of them are individualisms of the scribe himself.”[20] A very small portion of information was taken from Wikipedia.

View of Saint Catherine's Monastery
View of Saint Catherine’s Monastery

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[1] Aland, Kurt; Barbara Aland (1995). The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 107.

[2] Scrivener, Frederick Henry Ambrose (1875). Six Lectures on the Text of the New Testament and the Ancient Manuscripts. Cambridge. p. 26.

[3] Aland, Kurt; Aland, Barbara (1995). The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism. Erroll F. Rhodes (trans.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 107–108.

“Liste Handschriften”. Münster: Institute for New Testament Textual Research. Retrieved Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

[4] “Sacred Texts: Codex Sinaiticus”http://www.bl.uk. Retrieved Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

[5] T. C. Skeat, Early Christian book-production, in: Peter R. Ackroyd & Geoffrey William Hugo Lampe (eds.) The Cambridge history of the Bible (Cambridge 1975), pp. 77–78.

[6] Lake, Kirsopp (1911). Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus: The New Testament, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. XVI.

[7] Kenyon, Frederic (1939). “7”. Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (4 ed.). London. p. 191. Retrieved 5 July 2010.

[8] Scrivener, F. H. A. (1864). A Full Collation of the Codex Sinaiticus with the Received Text of the New Testament. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co. p. XIII.

[9]  Jongkind, Dirk (2007), pp. 22–50. Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus, Gorgias Press LLC, pp. 67–68.

[10] Jongkind, Dirk (2007). Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus, Gorgias Press LLC, p. 74 ff, 93–94.

[11] Bringhurst, Robert (2004). The Elements of Typographic Style (version 3.0), pp. 174–75. Vancouver: Hartley & Marks.

[12] Morehead, Gavin “Parchment Assessment of the Codex Sinaiticus”, http://codexsinaiticus.org/en/project/conservation_parchment.aspx, Retrieved Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

[13] Metzger, Bruce M., (1991). Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 76–78.

[14] “The Codex Sinaiticus Website”. Codex-sinaiticus.net. Retrieved 4 February 2010

Metzger, Bruce M., (1991). Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 76–78.

[15] Skeat, Theodore Cressy (2000). “The Last Chapter in the History of the Codex Sinaiticus”. Novum Testamentum. BRILL. XLII, 4 (4): 313–315.

[16] Retrieved Tuesday, August 13, 2019

http://codexsinaiticus.org/en/

[17] When Were our Gospels Written? – Christian Classics … http://www.ccel.org/ccel/tischendorf/gospels.ii.iii.html (accessed March 28, 2016).

[18] Aland, Kurt; Barbara Aland (1995). The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 107.

[19] James H. Ropes, “Vol. III: The Text of Acts,” The Beginnings of Christianity, Part I: Acts of the Apostles, ed. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London: Macmillan, 1926), p. xlviii.

[20] Westcott and Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, 246–47.

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