Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Codex Sinaiticus goes online

Yesterday (July 6, 2009) CNN published an online article entitled, “Oldest known Bible goes online.” Since the article begins by saying, “The world's oldest known Christian Bible goes online Monday—but the 1,600-year old text doesn’t match the one you’ll find in churches today,” I thought the article deserved a response.

The idea that this is “The world’s oldest known Christian Bible” is somewhat misleading. True, Sinaiticus, along with another manuscript known as Vaticanus, are the most complete of the very oldest Bibles still existing, but there are numerous other ancient biblical texts even older than Sinaiticus and Vaticanus.

For example, p45, p46 and p47 together contain pretty much the entire New Testament and are about 100 or more years older than either Vaticanus or Sinaiticus (The letter “p” in p45 etc. stands for papyrus, a form of early paper on which the manuscripts were written. The number is just a number assigned by scholars to identify the manuscripts).

Other ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts which are older than Sinaiticus and Vaticanus include, p1, p4/64/67, p5, p9, p12, p13, p15/16, p17, p18, p20, p22, p23, p24, p27, p28, p29, p30, p32, p35, p37, p38, p39, p40, p45, p46, p47, p48, p49/65, p50, p52, p53, p66, p69, p70, p72, p75, p77/103, p78, p80, p86, p87, p90, p91, p92, p95, p98, p100, p101, p102, p104, p106, p107, p108, p109, p110, p111, p113, p114, p115, 0162, 0171, 0189, 0220.

These texts range from short fragments, to several pages, to pretty much complete collections of Gospels or Paul’s letters (See, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts by Philip comfort and David Barnett for the complete Greek text of these manuscripts).

The CNN article continues, “but the 1,600-year-old text doesn't match the one you'll find in churches today.” My guess is that the average person reading this phrase will conclude that Codex Sinaiticus is vastly different than their Bible. This is true if they were talking about the fact that Codex Sinaiticus was written in Greek while their Bible is written in English (or Spanish, German, Russian, etc).

Otherwise, the statement is terribly misleading. If the average person could read ancient Greek, they may be able to read for hours and not notice a single place where Sinaiticus is different than their Bible. In fact, apart from Greek language and the addition of apocryphal books, my guess is that Sinaiticus is probably well over 90% or 95% identical with most modern Bibles.

So what is the difference?

The most significant difference is—as the CNN article indicated—that Sinaticus contains books that many modern Bibles don’t have: 1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 4 Macabees, Wisdom, Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus). Some of these books are contained in the Catholic apocrypha. Books like Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, Wisdom, and Sirach can all be found in the Catholic “Jerusalem Bible” for example. All of them can be found in the New Oxford Annotated Bible; New Revised Standard Version.

Most of these books date between the time when the Old and New Testaments were written, though 2 Esdras and 4 Maccabees may have been written in the first century AD.

My impression growing up was that many protestant Christians thought of the Catholic apocrypha as something evil. I think this was a Protestant over-reaction against the Catholic Church. Ancient Jews and Christians generally held these books in high regard, though Jews never included them in their Bibles. Ancient Christians disagreed about whether they belong in the Bible or not. Either way, they are books that every Christian should read.

Another difference between Sinaiticus and modern Bibles is that “The New Testament books are in a different order…” The order in Sinaiticus is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Acts, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, Jude, Revelation, the letter of Barnabas and part of the Shepherd of Hermas (cf. F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 205, 206).

The addition of Barnabas and Hermas is the next big difference. A few ancient churches thought the letter of Barnabas and “Shepherd (or pastor) of Hermas” should be included as Scripture.

The letter of Barnabas is hard to date precisely. Estimates range from AD 70 to 135. No one thinks Barnabas, the companion of Paul, wrote this. I would describe it as a Christian exhortation. The letter of Barnabas contains quotes like,


“For it was for this reason that the Lord endured the deliverance of his flesh
to corruption, that we might be cleansed by the forgiveness of sins, that is, by
his sprinkled blood. For the Scripture concerning him relates partly to Israel
and partly to us, and speaks as follows, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions,
and has been afflicted because of our sins; by his wounds we were healed…”

“If, therefore, the Son of God, who is Lord and is destined to judge the
living and the dead, suffered in order that his wounds might give us life, let
us believe that the Son of God could not suffer except for our sake. But he was
also given vinegar and gall to drink when he was crucified…”
One fascinating thing about the letter of Barnabas is its view on how God made the world in six days:
“And God made the works of his hands in six days, and finished on the seventh
day, and rested on it, and sanctified it. Observe, children, what ‘he finished
in six days’ means. It means this: that in six thousand years the Lord will
bring everything to an end, for with him a day signifies a thousand years [cf. 2
Peter 3:8]. Therefore, children, in six days—that is, in six thousand
years—everything will be brought to an end. ‘And he rested on the seventh day.’
This means: when his Son comes, he will destroy the time of the lawless one and
will judge the ungodly…”
The author of Barnabas would likely have thought the world was four thousand years old in his time. The remaining two thousand years brings us up to our time.

The Shepherd of Hermas is a long allegorical essay containing visions, “mandates” and parables. Some in the early church thought is was Scripture, but according to a list of New Testament books written in about 180 AD (now called the Muratorian Canon), the Shepherd of Hermas was written “quite recently in our time in the city of Rome…” The Shepherd of Hermas is not heretical, but is, to my mind, rather bizarre.

The CNN article continues, “And some familiar -- very important -- passages are missing, including verses dealing with the resurrection of Jesus…”

Most of these "missing passages" are a few words or phrases, but the the most significant of the“missing passages” are about the women taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11 and the “longer ending” of the Gospel of Mark. This shouldn’t really take anyone by surprise. Anyone who has read a modern New Testament all the way through knows that most Bibles contain some kind of notation informing readers that some ancient manuscripts leave these passages out.

When the CNN article says, “passages are missing, including verses dealing with the resurrection of Jesus…” the passage referred to is the so-called “longer ending” of the Gospel of Mark. In most modern Bibles (and in Sinaiticus) the Gospel of Mark ends like this:
“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic spices so that they might go and anoint him. And
very early on the first day of the week, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. They
had been asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the
entrance to the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which
was very large, had been rolled back. Then as they went into the tomb, they saw
a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side; and they were
alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the
Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been raised! He is not here. Look, there is
the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples, even Peter, that he
is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told
you.” Then they went out and ran from the tomb, for terror and bewilderment had
seized them. And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Sinaticus and Vaticanus end the story with the disciples being afraid. The vast majority of other manuscripts continue the story with:

“Early on the first day of the week, after he arose, he appeared first to Mary
Magdalene, from whom he had driven out seven demons. She went out and told those who were with him, while they were mourning and weeping. And when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.

After this he appeared in a different form to two of them while they were on their way to the country. They went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
Then he appeared to the eleven themselves, while they were eating, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen him resurrected. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned.

These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes with their
hands, and whatever poison they drink will not harm them; they will place their
hands on the sick and they will be well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to
them, he was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. They
went out and proclaimed everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and
confirmed the word through the accompanying signs.

I’m not going to take time reviewing the scholarly discussion regarding Mark 16 except to note that the Diatesseron (a harmony of the Gospels) and Irenaeus both quote from this longer ending—indicating that the longer ending was in at least some copies of the Gospel of Mark, and the Diatesseron and Irenaeus both date from over 140 years before Sinaticus or Vaticanus!

The important issue, however, has to do with the resurrection. Some have tried to argue that the writer of Mark knew nothing of the resurrection of Jesus since the longer ending, containing the resurrection, was not—they insist—part of the original version of Mark. But according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus specifically predicted his resurrection from the dead (Mark 14:28).

Critics can argue about whether Jesus actually made such a prediction, but the idea that Mark did not know of Jesus’ resurrection is factually untrue.

In addition to Mark’s reference to the resurrection, there are also references to Jesus' resurrection in Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, First Thessalonians, Second Thessalonians, Second Timothy, Hebrews, First Peter, as well as early church writers like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc. The impression that some may have received from the CNN article, i.e. that early attestation to the resurrection is in question, is nonsense.

CNN then quotes “Juan Garces, the British Library project curator” as saying, “it should be no surprise that the ancient text is not quite the same as the modern one, since the Bible has developed and changed over the years.”

First, it is important to remember that the Bible is a collection of books and letters written over a period of more than a thousand years. So of course the Bible has “developed and changed over the years.” This should come as no surprise to anyone.

Second, some people with axes to grind like to make it sound like there really was no New Testament before some powerful Christian bishops got together in the fourth century AD and created one. This is simply not true, and quite frankly, I question the honesty of some scholars who know better but have left this impression.

There was a core of New Testament writings which, as far as anyone knows, was accepted by all catholic (small “c” meaning universal) Christians and was undisputed. These books include, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, First Peter and First John.

This constitutes the vast majority of the New Testament. Some smaller books like James, 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, etc. were questioned in some (not all) churches. And some (not all) churches thought for a while that a few books like the Didache, Clement, Shepherd, and Barnabas should be included. But as early as the first or early second century the Gospels, Paul’s letters and even Hebrews was quoted as Scripture—nearly 300 years before any church councils met to discuss the issue. In fact, Irenaeus (AD 185) even calls this collection of books “New Testament” nearly 200 years before any councils met to discuss the issue.

The fact that Codex Sinaiticus will soon be online is a good thing, though, contrary to the impression some may get from reading the CNN article, there is really nothing shocking about it and it really doesn’t change anything Christian scholars have known about the Bible for the last 165 years.

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