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Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from the fourth century, is the oldest surviving copy of the Christian Greek Bible. Written on vellum in a beautifully regular hand, it once contained the whole of the Old Testament (much of the first half is now lost) and the New Testament, together with two early Christian writings of the second century AD, the Letter of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Codex Sinaiticus contains the New Testament in its entirety, and it is by far the oldest manuscript to do so. (The next in date belongs to the eleventh century.) 


Recognizing the great significance of the manuscript for the history of the text of the Greek Bible, Constantine Tischendorf persuaded the monks of  Saint Catherine's Monastery to present the manuscript to Tsar Alexander II (1859). In an earlier visit in 1844 he had been allowed to take back 43 folios to Leipzig. Subsequently, in 1933 the precious manuscript was sold by the Soviet government to the British Museum for £100,000, half of which was raised by public subscription. Today it constitutes one of the great treasures of the British Library (ms. Add. 43,725). 


As it has turned out, a small number of folios remained behind in the monastery, and these have only come to light recently, among the ‘New Finds’. Now, thanks to a cooperative project carried out between the British Library and the monastery, all the different parts of the manuscript have been reunited in a virtual form, by means of digital imaging. As a result anyone can now view the complete manuscript online (


Although there are earlier biblical fragments on papyri, it is only in the Codex Sinaiticus, together with the Codex Vaticanus (in Rome) and the Codex Alexandrinus (in London), that the Old and New Testaments are preserved together in almost complete form. (Normally only groups of books, or even just single books, were copied, since entire Bibles were de luxe items and extremely costly to produce. It has been estimated that some 360 animals would have been needed to produce the requisite amount of skins for a whole Bible!) For copying out such a long text, a division of labour was necessary, and the hands of four different scribes have been identified.  Generally, the character of the text is excellent (apart from the tendency of at least one of the scribes to make small accidental omissions). 


Together with Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus is generally recognized as one of the best witnesses to the biblical text. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that these two manuscripts are almost alone in preserving the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, where the book ends at chapter 16, verse 8.  Since the scribes were copying the biblical text from much less extensive manuscripts, it is not surprising that the character of the text may vary from one book to another. This is more noticeable in the Old Testament, where, for example, in Tobit it preserves a version of the text that is otherwise only known from one later manuscript and the Old Latin translation.

Dr Sebastian Brock

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