The Truth about the Codex Sinaiticus

The BBC have published today an article about an ancient manuscript of the Bible that is shortly to be digitised and put online. Rather than focusing on the importance of a complete New Testament (all twenty-seven books plus two early Christain writings) or the significance of the Septuagint portion (the translation of the Old Testament Hebrew into Greek) the BBC decided to lead with this headline....

The rival to the Bible

The author of this article has obviously read too much Dan Brown, as he takes innocent details and misrepresents them, weaving them together into a conspiracy theory against the accuracy of the Bible and thus the validity of Christianity. The difference is Dan Brown was an author of fiction, and this is a news article on the BBC website! The ignorance of church history and doctrine in the article is shocking.

Here are some of the errors:

1)It shows there have been thousands of alterations to today's bible.
This not true. There are thousands of variations to the Codex Vaticanus, but this is not the same thing! Check the Wikipedia article. Although there are around three thousand alterations compared to the Codex Vaticanus, most of these are due to transliterations of Hebrew names into Greek. The others are variations that are common to other Alexandrian manuscripts. The Bible translators do not rely on just one manuscript but compare all these variations, and where they cannot be reconciled there is a footnote to explain the differences.

The only two unique variations not found in other manuscripts are:

Mt 13:54 and coming to his hometown [patrida]... -> and coming to Antipatris [antipatrida]

Act 8:5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria -> Philip went down to the city of Caesarea

These are obviously scribal errors, and even if they were not they hardly represent a shocking alternative to Christian doctrine!

[Update 13/10/08 - For more accurate details of the differences between the manuscripts, please refer to james snapp, jr.'s comments in the comments section]

This manuscript has been available to biblical translators and scholars for over a century, so the idea that it suddenly reveals a rival text is ridiculous! On the contrary, the significance of this codex is the the fact that there is such an early and complete version of the Bible text with relatively little variation to our modern Bibles in terms of its content.

2) This version has no references to the resurrection
Not true! No idea what gave him this idea. The last section of Mark is missing (as it is in some other early manuscripts), but the resurrection is mentioned in all the Gospels, the book of Acts and the epistles. Plus the extra Christian writing that are included along with the new testament books... also mention the resurrection! This is just blatant poor factual research, and / or jumping to conclusions.

[Update 13/10/08 - For more accurate details of the missing sections, please refer to james snapp, jr.'s comments in the comments section]

3) This version of the Bible contains anti-Semitic writings
The text he is referring to is the Epistle of Barnabas, and along with the Shepherd of Hermas were two early Christian writings that frequently accompanied the scriptures in the early centuries. There is nothing new or shocking here - they were considered useful for teaching by the early fathers but there was never really much controversy over the decision that they did not carry the inspiration of the canonical books.

As for it being anti-Semitic, this is really clutching at straws/(headlines?). But why don't you read it online and decide for yourself.

Epistle of Barnabas

4) The evidence of scribal errors undermines the Christian belief in the infallibility of scripture
This is just an ignorance of Christian theology. Differences between ancient manuscripts are nothing new, and hardly represent a shock revelation. Indeed, ironically, they are needed to establish the accuracy of an ancient text. By comparing texts it is possible to see where these errors came in. The more copies, and the closer the oldest copy is to the original the more confidence can be placed on the contents of the original text.

For example for the account of Julius Caesar (the Gallic wars) there are 10 ancient manuscripts in existence the oldest of which was written 1,000 years after the original. From these historians can make correlations and have sufficient confidence in the manuscripts of Julius Caesar's life.

Compare this to the New Testament: there are 24,000 ancient manuscripts available the oldest dating from 130AD, only 30 years after the original document was written. This makes copping errors extremely easy to spot making the Bible the most accurate ancient document bar none.

The infallibility of scripture refers to the original manuscripts not some magical ability of anyone who picks up a pen to make a copy. I could make a mistake copying out a formula from a physics text book, but this would in no way invalidate the theories of Newton or Einstein!

In fact, the only thing this article has cast any doubt on is the credibility of BBC journalism!


Chris HH said...

1/5?... I guess for some the truth hurts.

For a much more balanced news article, see this CNN report


If you click on "From the Blogs" you may even see a name you recognise!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chris for this honest and truthful exposure of the nonsense that sometimes issues forth from the world has become to believe is a 'reliable source'. There is only ONE reliable source of truth and that is God's word, not those of a world determined to deny it.


James Snapp, Jr. said...

Greetings Chris,

I concur; Roger Bolton's BBC reports (the online report and the radio broadcast) both bristle with errors and confusion. Bolton's statements about Mark 1:41 are a convenient example: Bolton says that the codex says that Jesus got angry in an encounter with a blind man. Error #1: Mk. 1:41 is about an encounter between Jesus and a *leper." Error #2: Codex Sinaiticus does not say that Jesus was angry in Mk. 1:41; Bolton somehow confused Codex Sinaiticus with Codex Bezae!

In the comments-section of the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog I take Mr. Bolton to task in more detail, so I'll spare further about his pitiable excuse for a news-report.

Btw, if I were you I would not trust Wikipedia for information about NT manuscripts and such. Codex Sinaiticus' differences from Codex Vaticanus do *not* mainly consist of different "transliterations of Hebrew names into Greek," and it has many others that are *not* common to other Alexandrian manuscripts. (That doesn't mean they are significant - just numerous.)

Also, your statement, "The last section of Mark is missing (as it is in some other early manuscripts)" is not quite right. The original pages of Codex Sinaiticus from Mk. 14:54 to Lk. 1:56 is all missing; the pages currently in Codex Sinaiticus with Mk. 14:54-16:8 and Lk. 1:1-1:56 are not the pages made by the original copyist. But a more important point is that Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are the *only* Greek manuscripts which do not contain at least a portion of Mark 16:9-20. Your phrase "some other early manuscripts" is not exactly correct, unless one brings a few non-Greek copies into the equation.

(You can read all about Mark 16:9-20 and the manuscript-evidence, and view replicas of the last part of Mark in Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus and Codex 1, at the "Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20" presentation, which begins at
www.curtisvillechristian.org/MarkOne.html .)

(Also, "Barnabus" should be "Barnabas.")

CHH: "The only thing this article has cast any doubt on is the credibility of BBC journalism!"

Amen to that; it is quite the journalistic train wreck.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

Chris HH said...


Really appreciate your comments and corrections, thank you!

I don't claim to be an expert in this field, but did know enough to spot that the BBC article was way off on many points.

Chris HH said...

...I also very much like your work on the authority of Mark 16:9-20

Of all undamaged Greek copies of the Gospel of Mark (and there are over 1200),
only two (or possibly three) can be shown to have not contained Mark 16:9-20 when
they were made.

Now that's something they don't tell you in the footnotes!