Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The world’s oldest bible reunited online

by Kathryn Hadley

Following a four-year project, over 800 pages and fragments from the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest surviving Christian bible, have been successfully virtually reunited and are now available online at For the first time, it is possible to view high resolution digital images of all the extant pages of the fourth-century book and to research in depth the Greek text, which is fully transcribed and cross-referenced.

The digitalisation of the text is the result of a partnership between the British Library, Leipzig University Library, St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt, and the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, each of which hold different parts of the physical manuscript. The Codex Sinaiticus Project was launched in 2005 in an attempt to reunite the surviving pages of the document which have been kept in different locations for over 150 years and to encourage the publication of new research into the history of the Codex.

In the words of Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Manuscripts at the British Library:

‘The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world’s greatest written treasures… This
1600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early
Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the bible was
transmitted from generation to generation. The project has uncovered evidence
that a fourth scribe – along with the three already recognised – worked on the
text; the availability of the virtual manuscript for study by scholars around
the world creates opportunities for collaborative research that would not have
been possible just a few years ago.’

The online transcription also includes previously unseen pages of the manuscript. Professor David Parker from the University of Birmingham’s Department of Theology directed the team that worked on the electronic transcription. He explained how:

‘The transcription includes pages of the Codex which were found in a blocked-off
room at the Monastery of St Catherine in 1975, some of which were in poor
condition. This is the first time that they have been published.’

The Codex Sinaiticus was written by hand in uncial letters on vellum parchment in the mid-fourth century around the time of Constantine the Great. Although it originally contained the whole of the Old and New Testaments, half of the Old Testament has since been lost. It is believed that the Codex would have originally contained around 1,460 pages. The surviving manuscript concludes with two early Christian texts, an epistle ascribed to the Apostle Barnabas and ‘The Shepherd’ by Hermas, which were subsequently dropped from both Catholic and Protestant bibles. Codex Sinaiticus is named after the Monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Moses in Sinai built between 527 and 565 by the order of the Emperor Justinian to house the remains of the Christian martyr St Catherine.

The Codex is also particularly significant because it is believed to be one of the oldest bound books. Dr McKendrick described the Codex Sinaiticus as:

‘a landmark in the history of the book, as it is arguably the oldest large bound
book to have survived. For one volume to contain all the Christian scriptures
book manufacture had to make a great technological leap forward – an advance
comparable to the introduction of movable type or the availability of word
processing. The Codex was huge in length – originally over 1460 pages – and
large in page size, with each page measuring 16 inches tall by 14 inches wide.
Critically, it marks the definite triumph of bound codices over scrolls – a key
watershed in how the Christian bible was regarded as a sacred text.’

To celebrate the online reunification of the Codex, ‘From Parchment to Pixel: The Virtual Reunification of Codex Sinaiticus’ opened on Monday July 6th at the British Library. The exhibition presents the newly reunified Codex Sinaiticus and the associated project through a display of historic items, interactive representations of the manuscript and other relevant artefacts and events, such as historical news footage, blown up details of Codex Sinaiticus pages, and digital reconstructions of the textual development of certain pages. For the very first time, the two volumes of the Codex Sinaiticus held at the British Library will also be on display in the Treasures Gallery.

For further information on the history of the Codex Sinaiticus, read our article

From Parchment to Pixel: The Virtual Reunification of Codex Sinaiticus
Until September 7th
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
- Codex Sinaiticus detail from the Book of Psalms (British Library)
- Codex Sinaiticus open at John chapter 5 (British Library)
- Codex Sinaiticus detail showing a skeletal parchment feature on Quire 41 (British Library)

1 comment:

Brandon said...


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Brandon Samuels

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