The Digitization of Sinaiticus and its Media Beepbop

Article by   October 2008
According to the online Urban Dictionary, the word 'beepbop' is not really a word at all: it is a nonsense word to be used only when you want to really annoy someone. In that case, the British Broadcasting Corporation, otherwise known as the BBC, or more affectionately as 'the Beeb', has aired its own sort of 'beepbop' in its coverage of the digitization of the Codex Sinaiticus. Roger Bolton's October 6 story, 'The Oldest Bible', which premiered on Radio 4, might in fact be a textbook example of 'beepbop' nonsense, intended in this case to provoke Bible-believing Christians. Of course, I understand that journalists often have a goal of taking what are otherwise mundane news items and spicing them up, even sensationalizing them. But the Beeb has a problem here. You cannot position yourself as one of the most reputable and responsible news organizations in the world and at the same time go public with a piece like this one.

Before explaining why I say this, perhaps a few words are in order about the Codex Sinaiticus itself. Simply put, this ancient text is of huge significance. In the first place, it is one of the oldest complete codices (books), dating from the middle of the fourth century, thereby approaching (among codices) the antiquity of only the Codex Vaticanus. What is more, the Codex Sinaiticus contains the whole Bible, including 143 pages of text from the New Testament. Alongside the canonical text we also find copies of two early Christian works, which today are categorized under the heading of 'the Apostolic Fathers': the Epistle of Barnabas (probably written 96-100 AD) and the Shepherd of Hermas (written at some point in the first half of the second century). Codex Sinaiticus was first copied by several different scribes and then - as is not unusual with manuscripts - subject to different correcting hands over time down into the twelfth century.

The story behind the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus is truly a remarkable one. Its coming to light took place in stages - all at the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai (hence the name Codex Sinaiticus). It all began in 1844 when an enterprising young scholar by the name of Constantin von Tischendorf, during his stay at the monastery, noticed that the monks were using some very old scrap paper to light their oven fires. Not only was this scrap paper very old, Tischendorf observed, it also bore the markings of a very ancient Greek script (uncial). Fortunately, he was able to save some of these papers and eventually return them to his native Leipzig, in order that they might be copied and properly preserved. They remain there to this day.

But that was not to be Tischendorf's last trip to Sinai. If there were some bits of stray ancient documents lying around, surely there were bound to be more for the finding. So he returned in 1853 (with meager results) and then again in 1859. This time, the night before he was due to depart, the steward took the budding scholar back to his room and showed him a very old book. Tischendorf instantly had some sense of the age and contents of this codex and thereupon calmly asked to examine it overnight. Permission was granted and Tischendorf returned to his room, poring over the Greek text rabidly and taking all kinds of notes, leaving only a moment to remark in his diary: Quippe dormire nefas videbatur! (Indeed it seemed like a sacrilege to sleep!). Eventually, after leaving the monastery and later pulling a few, shrewd political strings, Tischendorf was able to get further access to the Codex and publish it.

As was common in nineteenth-century archaeology and textual scholarship, little thought was given to the issue of proprietary rights. Because Tischendorf's expedition was underwritten by the Russian Czar, it was only fitting that the book be taken to St. Petersburg. Later, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks realized they need to raise some cash and decided to sell the codex to the British Museum. And so under tight security the codex was transferred from the Russian capital to the British capital in December of 1933. It has remained in London ever since. Last time I checked the Codex Sinaiticus was available for public viewing in the basement of the British Library. You can see it for yourself.

More than that, for years now anyone has been able to examine the contents of this Codex Sinaiticus for themselves, either through a facsimile (published by Kirsopp Lake in 1911) or through a critical text like the one prepared by Milne and Skeat (1938). Anyone can see the Sinaiticus for himself or herself - and many have. All this seems to have been lost in the BBC's story. Perhaps it would not have been the most exciting thing to say: 'We are not reporting on the discovery of this ancient book; we are merely reporting on its digitization', but it would have removed the unmistakable and misleading impression that suddenly the world of Bible-believing Christians has been turned upside-down. Sometimes they say in the media world, 'If it bleeds, it leads'. Perhaps Bolton figured that something here had to bleed, so he might as well make it the orthodox understanding of scripture.

But this is exactly where the beepbop comes in. And this too is where beepbop should be distinguished from sober, fair-minded coverage. When confronted with nonsense calculated to tweak the noses of the orthodox, the best way to respond is with a measure of facts patiently sifted through the grid of common sense. Let's go through the salient points one at a time.

First, according to Bolton, the Codex Sinaiticus 'shows there have been thousands of alterations to today's bible.' In reality, the Codex Sinaiticus shows no such thing. Text critics from time out of mind have known that amidst the countless NT manuscripts, which have been copied down through the ages, there are variations. Given that all these manuscripts were produced before the day of photocopiers and pdf files, this should come as no surprise. Copyists did get tired and did make mistakes. They also took occasional liberty to make changes. But precisely because of the vagaries of the transmission process, text critics have been literally working for centuries on reconstructing the original reading that stands behind all these manuscripts. Because differences between these manuscripts are in fact relatively few and far between, and because we have so many textual witnesses, establishing the wording of the autograph with reasonable accuracy remains a very do-able task. So, the differences between our modern Bible and the Codex Sinaiticus, when they do occur, prove nothing about the unreliability of the former. What it does prove is that even a text as ancient as the Codex Sinaiticus was not without fault.

The article proceeds: "The Codex, probably the oldest Bible we have, also has books which are missing from the Authorised Version that most Christians are familiar with today." Obviously, here the author has in mind the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. But here too there seems to be a confusion of categories, for just because certain texts were bound together with scriptural texts within the same volume, this does not mean that those same texts were regarded as scriptural. This much is obvious from both history and experience. When for example one considers the history of the Bible in England following the English Reformation, one is struck by the fact that a number of Protestant Bibles contain the Apocrypha (which includes such books as Tobit and Sirach), even when the publishers and audiences of these same Bibles were committed to a view which saw these texts as not being inspired. In our own day, I don't know of one Christian who would say that a preface to a Bible translation (or the study notes, or concordances, or maps, etc.) must be on par with God's Word simply because it falls between the front and back covers of the Bible. Good thing, too, for to make such a claim would be to commit what logicians call the associative fallacy.

In the same way, the fact that the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas appear alongside our 27 NT documents neither calls into question the canonical status of the 27 nor vaults these sub-apostolic writings to apostolic status. While there is no doubt that both of these works were very highly esteemed in the early church, the early church as a whole did not see fit to place this documents on the same playing field as the Gospels, or the Pauline letters, or the remaining books of the NT. They did, however, find these texts useful even as they did not think it necessary to create an entirely separate binding to house such texts.

Perhaps one reason that God in his providence did not allow the Epistle of Barnabas to be set apart as scripture is because of its jarringly harsh words for Judaism. At the same time, if we are to be historically honest, we must guard against retrojecting at this point - as Bart Ehrman seems to do - a two thousand year history of Christian persecution against the Jews. The Epistle of Barnabas was written at a time when the boundaries between church and synagogue were still fairly fluid. Accordingly, the author of the Epistle almost certainly sees himself as engaging in an intramural polemic - quite a different scenario from the attitudes leading up to Medieval pogroms or the Holocaust. That the author's strong rhetoric was picked up on by later anti-semitic ideologues is quite possible, and would certainly be highly regrettable. But to see an unbroken line of anti-semitism making its way from the first-century church to the present day skinhead is to make a mockery of history and the complexity of first-century Christian-Jewish exchange. The same could also be said of the oft-heard charge of anti-semitism against the NT writers. If we are going to issue a blanket condemnation on the NT writers' for their alleged anti-semitism, we better also be prepared, by the same logic, to condemn positions against (or for) war in Iraq as anti-American. Such charges simply miss the fact that rhetoric which reflects negatively of first century Judaism must be understood against the (sometimes complex) socio-religious context in which it is used.

Another point: this time through the mouth of NT scholar, Bart Ehrman, when Bolton quotes him as saying, 'The Bible we now use can't be the inerrant word of God ... since what we have are the sometimes mistaken words copied by fallible scribes.' Here we hear the dull thump of the drum which Ehrman beats in his best-selling book, Misquoting Jesus. I am not sure why Ehrman keeps coming back to this point; it is not a very good one. In order to establish it, he must set up a straw man, that is, a position that looks like verbal inspiration, only to knock it down - and all too easily. For instance, I am not aware of any theologian writing on the doctrine of the Word who would argue that our translations are characterized by verbal, plenary inspiration; I am also unaware of anyone who would argue that the Codex Sinaiticus or p-52 or any other extant manuscript could be considered inspired. It is the autographs that are inspired. If Ehrman hopes to score points by setting up a notion of inspiration to which no one subscribes, only then to dismantle it, the result is not very impressive.

Alternatively, it may be that Ehrman is saying that because our modern text of the NT is not completely identical with the autographs, there is no sense in regarding the latter as inspired, even in a derivative sense. I am not prepared to argue that we know exactly what Paul, or Matthew, or Mark wrote down to the last jot and tittle. We don't. But I am also not prepared to say that this less-than-perfect certainty rules out the doctrine of verbal inspiration. When Jesus Christ the Son of God appeared in flesh and walked among his disciples for three years, he impressed himself on their senses. To be sure, after the crucifixion the disciples could have said, 'How do I know that these "resurrection appearances" aren't wishful thinking?' (Thomas seems to have come very close to concluding just that.) Or they could have said, 'How do I know that my experience of Jesus wasn't real?' And perhaps some did. But most of them went on record as taking a position akin to that recorded by John:

'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with out eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with out hands, concerning the word of life, the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifest to us' (1 Jn 1:1-2, NRSV).     

The apostolic proclamation was obviously a remove from the disciples' experience of the incarnation, as the author of 1 John was clearly aware. Yet, as John is equally aware, our being historically removed from the incarnation does not relieve us from being bound by the Christ-event as it was mediated by the apostles. Ehrman's epistemology (that is, his theory of knowledge) seems to say, 'I am the one who will set the standard of sufficient evidence for belief. And unless I can hold the rock, there is no point in my believing it really is a rock.' In contrast, the apostolic witness says, 'God in Christ Jesus is one who will set the standard of sufficient evidence for belief. And although you may not be able to hold the rock, you see its beautifully concentric ripples in the water.' That apostolic witness, that expanding ripple making its way in the water even to us, is enough. Similarly, we might not have Paul's original letter to the Romans in our hot little hands, but we do have a panoply of witnesses to that text all standing in broad agreement, all emanating from some point of impact. None of us have the privileged position of seeing the actual rock (the autograph copy), but we all see the ripples and must form some kind of opinion as to how the ripples got there. This is where the data comes to the end of the road, and the text critic can no longer rest easy on scientific facts but must begin to draw on the imagination, which itself is guided by faith commitments of one sort or another.

Apparently, the BBC has slipped into the realm of the theological without being aware of it. So maybe this should leave all involved parties with a mental note for the future. Perhaps next time, instead of interviewing just Bart Ehrman and David Parker, two rather skeptical text critics, on the theological relevance of the Codex Sinaiticus, they should also speak to one or two folks who actually do theology for a living - that is, theologians. If the Beeb should suddenly become so interested in the orthodox question of inspiration, perhaps it would also serve the organization well to register a few comments from the orthodox themselves as to how the text-critical data relates or does not relate to theological inference. After all, when the BBC covers sports (or 'sport', as they say on the far side of the pond), they would never think of interviewing only Liverpool Football Club fans on the news of an apparent setback for their arch-rivals, Manchester United, unless of course it was meant as a swipe against Man U. But journalists are not supposed to take swipes - at Manchester United, or the universal orthodox church, or anyone else. They are supposed to provide accurate and balanced reportage. When they don't, it begins to sound like beepbop. Not the music, but the annoying nonsense.


Nicholas Perrin is the Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a member of the Society of Biblical Literature.



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