Codex Sinaiticus – some notes

A collection of facts with references relevant to the Codex Sinaiticus…

Two of the oldest complete (or nearly complete) manuscripts are the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. They are both written on parchment, and have a large number of corrections written over the original text.

Codex Sinaiticus, also known as “Aleph” (the Hebrew letter א), was found by Count Tischendorf in 1859 at the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. Portions of the manuscript were found in the monastery dump, and a larger portion was presented to Tischendorf by one of the monks. It is a large codex, with 400 pages (or leaves) comprising about half of the Old Testament in the Septuagint version and the full New Testament. It has been dated to the second half of the 4th century and has been highly valued by Bible scholars in their efforts to reconstruct the original biblical text. Sinaiticus has heavily influenced the translation work of modern Bible versions. Though it is considered by some scholars to represent an original form of the text, it is also recognized as the most heavily corrected early New Testament manuscript.

There is much to be learned from examining these and other ancient texts, and they should continue to be highly valued by scholars. While there may be differences in opinion as to how they are to be used, one thing is certain—even with their textual variations, they show us that God has preserved His Word through the ages. We may debate the particular wording in a few passages, but the fact remains that over 90 percent of the New Testament text is unanimously supported by all the ancient manuscripts. In those passages where the proper reading is disputed, there is no major doctrinal change, and we can rest assured that we have the accurate, revealed words of God passed down to us.


  • The CNN article notes that many of the changes are as minor as “the alteration of a single letter,” while the BBC News article states that “many of the other alterations and differences are minor.” Indeed, we examined several discrepancies; the omitted verses are, almost across the board, not central to the biblical accounts. For example, consider two of the verses missing: Matthew 23:14 and Luke 17:36. Removing those verses does not change the Bible from saying that Jesus is Lord to saying that He isn’t, or from saying that Jesus rose again to saying that He didn’t. If a person were to try to strike all verses from the Bible that recorded miracles or Jesus’s claims to be God, the result would be a very different (and far longer) list of missing verses.
  • Many modern Bible translations either exclude or bracket the verses in question, anyway. For instance, the New American Standard Bible and the Holman Christian Standard Bible put such verses in brackets and note that some manuscripts omit the bracketed text. The New King James Version does not bracket such verses but does footnote that some manuscripts omit the passages. The New International Version excludes the verses entirely. So it’s not as if the missing verses are presented by modern English translations as original when they really might not be; most modern versions acknowledge that there is some uncertainty over whether or not the verses were part of the original, inspired manuscripts. And, again, since these verses are not central to Christianity, it’s less of an issue than some suggest.
  • The Bible didn’t drop out of the sky in completed form; we recognize the role of inspired and godly individuals in recording, collecting, and preserving God’s Word. From the time of the Apostles’ ministry to the closing of the canon, fragments of both genuine and fake gospels circulated (though the latter only later). Human copyists and translators through the centuries could introduce an error—accidentally or intentionally—just as easily as any of us could today (and the Codex Sinaiticus has missing Old Testament fragments as well). The existence of minimally divergent manuscripts shows the role of human error but, conversely, elevates the important role of the early church in weighing the evidence and clarifying which books were canonical and which were erroneous (again, by accident or by intent). Likewise, the inclusion of Apocryphal books may have been done for historical purposes, even though the early church consistently rejected these books as canonical.
  • As always, presuppositions come into play. If two versions of a book are slightly different, does that mean one has added material or that the other has deleted material? Furthermore, there is no concrete way to determine (1) which extant manuscript was first (the Codex Sinaiticus or the Codex Vaticanus), (2) the content of manuscripts that no longer exist, or (3) whether just because a manuscript is the oldest means it is the most accurate copy.
  • Ignored by news reports is how similar the codex is to the today’s Bible. The media points out the few, mostly minor, discrepancies but ignores the fact that the essential message of the New Testament remains unchanged.

Ultimately, believers and unbelievers alike are faced with a key question, “Who would die for a lie?” And if all the supernatural doctrines of Christianity were introduced after the fact (as some skeptics believe), why do the earliest manuscripts not omit all references to Christ’s deity, the miracles, the Resurrection, etc.? The Codex Sinaiticus is an interesting insight into early church history, and while it reminds us of the important role copyists and others played in preserving God’s Word, its age and similarity to today’s translation confirm, rather than dispute, the Bible’s accuracy.


FYI – “Oldest Bible” DOES include resurrection

I was recently asked “How are Christians dealing with the resurrection not appearing in the Bible recently published online as the worlds oldest bible?”
I thought you might be interested in my answer:

I take it you are talking about the “codex sinaiticus” The resurrection does appear in all four gospels… However there is a part of mark that is “missing” this really isn’t news. Most modern bibles note that some manuscripts don’t include the end. The codex itself is something scholars have had access to for some time, although it was split up. It’s not actually that old compared to many of the other manuscripts (4th century vs 1st Century). The media has reported poorly on this. I am excited to have it online though. It is a VERY important manuscript.

However it is not oldest manuscript

Also it does not leave out the resurrection anywhere but does “omit” appearances of Jesus to many people FOLLOWING the resurrection at the end of MARK (one of four gospels)

The way Christians deal with that is pretty simple.
1) We either believe that particular section is not “inspired”
2) We believe it was an Oral tradition similar to the “women caught in adultery” passage that was added by a scribe, but validated in the process of Canonization (my personal take)
3) We don’t care… or some other perspective



Codex Sinaiticus (NOT a Bible)

Codex Meme

I was sent this meme/picture by an atheist I was conversing with on Twitter today, and it gave me the idea of adding a section to the blog for unpacking this kind of image and running them through a fact check. Images like this are often rhetorically powerful, packing a 5 second punch that takes more than 5 seconds to respond to.

This is one of the strategies used online by some atheists when discussing Christianity. Rather than reply to a communication by typing a response, they will simply plonk in a picture like this one and let it do the talking. It’s actually hard to respond to these in a timely, effective manner, even when they are as bad as this one. Maybe I need to have some canned answers I could lob into discussions too!

Like many of these memes, even a quick inspection is enough to discover that the claims it makes are either factually wrong or completely pointless. Maybe it’s unfair to start with one so bad, but this is the one that was sent to me like it was some kind of a trump card, so here is where I will start. Let’s walk through the claims one-by-one:

1. The Oldest Version of the Bible is the Sinai Bible

A minor, nitpicky point, but the “Sinai Bible” is more accurately called the Codex Sinaiticus, and is really a codex, not a bible. A codex is a collection of writings collated into a book, and accordingly Codex Sinaiticus contains both canonical scriptures and other non-canonical Christian writings.

While Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 AD) is often referred to as the “Oldest Bible in the World” in media articles, another ancient book, Codex Vaticanus, is from the same time-period and often estimated to be slightly older (300-325 AD).

2. Housed in the British Museum

Another unimportant factual error, but Codex Sinaiticus generally resides in the British Library, not the British Museum. On two occasions the Library has allowed the Museum to borrow the codex for its displays (once in 1990, and in August this year).

3. 14,800 Differences Between Codex Sinaiticus and the King James Version

This is where the claims start to get really wild! Why compare a 4th Century Greek text to an English translation published in 1611? What would it prove?

The KJV comes from the Byzantine family of texts, while Codex Sinaiticus is an Alexandrian text-type, so both come from different scribal traditions, which would account for some of the variations.

But perhaps the biggest factor creating differences would be that the KJV is derived from the Textus Receptus, which is a Greek text cobbled together in the early 1500s. Erasmus, the Dutch scholar and theologian who assembled the Textus Receptus from a number of source texts, was known to have altered some passages so that they matched the quotations of the early church fathers a little more closely.

He also lacked a source text for parts of Revelation, so he improvised, re-translating a Latin translation of Revelation back into Greek! And despite all of the variations this translation and retranslation caused, the KJV is still pretty close in what it says to the English translations we have today based on better, older Greek manuscripts.

What does this claim about 14,800 differences show? Nothing really. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, and where there are differences, we know EXACTLY why they’re different.

4. Never Mentions the Resurrection

But the last claim is by far the best. According to the person who created this image, Codex Sinaiticus never mentions the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Presumably they claim this because (like many older manuscripts) Codex Sinaiticus lacks the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) which depicts the resurrected Christ appearing to his disciples. Christian scholars have known for centuries that these verses don’t appear until later in history and may not be original elements of the text – that’s why they’re always clearly marked or footnoted in study bibles. There’s nothing new or scary for the Christian here.

Ultimately though this claim about the resurrection being absent from Codex Sinaiticus doesn’t even hold true for Mark. The original ending is intact, including verse 6, where an angel tells some of Jesus’ women followers “He is not here, he is risen.” So any critics reading this know I’m not making this up, here it is, straight from the source: Codex Sinaiticus – Mark 16:6

Codex Sinaiticus also gives us access to the resurrection story in Matthew 28:1-20,  Luke 24:36-40, and John 20:19-20.  The claim that the Codex Sinaiticus never mentions the resurrection is so badly wrong you simply have to interpret it as a deliberate attempt to mislead the uninformed public. And if you have to lie to sell your worldview, it reflects badly on your worldview. Let the evidence do the talking.

5. Do You Still Think It’s The True Word of God?

It is interesting that an image discussing the Codex Sinaiticus in particular tries to draw a conclusion about the reliability of the scriptures in general. If any of these points were somehow proved true about the Codex Sinaiticus, all it would show is that one of the ancient codices was somehow radically different to Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus – not to mention the thousands of partial manuscripts we have dating as far back as the early 2nd Century. Any serious discrepancies in the text would lead investigators to ask why Sinaiticus is an outlier, and any conclusions they would draw would be about that text only. It would be a problem for the Codex Sinaiticus, not a problem for the reliability of the Christian scriptures. This reflects the strength and unity of the manuscript evidence, particularly for the New Testament texts.

Do I think Codex Sinaiticus is the true word of God? The canonical parts of it, absolutely. As for the scriptures, resoundlingly yes. This entire image fails to land any of its punches – it’s so dodgy I wonder if the URL on the bottom of the image is even accurate.

In the absence of any good evidence (or any evidence at all) that the biblical texts are unreliable, there is no compulsion for the Christian to abandon the classical understanding of the divine inspiration of the scriptures.

2 thoughts on “Codex Sinaiticus – some notes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s