Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Codex Sinaiticus Part 1

I read a BBC item the other day and thought this may disturb some folks. The article concluded with a throwaway line of how foolish it was to believe that God had inspired the Bible. So what is the Codex Sinaiticus, well for absolute beginners it is not a proprietory nasal spray but an ancient book; that's what the word Codex means. Many ancient documents were written on rollup scrolls made of vegitable matter known as papyrus; that's where we get our word paper from. More valuable documents were copied onto carefully prepared leaves of animal skins and folded into the shape of our modern books; these are called a Codex or the plural Codices. So the Codex Sinaiticus is a copy of most of the New Testement written in Greek Uncials (upper case letters). It is one of the oldest copies dating back to the 4th Century CE. There are older papyrus writings but not so complete at the Codex Sinaiticus. (from now on CS)

The experts can identify several different styles of 'handwriting' in the CS and these are sometimes called 'editors'. Often 'editors' were just re-inking fading letters so the fact that thereare several editors just means that they have been maintaining it not necessarily changing it. Often mistakes can occur in copying and technical experts called 'textual critics' have devised a probability theory for decided how some changes have occured. For example if a verse is repeated the scribe might have the first verse in his memory and when he copies the second verse he makes the mistake of repeating the first verse even thought it may have changed slightly. They have lots of rules which they have created. Some make more sense than others!

Although the CS is old and valuable we are not dependent on that manuscript alone in creating our modern translations. The experts gather these different copies into families and sometimes a clear scribal mistake passes through several generations of copies but is not in other manuscripts; by this comparing different 'families' of manuscripts the experts can be very confident that the original text can be reconstructed with a high degree of reliability. There are literally thousands of ancient extracts of copies of ancient Bible so we don't have 'all our eggs in one basket' called the CS. Some scholars are cautious in their dependence upon the CS becuase they are not convinced that it was a particulary accurate copy; it is just very old. Do you remember Chinese Whispers? Lets imagine 20 children gathered in a large circle and a message is whispered from one to the next. Suppose the CS is represented by child No 4. By that time the message may already have some errors in it and they will be passed on to child No 5 and No 6. But... suppose child No 7 breaks the rules and goes back to child No 2 for the message. Child No 6 may now have a more accurate message that Child No 4 even though Child No 4 is 'older'. Some manuscrips may not be as 'old' as the CS but they may go back to a more accurate original source; consequently 'age' is not the only factor in judging how valuable an ancient manuscript might be.

While it is true is that we don't have the 'original' of Galatians that was written by Paul (these are called the 'autographs') we do have thousands of other ancient copies and those thousands of copies make it possible to get a very reliable idea of what that original copy of Galatians looked like. Bible scholars have manuscripts of quantity and quality that historians would 'give their teeth for' if they existed for other ancient writings. I'll post more tomorrow but in the meantime if you want to add a comment here or join us at Biblebase Second Thought Discussions, please do. I look forward to hearing from you.


Robert Wurtz II said...

About 15 years ago I read "The Origin of the Bible" by FF Bruce, JI Packer and others. It was my first real introduction to manuscripts. I had no other influence than my own reason because I didn't know anyone personally that even discussed these topics.

So from reading these materials I never bought the notion that older is necessarily better. I noticed that typically the idea among some was that the Alexandrian texts were the more accurate because of supposed age; but I also noticed that they had little portions of passages here and there missing. It seemed to me that when copying it is more likely to leave something out than to add it. (i.e. oops I missed that part, etc.)

I also reasoned that if we have many thousands of texts compared to a handful the majority is probably right. I know that sounds democratic, but when it comes to texts I feel more comfortable going with what overwhelmingly prevails than to go with some supposed older manuscripts found in the southern areas that may he been 'edited' down for what ever reason. I also reason that the majority texts are found in the areas where the Gospel story was so prevalent. I guess I can't ever recall a passage saying, "And to the church at Alexandria write..."

So in summary I don't buy the age thing. Thank God we have these additional texts, but I think God has watched over His word and made sure that what the majority of the people had was the fulness of the revelation. But thats my relatively unlearned non-scholarly common sense based viewpoint.

KingJimmy said...

I think it's important to note that it's not simply an age thing. But textual critics often use a highly "eclectic" method of deciding which texts are best. Sometimes that means going with an older manuscript. But sometimes that means ignoring an older manuscript in favor of a newer one. Those of the eclectic school (the vast majority of scholars today, liberal and conservative), say each textual variant must stand or fall on its own merits. If you ever have the chance to examine a "critical" edition of the Scriptures, with the aparateus at the bottom (or majority) of the page, you'll begin to understand what a nightmare the textual scholar has to deal with.