Monday, January 11, 2016

The makers of Codex Sinaiticus | British Museum blog

The makers of Codex Sinaiticus

Cillian O’Hogan, Research Fellow, University of Waterloo, formerly Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies, British Library

Most books from Graeco-Roman antiquity only survive in fragmentary form – scraps ranging in size from a postage stamp to (if we’re lucky) a few leaves from a codex, or a long section of a papyrus scroll. For books to survive in anything close to their original form is very unusual. It’s with that thought in mind that we should approach Codex Sinaiticus, currently on display in the British Museum’s Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition.

Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest copy of the complete New Testament. Dating from the middle of the fourth century, the manuscript originally contained some 743 leaves (1,486 pages), each measuring some 380 x 345mm – a massive book even by today’s standards. Remarkably, over half of these leaves survive today. The book’s scale was only made possible by the use of parchment (animal skin) rather than papyrus, and the fine quality of the manuscript indicates that substantial resources lay behind its production.

A rare occurrence of striation (bunching of the animal skin that can occur in the parchment-making process). Codex Sinaiticus, Q64 F4v (Proverbs 7:27–8:34). © British Library Board

Who were the people involved in commissioning and producing this manuscript? Although we will probably never know their names, the detailed research conducted as part of the Codex Sinaiticus Project has shed new light on its creators and scribes. For instance, close examination by conservators revealed that the material chosen contains very few imperfections (which could be caused by ticks or skin diseases, or could occur during the treatment of the animal skin). The scarcity of such imperfections is remarkable. It tells us that the animals were raised with considerable care, that there was some selectivity in deciding which skins to use for parchment, and that the workers who manufactured the parchment were highly skilled. All of this points to considerable resources lying behind the production of Codex Sinaiticus, and suggests that the manuscript was created in a location where skilled workers were already present and accustomed to producing high-quality parchment.

Offset of the ink on the facing page visible towards the right-hand edge of the column. Codex Sinaiticus, Q63 F3r (1 Maccabees 12:28–13:3). © British Library Board

After the parchment had been prepared came the exacting task of writing out the text. As a result of the transcription of the entire manuscript for the Codex Sinaiticus Project, four distinct scribes can now be identified in the manuscript. They are referred to as Scribes A, B1, B2, and D. Each scribe appears to have been responsible for producing his own ink, since the differences in degradation of the inks imply that a slightly different preparation recipe was used by each individual scribe. Based on the surviving leaves, it has been suggested that Scribe A copied the bulk of the manuscript (some 995 out of 1,486 pages); while the other three scribes shared the remaining pages roughly equally (scribe B1 copying slightly more than the other two). The scribes also corrected their own work (some also correcting the work of others), and some books within the Codex were clearly worked on by more than one scribe. Based on the patterns of correction, it has been suggested that Scribe D, though he copied relatively few pages himself, was the head scribe, directing the work of the others and correcting it as needed – he appears to have been the most competent of the four scribes.

Reading of ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ in the fourth line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q74 F8v (Matthew 13:41–14:15). © British Library Board

Copying a manuscript is a time-consuming and often tedious task, and there are naturally errors that occur in a scribe’s work. Two particularly intriguing errors in Codex Sinaiticus, however, have often been taken as evidence of where the manuscript itself was copied. Both occur in New Testament pages copied by Scribe A. The first, at Matthew 13:54, reads ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of the correct reading, ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ (‘to his homeland’). Antipatris, the placename introduced by Scribe A, is the name of a (relatively minor) town about thirty miles from Caesarea. The second error, at Acts 8:5, gives us ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ (Caesarea) instead of the correct ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ (Samaria). (Both readings were corrected by later readers of the manuscript.) When scribes make mistakes, it is often because their minds wander, and it is not uncommon to find words from daily life entering a manuscript instead of what should have been copied. Do these two errors, then, reveal that the manuscript was copied at Caesarea? This would fit with other evidence, such as the fact that the manuscript contains what is known as the ‘Eusebian apparatus’, a method of numbering the Gospels devised by Eusebius of Caesarea probably in the AD 320s. Some have gone even further than this and linked the manuscript with the workshop of Eusebius himself, by pointing to the famous evidence provided in the Life of Constantine (4:36), where Constantine asked Eusebius to provide him with fifty copies of ‘the divine Scriptures’ (θείων γραφῶν). On the other hand, there are counter-arguments to such a hypothesis (most recently set out by Harry Gamble in his contribution to the new book Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript) and we cannot, after all, discount the possibility that the manuscript from which Codex Sinaiticus was copied was the one that contained these errors. Regardless of what one thinks about where the manuscript was produced, however, such errors, along with the many other habits of individual scribes, remind us of the human figures behind the production of this great manuscript.

Reading of ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ instead of ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ in the third line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q87 F3v (Acts 7:55–8:25). © British Library Board

Further information about Codex Sinaiticus can be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, and in two books published as part of the project: Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible, by D. C. Parker, and Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by S. McKendrick et al.


The Codex Sinaiticus is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.