1,600-year-old texts include numerous revisions, additions and corrections
The surviving parts of the world's oldest Bible were reunited online Monday, generating excitement among scholars striving to unlock its mysteries.
The Codex Sinaiticus was handwritten by four scribes in Greek on animal hide, known as vellum, in the mid-fourth century around the time of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who embraced Christianity.
Not all of it has withstood the ravages of time, but the pages that have include the whole of the New Testament and the earliest surviving copy of the Gospels written at different times after Christ's death by the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Bible's remaining 800 pages and fragments — it was originally 1,400 pages long — also contain half of a copy of the Old Testament. The other half has been lost.
"The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world's greatest written treasures," said Scot McKendrick, head of Western manuscripts at the British Library.
"This 1,600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early Christianity and firsthand evidence of how the text of the Bible was transmitted from generation to generation," he said.
The texts include numerous revisions, additions and corrections made during its evolution down through the ages.
"The Codex ... is arguably the oldest large bound book to have survived," said McKendrick, pointing out that each page is 16 inches tall by 14 inches wide (40 by 35 centimeters).
"Critically, it marks the definite triumph of bound codices over (papyrus) scrolls — a key watershed in how the Christian Bible was regarded as a sacred text," he said.
The ancient parchments, which appear almost translucent, are a collection of sections held by the British Library in London, the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, the National Library of Russia and Leipzig University Library in Germany.
Each institution owns different amounts of the manuscript, but the British Library, which digitized the delicate pages of the entire book in London, holds by far the most.
The four-year joint project, which began in 2005 with the aim of "virtually reunifying" and preserving the Bible as well as undertaking new research into its history, has shed new light on who made it and how it was produced.
Importantly, experts at the British Library say, the project has uncovered evidence that a fourth scribe — along with the three already recognized — worked on the texts.
The assembly and transcription of the book includes previously unpublished pages of the Codex found in a blocked-off room at St. Catherine's Monastery, at the foot of Mount Moses, Sinai, in 1975, some of which are in a poor condition and have been difficult to study.
But there are still many unanswered questions about how the book came to be, said the British Library's Juan Garces, project manager of Greek manuscripts, who worked on the digitization.
For instance, where was it made? Which religious order commissioned it? And how long did it take to produce?
"The limits on access to this manuscript previously have meant that people (academics) have tended to dip, so that they have seized on particular things" to advance theories, McKendrick told Reuters.
He said the Web site will enable research to be carried out in a holistic way for the first time, forcing top scholars to view their theories in context.
A good example, he said, was evidence advanced by some academics pointing to the theory that it could have been made in the ancient city of Caesarea in Israel.
"It is our hope this will provide the catalyst for new research and it is already creating great interest," Garces told Reuters.
The Bible, which can be viewed online free, includes modern Greek translations and some sections translated into English.