Academic stumbles upon previously unseen section of Codex Sinaiticus dating back to 4th century

By Jerome Taylor, Religious Affairs Correspondent

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

A page from the earliest surviving Bible, of which another fragment has been discovered in Egypt

British-based academic has uncovered a fragment of the world’s oldest
Bible hiding underneath the binding of an 18th-century book.

Sarris spotted a previously unseen section of the Codex Sinaiticus,
which dates from about AD350, as he was trawling through photographs of
manuscripts in the library of St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt.

Codex, handwritten in Greek on animal skin, is the earliest known
version of the Bible. Leaves from the priceless tome are divided
between four institutions, including St Catherine’s Monastery and the
British Library, which has held the largest section of the ancient
Bible since the Soviet Union sold its collection to Britain in 1933.

Academics from Britain, America, Egypt and Russia
collaborated to put the entire Codex online this year but new fragments
of the book are occasionally rediscovered.

Sarris, 30, chanced upon the fragment as he inspected photographs of a
series of book bindings that had been compiled by two monks at the
monastery during the 18th century.

Over the
centuries, antique parchment was often re-used by St Catherine’s monks
in book bindings because of its strength and the relative difficulty of
finding fresh parchment in such a remote corner of the world.

Greek student conservator who is studying for his PhD in Britain, Mr
Sarris had been involved in the British Library’s project to digitise
the Codex and quickly recognised the distinct Greek lettering when he
saw it poking through a section of the book binding. Speaking from the
Greek island of Patmos yesterday, Mr Sarris said: "It was a really
exciting moment. Although it is not my area of expertise, I had helped
with the online project so the Codex had been heavily imprinted in my
memory. I began checking the height of the letters and the columns and
quickly realised we were looking at an unseen part of the Codex."

Sarris later emailed Father Justin, the monastery’s librarian, to
suggest he take a closer look at the book binding. "Even if there is a
one-in-a-million possibility that it could be a Sinaiticus fragment
that has escaped our attention, I thought it would be best to say it
rather than dismiss it."

Only a quarter of the
fragment is visible through the book binding but after closer
inspection, Father Justin was able to confirm that a previously unseen
section of the Codex had indeed been found. The fragment is believed to
be the beginning of Joshua, Chapter 1, Verse 10, in which Joshua
admonishes the children of Israel as they enter the promised land.

to The Art Newspaper, Father Justin said the monastery would use
scanners to look more closely at how much of the fragment existed under
the newer book binding. "Modern technology should allow us to examine
the binding in a non-invasive manner," he said.

Sarris said his find was particularly significant because there were at
least 18 other book bindings in the monastery’s library that were
compiled by the same two monks that had re-used the Codex. "We don’t
know whether we will find more of the Codex in those books but it would
definitely be worth looking," he said.

library in St Catherine’s does not have the laboratory conditions
needed to carefully peel away the binding without damaging the
parchment underneath but the library is undergoing renovations that
might lead to the construction of a lab with the correct equipment to
do so.

The Bible: A brief history

earlier fragments of the Bible have survived the passage of time, the
Codex Sinaiticus is so significant because it is by far the most
complete. The full text that has been discovered so far contains
virtually all of the New Testament and about half of the Old Testament.

But whenever an ancient version of the holy
book is found, it often raises questions about the evolution of the
Bible and how close what we read today is to the original words of
Christ and his early followers.

The Old
Testament was written largely in Hebrew (with the odd Aramaic
exception) but it is by no means a homogenous entity. Protestant and
more recent Catholic versions of the Bible tend to use the Masoretic
Text, a variation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was copied, edited
and distributed by Jewish Masorete scholars between the 7th and 11th
centuries. Earlier Catholic translations and the Greek and Russian
Orthodox churches use the Septuagint, an ancient Greek version of the
Hebrew text that was translated between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC.

studying the early history of the New Testament, historians have about
5,650 handwritten copies in Greek on which they can draw, many of which
are distinctly different. As Christianity consolidated its power
through the first millennia, the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke
and John came to form the key elements of the New Testament.

other apocryphal writings were discarded along the way. The Shepherd of
Hermas, for instance, is a Christian literary work of the 2nd century
which appears in the Codex Sinaiticus and was considered part of the
Bible by some early Christians but was later expunged. The most
well-known apocryphal gospel is that of Thomas, a collection of 114
numbered sayings attributed to Jesus that was discovered in 1945. As it
never refers to Jesus as "Christ", "Lord" or the "Son of Man" (and
lacks any mention of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the other
gospels) it is perhaps not surprising that it never made it into later
versions of the Bible.

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