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Codex Sinaiticus: transcript of audio

Juan Garcés, curator of the British Library's Codex Sinaiticus Project, gives his personal thoughts on the project and on the manuscript itself in April 2007

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Codex Sinaiticus

The Codex itself

It's very smooth parchment. It's basically the skin, we presume in most cases, of a cow, a very young cow, which went through a process to get the quality of parchment that was sufficient for this luxury edition of the Bible. Very smooth, quite amazing, and obviously touching it always carries with it the knowledge that it is this amazing document.

How the Codex was commissioned

Who commissioned it? Well, we don't know who commissioned it, but we know in the middle of the fourth century that Christianity was accepted for the first time as a religion that could show its face publicly without fear of being persecuted and so on. We also know that Emperor Constantine commissioned 50 Bibles more or less of that quality so it had to be a combination of a rich sponsor, patron if you like, showing, paying and commissioning this kind of Bible.

How the Codex was produced

It had to be a team of scribes, professional scribes, that would write very carefully, very beautifully and with regular movements, so it has this appearance of almost being printed. It had to be planned very carefully, because you would need to know almost from the beginning how many leaves you would use, how they would be gathered into quires, of usually four double pages, and how they would be bound at the very end.

It is a highlight of the technological possibilities of the time: 730 leaves we reckon were part of the original manuscript, and those leaves had to be bound in one structure, and we don't know of any other codex before that time that could provide 730 leaves in one binding structure.

What the Codex was used for: one theory

We know that at some stage, possibly quite early, it came to St Catherine's monastery in Mount Sinai in Egypt, but we do not know how exactly it was used and by whom. What is safe to say is that it had not been used to the degree that other Bibles had been used. It's in very good shape; the pages don't show marks of wear and tear and consultation and so on.

I think one hypothesis would be to presume that it was a master copy that was used to produce further copies of the Bible.

How the Codex came to the British Library

Constantin von Tischendorf, a German Biblical scholar, in the middle of the 19th century, was travelling the Mediterranean world in search of manuscripts of the Bible. One of those trips brought him to St Catherine's Monastery where he identified 43 leaves as being from an important manuscript. He managed to persuade the monks and people in charge to take those 43 leaves back to Leipzig where he was professor in order to transcribe them and make an edition of those leaves.

He went back twice, the first time unsuccessful. And on the third trip, on the last night it is said, one of the monks brought to his attention 347 leaves of the same manuscript. You can imagine Tischendorf, how excited he would be on this find!

He again managed to convince the monks to firstly as a loan give those 347 leaves to the Tsar of Russia. The Tsar was protector of the Orthodox faith, and St Catherine's was an Orthodox monastery.

Subsequently, the Soviet government was prepared to put it up for purchase and the British Government agreed to purchase it for the amount of 100,000, half of which was raised by public appeal.

The Codex Sinaiticus project

43 leaves are in Leipzig still, and in 1975 something very exciting happened in St Catherine's Monastery. There were as I understand reconstruction works on the building and enclosed in one of the walls they found around 11 leaves and quite a number of fragments that have been identified as part of the Codex Sinaiticus, in St Catherine's Monastery. Some fragments are still in St Petersburg. Therefore the project called Codex Sinaiticus Project to reunite those disparate leaves at least virtually in one place.

You'll be able to page through images of the Codex. You will be able to search the text. You can also read through very carefully and detailed description, carefully analysed and described report if you like of each leaf, all the features you can find.

The fact that it was such an amazing book in how it was implemented makes it of interest for a variety of people, from the Bible-believing Christian to the palaeographer or the codicologist who wants to come to this resource. And therefore we had to be very careful to provide, to plan this website, in a way that it caters to all those people from the expert to the generally educated user and therefore have different parts, modules if you like.

The importance of the Codex

And those two aspects they collude around the aspect of how the question of how the Bible became a book. Because what we had before that, partly due to technical challenges, partly due to the fact that that's the way Christianity evolved, we have one Biblical book in one roll or one small codex, that started to be collected perhaps in codices, books, that had four Gospels, or the letters of Paul. And up to the fourth century, we have the situation where for the first time perhaps we could collect in one structure the whole Bible. And therefore some of the decisions - which book really is part of the Bible, which not - came into play. Discussions around it, big synods, of bishops discussing and so on. And those two aspects - the Bible as object, as book if you like, and the Bible as text, came together.

At the end of the New Testament you find two books that are not usually part of our Bibles nowadays, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Letter of Barnabas, and in the Old Testament you have books that are in some Bibles and not in others. In the Orthodox tradition you do have books like Tobit and Maccabees and so on, but you don't have that in the reform tradition. So it forced, if you like, people making decisions about what would come into the Bible and what not, forced them to restrict themselves to a certain number.

What is remarkable about the Codex Sinaiticus talking about different religions sharing scripture, is that it features what we refer to as the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

It is Hellenistic Greek, that was spoken widely around the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Western Mediterranean too.

It started off as a Jewish project to translate the Hebrew scripture into Greek into a language that was understood by most Jews especially if living in the diaspora outside of Palestine would perhaps not know Hebrew well enough to appreciate the scriptures. It was then accepted by the first Christians.

So we have a group of books in a specific language that started off as translation, had quasi-canonical status - it was 'the Bible' if you like, especially around the time of Jesus - and later on lost that canonical status, first in Judaism and later on in Christianity, or shall we say in large parts of Christianity, the Orthodox faith, still adhered to the Greek version.

New technology to examine the Codex

I have learnt many things about the Codex. There are so many questions that are still unanswered, and that might be answered with careful research. I think one of the technologies that are most interesting are - might be, we are still testing so I can't say for sure! - multispectral imaging. That is, images that are taken in certain segments of the light waves, from ultra violet on the one hand to infrared on the other. And by comparing those layers, you can make visible aspects, features of an object like pages from the Codex that are not visible to the human eye, so you can for example in some cases a scribe or maybe even a later corrector erased some of the under-writing and wrote over it, and with that technology we can possibly have access at layers that have been erased.