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Codex Sinaiticus: transcript of audio

British Library curator Scot McKendrick talking about Codex Sinaiticus in July 2007

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Detail of Codex Sinaiticus with curator Scot McKendrick

Significance of the Codex

I think the significance of the Codex is around several factors. First must be that it's the earliest complete manuscript or copy of the New Testament. Second to that, maybe, is that it's arguably the oldest Christian Bible full stop.

I think those two facts touch people's lives, because clearly both the Bible as a whole, and the New Testament, have huge significance for how people live their lives, what they see their position in the world as. It's more than 'just another manuscript', as it were, 'another book'.

An ever-changing text...

And what that text contains people find quite challenging in that like every manuscript, every hand written book, there are differences. Every time you copy something you inevitably get something different, and it's those differences in each manuscript that are very significant in particular when this is so early.

And with the Codex what you have is a debate about the text that's going on not in learned treatises but actually, physically, on the page of those manuscripts. So you have, if you like, a 'first take', the scribe writes down 'the text' - and then you get changes or revisions. Whether it's 'correct' is a moot point, but there are changes to the text, occurring on every single page and continued from the fourth century through to the 12th century. And so you can literally see at one point a particular part of the text may be written in a certain way, and then that may be changed or revised a little later, then somebody comes along, maybe changes it back to what it was before.

So all the textual apparatus, all the scholarly side that you might get in a very arcane edition, it actually comes to life. It's a bit like an archeological site: you're digging down through the layers, through time, and seeing how that landscape, that text, has changed. That's very evocative. I think the recognition is that scripture, as it comes down to us, is transmitted by human hand. And human hand has its limits. It also has the potential for changing, for transmuting, for influencing. There isn't just 'a text' which then comes down to us, pure and unadulterated.

...but not changing that much

But one has to get that in context, and this is rather a remarkable fact: that in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, some of the earliest manuscripts to survive of the Christian Bible were discovered. These are partial, usually small scraps, and they can date back to the early second century, usually the third century, so we're pushing it back beyond the Codex. And even when you push it back, the text is very very close to what has come through to us. So we're talking about detail, we're not talking about a text that is unrecognisable. It's remarkably similar and in many ways much better transmitted than say the text of Homer for instance, which is transmuted quite dramatically in many cases over a similar sort of period of being copied.

So there is change, but it's within quite a tight constraint. A sort of same core to the text. The actual selections of the text, the New Testament, are not different. They are the same texts in Codex Sinaiticus as anybody would have if they opened their own Bible today. They're not a different selection, there's not an 'Epistle of Judas' in the Codex. It's the same canon, but within that you have passages which have been discussed.

The two versions of Mark

Just for an instance, an example: Mark's Gospel. There are two traditions, one of which ends quite abruptly where the three women go to the tomb, find it empty, encounter the angel, and the short ending ends with them going away afraid. You don't get the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, it just ends there. So that ending is actually in the Codex, and it's one of the earliest witnesses of that shorter ending. That's a very dramatic difference between the longer ending tradition. But that's quite exceptional, and that's quite a large portion of text that's not there, and it's not as though critics haven't talked about that for a long time. It's always been a big point of dispute as to where Mark's Gospel actually ended and where the story came to an end as far as Mark is concerned.

Lavish yet austere

One of the things that comes across is that it's very much the high end of manuscript production. This is a very lavish volume, the respect for the text is very great, and so you can compare it with the very lavish and large manuscripts of the Qur'an for example, the large manuscripts of the Masoretic texts of the Hebrew Bible; the ambition, the care, the attention that has been given to each of those is very similar in many ways.

But it's not a visually stunning manuscript. It's not glittering with gold; it's not sparkling before your eye. It has beautiful calligraphy and in some ways that links it more with the plainer Hebrew and Islamic manuscripts. So it's not a flash manuscript in that sense, but neither are many of the very grand and important manuscripts of each of those traditions. It doesn't make a huge immediate visual impression on the visitor.

Unadorned text, pure and simple

The Codex is very typical of its time. You don't get illustrated Christian manuscripts - well , you don't get illustrated manuscripts full stop until later, actually associated with the key scriptural texts. So with the Christian manuscripts you get some decoration coming in a century later, and then really the symbolism that had been adopted by Christians like the fish symbol and so on start to filter in to manuscripts. Depictions of Christ, which is another distinctively Christian thing - to actually be able to be at one with depicting any personification of the divinity is acceptable - that starts to come in a little bit later again. So although this is a high-status manuscript, and if it had been produced say in the seventh century, it might have been lavishly decorated, but at this point in time it's the text which is absolutely central, and it's just the beauty of the calligraphy that's the key to it.

How readable is the text?

The text is very legible. The first challenge you have to face is that there's no word division, so the reader has to divide up the words. Fortunately Greek has very strict rules as to how you can end a word, so once one knows that, there should be no confusion. The only difficulty is when you have for example Hebrew names, which are then converted into Greek, and obviously they don't comply with Greek rules, but in general principles the brain if not the eye should divide up the words and be able to read it.

They're large, what we call 'capital' letters; it's very legible, and it's very very clearly presented. It's New Testament Greek, and even to those of us who learned classical or attic Greek, it's very readable.

A manuscript with a meaning

I'm always struck when I take people round galleries for types of tours, looking at different books, manuscripts and so forth, that I always sense with the Codex that there is this other dimension: the debate is quite vigorous, people really really want to know about it because it is more than just an academic or amateur interest. They are very connected to that text that's contained in the manuscript.