Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725 f324r)

The earliest Greek bibles

Biblical manuscripts and papyri surviving from antiquity provide us with invaluable information about the text of the Bible and about the earliest Christians. Here, David Parker surveys three of the most important ancient Greek bibles in the British Library’s collections.

There are only four manuscripts that originally contained the whole Bible in Greek surviving from antiquity. Two of them may be viewed side by side in the British Library Sir John Ritblatt Treasures Gallery. Making a complete copy of a collection of writings as large as the Bible depended upon technology which only became available in the 4th century. Until then the Bible only seems to have been available in volumes containing one or a few books. The copies described here are fascinating individually, and together, they tell the story of the emergence of the Christian Bible as a book.

Gospel of John papyrus

The Gospel of John Papyrus (Papyrus 782)

This 3rd-century copy of the Gospel of John was written on papyrus in Egypt (Papyrus 782/2484)

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Visually beautiful copies are certainly not typical of the Christian books produced before the Emperor Constantine (r. 306–37) made the religion fashionable, successful and wealthy. For this period, all that we have are the papyrus fragments which have been recovered from the Egyptian desert since the late 19th century. Among the thousands of papyri found in the city of Oxyrhynchus, which are still being edited and published, are a number of copies of the Bible in Greek. One of these, containing fragments of the Gospel of John, is catalogued as Papyrus 782 and Papyrus 2484. It has two numbers because the two sections became separated at their discovery. Papyrus 782 was presented to the Library in 1900 and Papyrus 2484 in 1922.

Comparison of its script with dated manuscripts suggests that it was written in the 3rd century. The manuscript had a page 25cm high and 12.5cm wide, written in a single column and with 27 lines to a page. The script is not particularly beautiful. It contained the Gospel of John written on 25 sheets, folded in half to make a volume of 100 pages. Of these, we only have parts of six pages, containing verses from Chapters 1, 16 and 20. The pages of Chapters 1 and 20 are still joined together and have the centre fold and holes for the binding.

We do not know very much about the purpose or use of such a copy as this, whether it was for private use or for public reading, nor for how long it was used. We only know that it was thrown away at some point, since all the papyri from Oxyrhynchus were recovered from the city’s rubbish heaps.

The text is written on papyrus, the most popular material for books and documents in antiquity. It was made and sold in roll form. Writing onto this format was normal for literary texts in Greek and Latin. Remarkably, however, early Christians seem to have used a new format, the codex, for making copies of what would become the New Testament writings. This became the world’s most popular book format.

In spite of its early date, the papyrus contains another feature of Christian books. This is a set of abbreviations for many words such as ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘God’ and ‘Spirit’, as well as less specific words such as ‘man’ and ‘father’. This became a feature of Greek bibles down to the invention of printing. The origins of this practice have yet to be understood. So what remains of the manuscript shows that even in the 3rd century, Christian books had developed a distinctive format and presentation.

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament, does not contain some passages found in later bibles, such as the story of the woman caught in adultery, which would have appeared on this page (Add MS 43725)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Possibly the oldest complete Bible, certainly the oldest complete copy of the New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus was copied in the middle of the 4th century. It originally contained the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the 48 books of the Christian Old Testament and Apocrypha), the 27 books of the New Testament, and two more early Christian writings, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Letter of Barnabas.

This compilation was written on 1,460 pages, in a massive format of 34.5cm wide by 38cm high, the largest Greek Bible in existence. The adoption of parchment (animal skin, here taken from sheep and cattle) instead of papyrus is the revolution which made this possible. The parchment is remarkably thin, which was also an essential element of the technology. This revolution reflects the age in which the manuscript was produced. Following recognition by the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was an increasingly confident and wealthy organisation.

The manuscript was copied by at least three scribes. It is written in a script called biblical majuscule, a balanced and clear form which could also be written quite quickly. The unique layout, with four columns to each page, may imitate the traditional format of the roll. The poetic books such as Psalms are in two columns, following the lines of verse. There are 48 lines to the column on most pages. One of its many notable features is the high number of corrections, approximately 23,000 in all, a number far higher than of any other manuscript of the Bible. Some of these were made by the scribes when they checked the manuscript at completion, but most were made in the 5th to the 7th centuries.

Codex Sinaiticus has had a strong influence on the wording of modern bibles. For example, the last 16 verses of Mark’s Gospel, present in English translations until the 19th century, are missing from Codex Sinaiticus and other ancient copies. The manuscript does not contain the story of the adulterous woman who was brought to Jesus (John 7:53–8:11 in older bibles). Both are excluded from most modern editions of the Greek text and translations into English and other modern languages.

The manuscript became known to western scholars through the German Constantin Tischendorf, who was first shown pages of it in the world’s oldest Christian monastery, St Catherine’s on Mount Sinai, in 1844. He was allowed to take these pages back to Leipzig with him and there they remain. In 1859 he was shown the bulk of the other leaves (694 pages), including the entire New Testament. These were taken to St Petersburg. As a result of the political situation in the monastery and in particular its support from Russia, they became the possession of the Tsar in 1869. In 1933 the leaves were sold by the Bolshevik government to the British Museum for £100,000, of which half was raised by public subscription – the first artefact to be so acquired. Six fragments acquired independently remain in the Russian National Library in St Petersburg. In 1975, a blocked-up room at St Catherine’s monastery was found, containing the remains of hundreds of manuscripts, including 18 leaves and fragments of Codex Sinaiticus. All surviving leaves of the manuscript have been reunited online on the Codex Sinaiticus website, a project led by the four libraries and in which many other individuals and organisations participated.

Codex Alexandrinus

Royal MS 1 D viii f045r

The 5th-century Codex Alexandrinus contains passages not found in earlier manuscripts, such as John 5:4, on the middle of the right-hand column on this page (Royal MS 1 D V-VIII)

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Copied in the 5th century, Codex Alexandrinus reached England as a gift to King Charles I in 1627 from the Patriarch of Constantinople. It was presented to the British Museum by George II in 1757 as part of the donation of the Old Royal Library. Where it was copied is unknown. Suggestions include Ephesus. There was a curious medieval tradition that it was copied by Thecla, Paul’s female companion in an early Christian apocryphal text.

Codex Alexandrinus is bound in four volumes and originally contained the Septuagint, the New Testament, and the First Letter of Clement, an early Bishop of Rome. It was copied by several scribes in the two-column format so often chosen for bibles and still used today. Unfortunately, over the centuries the ink has had a corrosive effect on the parchment, so that in many places there is a hole in the shape of a letter. Where this has happened on both sides of a page, the material is very fragile. The script is a later version of the form found in Codex Sinaiticus. The manuscript has various decorations and designs at the ends of books.

Codex Alexandrinus comes from an age when the wording of the Bible was beginning to assume the form in which it has been known in Greek ever since. Earlier copies show more differences than the thousands of manuscripts of the 10th century onwards, when what is called the Byzantine text was intimately known by scribes, readers and listeners and frequently copied and read. In the 5th century this text was still becoming established, and Codex Alexandrinus is our most important witness to this stage of development. Many small changes tend to improve the quality of the reading text by ironing out grammatical weaknesses. Another feature was the desire to retain as much of the tradition as possible. For example, episodes in the Gospels absent in older manuscripts, such as Jesus’ words asking forgiveness for those crucifying him (Luke 23:34) and the angel troubling the water in John 5:3–4, are present in Codex Alexandrinus.

This copy stands at the beginning of a copying tradition that led to the printed text still current in Greek Orthodoxy and to which the King James Bible belongs.

  • David Parker
  • David Parker, OBE, FBA, FSA, is the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, and Director of the Institute for the Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing. He is an expert on the text and transmission of the New Testament and has been closely involved in related digital initiatives, including the Codex Sinaitius Project. His publications include Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible, available in the British Library shop.