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The Content of a Codex

on July 11, 2009
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CNN: “Oldest Known Bible Goes Online” The world’s oldest known Bible: should it disturb Christians?

CNN reports on the launch of an online version for the world’s oldest Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, discovered in the nineteenth century in Egypt and including several Apocryphal books. The report also notes that “the New Testament books are in a different order, and include numerous handwritten corrections—some made as much as 800 years after the texts were written.” An older BBC News article on the codex explains:

Such a description suggests that this ancient manuscript shows our modern Bible to be a fraud.

The Codex—and other early manuscripts—omit some mentions of ascension of Jesus into heaven, and key references to the Resurrection, which the Archbishop of Canterbury has said is essential for Christian belief.

Other differences concern how Jesus behaved. In one passage of the Codex, Jesus is said to be “angry” as he healed a leper, whereas the modern text records him as healing with “compassion.”

Also missing is the story of the woman taken in adultery and about to be stoned—until Jesus rebuked the Pharisees (a Jewish sect), inviting anyone without sin to cast the first stone.

Nor are there words of forgiveness from the cross. Jesus does not say “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Such a description suggests that this ancient manuscript shows our modern Bible to be a fraud, with all the miracles of Jesus and His claims to be Messiah mysteriously missing. But consider the alternative view:

  • The CNN article notes that many of the changes are as minor as “the alteration of a single letter,” while the BBC News article states that “many of the other alterations and differences are minor.” Indeed, we examined several discrepancies; the omitted verses are, almost across the board, not central to the biblical accounts. For example, consider two of the verses missing: Matthew 23:14 and Luke 17:36. Removing those verses does not change the Bible from saying that Jesus is Lord to saying that He isn’t, or from saying that Jesus rose again to saying that He didn’t. If a person were to try to strike all verses from the Bible that recorded miracles or Jesus’s claims to be God, the result would be a very different (and far longer) list of missing verses.
  • Many modern Bible translations either exclude or bracket the verses in question, anyway. For instance, the New American Standard Bible and the Holman Christian Standard Bible put such verses in brackets and note that some manuscripts omit the bracketed text. The New King James Version does not bracket such verses but does footnote that some manuscripts omit the passages. The New International Version excludes the verses entirely. So it’s not as if the missing verses are presented by modern English translations as original when they really might not be; most modern versions acknowledge that there is some uncertainty over whether or not the verses were part of the original, inspired manuscripts. And, again, since these verses are not central to Christianity, it’s less of an issue than some suggest.
  • The Bible didn’t drop out of the sky in completed form; we recognize the role of inspired and godly individuals in recording, collecting, and preserving God’s Word. From the time of the Apostles’ ministry to the closing of the canon, fragments of both genuine and fake gospels circulated (though the latter only later). Human copyists and translators through the centuries could introduce an error—accidentally or intentionally—just as easily as any of us could today (and the Codex Sinaiticus has missing Old Testament fragments as well). The existence of minimally divergent manuscripts shows the role of human error but, conversely, elevates the important role of the early church in weighing the evidence and clarifying which books were canonical and which were erroneous (again, by accident or by intent). Likewise, the inclusion of Apocryphal books may have been done for historical purposes, even though the early church consistently rejected these books as canonical.
  • As always, presuppositions come into play. If two versions of a book are slightly different, does that mean one has added material or that the other has deleted material? Furthermore, there is no concrete way to determine (1) which extant manuscript was first (the Codex Sinaiticus or the Codex Vaticanus), (2) the content of manuscripts that no longer exist, or (3) whether just because a manuscript is the oldest means it is the most accurate copy.
  • Ignored by news reports is how similar the codex is to the today’s Bible. The media points out the few, mostly minor, discrepancies but ignores the fact that the essential message of the New Testament remains unchanged.

Ultimately, believers and unbelievers alike are faced with a key question, “Who would die for a lie?” And if all the supernatural doctrines of Christianity were introduced after the fact (as some skeptics believe), why do the earliest manuscripts not omit all references to Christ’s deity, the miracles, the Resurrection, etc.? The Codex Sinaiticus is an interesting insight into early church history, and while it reminds us of the important role copyists and others played in preserving God’s Word, its age and similarity to today’s translation confirm, rather than dispute, the Bible’s accuracy.


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