Saturday, July 09, 2011

Seven Observations on Codex Sinaiticus drawn from D. C. Parker's recent book

I just finished reading D. C. Parker’s Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (The British Library/Hendrickson, 2010) and will be writing a review for the journal American Theological Inquiry. Parker is Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birgmingham, UK. He is also Executive Editor of the International Greek New Testament. Parker is perhaps the foremost academic Biblical text critic in the English speaking world. The book is a companion piece to the Codex Sinaiticus Project (the effort to put the famed codex in digital form online).

Parker’s assessment of Sinaiticus is, as expected, glowing. The book begins, “Codex Sinaiticus is one of the greatest of all books, not only as a Christian production, but within human culture and book technology” (p. 1). He later adds, “It is to Christian books what Hagia Sophia is to Christian buildings” (p. 1).

Parker's book is pitched to the level of a popular audience (e.g., Greek texts are translated or transliterated) and provides the most accessible and up to date views on Sinaiticus scholarship for non-specialists. My forthcoming review will cover the content of the book and offer more detailed analysis. For now, let me share a few gleanings from Parker’s book that I found particularly striking with regard to its role in relation to the contemporary abandonment of the traditional text of the Bible.

Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus have been the heavyweight manuscripts used to undermine the traditional text of Scripture and promote the modern critical text. For example, Sinaiticus, along with Vaticanus, omit the pericope adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) and the so-called longer ending of Mark (Mark 6:9-20). These passages have been bracketed in modern critical texts or (as in the new SBLGNT’s treatment of the PA) buried in the footnotes.

Here, however, are seven observations on Sinaiticus drawn from Parker that might raise questions about the weight given to this work:

1. The origins of Sinaiticus are not known with any firm certainty.

We do not know the origins of Sinaiticus. Parker debunks the notion that it was one of fifty “de luxe” Bibles commissioned by Constantine [an idea stemming from speculation about a passage in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine] (pp. 19-22).

Parker provides an interesting discussion of the so-called “Pamphilian corrector” of Sinaiticus and his possible links to Origen and Eusebius (see pp. 81-85). Parker rightly describes these as “among the most important Christian writers of their age” (p. 85). What he does not mention is the fact that neither was considered fully orthodox. At any rate, the association is speculative and not certain.

Later, in his discussion of the modern “discovery” of the manuscript, Parker notes the assessment of Uspenski, Tichendorf’s “Russian equivalent,” who issued a “bad-tempered” attack on Sinaiticus in 1863 in which he impugned its “heretical origins,” which Parker chalks up to “sour grapes” (p. 140).

He even makes mention of the bizarre claim by C. Simonides in 1862 that Sinaiticus was a forgery he had helped produce. Parker concludes: “The absurdity of his claim to have forged something so indisputably the genuine article must be put down to malice” (p. 152).

At any rate, even this is a reminder that the origins of Sinaiticus are not known with any firm certainty.

2.  The dating of this work is not known with any firm certainty.

As for the dating of the work, Parker notes the difficulties. The oldest dated Greek Biblical manuscript is from 825. Sinaiticus has no such dating. Parker reviews the basis for making a decision on date based on paleographic evidence and notes the scholarly consensus that Sinaiticus dates to c. 350. Here, however, is his concluding sentence (note the uncertainty of his language): “The best we can say is that the evidence such as it is leads us to believe that Codex Sinaiticus may have been written shortly after the middle of the fourth century” (p. 54).

3. We do not possess the book in its entire, original form.

Parker estimates that the codex originally contained 743 leaves (1486 pages) of which 411 (822 pages) survive in whole or in part, excluding fragments (p. 7).

4. The composition and content of Sinaiticus reflects an open canon.

It is believed originally to have held the entire canonical OT (LXX), along with the Apocrypha (excluding 2 and 3 Maccabbees) and the entire canonical NT, along with two other early Christian books, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Various parts of the OT are now lost (e. g., only Genesis chapters 21-24 survive from that book). The NT and Barnabas are complete but part of Hermas is lost.

If the question of which books to include in the Bible was in flux, so too, no doubt, was judgment as to the text of those books. Clearly, for example, the LXX of the OT was preferred over the MT of the Hebrew. Parker notes that the “biggest challenge to the producers of Codex Sinaiticus was to decide which books were to be included” (p. 29).

5. Sinaiticus is notorious for its numerous corrections.

Parker: “It should be repeated that Codex Sinaiticus is unique among ancient manuscripts in the number of its corrections….” (p. 79). He estimates that there are 27,305 places where the extant manuscript was corrected by later redactors.  Imagine how many more there would be if we possessed the entire manuscript?

6. Sinaiticus has several conspicuous copying and omission errors.

Here are some major examples cited by Parker:

a. A problem in 2 Esdras

Again, the beginning of the OT is now mutilated, but the text proper begins in the middle of 1 Chronicles. Parker notes that one finds a puzzling “anomaly” in the manuscript as a large section of 1 Chronicles (14 pages) is reduplicated and then it abruptly resumes in 2 Esdras (p. 65).

A later corrector added a note to give explanation. Parker: “The note tells us that the seven folios (i. e., fourteen pages, of which five are extant) are a repetition of text that has already been copied. The scribe did not notice the confusion. The in-house corrector … did not notice it” (p. 66). He then asks, “How did they miss this piece of nonsense? And how did the scribe copy fourteen pages twice without noticing?” (p. 66).

b. Significant omission in Job:

Parker notes: “It is a good general rule that scribes omitted texts more than they duplicated it” (p. 86). He adds that “the obvious reason” for omission “is a psychological one: copying was quite tedious, and so one wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible: wishful thinking led one to believe one had copied a piece of text when one hadn’t” (p. 86).

In a sidebar, Parker notes that one of the longest omissions in Sinaiticus occurs in the book of Job. A later corrector supplied the missing text “in the bottom margin of Q71-F8r, consisting of sixteen verses, 187 words. The most likely explanation for this is that the scribe missed out on a block of text in the exemplar, perhaps a column or a page” (p. 86).

c. Abrupt ending of John:

Parker notes that “Tichendorf suspected that there was something odd about the last few lines of John’s Gospel. He decided that the scribe stopped dead at the end of verse 24, without adding the usual coronis and subscription. He thought that verse 25 was lacking in the exemplar, and was added by scribe D” (p. 111). He surmised this based on a change in the color of the ink and change of the writing hand. Later modern scholars (Milne and Skeat) used ultraviolet light to confirm that Sinaiticus originally “ended John prematurely” and a later corrector realized the mistake and corrected it (p. 111). Parker calls this “a casual mistake” (p. 111).

7. Sinaiticus and Vaticanus sometimes share in erroneous readings:

The most notorious example of this is at Matthew 27:49 where both include the words, “But another, taking a spear, pierced his side and there came out blood and water” (an insertion of John 19:34).

Analysis: I have cited just six observations on Sinaiticus gleaned from Parker’s study of the manuscript. To sum up: We do not know the origins and date of the work with any absolute certainty. We do not possess the entire book. Its content reflects the fact that its composers were not familiar with (or did not accept) the concept of a closed canon. It reflects numerous errors made in copying that were corrected by various redactors. Among these are significant errors in both reduplication (1 Chronicles and 2 Esdras), omission (16 verses in Job), and insertion (e.g., Matthew 27:49).

Question: Does this undermine the weight that has been granted by modern critical scholarship to Sinaiticus as a witness against the traditional text of Scripture (including the omission of passages like John 7:53—8:11 and Mark 16:9-20)? I believe that it does.

JTR

1 comment:

Steven Avery said...


Very interesting discussion of the David Parker book. Although it may seem late now to respond, it some ways it is timely and early.

May I suggest being extremely cautious about any literature that is about Sinaiticus that is connected with the British Library. The reasons should be obvious.

Jeff, I would especially caution you above on the short descriptions given about the Uspensky and Simonides history in regard to Codex Sinaiticus.

David Parker is very, very weak on Uspensky. Uspensky wrote an extensive description of the manuscript (which he described as "fine white parchment") when he visited in 1845, published 1856, and wrote more about his 1850 visit. He even published a fragment of 1 Corinthians... before the red cloth fabric fabrication of Tischendorf in 1859. The claim of Tischendorf that he was not aware of the Uspensky Sinai visits and knowledge of the manuscript, in a letter to a Russian official in 1859, can not be taken seriously. And I recently wrote to David Parker about the Uspensky omissions in his book. His response was courteous, however he was clearly uninformed about this history, which is quite startling.

Incidentally, the Uspensky section needs translation into English. The text is Old Slovenian (more precisely, it is likely the similar church Slovenian). While I've found that a savvy native Russian can work with it, it is said to be closer to Bulgarian, and has some Greek words included. To get a high-class translation, we probably need a specialist, perhaps one familiar with the Russian Orthodox writings of the 1800s.

As for Simonides, maybe another day :) . Let's at least first see if the blog is active.

Nice post!

Steven Avery
Dutchess County, NY