THE WORLD’S OLDEST BIBLE

I love books. And the older I get, the more I appreciate them. Nothing beats the feel and smell of a really important old book, especially a first edition.

On a table in my office is a facsimile edition of a book that I absolutely relish. Codex Sinaiticus. In terms of calligraphy, it is top-notch. But to most people this book is completely impenetrable. The text is difficult to read, it is written in ancient Greek. However, to those with a knowledge of Christian history it is of immense importance. This “book” called Codex Sinaiticus which literally means something like “the Sinai book” is named after the Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai where it had been preserved until the middle of the nineteenth century. Technically it isn’t really a book in the way that we think of books. It is a codex. Codices marked a huge transition in book making. The codex is the forerunner to the modern book format. Early Christians rejected individual scrolls and gathered all their texts into one volume which was then rolled over and bound. The codex thus became one of the greatest innovations of its time. This advanced binding technique began the Christian concept of a bible. In some ways, we can thank early Christians for the invention of the book, and Codex Sinaiticus may have been one of the first real books ever produced.

My facsimile edition of Codex Sinaiticus is huge, at nearly 800 pages, to me it weighs at least 20 pounds, probably much more. I really can’t emphasize enough its size and weight. As the world’s “oldest bible” it is obviously of supreme importance in reconstructing the original biblical text. Dating back to the era of Constantine the Great, originally the entire text had about 1460 pages. In present form it includes the complete New Testament, about half of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha as well as two books that didn’t make the later canon cut, the Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas. It is speculated by some scholars that Codex Sinaiticus was part of a project ordered by Constantine the Great to produce 50 copies of the bible in 331 A.D.

Whether or not it was one of the 50 bibles prepared by Eusebius for Constantine it was nevertheless one of the monastery’s most important possessions.

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript, right, the earliest complete New Testament, from 4th century Egypt or Palestine on display in the 'Sacred : Discover what we share' exhibition at the British Library in London, Wednesday, April 25, 2007. The exhibition brought together important religious texts from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript, right, the earliest complete New Testament, from 4th century Egypt or Palestine on display in the ‘Sacred : Discover what we share’ exhibition at the British Library in London, Wednesday, April 25, 2007. The exhibition brought together important religious texts from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

When I have some free time, I love to turn over its huge pages and examine the erasures, corrections and additions. It is written in what is called Greek uncial script (all capital letters). With no spaces between words and all capitals, even with training in Greek it takes a bit of getting used to. It wasn’t until hundreds of years after Codex Sinaiticus was composed in the three hundreds A. D. that cursive lower case Greek manuscripts began to emerge. It is thought that between the 4th and 12th century later monks corrected what had been written by earlier scribes in Codex Sinaiticus. Hence, there are estimated to be about 27,000 total corrections to the text.

Some readings have theological significance such as the early ending of Mark (in Codex Sinaiticus Mark ends at 16:8, scholars continue to debate whether verses 9-20 are therefore unoriginal). The possibility of these verses in our earliest gospel not being inspired should cause even an amateur reader of the bible to pause and ponder the theological significance.

There are only four remaining uncial codices that contain or originally contained the entire text of the Greek Bible (Old and New Testament). They are:

1. Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 A.D.)

2. Codex Vaticanus (325-350 A.D.)

3. Codex Alexandrinus (400-440 A.D.)

4. Codex Ephraemi (about 450 A.D.)

Codex Vaticanus has been housed at the Vatican library since the 15th century and it is speculated that Vaticanus and Sinaiticus were both part of the project (mentioned above) by Constantine the Great in 331 A.D. to produce bibles for the Bishop of Constantinople.  But only Sinaiticus contains the complete New Testament.

It is interesting that there is a blank column after Mark 16:8 in Codex Vaticanus which indicates that the scribe did not consider the longer ending as part of scripture, but it also tends to prove that he was aware that some sort of longer ending existed.

Vaticanus Mark 16  

As I have leafed through Sinaiticus, what has struck me is how fluid the text may have been to early scribes. Some changes are indeed significant and scripture as it has come down to us over the centuries was transmitted by humans, clearly by very human hands.  If I look closely I can even distinguish different handwriting styles (there are said to be four main scribes). After more than 1600 years of wear and tear the script is still, however, said to be priceless.

Perhaps the book in Sinaiticus that has surprised me the most is the Apocalypse (book of Revelation). The text of Revelation differs considerably from the modern critical editions of our bible. There seem to be scores of changes. The first thing that caught my eye was the use of what is called nomina sacra. nomina sacra is a Latin word for “sacred names.” Anciently, scribes would tend to abbreviate divine names or titles when copying or compiling Greek manuscripts. A nomen sacrum simply consists of two or more letters from the original word with a line written above the letter. It looks like this:

Codex_Sinaiticus_04

In this picture the circled Greek letters that look like “KY” are a nomen sacrum for the Greek word kyrios (“lord”).

In most new testament texts, scribes would typically use a nomen sacrum for God, Lord, Jesus Christ and possibly Spirit. The four divine names. But in addition to the four divine names, the book of Revelation in Sinaiticus also includes terms such as heaven, man, son, father, omega, Israel and Jerusalem as nomina sacra. Why? I don’t know.

In addition to the creative use of nomina sacra in the Apocalypse contained in Sinaiticus there is also the striking use of many substituted terms.  “Saints” replaces “servants” in Rev. 1:1; “island” is replaced with “valley” in Rev. 6:14; in Rev. 4:3 “rainbow” is changed to “priests” and “rainbow” is changed to “hair” in Rev. 10:1. Why? Again I do not know.

There are lots of other variants in the book of Revelation I have observed in Sinaiticus. Exactly when they were introduced, why they were introduced and the thinking behind the many, many intriguing readings remains a mystery.

 

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Just how much is lost in translation?

A question I am sometimes asked is:  “How important is it to read the Bible in the original Greek or Hebrew?” And another is: “Just how much is lost in translation from Hebrew or Greek to English?”

Unfortunately, sometimes a lot. And sometimes a translator can completely embellish a text to the point it conveys an entirely new meaning.

Lately, I’ve heard that knowing Greek or Hebrew is not important at all.  What is important is being familiar with a number of good English translations. While I can sympathize with that view, and I actually agree that in general, it is not essential to know Greek or Hebrew, I recently had an experience that illustrates what can be lost in translation – and even added, more about that later.

The following analogy that I’ve seen floating around the internet I think makes the point about biblical languages. It goes something like this:

Reading the Bible without knowing Greek and Hebrew is like watching a 20″ television. Reading the Bible knowing Greek and Hebrew is like watching a 65″ LED 1080p HDTV with stereo surround sound. You can understand what is going on with the 20″ television, but the 65″ LED HDTV with stereo surround sound gives added depth and clarity. You are able to see things that you would miss with the 20″ television.

And what most people do not realize is that the problem is actually much bigger than language alone. When moving from one language to another, you also move from one culture to another, complete with different histories, perspectives and often, especially with the Bible different time periods .

I took my first class in koine Greek more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t long after, that I stopped relying on the King James version (KJV) of the Bible. Before that point in time, I don’t recall ever looking at another version of the Bible in English. I had always assumed that the KJV was the most accurate and I think subconsciously I was associating the cadence and Elizabethan English of the text with the holy spirit. It made me feel good. Not too many weeks into studying Greek I realized that if I were going for accuracy, all bets were off, I needed to start examining other translations. The King James version in some ways had let me down. Although it has stood the test of time and had a remarkable impact on the English speaking world and is one of the most influential books ever published in the English language, I would not say it is the most accurate translation of the Bible. And any student of a biblical language soon figures this out. But at the same time, other English versions are not without fault as I have discovered. I might say that they have also let me down. There is no perfect translation.

If you don’t use a language you tend to lose it. So as a way of brushing up on my Greek, I recently joined an internet group made up of people of various backgrounds from around the world who take turns reading and then  translating the New Testament from Greek into English. We gather on Sunday night for an hour. Each of us in turn reads a few verses in Greek and then provides a translation. It is very laid back and has been a great way to strengthen ones understanding of the text. Typically there are maybe 5 to 10 who show up and literally these are people from all over the globe. Theological discussion is minimal.  The goal is becoming more fluent with the Greek text. So far we have read the Gospel of John, the letters of John, Philemon, Mark and we are now working on Matthew. The target is to read through the entire Greek New Testament in a year. We seldom get through more than a few pages in an hour so I expect in the end it will take more than a year. It is slow going, but anyone who has put forth the effort to translate a text from one language to another knows that it takes time and sometimes can be quite puzzling.

So, back to the question – How much is lost in translation? I ran across this in one of our recent readings. The following comes from the gospel of Mark, chapter 7.  The issue here is: Did Jesus declare all foods clean? Here is how the first 15 verses read in the standard King James version:

1 Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.

2 And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.

3 For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.

4 And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.

5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?

6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

10 For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:

11 But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.

12 And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;

13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

14 And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand:

15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.

In these verses, Mark (or whoever actually authored what is known to us as the gospel of Mark) is providing an account of the Pharisees and Scribes taking issue with Jesus and his disciples concerning his compliance with the tradition of ritually washing hands before eating. But when read carefully, there is no discussion of kosher laws. They are being accused of rendering themselves as impure (see verse 2) by not washing their hands. Here we also see Mark adding an explanation for the Gentile reader who may not be well informed about these Pharisaic traditions (see verses 3-4). He basically summarizes the Jews’ problem as neglecting the commandment of God, you “hold the tradition of men” (verses 7-8).

Mark then goes on to provide the following additional information:

17 And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.

18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him;

19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

Now most other English versions also add at this point that “Jesus declared all foods clean.”

New International Version: “For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
English Standard Version: “since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
New American Standard Bible: “because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.)
Revised Standard Version: “since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

If your only contact with the text was through these last four English versions you would be left with the obvious conclusion: Jesus declared all foods clean. It seems pretty clear and straightforward. No more kosher laws. Jesus just put bacon, snails and shrimp back on the table.

But what is really going on here?

When I was reading these verses carefully in Greek, I definitely did not have the impression that we see in English translations of Jesus declaring all foods clean. The last four words of verse 19 in Greek are καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα which may be literally translated as something like “cleansing all the foods.” These words when read in Greek at first came across to me as at most a parenthetical ambiguous editorial comment, perhaps even intentionally ambiguous. If anything, it seemed that this is one that the Greek is closer to the English translation found in the KJV translation than the others, even though frequently it is the KJV that lacks accuracy.

But then, the more I looked at this verse, the more the words made sense not so much as an editorial comment by Mark, but what Jesus actually said and the English was not even close to what is found in the Greek text.  The English versions were  embellished translations by translators who likely had an agenda. There is no word in the Greek text that can be translated “declared”.  It was added, along with other words that can’t be found in the Greek manuscripts.

I did a little bit of investigation and noticed that Mark’s editorial comment is completely missing from Matthew’s parallel (15:17). Furthermore, Codex Sinaiticus (our oldest complete Greek copy of the New Testament) has these words completely missing. Pretty soon I was down a rabbit hole reading about Jewish dietary or kosher (kashrut) laws during the first century and comparing other verses in the New Testament such as Peter’s statements on kashrut in Acts 10 to Mark paying close attention to context.

Without going into all the reasons for my conclusion, let me just say that in the end, it seemed clear to me that Mark has been misread. Jesus did not declare all foods clean in Mark 7:19. Mark’s Jesus did not abandon or abrogate such basic Jewish practices as keeping kosher. The mainstream Christian sense of where the Jesus movement stands in relation to the Judaism of its time certainly could withstand revision.  In short, if the earliest Christians actually saw Jesus as keeping kosher, this adds more weight to those who view Christianity as another contending branch of Judaism.

But, if I had never read these verses in Greek, and in fact had only read the verses from a translation such as the New International Version (NIV) it would never have even crossed my mind.

Sometimes, not only is a lot lost in translation, but a translation can be completely embellished by a translator with an agenda.

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog. I decided to enter into the so-called field of “biblioblogging” in April, 2015.   My  focus will be on such issues as biblical languages, the historical Jesus, end-times, Bible codes, James the brother of Jesus, the Apocalypse of John, the Dead Sea scrolls and lots of other things that flow from a careful probing of the biblical text. There really is no end to the questions and issues that arise. While many find the Bible boring and of no use to modern society, I have found it to be endlessly fascinating.

Admittedly many who study the Bible don’t always necessarily “believe” in it, but they do tend to have a strong attachment to the texts. Why would one be interested in its study but not necessarily be a true believer? As noted by Professor Bart Ehrman the reasons for being interested in studying the Bible are the same as the “reasons for being interested in studying Chaucer, or Plato, or Latin classics, or modern German history, or medieval Japan, or most anything else.”

In our current world, there may well be no other book that has had more influence on Western civilization. Hence a healthy intellectual curiosity often draws one inescapably to a study of the Bible.  Who shouldn’t be interested in who wrote the Bible, how it developed, whether it was corrupted, how it all started? And of course Jesus of Nazareth is considered to be the most important person in human history. Who wouldn’t want to know if he really existed, what we can know about him, and the religions associated with him?

I tend to agree with scholar Richard Elliot Friedman who wrote: “Whether one is a Christian or a Jew or from another religion or no religion, whether one is religious or not, the more one knows of the Bible the more one stands in awe of it.”

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Who am I?

I have a B.S. from Utah State University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Idaho. I have a fascination with languages and am familiar with Japanese, koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew and a few others. Most of my biblical language experience has been with the Greek of the New Testament. I can’t begin to count the number of books I have read over the years related to religious studies.

In the real world, I am a lawyer with a law practice devoted to helping the disabled.

Feel free to leave your comments.

χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη

Greg Maeser