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Delve into the debate surrounding the authenticity of the Codex Sinaiticus. Was this pivotal manuscript a 19th-century forgery, or is it genuinely a 4th-century artifact? Explore the evidences and counter-claims in our comprehensive analysis.
On September 13, 1862, Constantine Simonides (1820-1890), a man adept in calligraphy with a controversial past involving manuscripts, stated in The Manchester Guardian that he had authored the codex when he was a 19-year-old in 1839 at the Panteleimonos monastery in Athos. The man responsible for the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, Constantin von Tischendorf, was known for his dramatic flair and extensive work with Bible manuscripts. He had a reputation for seeking funding from royal families for his various projects, and they did indeed finance his travels. Simonides had a somewhat murky past, claiming to have resided at Mt. Athos in the years before Tischendorf’s visit, a statement that made his claim somewhat believable. Simonides also stated that his father was deceased, and he had been invited to Mt. Athos by his uncle, a monk there. However, letters to his father were discovered among Simonides’ belongings after his death. Simonides declared the document fraudulent in The Manchester Guardian during a public exchange of letters among scholars and others of the time. Henry Bradshaw, a British librarian familiar with both men, defended Tischendorf’s discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, dismissing Simonides’ allegations, which have since been discredited. Bradshaw, known for his connections among various scholars of the time, was instrumental in bolstering Tischendorf’s credibility. Simonides died soon afterward, and the controversy was dormant for many years.
In response to Simonides in Allgemeine Zeitung (December 1862), Tischendorf highlighted that only the New Testament section of the codex contained numerous discrepancies compared to all other manuscripts. Henry Bradshaw, a bibliographer, refuted Simonides’ claims in a letter to The Manchester Guardian (January 26, 1863). Bradshaw insisted that the Codex Sinaiticus, which Tischendorf brought from the Greek monastery of Mount Sinai, was neither a contemporary forgery nor written by Simonides. The controversy seems to stem from the mistaken use of the terms ‘fraud’ or ‘forgery.’ It could have been a restored text, a copy of the Septuagint based on Origen’s Hexapla, a text that had been dismissed for centuries due to its association with Eusebius, who introduced Arian doctrine into the courts of Constantine I and II.
Not every scholar and Church minister welcomed the discovery of the codex. Burgon, an advocate of the Textus Receptus, proposed that Codex Sinaiticus, along with Codex Vaticanus and Codex Bezae, were the most corrupt documents in existence. Each of these three codices, Burgon stated, “clearly exhibits a fabricated text – is the result of arbitrary and reckless recension.” He likened the two most significant of these three codices, א and B, to the “two false witnesses” of Matthew 26:60.
However, the independent discovery of other fragments of the codex in recent history validates its authenticity and debunks any claims of it being a forgery.
In the early 1900s, Vladimir Beneshevich (1874–1938) uncovered sections of three additional leaves of the codex, hidden in the bindings of other manuscripts in the Mount Sinai library. Beneshevich visited the monastery three times (1907, 1908, 1911), but he did not specify when or from which book these fragments were retrieved. These leaves were also obtained for St. Petersburg, where they are currently held.
The Codex Sinaiticus was housed in the Russian National Library for several decades. In 1933, the Soviet Union sold the codex to the British Museum (which became the British Library after 1973) for £100,000. This amount was raised through public contributions and is equivalent to £7.6 million in 2023. Upon its arrival in Britain, the Codex was inspected by Skeat and Milne using ultraviolet light.
In May 1975, while carrying out restoration work, the monks at Saint Catherine’s Monastery discovered a room beneath the St. George Chapel filled with many parchment fragments. Kurt Aland and his team from the Institute for New Testament Textual Research were the first scholars invited to study, inspect, and photograph these newly discovered New Testament fragments in 1982. Among these fragments were twelve complete leaves from the Sinaiticus, eleven leaves of the Pentateuch, and one leaf of the Shepherd of Hermas. Along with these leaves, 67 Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament were found (uncials 0278 – 0296 and some minuscules).
In June 2005, a group of experts from the United Kingdom, Europe, Egypt, Russia, and the United States embarked on a joint project to create a new digital edition of the manuscript. This involved collaboration among all four libraries that held parts of the codex. Additionally, a series of other studies was announced, including the use of hyperspectral imaging to photograph the manuscripts in search of hidden information, such as erased or faded text, in collaboration with the British Library.
More than a quarter of the manuscript was made available to the public via The Codex Sinaiticus Website on July 24, 2008. On July 6, 2009, 800 additional pages of the manuscript were released, representing over half of the entire text, although the complete text was intended to be made available by that date.
The full document is now accessible online in digital format for scholarly study. The online version includes a completely transcribed set of digital pages, with amendments to the text, and two images of each page under standard and raked lighting to emphasize the texture of the parchment.
Before September 1, 2009, Nikolas Sarris, a Ph.D. student at the University of the Arts London, discovered an unseen fragment of the Codex in the library of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. This fragment contains the text from the Book of Joshua 1:10.
In Defense of Codex Sinaiticus
Codex Sinaiticus, a biblical manuscript dating back to the fourth century C.E., is one of the oldest and most complete versions of the Greek Bible and is widely regarded as an invaluable tool in biblical scholarship. It contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament and is, therefore, of considerable significance to the study of the Bible’s textual history. It is crucial to assert that the notion of Codex Sinaiticus being a 19th-century forgery is patently untenable, and the evidence supporting its fourth-century origin is both robust and varied.
A primary argument against the possibility of a 19th-century forgery is the manuscript’s text type. Codex Sinaiticus represents the Alexandrian text-type, also known as the “Neutral Text” tradition, one of several text types of the Greek New Testament manuscripts. This textual tradition is typically associated with Alexandria (Egypt) and dates back to the early centuries C.E. Notably, the text of the Codex Sinaiticus shows typical Alexandrian readings. In Romans 8:1, the manuscript excludes the phrase “who do not walk according to the flesh” found in the Byzantine text-type, but this exclusion is consistent with other Alexandrian manuscripts like Vaticanus and Papyrus 66. Vaticanus dates to 300-300 CE, and P66 dates to 100-150 CE.
Moreover, Codex Sinaiticus also includes two early Christian texts – the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The former is included in its entirety, while the latter is incomplete. These works were popular in the early Christian church and often considered canonical. The presence of these texts alongside the biblical canon within Sinaiticus affirms the manuscript’s early composition, as these works gradually fell out of use and were not considered part of the New Testament canon by the 19th century.
The physical characteristics of Codex Sinaiticus also testify to its antiquity. The manuscript is written on parchment, made from prepared animal skin – a common writing material in the ancient world but largely abandoned after the Middle Ages. It displays a majuscule script, which means it uses large capital letters, a style consistent with other early biblical manuscripts. Furthermore, it is written in a format called “Codex,” the early form of a modern book, which superseded the scroll in the early Christian era, further supporting its fourth-century origin.
Paleographical analysis of the Codex Sinaiticus provides crucial evidence of its fourth-century origin. Paleography, the study of ancient writing, allows scholars to date manuscripts based on the style of writing used. The text of Codex Sinaiticus is written in a form of script known as biblical uncial or majuscule, which was prevalent from the 3rd to the 8th centuries C.E.
Additionally, the inclusion of the “Eusebian Canons” – a system developed by Eusebius of Caesarea in the early fourth century for harmonizing the Gospels – provides compelling evidence for its early date. These canons are cross-references that connect parallel passages among the four Gospels. This apparatus, present in the margins of Codex Sinaiticus, would be exceptionally unusual and complicated for a 19th-century forger to include.
In sum, there is a confluence of compelling evidence affirming the antiquity of Codex Sinaiticus. This evidence lies in the manuscript’s textual character, its contents, the physical materials used, and the paleographical features it exhibits. Therefore, the claim of it being a 19th-century forgery is untenable when scrutinized under the weight of these factual historical, and scholarly assessments.
The claim that Codex Sinaiticus is a forgery might stem from a misunderstanding or misinformation, but we must be clear in asserting that there is no substantial evidence that could undermine the fourth-century dating of the manuscript. As believers in the truth of the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV), it is crucial that we uphold the accuracy and credibility of our scholarly research, for we are reminded in Proverbs 14:5 (ESV), “A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.” As faithful witnesses, let us maintain a commitment to truth, both in our faith and our scholarship.
Twentieth-Century New Testament Papyri Vindicate Codex Sinaiticus
The existence of early New Testament papyrus fragments supports the authenticity of Codex Sinaiticus and its assigned 4th-century dating. These papyrus fragments, many dated as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries, contain text types (Alexandrian) and characteristics consistent with what is found in Codex Sinaiticus.
For instance, consider the famous Papyrus 75 (P75), dated 175-225 C.E. This papyrus contains portions of the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John, and its text closely aligns with what is found in the later Codex Sinaiticus. In the 19th century, when the supposed forgery would have occurred, P75 had not yet been discovered—it was found only in the 20th century.
Furthermore, the extensive collection of Chester Beatty Papyri, also discovered in the 20th century, holds early copies of many New Testament books. They align well with the text of the Codex Sinaiticus, supporting its authenticity and dating.
The forgers in the 19th century would not have known about these manuscripts nor the specifics of their text types, especially given the significant variations in early New Testament texts. It would have been virtually impossible to create a forgery that so accurately reflects the text found in manuscripts that had yet to be discovered.
The consistency between Codex Sinaiticus and these earlier papyri provides strong evidence for the authenticity of Codex Sinaiticus and its dating to the 4th century. This body of evidence continues to be confirmed as more papyri are discovered and analyzed, solidifying the text of the New Testament and our understanding of its transmission over the centuries.
Influence on Biblical Studies
Regarded alongside Codex Vaticanus, the Codex Sinaiticus is held as one of the most significant manuscripts, given that it’s among the oldest and likely closest to the original text of the Greek New Testament. Uniquely, it stands as the only extant uncial manuscript containing the entire text of the New Testament, and, remarkably, it is the sole surviving ancient New Testament manuscript written in a four-column per page format. With a mere 300-year gap between the Codex Sinaiticus and the era of Jesus Christ, some scholars believe it to be more accurate in preserving certain readings where the majority of manuscripts are suspected to contain errors.
In terms of the Gospels, some consider the Sinaiticus as the second most credible textual evidence (after Vaticanus); its text of the Acts of the Apostles is deemed to be on par with that of Vaticanus. For the Epistles, the Sinaiticus is believed by some to be the most dependable testimony of the text. However, in the case of the Book of Revelation, its text is criticized by Bruce M. Metzger as being not as trustworthy and less weighty, ranked lower than the texts of Codex Alexandrinus, 𝔓47, and even some minuscule manuscripts in this regard (for instance, Minuscule 2053, 2062).
While I do not support Kevin McCrane’s favorable view on the corrupt Textus Receptus, he is at least bold enough to pen a defense for the Codex Sinaiticus early date of 330-360 CE. See his linked PDF article below.