Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Wednesday, 3 August 2005 10:03 UK

Oldest known Bible to go online

Book of Esther in the Codex Sinaiticus
The Codex is written in ancient Greek
A manuscript containing the oldest known Biblical New Testament in the world is set to enter the digital age and become accessible online.

A team of experts from the UK, Europe, Egypt and Russia is currently digitising the parchment known as the Codex Sinaiticus, believed originally to have been one of 50 copies of the scriptures commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine after he converted to Christianity.

The Bible, which is currently in the British Library in London, dates from the 4th Century.

"It is a very distinctive manuscript. No other manuscript looks like this," Scot McKendrick, the head of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Department in the British Library, told BBC World Service's Reporting Religion programme.

"On each very large page, about 14-16 inches (34-37cm) it has a Greek text written in four columns.

"That's the really distinct feature of it - layers of text - it's one of the fascinating aspects of it and it shows us how the Biblical text developed over a certain period, how it was interpreted in those crucial early years of Christianity."

The digitising project is particularly significant because of the rarity and importance of the manuscript.

The original document is so precious that it has only been seen by four scholars in the last 20 years.

Constantin von Tischendorf
Constantin von Tischendorf was shown the Codex by a monk
The Codex Sinaiticus contains the whole of the Christian Bible; specifically, it has the oldest complete copy of the New Testament, as well as the Greek Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, which includes books now regarded as apocrypha.

It is named after the place it was written, the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, set beneath the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.

It remained there until the middle of the 19th Century when a visiting German scholar, Constantin von Tischendorf, took parts of it away to Germany and Russia. To this day, the monastery officially regards it as .

In total the codex is now in four portions, the largest of which - 347 of the 400 pages - is that at the British Library. The rest are split between Leipzig University Library, the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, and the monastery.

Free website

All four institutions are co-operating to digitise the entire text, as well as using hyperspectral imaging to photograph it, in order to find any hidden or erased text.

"To do it also in infra-red or ultra-violet photography, as in forensics, you'll find out any hidden aspects of it as well," explained the British Library's digitisation expert Lawrence Pordez.

British library
The British Library bought the codex from Russia for 100,000 in 1933
He added that a further advantage of using photographs of the manuscript to make a facsimile of it was that there were "no chemicals involved".

"It's also faster to produce," he added.

For his part, Dr McKendrick said he estimated it would be about four years before the codex is fully available online.

This is to give time "to essentially photograph the manuscript, to conserve it, to transcribe anew the whole of the text, and to present that in a new form electronically".

The British Library will also develop a free website to present the manuscript.

The website will both "present the manuscript - just the facts as it were, the images and the transcription - but also interpret it for different audiences, from scholars right through to people who are just interested in this manuscript or in Christianity".

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