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Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Monday, 6 October 2008 12:37 UK

The rival to the Bible

Codex Sinaiticus

By Roger Bolton

What is probably the oldest known Bible is being digitised, reuniting its scattered parts for the first time since its discovery 160 years ago. It is markedly different from its modern equivalent. What's left out?

The world's oldest surviving Bible is in bits.

For 1,500 years, the Codex Sinaiticus lay undisturbed in a Sinai monastery, until it was found - or stolen, as the monks say - in 1844 and split between Egypt, Russia, Germany and Britain.

Now these different parts are to be united online and, from next July, anyone, anywhere in the world with internet access will be able to view the complete text and read a translation.

Roger Bolton presents the Oldest Bible on Radio 4 on Monday, 6 October, at 1100 BST

For those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, there will be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. It shows there have been thousands of alterations to today's bible.

The Codex, probably the oldest Bible we have, also has books which are missing from the Authorised Version that most Christians are familiar with today - and it does not have crucial verses relating to the Resurrection.

Anti-Semitic writings

The fact this book has survived at all is a miracle. Before its discovery in the early 19th Century by the Indiana Jones of his day, it remained hidden in St Catherine's Monastery since at least the 4th Century.

Pope at St Catherine's Monastery
The monastery at the base of Mt Sinai

It survived because the desert air is ideal for preservation and because the monastery, on a Christian island in a Muslim sea, remained untouched, its walls unconquered.

Today, 30 mainly Greek Orthodox monks, dedicated to prayer, worship there, helped as in ages past by the Muslim Bedouin. For this place is holy to three great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; a land where you can still see the Burning Bush where God spoke to Moses.

The monastery itself has the greatest library of early manuscripts outside the Vatican - some 33,000, and a collection of icons second to none.

Not surprisingly, it is now a World Heritage Site and has been called a veritable Ark, bringing spiritual treasures safely through the turbulent centuries. In many people's eyes the greatest treasure is the Codex, written around the time of the first Christian Emperor Constantine.

When the different parts are digitally united next year in a 1m project, anyone will be able to compare and contrast the Codex and the modern Bible.

Firstly, the Codex contains two extra books in the New Testament.

One is the little-known Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome in the 2nd Century - the other, the Epistle of Barnabas. This goes out of its way to claim that it was the Jews, not the Romans, who killed Jesus, and is full of anti-Semitic kindling ready to be lit. "His blood be upon us," Barnabas has the Jews cry.


Had this remained in subsequent versions, "the suffering of Jews in the subsequent centuries would, if possible, have been even worse", says the distinguished New Testament scholar Professor Bart Ehrman.

Memorial to child deportations in the Holocaust
The suffering of Jews in the subsequent centuries would, if possible, have been even worse had the Epistle of Barnabas remained
Professor Bart Ehrman

And although many of the other alterations and differences are minor, these may take some explaining for those who believe every word comes from God.

Faced with differing texts, which is the truly authentic one?

Mr Ehrman was a born again Bible-believing Evangelical until he read the original Greek texts and noticed some discrepancies.

The Bible we now use can't be the inerrant word of God, he says, since what we have are the sometimes mistaken words copied by fallible scribes.

"When people ask me if the Bible is the word of God I answer 'which Bible?'"

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".

Fundamentalists, who believe every word in the Bible is true, may find these differences unsettling.

But the picture is complicated. Some argue that another early Bible, the Codex Vaticanus, is in fact older. And there are other earlier texts of almost all the books in the bible, though none pulled together into a single volume.

Many Christians have long accepted that, while the Bible is the authoritative word of God, it is not inerrant. Human hands always make mistakes.

"It should be regarded as a living text, something constantly changing as generation and generation tries to understand the mind of God," says David Parker, a Christian working on digitising the Codex.

Others may take it as more evidence that the Bible is the word of man, not God.

Below is a selection of your comments:

It never ceases to amaze me that people can take what has been written by man, and altered by man, over the centuries, as being the 'inerant' word of God. People copy manuscripts. People are fallible, and people make mistakes. Surely, if there is any 'word of God' around, it should not be possible to make any mistakes when transcribing what is there, it should not be possible to change it in anyway, and the latest version should therefore the be same as the first version.
Anne Boyce, Halifax, England

A rather mocking piece. Why doesn't Roger Bolton lay his cards on the table first rather than weave them into a BBC article on the Bible? His final sentence summarises his opinions; the subject and story becomes irrelevant.
Cynicus, Glasgow

This is an interesting article, but I would object to the BBC's use of the term "fundamentalists" when you write of people who "believe every word of the Bible is true" in this article. As a person who is a Christian and believes the message of the Bible I am of course both open and interested to read this article, but I am deeply unhappy that such a term has been used due to its modern day pejorative nature. There are plenty of other terms that the BBC could use for this type of people which avoid the pejorative connotations of 'fundamentalist'. How about - evangelical Christians/Christians with a traditional understanding of the authority of Scripture?
Bible Believing Christian, Cambridge, UK

Unfortunately the Bible has always been altered by the hand of man. The Reformation decided to leave out entire books of the Bible including Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Maccabbees 1& 2. Large chinks of Esther and Daniel also made it to the "cutting room floor."
Paddy, Liverpool

"...a land where you can still see the Burning Bush where God spoke to Moses." Or perhaps, a bush exists which is claimed to be the one where the biblical god is alleged to have spoken to someone (for whom there is also not a shred of evidence).
Sion Hughes, Northampton, UK

"For those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, there will be some very uncomfortable questions to answer." I doubt it. The topic has been dealt with many times through the centuries. The best discussion IMO is in St Augustine's 'Confessions'; it boils down to the argument that the contemporary bible is the true and only bible. The fact that older ones were different is irrelevant.
bob, london

Would it be too much to ask for a balancing voice in this article? The codex has been studied for years and globally the evangelical church is growing faster than ever so there must be a response. My understanding is that this codex was compiled by a Christian sect who even then was considered unorthodox and whilst it is the oldest complete bible many earlier copies of the gospels predate this codex. It is these gospels from which modern bibles are translated. They are both more numerous and closer in age to the events describe in the New Testement.
Frank Hill, Bristol

I welcome this (and any other) compilation and comparison of ancient texts. As soon as hardline views on scriptural infallibility are debunked, then Christianity will be forced to take a more organic approach to their faith, gaining some much needed credibility with agnostics in the process. Next stop, Creationism!
Ceri Sambrook, Warwick, Great Britain

Christians have known all of this for a while. Most bibles place the story of the woman taken in adultery in brackets and state that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain the story. They also state that the ascension account in Mark's gospel is unreliable. This is old news and there were other reasons why the 2 "extra" books were not passed by the council of Nicea. Please check your facts before publsihnig the story.
Emma, Sheffield

Concerning "His blood be upon us", the distinguished New Testament scholar Professor Bart Ehrman needs to get his facts right before making such bold assertions. Obviously he's never read Matthew 27:25, which is exactly the verse he states is missing from modern versions of the Bible (unless he's been misquoted of course).Martin

Could we have a balanced article, please? Christians have known about these documents for over a century and yet there are still many of us, evangelicals (not necessarily fundamentalists) who believe the bible is God's word. Could we not have had a response in your article explaining some of these things?
Robin, Winsford

Asking Bart Ehrman for objective comment on Biblical matters is rather like asking Sarah Palin to provide a Presidential job appraisal for Barack Obama. It's long been known that the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in all copies of the Bible so why does anyone think it's an issue? Professor Ehrman is doing precisely what he accuses others of doing, trying to make a point in support of his own opinion.
Philip Thomas, Merseyside

Didn't they also find the missing page that says 'All characters depicted in this book are purely ficticious and any resemblence to anyone alive or dead is purely co-incidental.'
George, Maidenhead

The current Bible is God's word. Of course it was written by man, but it was breathed into life by God. The way that it has over time, evolved into is present form is not important. Only those scriptures, in the form that God intended, have presently become the Bible. What is important is that the message that God intended is there for us all, and it has the power to change lives.
David, Leicester

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