The Significance of the Sinai Texts for New Testament Study

 The Wednesday session of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts fundraiser for St. Catherine’s Monastery’s efforts to digitize their collection of ancient manuscripts, second only to the Vatican’s, began with lunch, followed by a lecture by Father Justin, and was finished with a quick tour of CSNTM’s offices at the Hope Center in Plano, Texas. A friend of mine from my last church happens to be a cousin of native Texan Father Justin, so I had the privilege of sharing lunch with both of them. When Father Justin heard that I had posted a review of Tuesday night’s lecture on this blog, he generously offered to send me his more detailed lecture for Wednesday with his invitation to post it in it’s entirety. The following is that lecture, Father Justin’s remarks on “The Significance of the Sinai Texts for New Testament Study.” Photos from the lecture and tour and a few of the Hope Center will be added later in the day.

Cyril Lukaris

Cyril Lukaris

1 The Codex Alexandrinus is one of the oldest manuscripts of the Holy Bible, dating from the fifth century. It is bound in four volumes. The first three contain the Old Testament in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The fourth volume contains the New Testament, and the Epistles of I and II Clement. In 1624, Cyril Lucaris, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, presented the four volumes of the Codex Alexandrinus as a gift to England. They reached England in 1627, when they were presented to King Charles I, who placed them in the royal library. This was the first time scholars in Europe had seen such an early copy of the scriptures.

The cry at the Reformation was ad fontes, ‘to the sources’. This meant a study of the New Testament, not in the Latin Vulgate, but in the original Greek. With the recovery of Greek, it became possible to study the Septuagint, and as well, to read the Greek Fathers of the early Church. But a careful study of the Codex Alexandrinus showed variants between this and later manuscripts. It became evident that there was a need, not only to study the New Testament in the original Greek, but to search out the oldest manuscripts, and recover the earliest levels of the text. It was the Codex Alexandrinus that initiated this search to find the oldest manuscripts of the scriptures. From that time, ad fontes, ‘to the sources’, meant, above all, the search for the earliest texts of the New Testament.

Richard Bentley

Richard Bentley

2 Richard Bentley (1662-1742), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, is regarded as one of the greatest textual critics who has ever lived. In 1721, he published Proposals for Printing a New Edition of the Greek Testament and St. Hierom’s Latin Version, in which he described his approach to the challenge, and he included a critical edition of the last chapter of the Book of Revelation in parallel Greek and Latin, as an example. Jerome had translated the Greek New Testament into Latin in the fourth century. Bentley surmised that, since the Greek and the Latin had diverged at that time, by searching out the oldest manuscripts (this was, above all, the Codex Alexandrinus, which he called ‘the oldest and best now in the world’), and noting where these two coincided, at those points it would be possible to reconstruct the text of the New Testament as it was in the fourth century. He wrote, ‘But, since that time, I have fallen into a course of studies that led me to peruse many of the oldest MSS. of Gr. Test. and of the Latin too of St. Jerom; of which there are several in England a full 1000 years old. The result of which has been, that I find I am able (what some thought impossible) to give an edition of the Gr. Test. exactly as it was in the best examples at the time of the Council of Nice.’[1]

Günther Zuntz has written, ‘It was a stroke of genius to use the agreement of these two witnesses, Origen and the Vulgate, for the recovery of a fourth- or even a third-century text. He was the first to replace the standard text also of the Vulgate by that of its oldest manuscripts; it served him to make up for the scarcity of ancient Eastern manuscripts at his disposal.’[2] In the end, nothing came of his Proposals, due to the enormity of the task, and the antagonism of fellow scholars at his college. Nevertheless, he established procedures, and showed scholars the way forward.

Constantine Von Tischendorf

Constantine Tischendorf

3 In the middle of the nineteenth century, scholars came to Sinai, inspired by this same goal: to locate the oldest manuscripts of the scriptures, in order to recover the earliest levels of the text. Of these scholars, the most famous was Constantine Tischendorf, the first to identify the singular importance of the Codex Sinaiticus. This is a manuscript originally consisting of 740 leaves, containing all of the Old and New Testaments in Greek, as well as the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, both important late first century texts. The manuscript dates from around the year 325, which would place it within the lifetime of the emperor Constantine. Scholars before Tischendorf had seen the Codex Sinaiticus, but failed to appreciate its importance. He understood at a glance that this was the oldest manuscript of the scriptures he had ever seen, and that every variant reading was of the greatest interest.

In 1844, he managed to take 43 leaves of the codex with him, which he published in Leipzig in 1846, not divulging the source of the manuscript. In 1859, when he was travelling to Sinai under the auspices of the Russian emperor Alexander II, he was shown the rest of the manuscript. He asked that it be sent to Russia where the original could be consulted, so that the publication of the text, undertaken at the expense of the emperor, would be as accurate as possible. The monks of Sinai, out of a genuine concern for the furtherance of Biblical scholarship, gave him the permission he sought, on condition that the manuscript be returned to the monastery upon its publication. To this Constantine Tischendorf agreed in writing, giving the assurances as well of the Russian ambassador to the court of the Sultan.

4 The importance of the Codex Sinaiticus for Biblical scholarship cannot be overestimated. Westcott and Hort had at their disposal the published texts of the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus as they completed their labour of thirty years that culminated in the publication of the critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1881. Hort has written, in his lapidary style,

Whatever be the mutual relation of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, each of them separately, Sinaiticus in the Apocalypse excepted, is found on comparison of its characteristic readings with those of other documentary authorities of approximately determinate date to have a text more ancient by a long interval than that of any other extant Non-Western manuscript containing more than a few verses; to be in fact essentially a text of the second or early third century. This fact, which is independent of coincidences of Sinaiticus Vaticanus, so that it would remain true of Sinaiticus if Vaticanus were unknown, and of Vaticanus if Sinaiticus were unknown, suggests the most natural explanation of their coincidences. They are due, that is, to the extreme and as it were primordial antiquity of the common original from which the ancestries of the two manuscripts have diverged, the date of which cannot be later than the early part of the second century, and may well be yet earlier.[3]

Rendel Harris

Rendel Harris

5 Rendel Harris travelled to Sinai in 1889. At the time a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, he was later to become director of studies at Woodbrooke College near Birmingham, and curator of manuscripts at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. He spent seventeen days at the monastery. In a Syriac manuscript, he identified the unique surviving copy of the Apology of Aristides. In 1890, he published Biblical Fragments from Mount Sinai, listing the texts of sixteen fragments of the scriptures that he had been able to study. In the Introduction to the book he wrote,

6 There is much to discourage anyone who proposes to make a journey to Mount Sinai in the interests of Biblical Criticism; the successes as well as the failures of previous visitors have great deterrent force; the latter [those who have failed], because they intimate that there is no useful work to do; the former [those who have succeeded], because they suggest that all the useful work has been done already; and it is surprising how powerfully both of these considerations work in the case in question. . . . For example, Coxe in his report to Her Majesty’s Government on the state of the Libraries in the Levant, expressly states that he avoided Sinai because it had been recently visited by Tischendorf; I believe I am right in stating that at the time when he came to this resolution (in January, 1857), the Sinaitic Codex was still lying in its time-honoured retreat, where in fact it would be to-day if the ordinary conventions concerning the rights of property had been scrupulously regarded.[4]

The "Sisters of Sinai": Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson.

The Twins

7 It was Rendel Harris who encouraged Agnes Smith Lewis and her twin sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson to visit Sinai in 1893, since he knew that there yet remained Syriac and Arabic manuscripts that he had not had time to read. On that visit, Agnes Smith Lewis identified the importance of Sinai Syriac 30, known as the Codex Syriacus. This manuscript is a palimpsest: the original writing was erased, and the valuable parchment used a second time, in the year 778, to write the Lives of the Saints. The original text may date from the fifth century. It is one of only two manuscripts in the world to preserve the Old Syriac translation of the Gospels, made from the Greek towards the end of the second century. We know that the texts of the New Testament were written in the first century. Today, we have manuscripts of the scriptures that date from the third century. What happened in the second century to account for what we see emerging in the third? That is the critical question in New Testament studies, and any manuscript that can illuminate the state of the text in the second century is of the greatest importance.

8 Agnes Smith Lewis and her twin sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson photographed the manuscript in its entirety. From these photographs, other Syriac scholars from Cambridge were persuaded to join them the following year. The first was Robert Lubbock Bensly, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, lecturer in Hebrew and Syriac, and Lord Almoner’s Professor of Arabic. The second was Francis Crawford Burkitt, a former student of Bensly, who in 1905 was to be appointed Norris Professor of Divinity. Rendel Harris also joined them. The texts of this manuscript were published in Cambridge in several editions over the next few years.

In 1895, Burkitt read a paper at a Church Congress in which he said,

This version is certainly older than the Peshitta, which is not earlier than the fourth century; probably older than the Syriac Diatessaron, which is not earlier than 170 AD. Of this version of the Gospels only one other manuscript is known to survive besides our palimpsest, namely, the Codex in the British Museum used by Cureton; from this, however, more than half the contents are wanting, and its text has certainly undergone revision from the Greek. In the Sinai palimpsest considerably more than three-fourths of the whole of the Gospels is legible, and its text shows no clear signs of revision from later Greek manuscripts.[5]

9 These are a very few of the Sinai manuscripts of the scriptures that have been of the greatest importance to Biblical studies. With the work of such eminent scholars over the course of many years, we may well ask, what remains for us to do? If Rendel Harris could write in 1890 about the discouraging effect of both the successes and failures of previous visitors to Sinai, how much moreso would that be the case today? Are we to be only gleaners in a field that has been already harvested? In fact, just a few years ago, yet another scholar made an important discovery.

Hikmat Kachouh

Hikmat Kachouh

10 Hikmat Kachouh is a Lebanese, who came to Sinai in the summer of 2006. He was working on a doctoral dissertation under the direction of David Parker, at the University of Birmingham, in England. His subject was the text of the Gospels in Arabic, excluding lectionaries. In the course of his studies, he had read over two hundred manuscripts of the Gospels in twenty-one different institutions. He came to Sinai for ten days. During that time, he was able to review sixty manuscripts. He was looking for test passages that would allow him to identify the characteristics of each manuscript. From his careful study of so many other manuscripts, he could quickly tell which had been translated from the Greek, and which from Syriac, and as well, the nature of the text from which the translation had been made. Most of the manuscripts at Sinai represented texts that he had already encountered, but seven of them were texts that he had never seen before. He set them aside as essential to his research. And then he had to return to England.

11 I was able to photograph these texts at high resolution, and send him the digital images. Two of these, in particular, became his favourite manuscripts: these are Sinai Arabic New Finds 8 and 28, which originally formed one manuscript, written on parchment, and containing 143 folios. It dates from the second half of the eighth century or the early ninth century, making it one of the oldest surviving Arabic manuscripts of the Gospels. In his dissertation he wrote, ‘The examination of the Gospel of Luke shows that this manuscript follows an archaic Greek manuscript which differs considerably from the Greek Byzantine text. The Western and Alexandrian readings are very many and will be presented in a separate monograph. No extant Arabic manuscript can claim more textual value than this version.’[6] He has drawn attention to the importance of Arabic manuscripts of the scriptures. In a further study of this manuscript, published in Novum Testamentum, he writes, ‘The Arabic Gospel manuscripts have much to contribute to the history of the transmission of the text, as well as enhancing our knowledge of the biblical tradition’.[7] I might add that Hikmat Kachouh has recently been appointed dean of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut.

A sample camera from the Stokes Imaging website


Such discoveries show the continuing importance of the Sinai manuscripts. What are we doing today to make them more accessible?

12 Some years ago, we began a program to photograph the Sinai manuscripts with a Sinar camera, made in Switzerland, that has a six megapixel CCD. The camera is mounted on a special cradle designed by Alan Buchannan in London, for the safe handling of fragile manuscripts. The camera takes excellent photographs, and will continue to be an important part of our project.

13 The day before I left Sinai to come to the States, we completed the installation of a new digital camera and cradle, made by Stokes Imaging, in Austin, Texas. The new camera has a 48 megapixel CCD. But in addition to the increase in resolution, the new system is much more efficient. The focus and many other functions of the camera and cradle are automated. The processing software straightens and crops the resulting images and saves them in three different formats, all of which had to be completed by the operator with the earlier system. We are very happy to announce this addition to our digital photography program.

14 Another important development is the project for the photography of the Sinai palimpsests. Because Sinai was so isolated, there are many manuscripts where the original writing was rubbed out, and the valuable parchment used a second time. We have over 110 manuscripts with palimpsest text. Already, we can see traces of both scriptural and classical texts in the occasional words that are visible in the margins of these manuscripts. The possibility of recovering these texts is a very exciting prospect.

How can the Sinai manuscripts continue to help us in our study of the scriptures?

As we continue to photograph the Sinai manuscripts and make them available to scholars, it is certain that important discoveries are yet to be made, in our goal to recover the earliest text of the scriptures. But there are other ways as well in which we still have much to learn from the Sinai manuscripts.

15 Scholars are coming increasingly to appreciate the importance of manuscripts of the scriptures with commentary in the margins. Commentaries show us how these texts were understood. One example is a tenth century Sinai manuscript containing the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, with marginal commentary drawn from twenty-four different writers, beginning with Philo and Josephus in the first century, and extending to Severus of Antioch in the sixth. The writings of some early authors only survive in such commentaries. The manuscript contains, as well, variant readings from Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus, who each made translations of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek as alternatives to the Septuagint.

16 There has been a living community at Sinai since the late third and early fourth centuries, an astonishing record of continuity. This gives an added dimension to each of the manuscripts: they are still in their original context. Sinai has over fifty copies of the Psalter written in Greek majuscule script, a script that predates the tenth century. Manuscripts such as these may add little to our knowledge of the text, but they can help us understand the place of the scriptures in Christian worship.

 17 We face a certain paradox in our own days. In the early seventeenth century, scholars who had studied the Codex Alexandrinus made it their goal to search out the oldest manuscripts of the scriptures, in an effort to recover the earliest levels of the text. We now have manuscripts of the New Testament dating from the third century, and even from the second century, of which Westcott and Hort could only have dreamed. In addition, we have recovered a multitude of texts written on papyrus, from sites such as Oxyrhynchus, and these have contributed much to our understanding of Greek as it was used in late classical antiquity. All of these resources have allowed us to make ever more informed judgements about the text of the New Testament.

And yet, in our own times, Christians are being challenged in the very foundations of their beliefs. In early Christian times, we are told, there were many Gospels, and many Christianities. The process by which the traditional scriptures and faith emerged as normative was quite arbitrary, the result of power plays that could as easily have turned out differently then, could as easily turn out differently for us today. What are we to answer?

18 For those who know their Church history, these issues will sound familiar. These are the very issues faced by Irenaeus in the latter second century. He had to justify the unique place of the four Gospels. He also had to vindicate what he called the canon of faith, the rule of truth. He illustrated this by describing a mosaic in which an artist has used brilliantly coloured pieces of stone and glass to make the portrait of a king. Another person takes this mosaic, and rearranges the pieces to make the portrait of a fox. He can claim that the pieces are identical. He has not added or taken away one stone. But the arrangement is not the same. The pieces are not in their original order.

19 It is the same with the scriptures. Christ is anticipated in the Old Testament in types and figures. In the fulness of time, he came into the world as a recapitulation of the continual presence and activity of the Word. The New Testament is an epitome making clear what had previously been obscure. The canon of faith is this Christocentric reading of scripture, seeing the whole of scripture in the light of Christ and as speaking of Christ, the Old Testament invisibly in types and enigmas, the New Testament visibly in a clear epitome.

This approach to the scriptures was stated most succinctly by the holy apostle Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians, ‘For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures’ (I Corinthians 15:3-4). This was the faith announced by the prophets, taught by the Lord, delivered by the apostles. Those who have come to know this overarching pattern will be able to discern the authentic portrait.

20 The cry of the Reformation was ad fontes, ‘to the sources’, a return to the sources of our Christian faith. This must still mean, above all, the most careful study of the text of the holy scriptures, and in this, the Sinai manuscripts have been of the greatest importance. We are certain they will continue to be so, as these manuscripts are photographed and made accessible to scholars. But the age-old continuity of which Sinai remains the very emblem reminds us of the wider scope of this admonition, ad fontes, ‘to the sources’. Those for whom this can include the defence of the faith written by such early writers as Irenaeus, will be in a better position to meet the challenges we face today as Christians. In this, as well, we have much to learn from the Sinai manuscripts.

[1] Richard Bentley, Sermons Preached at Boyle’s Lecture; Remarks upon a Discourse of Free-Thinking; Proposals for an Edition of the Greet Testament; Etc. Etc., edited with notes by the Rev. Alexander Dyce (London: Francis Macpherson, 1838), p. 477.

[2] Günther Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the Corpus Paulinum (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 7.

[3] Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Introduction and Appendix (Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1881), pp. 222-223.

[4] J. Rendel Harris, Biblical Fragments from Mount Sinai (London: C. J. Clay and Sons, 1890), pp. iii-iv.

[5] Francis Crawford Burkitt, ‘The Sinai Palimpsest and the Greek Text of the Gospels’, Mrs. R. L. Bensly, Our Journey to Sinai: A Visit to the Convent of St. Catarina (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1896), pp. 175-6.

[6] Hikmat Kachouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families, (Birmingham: The University of Birmingham, 2008), vol. 1, p. 376.

[7] Hikmat Hachouh, ‘Sinai Arabic New Finds Parchment 8 and 28: Its Contribution to Textual Criticism of the Gospel of Luke’, Novum Testamentum 50 (2008), p. 29.


7 responses

  1. It’s hard to believe this guy is Greek Orthodox…

    I wonder how he reconciles his devotion to critical textual studies when his own church holds the Byzantine text to be authoritative?

    Very interesting reading and coverage of the conference. Thanks for posting.

    1. Good point. That question has crossed my mind as well about how they reconcile the typical Orthodox preference for the Byzantine text-type with their regional Alexandrian finds. I might just send Farher Justin an email and ask him about that. I did notice he seems to be citing the KJV in his Scripture references throughout both lectures.

      But stay tuned, true believer, there’s more to come–including lots more pics! Just no time now.

      1. I’ll be waiting, Cap’n…

  2. […] The Significance of the Sinai Texts for New Testament Study […]

  3. Just one of several clarifications that could be made: it was stated that when Codex A was presented in 1627 to King Charles I, “This was the first time scholars in Europe had seen such an early copy of the scriptures,” but Codex D, which is as old as Codex A, had been known by European scholars for some time.

    1. Thanks for that. How about another? What else have you got? Don’t hold back.

  4. […] As it happened, this manuscript is a palimpsest, and the text was written over in the 8th century. The photographs did not offer enough definition, and the sisters returned to Sinai with a bottle of reagent to darken the underlying text, and a team of linguistic experts to transcribe the text word for word. Nonetheless, a new pattern was established by these women, using technology to duplicate a text and leaving the original in situ. A review of the importance of the Sinai documents is here. […]

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