David C. Parker, Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible

Hendrickson Publishers and the British Library have teamed up to produce a new facsimile of Codex Sinaiticus (best price here), an exciting piece of work I hope to say more about later.

The facsimile is one of the results of an agreement between the Archbishop of Sinai, the Chief Executive of the British Library, the Director of the Leipzig University Library, and the Deputy Director of the National Library of Russia, St Petersburg. These notables came together and agreed to collaborate in making Codex Sinaiticus available. So high-resolution photos of the manuscript are on the Codex Sinaiticus Website, the facsimile of the Codex has been produced, and now the history of the Codex has been told. The reason these dignitaries from Britain, Egypt, Germany, and Russia were involved is fully explained by David C. Parker in Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible.

Parker has related the story of this Codex in way that all parties involved have endorsed, and given the convoluted history, that was no small task. He begins with a fascinating look at what would have been involved in producing this manuscript in the ancient world, and from there he tells the story of how the manuscript became known in the modern west.

Anyone interested in text criticism or in the history of the transmission of the text of the Bible will find this book delightful. The team of scribes who produced the manuscript were not just copyists but artists and craftsmen. Parker takes the reader through the whole process of preparing the parchment (which “is distinguished from leather by the fact that it is not tanned” [43]). From there, Parker walks through the work of the scribes in such matters as laying out the pages, paragraphing, ornamenting, and scripting the text. He even discusses how it appears they divided the work, how they edited their own mistakes, which scribe was the sloppier, and which one appears to have been the senior member of the crew. The volume is complemented with lovely full color plates that illustrate various things Parker discusses, such as hair follicles, veining, and preparation cuts in the parchment. Anyone who wants a fuller understanding of what goes into text criticism should read this book.

Anyone interested in church history and the intersection of diplomacy and scholarship will be romanced by the intrigue of the tale of how the manuscript was removed from St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt to St Petersburg in Russia, with some leaves landing in Leipzig, while the bulk of the Codex was later removed from Russia to London. Was the manuscript about to perish before Tischendorf rescued it? Did the monks mean to donate it to the Tsar? Did Tischendorf steal it? This is one of those books that kept me up past my bedtime because I had to know how this stranger-than-fiction story would reach resolution.

Parker takes a more relativistic view of the canon and the stability of the text than is warranted, and he is more skeptical of the reliability of ancient testimony than necessary. Still, you’ll find the testimony reported and discussed, and that in itself has great value. I think, too, that some of Parker’s own statements about the canon and the text’s stability undermine his fluid view and establish the antiquity and reliability of what this ancient Codex transmits.

Codex Sinaiticus is “the oldest surviving complete New Testament, and is one of the two oldest manuscripts of the whole Bible” (1). Congratulations and immense gratitude are due to the parties involved making it available, and to David Parker for his work in telling its story.

Get a copy of The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible, how it was prepared, produced, and preserved, for yourself, your pastor, and your favorite seminarian here.

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