The oldest bible in the world was displayed in its entirety for the first time in 150 years today after researchers digitised its four sections kept in cities thousands of miles apart and placed the reunited text in cyberspace.
The Codex Sinaiticus, which was written some 1,600 years ago on more than 800 pages of animal skin parchment, is available on a free website following a collaboration between four institutions in Germany, Russia, Egypt and Britain, which have held different parts of the ancient book after it was bought on behalf of the Russian Tsar in the mid-19th century.
The British Library, which has led the project, has held the largest chunk the bible- some 600 pages - since it bought most of the book from the Soviet Union in 1933 for £100,000 raised by public subscription amid fears that the Communist regime would discard it.
The four-year project to scan bible, considered by scholars to be one of the most important early examples of Christianity’s holy book, will allow viewers to not only scan the Greek text but also view close ups of the parchment which are so detailed that scar tissue can be from some of the estimated 360 animals slaughtered to provide the raw material.
The arrival of the 4th century bible, painstakingly handwritten by a team of scribes, on the internet in the latest twist in the volume’s extraordinary history. Coveted by scholars and rulers throughout the centuries, it is thought it is the only surviving example of 50 bibles ordered by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great and was kept for much of its existence at the remote Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. The newly digitised bible includes 24 pages which were found in 1975 in a blocked off room beneath a chapel in the monastery.
Dr Scot McKendrick, head of western manuscripts at the British Library, said: “The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world’s greatest written treasures. This 1,600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the bible was transmitted from generation to generation.”
The existence of the ancient bible first became known in the West in late 18th century when an Italian visitor to the Sinai wrote of a “beautiful Greek text written in gold” inside the monastery.
In 1859, a German archaeologist, Constantin von Tischendorf, who had been employed to search for early Christian manuscripts by Russia’s Tsar Alexander II, arrived at the monastery and managed to persuade the monks to let him initially borrow the bible so it could be copied in St Petersburg.
The transaction remains disputed with authorities at the monastery claiming that the codex was effectively stolen despite the recent publication of a deed of gift to Tischendorf signed by the archbishop of Sinai.
Whatever the legitimacy of the deal, the bible ended up split between the monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University and the National Library of Russia and the whole work was only available for scrutiny by trekking thousands of miles to its different locations.
The website - www.codexsinaiticus.org - will allow academics to study the Greek text, which contains phrases and variations not found in the modern bible, as well as the minutiae of its production. By analysing the handwriting, the researchers have already found that it was written by four scribes rather than the previously thought three.
Dr McKendrick said: “The availability of the virtual manuscript for study around the world creates opportunities for collaborative research that would not have been possible just a few years ago.”