It's another good day to be me. Yesterday, Reuters announced that an online consortium will virtually "reassemble" the oldest extant manuscript of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus. Written sometime in the early 4th century (probably in Alexandria, or at least following an Alexandrian text), this massive volume contained both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures in Greek, plus the Epistle of Barnabas and parts of another early Christian document known as the Shepherd of Hermas. The volume is called "Sinaiticus" because at one point it was kept in the Monastery of St. Catherine near Mount Sinai.
In the 19th century, a German scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf claimed to have seen some parchment leaves in a wastebasket that were about to be burned, and recognized them as belonging to the Septuagint, as the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures is called (from the tradition that it was translated from Hebrew by a group of seventy scholars; "septuaginta" in Latin means seventy). He got the monks to let him take some of the leaves back home with him to Leipzig, where they still live in the university library. As Tischendorf talked about his find and published work drawn from the leaves he'd "rescued," more scholars went to the monastery (including Tischendorf himself, several times), in an attempt to find more of it. The monks eventually parted with the codex, which Tischendorf sent to Tsar Alexander II, who had it published in facsimile.
After the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, and when the fledgling Soviet Union was hard up for hard cash, they sold the volume to the British Library for a hundred thousand pounds in 1933. That's probably well in excess of a million dollars in modern currency, which gives some idea of the importance of this manuscript. Subsequently, during renovations at the monastery, an additional dozen leaves were discovered in a crypt. Since then, those 12 leaves have remained at the monastery, while fragments of three leaves are in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Tischendorf's 43 leaves are in the collections at Leipzig University, and the British Library has the remaining 347.
Hence my excitement at the announcement that they're going to be digitized and presented online. For anybody who's ever read a scholarly edition of the Christian Scriptures in the original, you'll see the sigil for this codex all over the place: the Hebrew letter aleph, designating this as the first extant manuscript. It's next to impossible to get permission to work with the original text, it's so valuable. According to the wiki entry, only four scholars have been allowed the privilege in the last 20 years. Putting it online makes it available to the whole scholarly community--and without the need to travel to four countries to see all the pieces that still survive.
It has been suggested in some quarters that this publication will be a cause of scandal or consternation among Christians, and Catholics especially. I fail to see how that conclusion follows logically from anything. There aren't any surprises in Sinaiticus, unless the planned examination under ultraviolet light reveals a palimpsest or some interesting corrections. But even if that proves to be true, I rather doubt the nature of those corrections (or that palimpsest) will be earth-shattering.
Yes, it is true, that there are some omissions in the text of Sinaiticus. That's true of virtually any hand-copied ancient manuscript. It's the nature of the beast when you're dealing with texts transmitted before the era of photocopiers and floppy disks. Yes, it is also true that there are discrepancies between the text of several books of the Christian Scriptures in this manuscript and the "received" or canonical text that you'll find in any modern scholarly edition and on which all modern translations of the Bible are based. Again, this is not unusual, and everyone who works with these texts knows these things.
I suppose it's possible that the fanfare attendant on the site's launch this week (if there is any fanfare; given that this doesn't involve drunken hijinks by pampered celebrities or missing pretty girls, it's entirely possible that the major media will fail to cover the story at all) might startle a few non-scholars (particularly among the "Bible-as-inerrant-word-of-God" crowd). But that's not the fault of the people sponsoring this project, and I can't find it in me to get terribly worked up about their problems. I'll be too busy poring over the pages that they make available and salivating heavily to worry about the shallow faith of a few people who haven't bothered to pay attention to the footnotes in their Bibles or Bible commentaries for all these years.
Regrettably, given that Sinaiticus is in Greek, this site isn't likely to be overwhelmed by curious visitors. Or if it is, it will get a lot of page views that last for five or ten seconds at most, once people surf to the site and realize that they're going to have to go back to school for several years before they can make head or tail out of the text. But I'll lay odds that the site's URL has already found its way into the bookmarks folders of just about anybody who does translation or hermeneutical work on the Christian Scriptures. I guarantee you it's already in mine.