Monday, July 06, 2009

Codex Sinaiticus on-line

BBC's Today programme this morning announced the on-line publication of a complete set of images of Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest biblical texts available for study, dating back 1,600 years. This is an important event for scholars because it re-unites in the virtual world, a document split into four and parcelled out between Egypt, Russia, Germany and the UK after its 'discovery' in the monastery of St Catherine Sinai in 1844 - another case of colonial looting to match that of the Elgin Marbles in my opinion. At least the removal of the manuscript from the monastery has meant that extensive scientific study has yielded a vast amount of information about how the text was understood by its readers. This plays a hugely important role in our understanding of the formation of the biblical text as we read it today, derived not from a single but many textual sources with their array of minor textual variations.

The BBC online magazine article by Roger Bolton on this matter is interesting, and the range of critical feedback to it equally so. Bolton projects a stereotyped view of how people read and interpret the biblical text, failing to make clear the distinction between simple classic literalism and fundamentalism as a doctrinally driven way of interpretation, which goes to the text with mind made up about certain teachings, looking for proof. Commentators on the article, apart from the usual secularist detractors of religion, make it apparent that a variety of reasoned approaches taking the contents of sacred texts seriously, are neither literalist nor fundamentalist, and are unshaken by the 'alterations' and 'variations' in text revealed by scholarly investigation.

The manuscript contains two deutero-canonical manuscripts - the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas - known and referred to since ancient times as early Christian documents but excluded from the authorised selection (the Canon) of the New Testament. Why? They did not match up to the quality of the others that were selected, when it came to authorise texts for reading in public liturgy. People could read them for personal devotion but not rely upon them in making the case for Christianity. So rarely is this said in response to the crazy conspiracy theorists who feel that some great 'truth' was officially suppressed. And this in an age that is so hot on listing for us all the 'must read' books in print.

The news broadcast talked about how the virtual text display showed modifications made to it during the course of its early life (revealed by modern hi-tech tools) as if such 'changes' were an issue of great contention. They chart ancient debate about the meaning and interpretation of the text, in the shaping and transmitting of Christian faith - a debate to be taken as seriously as the received texts we strive to interpret for our own times. The whole process is more complex and dynamic than fits well in the world of instant media and modern PR. This best place to get a balanced view on the subject is the Codex website - well worth a visit.

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