Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bibles Before the Year 1000 (Post 3)

For the immediately preceeding post in this series, click here.

The Sackler exhibit had one of the crown jewels of biblical scholarship on display: part of Codex Sinaiticus. Dating back to the fourth century, and previously held in St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai, this manuscript represents the earliest Christian codex ("book") of the two testaments. (Click photo to enlarge.)

You could see two pages, four columns of Greek text on each. The format strongly resembles the older "scroll" form. The exhibit catalog incorrectly states the range of biblical text included. Column 1 actually starts in the middle of Numbers 20:3 and column 8 ends with Numbers 24:18. That means that this display contains the humorous and wonderful story of Balaam's Ass, one of my personal favorites.

Constantin von Tischendorf visited St. Catherine's Monastery three times in the mid 19th century, eventually "borrowed" most of the leaves of the codex, and took them to Russia. The British Museum bought the codex in 1933.

Here is a detail-shot of the middle of column 8 in the display, containing Numbers 24:15:

I've circled the name "Balaam" in the Greek and also a few interesting features that caught my eye as a scholar who does not read this codex in its actual form regularly. As you do work directly with Sinaiticus you immediately have to get used to the capital Greek letters (uncial script) and the lack of any spaces between words. Then you begin to notice some interesting details. In the upper right of the image I've circled a place with a Greek nu removed, or at least replaced by a diacritical mark. In the middle right I've circled a place where a letter seems shrunk to fit a word on the line. Finally, near the bottom right, I've circled a place in 24:16 where the Greek word "of God" is abbreviated, with a diacritical line over the spot where two letters are gone.

Balaam is so funny to announce his 20/20 prophetic-vision here from his high horse. This is the guy who just a few verses earlier in the story could not see nearly as clearly as his own dumb ass! Any ass could see the angel of God, but not Balaam...

There is currently a project underway to produce an electronic version of Codex Sinaiticus and make it available on the Web for free. The project entails the partnering of the four libraries holding parts of the manuscript: St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the Russian National Library. To learn more, click here.

Update [12/15/2006]: Dr. Jim West has been blogging about the current exhibit of Sinaiticus at Leipzig (click here).


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