Saturday, June 10, 2017

Codex Sinaiticus: A Hulking Pile of a Book

In a recent issue of "Expository Times," Christfried Böttrich of Greifswald University (Germany) published an article on the Codex Sinaiticus.
"Codex Sinaiticus and the use of Manuscripts in the Early Church." Expository Times 128.10 (2017): 469-478

In this article, Böttrich contends that the library at Caesarea (T. C. Skeat), rather than Alexandria (Kirsopp Lake) was the likely source of the production of the manuscript. He gives the following reasons;
"First: there are some lexical indications regarding geographical substitutes. Second: Codex Sinaiticus adopts the Eusebian system in the gospels, and offers a special text division in Acts following a model that can be traced back to Pamphilus. Third: there are two famous colophons after the text of 2 Esdras and Esther claiming a correction of the text in Caesarea at least in the 6th century; such colophons should be viewed with caution because they became inflationary in later times, being copied from one codex to the other, but these two predate such secondary usurpation." (pg. 470) 

Böttrich does not give any new evidence or argument for Caesarea as the likely place of origin. The bulk of the article focuses, rather, on the purpose for producing such a fine codex in the first place. He engages with the well known theory that both Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus were two of the large Biblical codices requested from Eusebius of Caesarea by the new Christian Emperor Constantine. Here is an excerpt of the request,

"Be ready therefore to act urgently on the decision which we have reached. It appeared proper to indicate to your Intelligence that you should order fifty volumes with ornamental leather bindings, easily legible and convenient for portable use, to be copied by skilled calligraphists well trained in the art, copies that is of the Divine Scriptures, the provision and use of which you well know to be necessary for reading in church. Written instructions have been sent by our Clemency to the man who is in charge of the diocese that he see to the supply of all the materials needed to produce them. The preparation of the written volumes with utmost speed shall be the task of your Diligence. You are entitled by the authority of this our letter to the use of two public vehicles for transportation. The fine copies may thus most readily be transported to us for inspection …" (Vit. Const 4.36.2–4; quoted from the article, pgs. 472-473).

Böttrich gives several reasons why Codex Sinaiticus was not one of these codices produced for public reading in a Church worship context. First is that the four column format with its many corrections cluttering the margins does not easily facilitate public reading (pg. 474). Second is the shear size of the book;

"The biggest problem is the weight. All in all, the codex originally must have covered more than 730 parchment sheets, a hulking pile. Who could carry it in daily use? Is it conceivable to manage liturgical readings with such a codex? Regarding the emperor’s guidelines, Codex Sinaiticus would not have been a clever solution." (pg. 474-475)
No one can argue that Sinaiticus is a very large codex and must have weighed a tremendous amount in its original complete form. Its size, however, may not exclude it from having been used in a Church worship context. There is at least one instance from about the same time period that mentions a Church congregation holding several large copies of the Bible. In the capital city of Cirta, Numidia, in North Africa, during the great persecution under Diocletion (ca. 303 CE), there is a detailed account of the confiscation of Bibles. In this account, a subdeacon surrenders to the officials a very large copy of the scriptures [codicem unum pernimium maiorem] and several church readers surrender "five large codices, and two small ones" [codices quinque maiores et minors duos] (Gamble, "Books and Readers," pgs. 145-147). Of course, the overall size of these copies are relative, and they still may be considerably smaller than Codex Sinaiticus. Even so, as this account suggests, it would not be out of place for a Christian congregation to use a larger copy of the Bible in their worship practices.

As Böttrich mentioned, Sinaiticus's four column layout is not unlike a bookroll from the height of the Roman Imperial era (pg. 474). This format, however, does not necessarily imply that Sinaiticus was not meant for public reading. As William Johnson noted, there were many who read out from bookrolls in group settings and were able to navigate its format. Johnson describes a scene in which the physician Galen (last half of the second century) and his rival Martialius publicly read from a bookroll and argued over its text (Johnson, "Reading and Reading Culture," pgs. 88-89). Johnson also recounts a dinner party scene described by Aulus Gellius (last half of the second century) where passages from poets were read out from bookrolls and discussed amongst the learned group (Johnson, pg. 105). Some of the formatting in Sinaticus also suggests that the codex had public reading in view. "Ekthesis" and other reading aids are used throughout the codex, and several places in the codex, the text is formatted into lists in such a way that the reading-out of these lists would emphasize each word in a unique way. Peter Head noted this in his paper "The Gospel of Mark in Codex Sinaiticus," stating that, "These lists would also have been reflected in public reading of the text of Sinaiticus, with each item pronounced carefully and separately, developing emphasis over the course of the lists" (pg. 13). I argue in my paper "Codex Sinaiticus as a Window into early Christian Worship," that these lists were read in a public worship setting in a unique way that facilitated learning or memorizing these words and phrases (pg. 12).

Böttrich's article is a nice summary of the scholarship and theories behind the production of arguably the world's most famous Biblical manuscript. He makes a great assessment that Caesarea is the likely origin of its production and that Sinaiticus is likely not one of the codices manufactured at Emperor Constantine's demand.

Codex Sinaiticus (


Böttrich, Christfried."Codex Sinaiticus and the use of Manuscripts in the Early Church." Expository Times 128.10 (2017): 469-478

Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995
Head, Peter M. "The Gospel of Mark in Codex Sinaiticus: Textual and Reception-Historical Considerations." TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism , Vol. 13 (2008): 1-38.

Johnson, William A.
Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities. Edited by Joseph Farrell and Robin Osborne. Classic Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mitchell, Timothy. "Codex Sinaiticus as a Window into Early Christian Worship." in Eleutheria 3:1 Fall (2014): 2-19.

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