March 16, 2005

Historic international digitisation project to reunite world’s oldest bible

Posted at 8:34 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

The British Library has announced that the world’s oldest bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, is going to be digitised. The project involves an unprecedented level of co-operation between the four institutions that hold parts of the document. This sort of co-operation is what museums should be about – they are (at least within the UK) funded & perceived largely as research institutions, yet they choose to run themselves in a way that is entirely at odd with the way an academic institution would be run, where they try and keep as much information to themselves as possible, rather than freely sharing it.

British Library

World’s oldest Bible goes global: Historic international digitisation project announced

11 March 2005 :: Posted by Catriona Finlayson

An ambitious international project to reinterpret the oldest Bible in the world, the Codex Sinaiticus, and make it accessible to a global audience using innovative digital technology and drawing on the expertise of leading biblical scholars is officially launched today.

A team of experts from the UK, Europe, Egypt, Russia and the US have joined together to reunite this iconic treasure in virtual form. This unprecedented collaborative approach to achieve reunification involves all four of the institutions at which parts of the manuscript are held : St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai; the British Library, the University of Leipzig, Germany; and the National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg.

The project encompasses four strands: conservation, digitisation, transcription and scholarly commentary to make the Codex available for a worldwide audience of all ages and levels of interest. There are plans for a range of projects including a free to view website, a high quality digital facsimile and CD Rom. It is intended that this project will be a model for future collaborations on other manuscripts.

The Codex is an iconic and historic document which dates from the period when the Roman Empire split and the Emperor Constantine, who ruled the Eastern Empire, adopted Christianity. Greek heritage dominated this Empire and the Codex was produced in response to the wish to gather together Greek versions of the principal Jewish and Christian scriptures. It is the earliest surviving book to encompass in one volume the great wealth of texts that have come to be recognised as forming the Christian Bible. It marks a dramatic shift from a culture in which texts were transmitted in scrolls to the bound book. The Codex Sinaiticus is arranged in eight narrow columns across a double-page and may be modelled on the arrangement of columns on papyrus scrolls.

The Codex is a major resource for scholars working in a range of disciplines, particularly those studying the Christian and Jewish scriptures, the history of the Christian Church, the transmission of texts, Hellenic and Byzantine culture, the history of the book, and codicology – the study of the structure of books.

The project will instigate a major campaign of scholarly research, led by the top specialists in Biblical studies, to transcribe, translate and reinterpret the text and research the Codex’s history for both a specialist audience and the general public.

It is also highly important for its rich layering of texts. It was written by three scribes and contains important textual corrections and insertions. The digitisation and work on transcription will make it possible for researchers to identify which corrections and additions were made by which scribe at the click of a button, thus enabling them to uncover the different versions of the text that were used at the time.

It is estimated that the project will take four years to complete and cost £680,000.

A challenge grant of £150,000 has already been pledged by t he Stavros S Niarchos Foundation and the project board needs to raise funds to match this by the 1st December 2005.

Due to the extreme age and fragility of the Codex, none of the four partners holding leaves of the Codex is able to allow access to the manuscript, beyond display in a glass case. All four partners will carry out detailed examination and analysis of the codices and their findings will be documented using the same system to enable the conservation status to be linked to the environment in which the parts have been held. International experts in areas such as parchment identification, multi-spectral imaging and iron gall ink will become involved as the conservation progresses.

Translations of the Codex will be made available in English, and plans will be developed for translations in German, Spanish and modern Greek, using both existing and new translations of the textual variations in the Codex Sinaiticus.

A high quality, case-bound, colour-printed facsimile of the entire Codex Sinaiticus will be produced, to enable scholars and lay enthusiasts full access to a life-like copy of the original. A scholarly volume of commentaries, with contributions by leading scholars, will also be produced.

A range of projects and initiatives are planned for scholars and the general public including a dedicated website, illustrated booklet, CD Rom and the Library’s award-winning Turning the Pages technology, to allow people to “turn” the digitised pages of the Codex in a realistic way, using interactive animation.

The Codex Sinaiticus project will also be recorded as a documentary by the television production company, CTVC.

For further information and images please contact Catriona Finlayson at the British Library Press Office, telephone +44 (0)20 7412 7114, email

Notes for editors

The Codex Sinaiticus is the world’s oldest Bible and the most important Biblical manuscript. It was written in Greek by hand in the mid-fourth century around the time of Constantine the Great. Though it originally contained the whole of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, half of the Old Testament has since been lost. The surviving manuscript concludes with two early Christian texts, an epistle ascribed to the Apostle Barnabas and the Shepherd by Hermas.

The Codex Sinaiticus is named after the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt. St. Catherine’s is one of the longest continuously active Christian monastic community in the world and traces its origins back to the fourth century. In the middle of the nineteenth century the manuscript was brought to the attention of the German scholar, Constantine Tischendorf, who subsequently took parts of the manuscript away to Germany and to Russia. The Codex has since been split into four portions which are now in St. Catherine’s, the British Library in London, Leipzig University Library and the National Library of Russia.

The British Library’s collection contains more than 150 million items, representing every age of written civilisation and every aspect of human thought. The Library has the right to receive one copy of every publication distributed in the UK under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act, a law which was extended to include electronic items in 2003. Three million items enter our collections of books, archives (including public records), manuscripts, newspapers, stamps, maps, musical scores, sound recordings and digital materials each year. It also collects widely on an international basis and aims to have a collection at least second best to every country’s own national collection.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Built at the foot of Mount Moses, Sinai, St. Catherine’s Monastery was constructed by order of the Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565. It is built on the traditional site of Moses’ Burning Bush, which has a chapel built above it. It was built to house the bones of the Christian martyr St. Catherine. It is one of the oldest continually-working monasteries in the world, a Greek Orthodox holy place connected with the Prophet Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

Leipzig University Library. The University Library of Leipzig was established in 1543 and is one of the oldest German University libraries. It serves as a literature and information supplier for the University of Leipzig as well as for the general public of Leipzig and the region.The precious and extensive historical and special collections give the University Library a high national and international reputation. The collections range from important medieval and modern manuscripts to incunabula, papyri, autographs, ostraka and coins. The current stock comprises 5 million volumes and about 7,700 periodicals.

National Library of Russia, in St Petersburg, is one of the world’s largest libraries, stocking nearly 33 million items, of which 6 million are in foreign languages. It possesses the most complete collection of publications in Russian. Its staff perform intensive research, produce exhibitions and conduct conferences as well as serving visitors to the reading rooms. It also operates an electronic document supply service, allowing users around the world to receive electronic copies of material from their collection.

In association with:

Society of Biblical Literature. The mission of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) is to foster biblical scholarship. Founded in 1880, SBL is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies. The Society provides conversation partners and resources for those interested in the religions, history, literature, and culture of the ancient near eastern world. Over 6,000 members from every continent provide a forum to test ideas and advance the understanding of the Bible’s role in the public arena.

Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld
Institut für neutstamentliche Textforschung, Universität Münster
Septuaginta-Arbeitsstelle, Göttingen
St Catherine’s Foundation

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  1. Charles Walsh said,

    07.20.05 at 4:55 pm

    Is there any Bible in the world that uses the original name of God which is YAHWEH

  2. Thomas Talkie said,

    02.05.08 at 7:17 pm

    Dear Sirs:

    I read about your project to digitise the Codex Sinaiticus which is a very worthwhile endeavour and look forward its completion. My question is that you list the Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest bible while others contend that the Codex Vaticanis is older. Please clarify the confusion for me.

    thomas Talkie

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