British Library Heads Project in Digitalising the World’s Oldest Bible



On Friday 11th March, the British Library in London announced an ambitious historical international project to reinterpret the oldest Bible in the world, the Codex Sinaiticus. A team of experts from the UK, Germany, Russia, Egypt and the United States will combine efforts to make the Bible accessible to a global audience using innovative digital technology.

The Codex is the ancient Greek Bible, written between the 1st and 4th centuries A.D., which is the period when the Roman Empire split and the Emperor Constantine, who ruled the Eastern Empire, adopted Christianity. The Codex was produced as the Greek version of the principal Jewish and Christian scriptures to match Greek heritage.

"The Codex is so special as a foundation document and a unique icon to Christianity," said John Tuck, head of British Collections at the British Library in London.

The Codex has a very special significance in Theology because the texts were written so soon after the life of Jesus, therefore it is the largest and longest-surviving Biblical manuscript in existence, including both the Old and New Testaments. In addition, it contains two Christian texts written by the Shepherd of Hermas and Apostle Barnabas at around 65 A.D.

Codex Sinaiticus was found by a German scholar, Constantin von Tischendorf, on his visit to St Catherine's Monastery, on Mount Sinai in Egypt, in 1859. However, since then, the texts were divided when visitors bribed and deceived monks into letting certain sections be removed for further examination in Russia, Britain and Germany, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Damianos of Sinai said to Dallas Morning News that the texts were never returned and the monastery felt a great injustice was done, but they have agreed to join the digitisation project.

The Codex has been split into four portions which are now in St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, the British Library, the University of Leipzig in Germany, and the National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg. Therefore, the first aim of the project launched by the British Library will be to achieve reunification of all these fragile parts.

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

Due to the rich historical value of the Bible, the project is expected to bear fruits in a wide range of disciplines, particularly in the study the Christian and Jewish scriptures, the history of the Christian Church, the transmission of texts, Hellenic and Byzantine culture, and codicology - the study of the structure of books.

By comparing the texts in the world’s oldest Bible with the prevalent interpreted Bible in modern language, the team of top experts and scholars involving in the project will be able to trace back and research how and more importantly, why changes were made to the original version of the Bible.

"Obviously, the way the editing works...is exceedingly interesting. What is the process leading to this or that correction? Whether it was merely editorial, or if they were following a theological lead in altering the message," McKendrick said.

Historical and explanatory notations will accompany the digitised text for the reference of both a specialist audience and the general public.

Scot McKendrick, head of medieval and earlier manuscripts at the British Library said the manuscripts are so delicate that only four scholars have been granted access in the past 19 years to sections of the text that are housed in London.

Translations of the Codex will be made available in English, and plans will be developed for translations in German, Spanish and modern Greek. The free to view website containing the digitalised Bible will be upgraded with Turning the Pages technology to allow people to "turn" the digitised pages of the Codex in a realistic way, using interactive animation.

Other diversified projects include a high quality, case-bound, colour-printed facsimile of the entire Codex Sinaiticus to enable scholars and lay enthusiasts full access to a life-like copy of the original. CD-Rom version is also available.

The television production company, CTVC has been entrusted by the British Library to record a documentary for the entire Codex Sinaiticus project.

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