Plain and Precious Parts in the Codex Sinaiticus?

March 15, 2005

A four year project is under way in London to digitize the oldest extant copy of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, written between the first and fourth centuries. In reporting this exciting piece of news, the Dallas Morning News opens with this provocative question:

Is the Bible the infallible word of God or a text doctored by calligraphers, priests and politicians to satisfy their own earthly motivations?

Evidence suggesting the latter is contained on the pages of the world’s oldest Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus. The ancient Greek Bible, written between the first and fourth centuries, has been divided since the mid-1800s after European and Russian visitors removed sections of it from a desert monastery in Egypt.

One particularly exciting part of the codex project is that copies of two texts dating to within fifty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus are included:

Researchers and plunderers have particularly coveted the codex because the texts were written so soon after the life of Jesus, and they are the largest and longest-surviving Biblical manuscript in existence, including both the Old and New Testament. In addition, the codex contains two Christian texts written around A.D. 65, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas.

As a Latter-day Saint, the notion that “plain and precious parts” are missing from the Bible, either unintentionally or intentionally altered or redacted by men seeking power over interpretation and authority over people, is far from novel. It is true, therefore, as noted by one of the experts quoted by the Dallas Morning News, that “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.” But if I am not mistaken (and the Dallas Morning News article doesn’t mention this), the Codex Sinaiticus likely more realistically dates from the fourth century, circa 350 A.D. The implications of this for Latter-day Saints looking for the plain and precious parts that they believe are missing (based on Latter-day revelatory insight) are clear: if the codex dates to circa 350 A.D., then some changes will have likely already been made because this is long after the death of the Apostles, the subsequent confusion over succession and doctrine, and the resulting resort to philosophy to fill the gaps absent revelation and divine guidance. In other words, if we were discussing a text dating closer to the original Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, then this might be more interesting for Latter-day Saints. As it stands, however, this could provide an interesting view of how a text could change from a corrupted state to a more corrupted state as the ebb and flow of power and institutional relationships and doctrine changed over time in the progress of the Great Apostasy.