The 1,600-year-old online Bible

  1. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the faint erasure mark.
  2. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the erasure on the third line. 

Robert Hull, professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, has spent much of his three-decade academic career studying ancient biblical texts, how they were first written down and how they changed from copy to copy. What was added? What was deleted? Maybe most important: why?

Such work, formally known as text criticism, might seem like an obscure exercise in eggheadism, but the findings trickle down to the Bibles people read and even to what they believe.

“Studying the early texts presumably gives us a better idea of what the original text said,” Hull said as we sat in the Emmanuel library this week, looking at facsimiles of ancient Bibles. “It also gives us an insight into the early church’s handling and thinking about the texts.”

Scholars like Hull, whose doctoral work at Princeton specialized in text criticism, were given a new tool this week when a Web site was launched that presents the entire text of one of the most important ancient Bibles.

The Codex Sinaiticus – literally “the book of Sinai” – dates from about the year 350 and contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Old Testament. About 800 pages of the original 1,400 pages remain, all handwritten in Greek.

The book got its name from its earliest home, the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The manuscript came to the world’s attention 150 years ago when a Russian scholar named Constantine Tischendorf obtained pages from the monastery and had them published. While some pages remained in the monastery, most eventually landed at institutions in Russia, Germany and England.

So until now, scholars wanting to study the text had to undertake long and difficult travels, perhaps to all four locations and with no way to directly compare passages housed in different countries.

But in 2005, the four institutions agreed to put the entire text online, digitally reuniting the book. That project was unveiled last week (

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.
A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

The site not only includes detailed photos of the pages, but transcriptions of the text, translations into four languages, including English, a search engine, and even different types of lighting, which allows viewers see page textures, faint notations or flaws – all hints about the history of the text.

The site is a boon to scholars, letting them see details they may have missed before, if they ever had a chance to see them at all.

“Remember that until now, when someone looked at a lot of these pages, they were limited to using natural light or candles,” Hull said. “With digitizing (Sinaiticus) on the Web, paleographers (scholars of ancient texts) possibly can confirm a reading that was dubious or challenge something we thought was established. It will give us a clue about the history of the passage.”

No absolutely original texts of the Bible, or autographs, are known to exist, only copies of copies, and just a few of them the size and scope of Sinaiticus. Many fragments are the size of a postage stamp.

While some pieces date from close to the originals, with each copy scribes could mistakenly introduce an error, or someone might add comments that worked their way into the text.

Scholars estimate that the Greek New Testament as we now have it contains about 300,000 variations. About 90 percent of them are trivial, Hull said, such as misspelled names or grammatical errors.

But that still leaves thousands of more substantial differences. Variant readings in the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, for instance, can affect the theological overtones of the Christian communion service. Does it matter that the earliest copies of Revelation say the number of the mysterious beast is 616, not 666?

Is the Christian message compromised because the earliest texts of the Gospel of Mark, including Sinaiticus, end with the women who visit Jesus’ empty tomb “afraid”? (Scholars are convinced the familiar final dozen verses were added later, perhaps to harmonize with the later books of Matthew and Luke.)

Not at all, according to Hull.

“No single variation by itself would overturn Christian doctrine,” Hull said. “The Gospel of Mark still has Jesus raised from the dead.”

But studying the ancient texts – a task made immensely easier with the online Sinaiticus – can help clarify Christian history and thought, and perhaps even help believers better understand what is essential to their faith.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 July 2009.

Changing presidents at a local seminary

In his 15 years as president of Emmanuel School of Religion, Robert Wetzel saw how seminary education must include more than simply learning theology, history and ministry methods in a classroom.

Intellectual rigor and academic discipline are crucial to Wetzel, but the education must “make it more than that. It must be head and heart.”

Wetzel retired this week after a five-decade academic career. On Monday the seminary, perched on a bluff above Milligan Highway, will have a new president, Michael Sweeney.

Sweeney worked in Papua New Guinea as a Bible translator for 15 years before coming to Emmanuel three years ago to teach courses in world mission and New Testament. He is the fifth president in 44-year history of the seminary, which mainly serves Christian churches and churches of Christ. (Wetzel also served on the mission field, leading a new theological college in England for 11 years.)

“What we do best is prepare people for ministry in community, and so we want to model what it means to be the church,” Wetzel said. “The early days of Emmanuel were very ‘heady,’ influenced by the Enlightenment. It’s not that we’ve abandoned that, but we put more emphasis now on helping students create and experience a sense of community.”

Perhaps the most visible symbol of that emphasis, and the most tangible legacy of Wetzel’s presidency, is the Emmanuel Village. The student-housing project was designed to emulate a small English village – complete with stone “cottages,” winding streets and a community center – not because Wetzel is an Anglophile, but to nurture a community that would be absent in cookie-cutter apartments.

There’s literally a price to be paid, however, particularly when seminary enrollment nationwide was stagnant. Emmanuel, with a $3.5 million annual operating budget, carries an $8 million debt, mostly in a $7.5 million, 20-year bond program that funded the last phase of the village and other projects. The past year’s economic downturn took a toll as well. Although no faculty members were released, several staff members were laid off. The actions were painful, Wetzel said, but the school has kept its strong donor base and holds $24 million in assets.

Sweeney knows he takes office during difficult financial times and a changing church atmosphere.

“Colleges and seminaries aren’t as influential as they once were,” Sweeney said. “The most influential leaders now are ministers of large churches. In (many congregations), degrees don’t mean as much as they once did. A lot of people just want to take a class or two. So we must relate more closely to the churches and be aware of issues they contend with and help the ministers develop the gifts they have.”

The school launched the Emmanuel Institutes in 2005 to do just that, offering workshops in local churches or engaging them in research projects on topics ranging from church finances to studying the effects of marketing. Emmanuel will also increase its online offerings.

While the school will aim to increase its traditional enrollment – Sweeney thinks Emmanuel’s headcount can grow by 100, to about 250 – its job description is expanding.

“Our biggest challenge is to revamp what and how we teach, to serve churches in their situations,” Sweeney said. “There’s a role for seminaries to fill.”

Both men are convinced that seminaries like Emmanuel, even as they reinvent themselves, are vital for the health of churches they serve and, by extension, the society where they operate. Wetzel and Sweeney are disturbed, for example, about theological shallowness among large numbers of churchgoers and even entire congregations.

“Americans assume success is a fundamental value that is generally unquestioned,” Wetzel said. “So I’m concerned that churches are going on models of success: They do what they do to bring in crowds. They’ll say, ‘We’re trying to meet the culture where it is.’ We can thank God there are churches with thousands of people, but there’s a tension in providing better solid biblical teaching.”

Sweeney agreed and then pointed to a silver lining.

“There’s a lack of depth, but it’s an opening for seminaries, to address that need (for theological teaching),” he said. “We’re in a cultural shift. People aren’t asking the same questions in seminary as I was. Much of my seminary experience was about engaging in fun, intellectual discussions. It’s not that anymore. Theology needs to be a way of thinking how I carry on my life. If it’s not, people aren’t interested.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 30 May 2009.