ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One hundred fifty years ago, the oldest known Christian Bible in the world was divided up into four parts. In reality, it is still divided; but online, it is virtually reassembled and available to anyone who wants to look at it for free.
"Codex Sinaiticus" means the Sinai Book. It was at the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai until 1859. Part of it remained there in Egypt, while other parts were taken to Russia, Britain and Germany. Now, scholars in those four countries have completed the work of digitizing it and putting it online.
Dr. Scot McKendrick is head of Western Manuscripts at the British Library and chairman of the scholarly group that has now completed work on this project.
Welcome to the program, Dr. McKendrick.
Dr. SCOT MCKENDRICK (Curator, Classical Byzantine and Biblical Manuscripts, British Library): Thank you very much. Good afternoon to you.
SIEGEL: And first, how old and how complete is the codex?
Dr. MCKENDRICK: Well, the codex is approximately 1,600 years old. We have approximately 800 pages of a book that was probably around about 1,400 pages in Latin, so a very big book.
SIEGEL: And what does it tell us about Christianity at the time that it was written?
Dr. McKENDRICK: Well, it tells us what was happening in the 4th century. This is the point at which Christianity is becoming authorized, accepted by authority, and this book very much reflects that. It also reflects a point where there's still a discussion going on about which texts are in the Bible and which order they should be presented in.
SIEGEL: It is in Greek.
Dr. McKENDRICK: It is in Greek, written in a very beautiful hand on a parchment that's animal skin. The Web site is wonderful, and that it allows you to see that physicality - see a thumbprint of a 1,600-year-old scribe, an insect that bit the animal that the page has come from. It's like a window in that critical era.
SIEGEL: Beyond just amateur readers of the "Codex Sinaiticus," what are some of the questions that you think scholars around the world might try to answer by having this greater access to the entire book?
Dr. McKENDRICK: Well, I think it's what you've just said. I mean, having access wherever you are to the entire codex and not only the images, but to a new transcription of the text, so that's the Greek written out in electronic form with tagging so that people can use it for linguistic purposes, they can search for word patterns. They can also now see, like a map, the corrections.
This manuscript is famous for its density of corrections, approximately 30 to a page. So, I mean, I've just come back from a conference where one leading specialist in the Christian Old Testament has made a first pass at this, and it's clearly indicated that this is basically a new research project for him and for colleagues.
SIEGEL: The great achievement here seems to be undoing what was the dismemberment of a book without any of the current owners having to part with it. Seems - it made me wonder if you could only make the Parthenon more of a virtual experience, you could have the Elgin marbles there online, if not in reality. It seems an extraordinary achievement.
Dr. McKENDRICK: Well, the whole project rests on an agreement between the four institutions. Each one committed themselves for, if you like, the greater good of the whole to present this virtual codex.
SIEGEL: Dr. McKendrick, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Dr. McKENDRICK: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Scot McKendrick is head of Western Manuscripts at the British Library, and you can find a link to the world's oldest known Bible at npr.org.
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