The Codex Sinaiticus at the British Library (courtesy British Library)

The Codex Sinaiticus at the British Library (courtesy British Library)

For only its second time on loan, the earliest known Bible is going on view this October at the British Museum. Held by the British Library, the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus holds the collection of text that is the foundation for the modern Christian bible.

Monastery of St. Catherine beneath Mount Sinai, lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts (1849) (via Wellcome Images) (click to enlarge)

Mark Brown at the Guardian reported the loan today. He noted the book’s history from the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt (where there’s some debate over whether it was stolen in 1844), to the Soviet Union, to Great Britain when it was sold for £100,000 ($154,125 or ~$2.7 million in today’s dollars) by a cash-strapped Joseph Stalin in 1933. During World War II it was secured in a Welsh cave with treasures like the Magna Carta, the Antarctic journals of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and art by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

Along with the Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican Library, the Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest Bible, meaning the Christian canon that brought together Jewish scriptures, and the New Testament. The book itself is an important milestone for literature as one of the oldest bound books, completely handwritten in Greek on animal skin parchment. The British Museum is including it in the upcoming exhibition Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohsexploring 1,200 years of religious history following the Egyptian pharaohs.

Detail showing a skeletal parchment feature on Quire 41, folio 4 recto. The image is rotated by 90 degrees to the right. (image courtesy

In 2009, a complete digitized version of the Codex Sinaiticus was made freely available online. The joint project brought together pieces of the book that were scattered across the British Library, the National Library of Russia, St. Catherine’s Monastery, and Leipzig University Library. The British Library has the largest share of the surviving pages from the originally 1,460 pages long book. Its 694 pages include the entire New Testament, its oldest known writing. Throughout are visible alterations from its scribes — some 27,000 corrections — so modern scholars can compare the changes to the text over time. For example, it holds two extra books (Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas) in its New Testament compared to the one of today.

There are other Bible superlatives out there, such as the “Devil’s Bible” that’s the largest surviving European manuscript, or the colossal 1,094-pound Waynai Bible that may be the biggest. The Codex Sinaiticus is a vital manuscript, demonstrating the development of books in antiquity, and the basis for the most widely read book in the world

The Codex Sinaiticus will be on view in Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs at the British Museum from October 29, 2015, to February 7, 2016. 

h/t Guardian

The Latest

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...