Oldest New Testament Bible heads into cyberspace

BERLIN Mon Jul 21, 2008 3:02pm EDT

A truck driver turns the pages of his bible at a truck stop in San Antonio, Texas May 11, 2008. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

A truck driver turns the pages of his bible at a truck stop in San Antonio, Texas May 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

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BERLIN (Reuters) - More than 1,600 years after it was written in Greek, one of the oldest copies of the Bible will become globally accessible online for the first time this week.

From Thursday, sections of the Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the oldest complete New Testament, will be available on the Internet, said the University of Leipzig, one of the four curators of the ancient text worldwide.

High resolution images of the Gospel of Mark, several Old Testament books, and notes on the work made over centuries will appear on www.codex-sinaiticus.net as a first step towards publishing the entire manuscript online by next July.

Ulrich Johannes Schneider, director of Leipzig University Library, which holds part of the manuscript, said the publication of the Codex online would allow anyone to study a work of "fundamental" importance to Christians.

"A manuscript is going onto the net which is like nothing else online to date," Schneider said. "It's also an enrichment of the virtual world -- and a bit of a change from YouTube."

Selected translations will be available in English and German for those not conversant in ancient Greek, he added.

Dating from around 350, the document is believed by experts to be the oldest known copy of the Bible, along with the Codex Vaticanus, another ancient version of the Bible, Schneider said.

The vellum manuscript came to Europe piece by piece from Saint Catherine's Monastery by Mount Sinai after German biblical scholar Konstantin von Tischendorf found a number of folios there in 1844. He was allowed to take some to Leipzig.

Tischendorf returned to the monastery in 1859 with Russian backing and acquired the biggest section of the Bible for his imperial sponsors. It remained in St. Petersburg until the Soviet Union sold it to the British Museum in 1933.

"The first section was clearly a gift to Tischendorf, but that's not so clear in the case of the second portion. The monks all signed a contract at the time, but the rumor persists that they were given a raw deal," said Schneider.

"And there is probably some truth to this."

Subsequent discoveries meant that the original Codex, missing roughly half the Old Testament, is now housed at four locations in Europe and the Middle East.

The project, launched in cooperation with the Russian National Library, the British Library and Saint Catherine's Monastery, also details the condition of the Bible, believed to have been written by early Christians in Egypt.

"I think it's just fantastic that thanks to technology we can now make the oldest cultural artifacts -- ones that were once so precious you couldn't show them to anyone -- accessible to everyone, in really high quality," said Schneider.

(editing by Ron Popeski)

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