A New Article on the Date of Codex Sinaiticus

The October 2022 issue of Journal of Theological Studies will contain an article I wrote on the dating of Codex Sinaiticus. It’s out now in pre-print format, and thanks to my institution–MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society–the article is available open access.

It’s basically axiomatic that Codex Sinaiticus is one of the “great fourth century majuscules.” But how exactly do we know the date it was produced? Tischendorf assigned the codex to the fourth century in his publication of the first leaves, but early opinions of the date varied. It is sometimes supposed that it was one of the books that Constantine ordered to be produced (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4.36), perhaps around 330 CE. But others have dated the handwriting to a period some decades later, ca. 360 CE.

There are some fixed points for orientation. The Eusebian apparatus in Codex Sinaiticus is a bit irregular, as I have described in an earlier post, but it was almost certainly part of the original production of the codex, which means that the book must have been produced after the time that Eusebius developed the system (ca. 300 – 325 CE?). While the Eusebian apparatus gives us a rough terminus post quem, a small set of marginal notes may provide a terminus ante quem. Milne and Skeat believed these notes were copied by scribe D and, because of their occasional cursive characteristics, could be dated with some precision. They claimed the notes “certainly belong to the fourth century, and probably the first half of it” (Milne and Skeat, Scribes and Correctors, p. 62).

Correction insertion marked by cursive κατω and ανω in Codex Sinaiticus at quire 85, folio 7r, column 1 (Lake’s N.T. 92, Heb. 8:6); image source: codexsinaiticus.org

In this article, I point out that these so-called “cursive” notes are very minimal (a total of only five different letters) and not entirely “cursive.” And to the extent that one can use such a meager sample for the purposes of dating, datable parallels for these few “cursive” letters actually extend into the fifth century. So, if Milne and Skeat are correct that the notes are the work of scribe D, then the range of possible dates for the construction of the codex should be broadened: early fourth century to early fifth century. I also suggest that this particular range of possible dates (ca. 300 – 425 CE) makes the codex a good candidate for radiocarbon analysis. Read the paper to find out why (and it’s better to go to the pdf version; some unusual characters in a couple of the block quotes did not reproduce well in the web version).

This entry was posted in Codex Sinaiticus, Codices, Palaeography, Radiocarbon analysis. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A New Article on the Date of Codex Sinaiticus

  1. Timothy Bagley says:

    Thank you for sharing this article. I have downloaded the pdf and look for to reading it!

  2. August 5, 2022
    Hi Professor Nongbri,

    Thanks for keeping this Sinaiticus dating question on the front burner

    In your excellent Zoom conference on Sinaiticus on July 1, 2020, Dr. Ira Rabin of BAM (Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung, Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing) in Berlin, a group with extensive manuscript testing background including the Dead Sea Scrolls, described, with some emotion, how they actually were prepared to do extensive testing of Sinaiticus in Leipzig in 2015.. They showed up to the Leipzig Library, and the tests were cancelled on that day they arrived ready to start the testing! BAM would go far more deeply into the manuscript and ink issues than simply radiocarbon analysis.

    There are many palaeographic and historical puzzles in Sinaiticus that go far beyond the century script dating question you raise. And bring us right back to the controversies of the 1860s, involving Constantine Simonides and his Mt. Athos contingent c. 1840, and the highly dubious and even discredited Tischendorf 1844 and 1859 discovery claims.

    However, this possibility has been a bit too hot to handle for the textual criticism establishment, and the libraries which clearly have their reputations at stake (to be fair, the British Library has made some pithy, helpful comments.). These groups seem to hold sway over what are considered proper Sinaiticus palaeographic questions, which should only be minor considerations. As one learned scholar stated:

    “As for how we “know” Sinaiticus is from the 4th century, this is actually something I have wondered myself, but this dating seems too deeply entrenched in the scholarship of early Christianity to have a rational discussion about it.”:

    Hopefully some skilled palaeographic scholars, perhaps working with experts in replica and forgery analysis, will review these questions in the future, with a tabula rasa 🙂 .

    Thank you for your fine palaeographic studies!

    Steven Avery
    Dutchess County, NY USA

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