Tracking changes to the Bible throughout history, part 2 – history of the Bible

It’s understood nowadays that the original message of Ieshua (Jesus) would have been in Aramaic*, and dated to the 1st century AD (because his life is the starting point of the Gregorian, ie. Western solar, calendar system). However, no such writings exist due mainly to the passage of time. What we have now is fragments of old New Testaments (NTs) recovered from ancient Egyptian rubbish heaps, cracks and crevices in walls, and jars hidden in the desert. The first writers of the NT usually wrote it on papyrus (paper) but at times parchment (animal skin) was used instead, and none date any earlier than the 3rd-4th centuries AD.

* A language in the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, along with Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Ge’ez, Akkadian, and others. 

Why in Egypt? The book doesn’t make it clear but I know from background checking that Egypt was one of the very first countries in the world to accept Christianity as a national religion.

ASTAGFIRULLAH!!! How dare you call us Christians?!?

One interesting point is those early writers also usually wrote it in book format (aka. codices, singular: codex) rather than scroll format like the Jews would’ve done. Why? Maybe to distinguish themselves from the Jews. Maybe to use a medium that was already well in use – by the Romans, which is significant as I’ll explain later on.

The dating is interesting too, for it’s from the end of the 2nd / start of the 3rd century that the canon of the 4 gospels were first written up. That’s also the time the authorities were deciding what to include (and exclude) from the Bible, so they could have an official version to disseminate. One such excluded gospel was that of the Gnostics, a Christian sect that effectively believed in 2 gods – one perfect who created the spiritual realm, one demiurge who created the imperfect material world. Their teachings were banned so thoroughly they no longer exist, though we know of them through one of their well-hidden surviving texts – Nag Hammadi.

So far there are 2 near-complete old versions of the Bible:

  • Codex Vaticanus (approximately 325-350 AD, named after the Vatican Library where it’s been conserved since at least the 15th century),
  • Codex Sinaiticus (approximately 330-360 AD, named after Sinai, Egypt where it was first found).

They’re both in Greek, on parchment and were made to be reference/ master copies for later versions. As intact as they are, they’re laden with errors and gaps which later versions have attempted to correct. However, what becomes clear upon comparison is Vaticanus scribes gave much more attention to accuracy and presentation than Sinaiticus scribes. This suggests the Sinaiticus scribes wrote it in a bit of a hurry. And as with all religious books once an official version is written up, all alternate versions (including original sources!) are destroyed – as many as they can find anyway, which is why scraps of earlier versions can still be found here and there. However, ALL the ones before Vaticanus & Sinaiticus found so far only total as much as a modern Bible, and often contain massive gaps in key parts especially at the beginning and end (which are naturally more prone to age-related wear and tear).

Why are they in Greek if they were produced in Egypt? Because the 4th century was during one of many occupations of Egypt (and north Africa in general) by European invaders, specifically Greeks & Greek-speaking Romans at that point in time. This did have an effect on the ethnic constitution of the Egyptian populace but that’s for another post.

Just to prove my point. Sorry Muhammad Abdo but no.

There are other versions that came later in the late 4th-early 5th century, eg. Codex Alexandrinus, Ephraemi Rescriptus, Codex Bezae, Codex Washingtonensis, Versio Vulgate. The Vulgate is interesting in that it’s a Latin translation of a Greek Bible, put together by one of Pope Damasus I’s priests Jerome, which became so popular it was deemed better than the predecessors!  It’s important to note that later doesn’t necessarily mean less authentic; for instance when comparing Bezae against Sinaiticus & Vaticanus it has different omissions, extra details and a different verse order. However, the rule still stands that


Regarding those changes due to human error, many abound. The most common ones are:

  • iotacism – mistaking a word for another that sounds identical but has different spelling & meaning, eg. saw & sore, key & quay – only possible if scribes are copying by dictation,
  • homeoteleuton* – using last words/ letters/ syllables of a line as marker to stop – and restart in a wrong place because some later lines end with exactly the same markers! Caused by copying by sight,
  • homeoarcton* – same as homeoteleuton but using markers at beginning of lines, caused by copying by sight,
  • dittography – aka. copy error; repeating words/ letters/ syllables, not as common as homeoteleuton & homeoarcton, caused by copying by sight.

* collectively known as skip errors

Overall, judging from the number and types of mistakes, it’s much more likely the texts were copied by sight not by dictation. That means that the scribes (however many there were) would’ve been sitting in a scriptorium, eg. Caesarea, reading and copying from a reference/ master copy rather than having it read to them.

example of what it might have looked like in a scriptorium

And they’d have been reading to themselves out loud, as silent reading probably didn’t exist back then! Or at least it wasn’t the norm in scriptoria. An important note is ancient Greek writing had no punctuation marks at all, not even spaces between words! Therefore it was up to scribes to work out where ends of words, sentences, paragraphs, topics, etc. were! They kept to an average number of characters per line (about 20-25).












codexsinaiticus – Sorry, codex Sinaiticus

Obviously the scribes did correct themselves, when errors were spotted and were small enough, otherwise they’d mark them out and let the correctors deal with it at the end. Historians have thus identified about 9 different correctors for Codex Sinaiticus alone, but most corrections of the Old & New Testaments were done by just ONE guy (who’s been dubbed Ca)! He was most likely the diorthotes, or scriptorium corrector – the boss corrector. His job was to go throught the whole text himself and correct mistakes the scribes either didn’t catch or marked out for him. Evidence shows he did that very well – BUT at some point in the future another diorthotes (dubbed Cb2) re-corrected it! This mostly involved undoing Ca’s corrections and harmonising the whole text with still-evolving Christian dogma!
The Sinaiticus scribes’ main job was to get the text down accurately but quickly, so making it look good wasn’t a concern for them like it was for Vaticanus scribes. Judging by the relative lack of wear-&-tear and candle wax stains, both Vaticanus & Sinaiticus were both deemed good enough to use as exemplars, or master copies. Despite its greater accuracy and better appearance, Vaticanus still had many of the same types of skip and copy errors as Sinaiticus, as well as the same average line length. This suggests that the two are very closely related. It was once argued they both were copied from the same exemplar, but the book argues it’s more likely Sinaiticus was the exemplar for Vaticanus* AND the two may have been written in the same scriptorium at the same time!

* except for the Book of Isaiah; a different exemplar seems to have been used there.

One thing that should be kept in mind is the rule of harder readings. This basically means when it comes to ancient texts, if there are different versions of the same story the one you find harder to understand is usually the older one! Why? Because later writers tend to try to harmonise texts with the common culture’s and/ or religious authorities’ beliefs (such as corrector Cb2!), while earlier writers just try to get the story down!

(And remember that older = usually more authentic!)

Cresswell gives examples of harmonisation:

  • In the story of Jesus meeting a leper, the gospel of Mark says Jesus healed him and felt compassion. The 5th century Codex Bezae, however, says he healed the leper then scolded him and cast him out! Despite their uncanny similarities to Mark, Matthew and Luke don’t mention Jesus’s emotional response!
  • In the story of Jesus and the man with the withered hand, Mark says Jesus tried to report him to the religious authorities for breaking Sabbath law. Matthew & Luke have the same story almost verbatim but totally omit the anger!
  • Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22 have God saying to Jesus, “You are my son, today* I have begotten you,” most likely stolen from Psalm 2 verse 7. Meanwhile Codex Sinaiticus, P5 (the 5th Bible papyrus fragment found) and P106 (the 106th fragment found) render it as “elect of God” rather than son!

* Today? Kind of contradicts modern Christian belief in him being God’s son by birth doesn’t it? 

Regarding the gospels, despite being named after specific people (Mark, Matthew, Luke & John) it’s almost certain they weren’t authored by four individual guys called Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, but by groups of guys back in the Greek/ Latin scriptoria. In fact, the gospels originally weren’t separate from each other! They were all just editions of each other/ another exemplar!

The gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke are exceedingly similar, and for this reason are called synoptic. The commonalities are so striking it’s  obvious they copied and borrowed from each other, but whom from whom exactly? Though it’s been argued Matthew was first, the book argues Mark was first. There is some info in Matthew and Luke that doesn’t appear in Mark, which Mark authors didn’t have access to for whatever reason. Examples include:

  • the sermon on the mount,
  • Ieshua’s infancy,
  • The Lord’s prayer,
  • John’s birth,
  • Judas’s death,
  • the guard at Ieshua’s tomb

They’re both also longer than Mark, but despite that the parts of them that are equivalent to Mark’s accounts are shorter and less detailed! For example,

Mark 4:38 – Jesus slept on a cushion in a boat during the storm,

Mark 2:3 – 4 men carried a pallet on which a paralytic man lay,

Mark 2:1-5 – those men couldn’t reach Jesus in his house so they made a hole in his roof and let the patient down through! Jesus was shocked at their faith in him.

However, Mark, Matthew and Luke have important differences.  Mark has a logical time sequence while Matthew & Luke don’t. Mark was originally written in Greek, translating directly from Aramaic – even using original quotes and phrases! Probably for dramatic effect and to claim authenticity. For some strange reason Matthew & Luke were re-translated to Aramaic then back to Greek!!! And they don’t use original quotes and phrases, most likely because the back-and-forth translations would have brought up a lot of redundancies & repetitions. Furthermore, Mark keeps the quotes in Aramaic but the whole of Matthew contains only ONE Aramaic word: bariona. This was a nickname of Simon Peter, and literally means ‘outlaw’, i.e. criminal, wanted man. The gospel of John then mistranslated it as ‘son of John’. Another harmonisation methinks.

Although it seems Mark was the most authentic of the lot, one must keep in mind that none of the gospel authors ever met Ieshua. They weren’t even alive in his time! That makes all of their accounts doubtful at best.

On the topic of Mark, Cresswell points out that the last 12 verses (9 to 20) totally break from the rest of the text. Many believe they were added in afterward, which makes sense considering they don’t exist in Sinaiticus or Vaticanus! Basically, Mark 16:1-8 has the story of 3 women (Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene & Salome, to be discussed in part 4) going to Jesus’s tomb and finding a random man who told them Jesus was on his way to Galilee. Codex Bobiensis (written at the end of the 4th century) briefly mentions the women going back to tell Peter while Jesus spread the “sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation”, then continues with today’s verses 9-20. Most versions skip straight to 9-20, in which Mary Magdalene is introduced as “she from whom he cast out 7 demons”, omits the other Mary & Salome and makes no mention of what happened to Jesus if or when he reached Galilee. The break theory makes sense: why would Mary Magdalene need to be introduced when she’d already been introduced in the first 8 verses? Why are the other Mary & Salome not mentioned?

And that 7 demons bit, what the actual fuck?!?

It seems Mark’s author was supposed to have a big climax either before or instead of these 12 verses but it’s gone. Why? It’s usually claimed he couldn’t finish for some reason, eg. he went for a coffee break and got martyred before he could get back so the other scribes filled in what they thought he intended to write. No other copy existed at the time. It could be yet another harmonsiation, ie. deliberate omission of Mark’s proper ending, BUT this is hard to prove as Paul couldn’t keep track of everything his followers did and the church didn’t yet have central authority.

It’s also possible it was meant to end at verse 8, as there were several different versions of Mark. When Emperor Constantine ordered Eusebius (late 3rd to early 4th century, bishop of Caesarea) to create 50 copies of the NT Eusebius preferred the ending without 9-20.

However, when we look at Sinaiticus (inner bifolium of quire 77, folio 4 & 5, end of Mark & start of Luke) we see a huge gap in the text! This was definitely deliberate because a scribe (dubbed D) stretched and compressed the text before & after it to try to hide the gap while still staying within the confines of the bifolium. Or possibly to make more alterations later…?

Photo sourced from The Nazaroo Zone
Photo sourced from The Nazaroo Zone
Photo sourced from The Nazaroo Zone

Scribe A, who otherwise worked closely with D, was pissed. Unlike D he had a problem with people constantly trying to rewrite the exemplar, so much so he left this message:

scribe A's angry note

Overall, evidence suggests the scribes were not divinely inspired so much as just doing a job. They did their best and truly believed in the importance of what they were doing (by then Christianity had spread among the Greco-Roman world) but got tired & sloppy from time to time, just like normal humans. They also got into petty disagreements over what was authentic and what wasn’t, leading to rewrite after rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. But while many scribes were doing what they sincerely believed was correct, others fully knew their amendments were filthy lies, which I’ll go through in the next parts…

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