(Originally posted at The Gay-Atheist, but still hot and fresh for you.)
Earlier this week the Codex Sinaiticus Project, a joint venture of the British Library, the National Library of Russia, St. Catherine’s Monastery, and the Leipzig University Library, made the oldest known copy of the Christian Bible available digitally online. Images of the over 1,400 pages of the Codex were posted to the project’s website and can be viewed there if reading Greek Christian scripture written on crumbling animal skins is your idea of a good time.
The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered at a Greek monastery on Mount Sinai by a German Bible scholar in 1844, and subsequently stolen and divided up amongst the project’s four constituent institutions. It was written sometime in the mid-4th century, and contains most of the Old Testament and a complete copy of the New. Along with the Codex Vaticanus, another copy of about the same age, it’s considered the most important Biblical manuscript known to exist, a vital “witness” to the accuracy of the modern text.
Yet I can’t help but notice a lot of empty space. Do the math. Better yet — I’ll do it for you. Because of how its text is divided, the earliest the Sinaiticus could have been written is 325 A.D. Most estimates put the birth of Jesus at around 4 B.C., making his death, if the popular accounts of his life can be trusted, at around 30 A.D. That means that the oldest intact copy of the Christian Bible was produced almost 300 years after the events it claims to record. And that’s under the best case scenario — the Sinaiticus could have been written as late as 360, adding another 35 years to the space between it and the actual life of Jesus.
Many believers assert that their Bible, particularly the synoptic gospels of the New Testament, is the literal word of God. Evangelicals tell us that faith in its teachings is the only way to escape eternal damnation after death. I’ve heard it described as God’s love letter to humanity. Leaving aside that it’s by far the most menacing and blood-soaked love letter I’ve ever read for the moment, it seems strange to me that God would treat his perfect and eternal revelation with such neglect for so many years. Even the most credulous Christian historians have admitted that the oldest portions of the Old Testament were not written until at least fifteen to twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and none of those original texts are known to still exist. The gospels themselves, purported to contain the all-important literal words of God, weren’t written until at least thirty years after the fact, and are apparently largely plagiarized from each other and from an earlier source that has been lost to history. The celebrated Gospel of John, which contains some of the most quoted verses of the entire Bible, as well as several drastic contradictions of the three synoptic gospels, came last of all, at least sixty years after Jesus, more than enough time for most of the eyewitnesses to his ministry to have died.
Let’s assume there is a God and he is more or less as the adherents to Judaism and Christianity describe him. And let’s assume further that he decided to pass on his eternal word, knowledge and acceptance of which being essential to escaping permanent torture in hell, to humanity in the form of a book. Finally, let’s assume that the Bible as presented in the Codex Sinaiticus is that book. (This last one is a very necessary assumption, since there are almost as many versions of the Bible as there are ancient manuscripts. Nevermind the canon — the texts of the Old and New Testaments themselves weren’t finalized by church authorities until many centuries after the supposed events they describe.) Why, assuming all of this to be true, would God allow the lineage of his book to become so muddied? Why would God not take steps to record the words and deeds of Jesus and his apostles immediately, and see to it those original manuscripts were preserved for future generations? Hell, why not have Jesus write it all down himself? Wouldn’t that have been the best way to ensure his exact words were handed down after his death?
The last questions are the easiest to answer. Jesus didn’t write it all down himself because, like most humans of his generation, he couldn’t even write his own name, let alone an exact narrative of his life and ministry. He was illiterate. The gospels record him studying the scriptures, but if that’s true he probably studied them the same way everyone else did outside of the priesthood, by hearing and reciting them orally. But look at me taking cheap shots at Jesus like an asshole. The illiteracy of the Lord and Savior of mankind isn’t the point.
The Bible is solely the work of flawed, imperfect and sometimes careless human beings, not divinely inspired, and it’s blindingly obvious to anyone who cares to look — that is the point. Most Christians don’t hear about the history of their holy scriptures at church on Sunday. They are compelled to read their Bibles without ever being told where they came from or how they came to look like they do. The question never even occurs to most believers. As far as they’re concerned the first five books of the Old Testament came from the very hand of Moses, and the Gospel of Matthew was written by a man named Matthew who was a disciple of Jesus, and his words have been passed down unchanged from then to now.
There’s a reason for that. The divinity of the Bible can be disproved merely by reading it. Thomas Paine did it two hundred years ago and no one has refuted him yet. But knowing the whole history of the supposedly infallible word of God — seeing what a puzzle it is, with so many pieces missing — makes the case undeniable. Now to remind us here is the digitized Codex Sinaiticus, produced over three centuries after the fact, copied by multiple scribes from earlier texts, containing a canon that would be revised over a millennium later by a committee of men almost as backwards and ignorant as those who made it all up in the first place.