Roger Bolton Discovers Sliced Bread

Answering ‘Rival to the Bible’

Image Wikipedia Portion of the Codex Sinaiticus, containing Esther 2:3-8
A portion of the Codex Sinaiticus, containing Esther 2:3–8.


In the BBC news item ‘The Rival to the Bible’ by Roger Bolton, we are treated to yet another example of how the media uses sensationalism to make the old seem new, and the BBC is no exception. The subject of Bolton’s article—the Codex Sinaiticus (also known as א (Aleph))—has been familiar to anyone who has done serious study of the text of the Bible for well over a hundred years. It is widely known to be one of the earliest full copies of the New Testament, dating from c. AD 350.

So what, in fact, is new about it, such that a news report by Bolton is warranted?

It’s being digitized. That is certainly news, well worth reporting. But apparently, ‘it’s being digitized’ by itself won’t fill enough print columns, so it seems that Bolton had to find something else to add to that. He starts by asking the question, ‘What’s left out?’ (Meaning, ‘left out’ of modern Bibles that does appear in Sinaiticus.) Despite the ominous reverb that may be gratuitously inserted after that question, the answer is, ‘Nothing’. Modern translations have been accounting for Codex Sinaiticus for a long time now. But it seems that Bolton is not aware of this.

There is more he seems to have not learned as well. ‘For those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God,’ Bolton solemnly declares, ‘there will be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. It shows there have been thousands of alterations to today’s bible.’ Beg pardon? Apparently Bolton has missed the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy—the leading evangelical doctrinal statement on the subject (accepted as authoritative by CMI)—which says, ‘We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture … ’ (Article 10). No one has ever claimed that copies like Sinaiticus are inerrant and unaltered. Nor have we been unaware of the fact that ‘thousands of alterations,’ as he calls them, have been noted.

There are plenty of serious works by evangelicals—most recently, Reinventing Jesus by Wallace, Sawyer, and Komoszewski—that discuss these ‘alterations’. Actually, a better word is ‘variants’ because ‘alterations’ implies deliberate tampering. Yes, there are literally hundreds of thousands of these among the 5000 and more Greek manuscripts of the Bible. No, it is not a mystery, nor is it troubling. The vast majority of these variants are very simple matters of spelling, or what we may refer to as ‘typographical’ errors. None have any impact on Christian doctrine, and very few could be regarded as ‘deliberate’. Those few that are known to have been deliberate were clearly intended to preserve a correct meaning against misinterpretation. (An analogy I like to use is of a Disney Productions poster from the 1930s that depicts Mickey Mouse playing a musical instrument, with the caption, ‘Always Gay’. Such deliberate changes as were made would be analogous to Disney re-releasing the poster with the caption reading, ‘Always Happy’ in order to prevent misinterpretations that their banner character was homosexual. What had changed was the meaning of ‘gay’—not Mickey’s character.)

So what then does Bolton suppose ought to have us pressing the panic button? It is no surprise that he was counseled to do so by the work of biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. Ehrman, though a quite competent scholar when it comes to the biblical text, is generally also recognizable as a ‘fundamentalist agnostic’. That is to say, even though he is an agnostic who professes to have once been a Christian, he has retained certain black-and-white ways of thinking from his days as a stereotypical fundamentalist. For Ehrman, any amount of uncertainty is a sin—even if that uncertainty causes no concern to more sober minds.

So then, what is it that Bolton would have us in a kerfluffle over?

‘Firstly, the Codex contains two extra books in the New Testament. One is the little-known Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome in the 2nd Century—the other, the Epistle of Barnabas.’
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This is significant? Hardly. It means no more than that we sometimes append maps to our Bibles. We know how the early church regarded these two books. Hermas was widely-respected, and was sometimes regarded as inspired. Its content will remind the reader in many ways of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But the church eventually determined that this was not sufficient for it to be in the New Testament canon. As for Barnabas, it was given even less regard than Hermas was.

Bolton seems to be attaching significance to the attachment of these two books to Sinaiticus, but he doesn’t say what that significance is. If he’s trying to imply that someone thought these books were canonical, he’s not making any more of a case for that than we could for Bible maps. What we do know is that as a whole, the church recognized that these books were not canonical.1 (He also reads far too much into Barnabas in labeling it as ‘anti-Semitic’.)

Bolton continues: ‘The Codex—and other early manuscripts—do not mention the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and omit key references to the Resurrection … .’

Unfortunately, the passages concerned are not named, but it is not hard to guess what Bolton has in mind. He likely is thinking of passages in Luke that refer to the ascension (Luke 24:50–52), and Mark 16:9–20. Yes, there is some question as to whether Luke originally wrote that passage. No, it is not a problem. Luke’s companion volume, Acts, mentions the ascension of Jesus (and those verses are not missing from Sinaiticus and other manuscripts). Mark 16:9–20 is no more problematic: the Resurrection is mentioned in several other New Testament books, such that these events are hardly endangered by this lack. And this is hardly a secret. Most of you who own a study Bible will find some sort of note attached to Mark 16:9–20 indicating that ‘the earliest and best manuscripts do not contain these verses.’ By now you may guess that Sinaiticus is one of those ‘earliest and best manuscripts.’ The same can be said of John 8, which Bolton also mentions, as well as Luke 23:34 and 24:50–52. Bolton was scooped on this story quite a long time ago.

Bolton goes on with one point he likely derived from Ehrman, concerning Mark 1:40–41:

‘Other differences concern how Jesus behaved. In one passage of the Codex, Jesus is said to be “angry” as he healed a leper, whereas the modern text records him as healing with “compassion”.’

This is news? This is difficult? It is not. Mark elsewhere has no problem depicting Jesus as angry (3:5, 10:14); nor does the rest of the New Testament (mind you, this is the Jesus who returns in judgment in Revelation to red the place up). Bolton’s bewilderment at Jesus being angry at a poor leper also fails to account for the man’s obnoxious behavior: Jesus would have good reason to be angry in this passage. The reader may note that Jesus is teaching, and that the leper walks up in the middle of the lesson and asks to be healed. As we might say, the man put Jesus ‘on Front Street’. He forced Jesus’ hand in front of everyone to get an immediate healing, when he could have waited until the teaching was over. And worse: once Jesus touched the leper to heal him, everyone else would immediately consider Jesus ritually unclean. That means that after this, Jesus would have to leave town for a while until the time of ritual impurity had passed, which in turn would have destroyed his ministry in that city. It is analogous to what would have happened had someone come up to a pastor while preaching and sprayed him with bright orange dye. A pastor obviously cannot preach when he is bright orange. (Well, perhaps some youth ministers would be able to.)

Bolton believes that ‘Fundamentalists, who believe every word in the Bible is true, may find these differences unsettling.’ It is rather a reflection of Bolton’s lack of knowledge that he believes anyone will be ‘unsettled’ by any of this. It is all old news, and has already been dealt with and understood. We know that the Bible was not copied perfectly. We also know that it doesn’t affect any of our doctrines.

Published: 15 October 2008


  1. As for misinformed conspiracy theories about the Canon, one of the leading experts on the Greek text of the New Testament, Bruce Metzger (1914–2007) pointed out: ‘You have to understand that the canon was not the result of a series of contests involving church politics. … You see, the canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents didn’t derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together.’ (interviewed by Lee Strobel, in The Case for Christ, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998.) Return to text.