The story of how a bible verse is read — 1 John 5:7-8

Annotated exceprt from the Codex Sinaiticus

1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the text of the Codex Sinaiticus, with various textual features signified.

Following on from yesterday’s post on the Johannine Comma, I was enjoying looking again through the online copy of the Codex Sinaiticus. It is both more difficult, and more rewarding than reading the reprinted greek critical text. I thought it would be interesting, for those who don’t know greek, ancient texts, or have never used their greek on primary documents, to point out a few interesting features. There’s loads I could say, and far far more I’m ignorant of, but I’ll limit myself to the text I posted yesterday, the text surrounding the Comma in 1 John 5:7-8.

As a brief reminder, an english translation would be:

For there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree.

– 1 John 5:7-8

I’ve indicated five things in the document.

  1. ΟΙ (“oi” – a form of “the” or “these”) here is unusual and isn’t in other versions of the text. It is probably a mistake, because later in the highlighted section we get ΟΙ ΤΡΕΙΣ again (“oi treis” – these three). When copying, it is very easy to have your eye drawn to the wrong occurrence of a word and write what comes before or after. So the extra ΟΙ before this first use of ΤΡΕΙΣ is considered a copying error.
  2. A pair of characters (ΣΕ) gets added into a small gap. Maybe there was not enough room? The two letters mark the end of the previous word and the start of the next, respectively.
  3. We’re missing an Ν from this word (ΜΑΡΤΥΡΟΥΝΤΕΣ “marturountes”- bear witness to). The overbar indicates this abbreviation, it can also be seen in the same word in the Codex Vaticanus, below.
  4. This is the word for ‘spirit’ (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ,”pneuma”, spirit is also the word for breath, and this is where we get the word pneumonia). It was conventional from very early on to write certain words as acronyms. We call these ‘nomina sacra’* – sacred names, because most commonly they are names (although words like ‘cross’ are also abbreviated in this way). Here we get it written ΠΝΑ. The bar over the top of the word is often used to indicate abbreviation.
1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus

The same text 1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the Codex Vaticanus, for comparison. Vaticanus is a very similar text to Sinaiticus, from the same text family. But still there are thousands of differrences. See if you can spot the differences in just this passage. Apologies for the quality of this scan, I'm using the Vatican's own published scans, which are pretty low quality.

And finally you notice that the words are all written into one another. There are no word spacings and words are free to continue over the end of the line without this being indicated. The red squares show word boundaries.

[Quick note, in my modern greek font, the capital sigma appears as Σ, but you’ll notice in the text it looks more like a C – letter forms change over time and between regions]

I know that’s a very short passage, but I hope it gives the sense of how dense these texts are, and how much effort it takes to engage with them as a textual critic. I don’t have the patience to do this kind of work, although I do love the manuscripts themselves. I’m very much glad I can just buy a critical copy of the NT and have the hard work done for me!

* A challenge for anyone who knows a bit of greek: You can see two more ΠΝΑ abbreviations on the same page – one on the top line (overbar is half-clipped off the image) and one at the start of the third line. There is another nomina sacra at the bottom of the page: ΘΥ for “God”. But 10 points for any readers who can spot the other two in the image.


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6 responses to “The story of how a bible verse is read — 1 John 5:7-8

  1. That was fun — and hard work.
    Japanese and Chinese don’t separate words either. I remember that being very frustrating in the beginning. But that is because, in the beginning, I didn’t speak the language so I didn’t know what the words were. So it was painful.

    Similarly, when listening to even moderately paced speech, the words blur together and only the brain which knows the language can perceive the separation which does not exist !
    Learning to see & hear what is not there is a huge part of becoming fluent in natural languages, eh.

    Thanx for taking the time to make this post — great fun. How about some Homer text? Smile.

  2. Pingback: Reading the Resources — Ecclesiastes 2:25 | Irreducible Complexity

  3. Steve

    Theia is part of 1 john 5:7 in the Sinaiticus, but you have left it out, why?
    Theia is God in plural form.

  4. Ian

    Not quite, I’m afraid. The word is ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ‘aletheia’ (the alpha, lambda and eta are at the end of the previous line) and means ‘truth’. It comes from the end of verse 6, “it is the spirit that witnesses, for the spirit is truth.”, and isn’t a significant variation among manuscripts. Koine manuscripts don’t worry about breaking words at the end of a line.

    θεος is a second declension noun, so its plural is θεοι. θεια means ‘aunt’ in classical greek (derived from θεος by a roundabout way), but I’m not sure if it used in the NT at all.

  5. Ernest Splane

    As an observer of your comments I would ask why would you want to patronize two versions which as you have stated “still have thousands of differences” and then try to unify them and state you have a more accurate translation than the “textus receptus”which has thousands of handwritten copies which agree perfectly with each other? It seems to me that you need to try harder not to “DUMB Down Reality”

  6. Ian

    Thanks for the comment. I will try to answer, though your last sentence suggests to me that you may be using your comment as a gotcha rather than an actual question.

    1. The aim of the historian is to determine the content of the original manuscript. We ‘patronize’ earlier texts which get us closer in time to the original. These are two of the earliest codices.

    2. The aim is not to try to unify them, but to try to understand what was in the original that gave rise to both of them. This process is not unique to the Bible. Historians do it for all ancient texts.

    3. The textus receptus is not a single text. It is a merging (‘unifying’) of many texts produced in Constantinople by the church that would later become the Eastern Orthodox Church (but at the time was the eastern wing of the Catholic Church). That church had its own distinct style and method of copying which is responsible for a lot of the consistency. But that is hundreds of years later than the texts in this post.

    3a. A historical note: the reason there are so many greek texts in this group is that this church spoke and worshipped in Greek. In the same way we have a lot of Latin texts from Rome. But as you’d expect, over time the Greek the Byzantine church spoke changed from the Greek spoke by the NT writers, and you can see this in the manuscripts. Byzantine Greek is a fascinating subject. Of which I have only the very barest understanding.

    4. They absolutely do not agree perfectly with each other. There are countless differences between texts in the Byzantine text group (which is the group of texts used to create the textus receptus). I have come across that claim before on a KJV-only American Christian website, and it puzzled me then. This isn’t my word against someone else’s. An afternoon in the library with some facsimile copies and even if you read no word of Greek you would see how different they are.

    5. Number of copies does not necessarily mean accuracy. If I have a stack of 10 different newspapers, and someone else has 100 copies of the same newspaper, the person with 100 copies cannot claim their version is 10 times as accurate as mine.

    6. We are not talking about translations in this post, we are talking about Greek manuscripts. So I don’t state anywhere that I have a more accurate translation that the textus receptus. That would be a odd thing to say. One may talk about more accurate translation (In the sense of the English being more evocative of the greek meaning), or more accurate Greek critical texts (In the sense of more likely to be closer to the original). But they are two different kinds of accuracy. It’s worth being a little cautious mixing terms.

    7. I have no idea how to take your last sentence about dumbing down reality. History is complex. Uncovering it based on imperfect information 1500 years later even more so. It is tempting to think that things more complicated than we are used to are always ‘too complex’, and things simplified compared to our understanding are ‘dumbed down’, but I don’t think reality cares. For every complex question there is an answer that is easy to explain, simple to understand, and wrong.

    8. Please bear in mind that I am approaching this as a historian not as a theologian. If you start from the position of saying that God supernaturally preserved the accurate text of the Bible through the handwritten copies of his church, until the printing press and the reformation liberated it to individual believers. Then you have theological reasons for valuing the textus receptus. Fair enough. But in purely historical terms, not so much.

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