Codex Sinaiticus (also referred to as Codex A) and Codex Vaticanus (Codex B) are the two oldest existing Greek manuscripts of the Bible. (A codex is a book written on individual leaves and generally bound, as opposed to scrolls.) Both have been dated to the 4th century, which would place them at least 300 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord.
As mentioned in the preceding article, Codex Sinaiticus was first brought to the attention of scholars when it was located at the Monastery of St. Catherine, an ancient monastery located near the base of Mt. Sinai, by Count Constantine von Tischendorf. The majority of the manuscript he found in the monastery’s dump, with the remaining portions given to him by one of the monks. (How it wound up in the dump is anyone’s guess. What led Tischendorf to the dump is another interesting question. If looking there was suggested by one of the monks, then you have to ask why the monks thought that was the appropriate place for it. We put things in the trash at home when they are no longer of value to us.) As mentioned previously, Sinaiticus is the most heavily corrected manuscript in existence. Like Vaticanus, it was printed on vellum, which is treated lambskin. There are a number of pages where it is evident the original lettering was removed and new wording added in its place. (One place where the original text was erased and new wording added is clearly visible in the photo shown.)
Codex Vaticanus first came to the attention of Western scholars as the result of correspondence between Erasmus and the prefects in charge of the Vatican library. Records show the manuscript has been in the library at Rome since at least the 15th century. It contains both the Old and New Testaments and portions of the Apocrypha. (I will discuss the Apocrypha in another article.) Erasmus was in the process of compiling what would become known as the Textus Receptus (Received Text), and knew of the existence of Codex Vaticanus.
The codex itself is considered by a majority of current scholars to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament, followed by Sinaiticus. Erasmus was reportedly aware of a number of differences between Vaticanus and the Textus Receptus, but the correspondence between Erasmus and the Vatican has been lost. It wasn’t until the 19th century that scholars became aware of significant differences between the two manuscripts. Vaticanus lacks the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) as well as Philemon and Revelation. There are also a number of passages found in both the Textus Receptus and the Majority Text that are not found in either Vaticanus or Sinaiticus.
Vaticanus and Sinaiticus formed the basis of the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament (1881). There are other manuscripts that have been located that are very close to the two, although all of them are more recent.
Is the fact that something is the oldest necessarily mean it is the best? In the case of Bible manuscripts, a majority of modern scholars think that it does; however, there are a number of arguments against the position. Perhaps the best known treatise against it was written by Dean John Burgon, but a considerable number of other scholars have also argued against Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. It is worth noting the two manuscripts form the basis for most modern translations, but the two manuscripts disagree with one another in over 3,000 specific instances.
I have noticed that many of the people who argue for the Textus Receptus seem to know little of its history. Erasmus was first to compile a complete Greek New Testament that is now known as the Textus Receptus, but he also published a total of 4 revisions to the text as more manuscript evidence became available. Three other scholars published another 20 versions between 1545 and 1678. All of those various manuscripts together make up the Textus Receptus, and there are a number of differences, although they are relatively minor. In other words, there is no single text which can rightly be referred as the Textus Receptus. As pointed out in an earlier article, the term Textus Receptus was coined in 1633 by a publisher of a Greek New Testament, 97 years after the death of Erasmus.
There are those who argue that the King James Bible was translated from the Textus Receptus. Actually, that isn't the case. The King James doesn’t slavishly follow any single text of the group collectively known as the Textus Receptus. The New Testament portion of the King James Bible was translated from what is known as the Traditional Text, which comes out of the Byzantine group of New Testament manuscripts, something we will explore in the next article.
A danger exists when a person insists that the King James Bible is the only reliable English version, as some Christians do. It is an outstanding translation, no question about it, but the brass serpent crafted at the order of Moses (see Numbers 21:4-9) eventually became an idol worshiped by the Israelites. Recognizing the idolatry surrounding the serpent, King Hezekiah had it destroyed (see 2 Kings 18:4). The same danger exists if we are not careful with regard to Bible versions. There are those who have gone so far as to argue that the King James is so perfect that it corrects the Greek! (Which is itself an admission that there are differences between the KJV and the Greek.) That is simply silly.