The puzzling case of Codex Sinaiticus in John 1-8

A study of Bezae’s text in John 4:1–42 is attractive for a number of reasons. Not only is John 4 the best-preserved chapter in Origen’s monumental Commentary on John, but it is also the first entire chapter of John in which both Codices Sinaiticus (א) and Bezae (D) preserve a so-called “Western” text.

In fact, the textual character of Sinaiticus in John 1-8 is one the fascinating puzzles of textual research in the gospels. Short of actual historical contact with a tradition very much like that of Bezae, it is difficult to explain the remarkable parallels shared by this normally-solid Alexandrian witness with perhaps the most famously divergent of gospel manuscripts.

In his seminal article on the text of Sinaiticus in John, G. Fee focused on John 4 as the most “Western” of the early chapters of John, a situation that has proved convenient for my own study of Bezae’s layering in John 4:1-42. [1] (For details on this study and its method, see this previous post.) In fact, nine of Fee’s thirteen singular agreements between א and D and four of his seven sparsely-attested agreements are included in my data set. (For Fee’s data from John 4:1-42, see this page.)

As seen in the plot below, with points (o, Δ, +, ×, ◊, ∇) representing D’s readings by layer, Fee’s observations corroborate well with Bezae’s layering in John 4:1-42, where as we might expect, readings attested by א, color-coded in violet, exhibit a significant level of correspondence with D’s two Old Latin layers in the two small ellipses at the lower left:

John 4 - 6 clusters with X01 - special circled

Agreements of א and D in John 4:1-42 (in violet) with layers identified as 1. “Transitional” Greek (o), 2. Greek Mainstream (Δ), 3. “Free” Greek (+), 4. Alexandrian (×), 5. African Old Latin (◊), 6. European Old Latin (∇). A selection of witnesses is listed for each reading.

Certainly, א’s correspondence with D’s Old Latin layers stands out against the remaining Greek witnesses, none of which has any significant representation in the Latin layers, while א is represented at half of the eighteen readings apportioned among the two Old Latin layers.

What is perhaps more striking though, is that the four sparsely-attested א-D agreements singled out by Fee (circled in yellow) do not fit cleanly inside any of the other six layers identified in the study, occupying an outlier position at the fringes of the layer boundaries (in fact, on the perimeters of the blue ellipses in layers 1 and 3). Remarkably then, even after we consider the Alexandrian, mainstream, and two Old Latin layers, א still attests an additional residual layer in common with D.

So from these remarkable parallels, can we say anything more about potential contexts for Bezae or its traditions? For a suggestion, we might turn to Bezae’s correctors:

As it turns out in his study of Bezae’s correctors, D. C. Parker notes a “striking” 62.5% (25/40) agreement between Bezae’s Corrector B and Sinaiticus together with its C-group of correctors, specifically the C[a] and C[b2] correctors, whom A. C. Myshrall places in the fifth to sixth centuries, apparently not long after Bezae’s production in ca 400. [2] Noting the possibility that Sinaiticus was in Caesarea at some point in the fifth or sixth centuries, Parker observes:

“there is evidence [from Corrector B] to suggest that Codex Bezae may also have been in Caesarea, or somewhere susceptible to Caesarean influence, at an early stage in its life, perhaps during the fifth century.” [3]

Parker then suggests that Corrector B had access to both a D*/d-like text and a א[c]-like text, whether combined or as individual manuscripts. [4] Of course,  this plausible coincidence of location is just the kind of evidence we need to begin building a historical framework capable of accommodating the multiple shared layers we find in these two unlikely codices in John 1-8.

Yet there remain many questions. For example:

  • Why were only the first eight chapters of John copied in this so-called “Western” text form?
  • Was this a feature of the exemplar?
  • Did the scribe start out correcting from a second “Western” exemplar and lose interest in chapter 8?
  • Did the scribe choose an unauthorized “Western” MS and proceed until discovered and apprehended?
  • Was the pericope adulterae in this “Western” exemplar at John 8?
  • Was a MS chosen specifically because it attested the pericope adulterae without considering its divergent character throughout?
  • Might dissension among producers of the MS over the pericope adulterae explain why the “Western” text form cuts off in chapter 8?

However we address these questions, the situation we find in א seems to reflect a real grappling with a text form much like that of D. This is surprising given what is often considered of D’s isolation in the Greek tradition. It may suggest though that whenever א was produced, whether in Caesarea or elsewhere, D’s tradition held a real attraction among at least some of the participants. We can only ask what brought this to an abrupt halt, as it were, almost in the act of copying.


[1] G. D. Fee, “Codex Sinaiticus in the Gospel of John: A Contribution to Methodology in Establishing Textual Relationships,” New Testament Studies 15 (1968) 23–44 at 32.

[2] D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 146; A. C. Myshrall, “Codex Sinaiticus, its Correctors, and the Caesarean Text of the Gospels” (Ph.D. Diss., The University of Birmingham, 2005) 102.

[3] Parker, Bezae, 144-148. But see also on the setting, D. Jongkind, Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias, 2007) 252-254.

[4] Parker, Bezae, 149.

6 thoughts on “The puzzling case of Codex Sinaiticus in John 1-8

  1. If Sinaiticus was made at Caesarea in the mid-300’s (which I think it highly probable) then its production happened at about the same time that Acacius (and his successor Euzoius) were replacing the decaying papyrus exemplars in the library by copying their contents onto parchment. Jerome does not state specifically that Acacius and Euzoius replaced copies of Scripture, but it seems natural that those would be high priorities for bishops.

    So if we picture Acacius and Euzoius, in the 350’s, supervising the making of fresh parchment copies using papyrus exemplars, then here in John 1-8 we have a display of just the sort of thing they were concerned about: their main exemplar had worn out to the point of being illegible, and they had to resort to a secondary exemplar.

    The secondary exemplar they used was probably a copy which Origen himself had brought from Egypt c. 231 — its affinities with Heracleon’s text, at least, makes this the simplest explanations for its readings that agree with Heracleon’s quotations (as extracted from Origen’s quotations of Heracleon’s own quotations and alllusions; see Ehrman’s chapter-essay for details: ).

    Probably only the first 8 chapters from this copy were used because only the first eight chapters of the main exemplar were illegible or missing.

    >> Was the pericope adulterae in this “Western” exemplar at John 8? <<

    It's very difficult to say. A lot would depend on what the scribes at Caesarea would do with the PA if they had not encountered it previously. If their main exemplar's pages at this point were merely illegible, rather than completely lost, they might give its damaged pages close attention to see if it agreed with their secondary exemplar. (Have you seen Jared Anderson's work about Origen's text of John?)

    • Hi James,

      I appreciate your response to the questions!

      Certainly necessity is one thing to consider in the use of an unusual text form. I considered this as well, but I also wonder whether copies of the gospels could realistically be lacking in a scriptorium setting, especially in the mid-fourth century. Moreover, the nature of א’s corrections suggests that the “Alexandrian” form was not in short supply. This is why I favored a deliberate interest in the alternative form leading to its use in John 1-8. But of course, this is speculation. About the library in Caesarea, I’m not sure we can interpret Jerome’s Letter 34 as evidence of biblical copying, when the context implies that Acacius and Euzoius were restoring the books of Origen rather than scriptures, though we clearly cannot rule it out either.

      I’m glad you bring up Heracleon whose text of John 1-8 (to the extent it is recoverable anyway) is sometimes considered “Western” and does share readings with Bezae and Sinaiticus. A text form like this could explain some of the readings we see, though it’s unfortunate we do not have more of it. I would wonder though about Origen’s use of such a text form other than in citing it with the purpose of refutation.

      I have not seen Jared Anderson’s thesis yet, but now have a superb reason to look it up.

      Thanks for commenting! I very much appreciate the interaction and of course corrective insights regarding this fascinating topic.


      • Pete,
        J. Anderson’s thesis as related to the text of Heracleon is to first argue that Origen’s quoting of Heracleon is a combination of Alexandrian and Western readings with ‘pinpoint accuracy’ but then agrees with B. Erhman that Origen consciously or inadvertently conformed the Majority of the text of Heracleon to the Alexandrian text from the original Western. To me, this highlights the problem with trying to access the text of someone from their opponent.


        • Hi Tim,

          Thanks for bringing Anderson’s argument to my attention. I do appreciate it! Certainly, the “Western” readings attributed to Heracleon need to be considered, which sounds like a great post idea.


      • Peter,

        Just a couple of notes to make sure I’ve not been misunderstood:

        >> I also wonder whether copies of the gospels could realistically be lacking in a scriptorium setting, especially in the mid-fourth century <> Moreover, the nature of א’s corrections suggests that the “Alexandrian” form was not in short supply. <> About the library in Caesarea, I’m not sure we can interpret Jerome’s Letter 34 as evidence of biblical copying, when the context implies that Acacius and Euzoius were restoring the books of Origen rather than scriptures <<

        I dunno about Ep. 34, but consider Epistle 141 and the relevant chapters of Jerome's Viri Illustribus (98 and 113). We should understand the reference to the books of Origen to books *obtained* or *possessed* by Origen, rather than written by him — which would include copies of the NT books. (There's a MS of some compositions by Philo in the Austrian National Library that features a note, in its table of contents, to the effect that "Euzoius the bishop restored this text on parchment.”)

What do you think?