National Geographic Daily News

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published December 27, 2013

Perched in the middle of a Victorian dining room, and surrounded by antique Asian vases, the world's third oldest Bible is now on display in Washington, D.C.

The Codex Washingtonianus, located at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, is so closely guarded that it rarely makes public appearances—until now. The codex plays a pivotal role in scholars' understanding of the New Testament's history and speaks to how early Christians saw the Gospels.

Curators recently put the priceless document on display in the Freer Gallery's Victorian Peacock Room, along with a second of four ancient manuscripts purchased by Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer, the museum's founder. The two remaining manuscripts are too delicate or damaged to be put on display. The public can view the rare Bible and manuscript at the gallery until February 16, 2014, without charge.

The codex was transcribed in Egypt during the era of the Eastern Roman Empire, likely in the late fourth or early fifth century. It is written in Greek on parchment—processed leather scraped thin to form pages. The pages are sensitive to light and humidity, which is why the codex never leaves the museum and isn't exhibited very often.

Although it looks a little worse for the wear—the edges were burned in a long-ago fire and pores from the animal skin are still visible—it's an important part of biblical scholarship. (See also "Lost Faces of the Bible.")

"Ninety percent of our surviving [biblical] manuscripts are from the tenth century or later," said Michael Holmes, a biblical scholar at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. "So anything that comes from earlier is intrinsically valuable."

There are only two other complete texts of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—that are older, added Craig Evans, a biblical scholar at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. They are the Codex Vaticanus, which is held at the Vatican, and the Codex Sinaiticus, most of which is held at the British Library in London.

"They're both fourth century," said Evans. "Somewhere between 330 and 340." The Codex Washingtonianus is in rarefied company, he added.

All Shook Up

In addition to its rarity, the Washingtonianus is best known for an extra passage near the end of the Gospel of Mark that is attributed to Jesus and that doesn't appear in any other known biblical manuscript.

The part that caught the attention of the public in the early 1900s reads in translation: "And Christ replied to them, 'The term of years of Satan's power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near.'"

That passage seemed to address the question of whether God or Satan was in charge, said Bethel University's Holmes.

At the time, news of the passage came amid rumblings that the King James Version wasn't sufficiently representative of the earliest iteration of the Bible, said Evans. Conservative Christians were unhappy about that, he added.

So the publication of the Codex Washingtonianus, with its additional passage attributed to Jesus, caused more consternation because it was another challenge to the Bible people knew, Evans said.

It's not so much a problem now, he said. But at the time, it shook up a lot of people. (Read "The Judas Gospel" in National Geographic magazine.)

Literary License?

The additional passage, referred to as the Freer logion, was probably an oral saying that somehow made its way into the Gospels, said Holmes.

"There's no religious tradition that uses it as part of Scripture," he said. "It's almost like a margin comment that somebody wrote down because they heard it and wanted to remember it, and a scribe worked it in later."

That's possible because the Codex Washingtonianus was likely copied from multiple sources.

Four different textual styles are represented in the document, Holmes explained. "[It] looks like a composite of fragmentary Bibles."

It would be like picking up a modern-day Bible and reading one part of the Gospels from the King James Version, then another part clipped from the Revised Standard Version, a third part from the New International Version, and a fourth part from the New English Bible.

At the time the Washingtonianus was written down, Christianity was a recently legalized religion: Emperor Constantine had passed a law—the Edict of Toleration—legalizing Christianity in 313. But before that, Roman authorities persecuted Christian churches and their congregations, said Holmes.

Book burnings were part of the Roman campaign, said Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer Gallery, whose jurisdiction includes the codex.

The two scribes who transcribed the Washingtonianus likely copied from fragments of several Bibles—remnants perhaps from an attack on a Christian church, said Holmes.

Mysterious and Beautiful

When Charles Freer bought the Codex Washingtonianus from an antiquities dealer in Egypt in 1906, he didn't know how important the pages would become, said the Smithsonian's Glazer.

Photo of the cover of the ancient bible.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MULTIMEDIA
The Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., holds a rare, ancient Bible, shown above, called the Codex Washingtonianus, that is on display.

"He wasn't particularly religious, and he wasn't really attracted to them as sacred texts," she said. Glazer thinks Freer purchased the codex partly because he found it mysterious and beautiful.

Freer was a known collector of Asian art, and in 1906, his pieces were officially accepted into the Smithsonian. The collection didn't physically move to Washington, D.C., until after his death in 1919.

"Once he knew [his] collection was going to a national museum, he had a desire to add older objects to the collection," Glazer said.

"This was part of that quest to seek out antiquities and things that he hadn't been terribly interested in up to that point."

After Freer brought the manuscripts back to his home in Detroit, Michigan, he would occasionally display them in his dining room—which was actually another piece of art he had purchased in London.

The dining room, called the Peacock Room, had been redecorated by artist James Whistler in 1876 and 1877. Freer bought it in 1904 and had it shipped to America.

Freer believed that art should be enjoyed for its own sake, said Glazer, so he would display pieces from different time periods and genres together.

The way the Peacock Room is currently displayed in the Smithsonian gallery mirrors how Freer displayed it in his home in 1908, said Glazer, complete with Asian ceramics.

Glazer hoped that by seeing the Washingtonianus in the former dining room, people would get a better sense of how Freer viewed his own collection.

He was trying to "create this story of beauty that reached back in time and forward into his own time," Glazer said.

43 comments
Marietta De Fontaine
Marietta De Fontaine

In line to see yet another doctor for Whitney. Hoping we get a clearer insight on her issue. You never know how strong your faith can be until having faith is all you're left with.

S. Sirgany
S. Sirgany

Yet another example that calls into question the idea of the modern Bible being the "inherent word of God".

Aiden Wrenn
Aiden Wrenn

So, no radioactive dating allowed! I wonder why. Well actually I don't need to wonder at all. See Fraud of Turin.

Alexis Afanador
Alexis Afanador

Hay tantas cosas en la biblia que al ser mal traducidas, dan a entender ideas diferentes a la que se quería dar a entender originalmente


Erick Leonardo Ruiz Sanchez
Erick Leonardo Ruiz Sanchez

 :) La Biblia es una maravilla del Mundo y de los Universos debe ser protegida a toda costa.Bendito Dios. 

James Degenhardt
James Degenhardt

The question I have is, what books are in this version that are NOT in the modern day version?

john algarme
john algarme

The holiest book, mysterious and beautiful and shot through with holes. The third oldest bible, well seasoned dung.

Sydney Russell
Sydney Russell

Thank  you for this video. It would have been nice to just view the document in silence for a few moments, let the book speak for itself. Not for religious reasons but simply aesthetic ones.

Kate Neff
Kate Neff

Would like to read some of the content of this script.

Mladen Marjanovic
Mladen Marjanovic

I have invented and wrote the 1st bible, ask me if in doubt.

Tonya Perry
Tonya Perry

I like how they say this passage seemed to address the question of whether God or Satan was in charge right now...."And Christ replied to them, 'The term of years of Satan's power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near" 1 John 5:19 says "We know that we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one"  So right now the world is in the power of Satan, but that will change. 

Jake Hall
Jake Hall

a 90 second commercial for a 150 second video

Candace Bebee
Candace Bebee

The Bible is the word of God, it may have been rewritten and translated many, many time. God word is more powerful than any translation and when read with a true to seek reason; God reveals all he has intended for the reader. His spirit reveals the Truth of his word.

Scott Miller
Scott Miller

To call this the "third oldest Bible" is not exactly accurate.  In addition to Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siaiticus, both Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus appear to pre-date Washingtonianus.  However Washingtonianus may be the third oldest containing all four gospels because Alexandrinus is missing most of Matthew from wear and tear and Ephraemi is in really bad condition compared to the others.

Jeannette Anderson
Jeannette Anderson

"And Christ replied to them, 'The term of years of Satan's power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near.'"


In listening to the audio, it was said that 'after Jesus's Resurrection' he replied with the above statement.  

And so, Satan's power had been fulfilled  in the years of Jesus's facing such...and the terrible things which draw near ...was of the Crucifixion which was to come. 


John Clark
John Clark

His Email: www.lidc.jrc10yahoo.com


Thank You.

John Clark
John Clark

The Bible is amazing.  I've read the whole Bible.  What I understood, I understood.  The parts of the Bible which I don't understand, (Hugh, common Logic) I simply just don't Understand Them.

    "Faith"?, No. It's Not "Faith" that I have.

Truth, Fact, Case-in-Point, "ipso facto"...Life! 

     There is No Medical Explanation for this 'Life' I Have.  ("Ventura County Star-Free Press' October 9, 1972" ((Newspaper) Headlines: "Pilot Killed, One Survivor

     Praise God!, Accept Jesus into your Life, Then you'll understand!

    

    

Crista Dangelo
Crista Dangelo

It's like how do you know which bible is correct vs one being inncorrt?

Miranda J.
Miranda J.

I wish that we could still have more original texts of before 'the bible' was formed.

Sabrina Messenger
Sabrina Messenger

Call it a "Bible" and that's fine. Bible simply means book. However, the legitimate canonized Sacred Scriptures that's generally recognized by Christians in the three major branches of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy)  is an entirely different thing.  For Roman Catholics and Orthodox Chirstians, the KJV never has been the end-all-be-all when it comes to the Bible. Both of those Christian faith communities use the Septuagint translation.


I just find it interesting that some "academics" and scoffers overlook religion and spirituality most of the time but the moment the really important religious holidays come around (Christmas and Easter), then those same people start to work overtime to try to find ways to discredit both scripture and Christianity in an effort to garner publicity and readership. Well, for those who truly believe no explanation is necessary and for those who don't no explanation is possible.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

Well done to the Smithsonian. I hope they ensure the Codex Washingtonianus lasts another 1600 years. 

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

Devotion to the letter kills.  Devotion to the Spirit gives life.

craig hill
craig hill

Too bad the author, Jane J Lee, doesn't know enough about ancient texts to know that 100% of every jot and tittle in every Bible has been rewritten by scribes, who added and subtracted so much that biblical scholar and author of several books on the historicity and authenticity of what we think of as the Bible, Bart Ehrman, has stated without any doubt there are more versions of the Bible than there are words in the Bible.  There is no "original version" extant, Jane, with a little extra thrown in by a wayward scribe. It's all "wayward scribes".


The worst example of which is the King James revision, which changed the translation of the Greek in the New Testament in many places, but most egregiously when "Jesus", the mistranslation of "Yeshua", told his critics to stop throwing rocks at him because he, like them, was A son of god; the rewrite by the scribe changed it to him saying he was THE son of god, implying, in a gigantic leap from the original Greek, that he was and they weren't; "son of god" meaning "of the nature of god", or "divine". From this, those devotees of the King James rewrite now blather about the inaccuracies of other versions.

Jeffrey Krygowski
Jeffrey Krygowski

Amen to that brother. I would love to see this go on the same heap as the Buddhas of bamian and the Mayan codices that were burned during the Spanish conquests. Dismissing the cultural and historical value of different faiths has always been the hallmark of great scholars.

Stephanie Lucas Denton
Stephanie Lucas Denton

@john algarme That's a pretty dismissive remark. Your easy discard of an ancient document shows a real need for a grasp of the implications of a find like this and what the study of it could reveal for many scholars of ancient history and languages. I hope people who refer to any document of this age and scope as "dung" aren't in charge of a museum or any other historical artifacts.

Richard Duke
Richard Duke

@Sydney Russell It's crazy you should say this, just recently some very smart people came up with a way which you can turn the volume down on videos; effectively muting all sound! 


I think they also allow you to pause videos now if you wish to view just one frame with a lack of sound. 


I hope this helps you out Sydney.

James Degenhardt
James Degenhardt

@Candace Bebee The Bible of today is nothing but political spin. Starting with the Council of Nicaea, Roman politicians decided what books would be in the Bible, not based on God, but on what best represented Roman policy. Even books that were part of the Old Testament, books that Jesus Himself regarded as part of God's Word, were left out. Books like Enoch, and the Testament of Solomon.

Then we get into the Gospels. Why was the Gospel of Peter left out? The plain and simple truth is because that Gospel contained things that were against Roman standards, specifically that women were equal to men.

Let's also not forget how many times the Church of Rome has changed the Bible. Books were added, removed, edited, or re-written, always to serve a political agenda. And the result is numerous contradictions, both between editions, and even within the pages of the modern day editions.

For example: Jesus tells us that all governments are ordained by God. Peter tells us to obey God rather than men ? Also, are women equal, as Jesus stated in the Gospel of Peter, or to be submissive, as Paul writes ? Is the Old Testament Law still in effect, or not ? Jesus appears to give conflicting answers.

When thinking about the Bible, and how is purely God's Word, always remember 1 Thessalonians 5:21. That passage alone shows that God knew that His word would be twisted by corrupt men, and shows us not to trust the Bible blindly.



Peter Gurry
Peter Gurry

@Scott Miller  Of course, Washingtonianus itself is missing some of Mark 15 and John 14–16. And John 1:1–5:11 is also a later supplement. But Washingtonianus is listed as 4th-5th century whereas Ephraemi and Alexandrinus  (and Bezae) are usually listed in the 5th. I would probably date Washingtonianus after all these others, but in any case, I figure that's why Craig Evans is placing it before these others.


It's still an odd comparison though since these other manuscripts were originally Old and New Testaments unlike Washintonianus. 


Why not just call it America's oldest copy of the four gospels?

Odd Jørgensen
Odd Jørgensen

@Jeannette Andersonto say such dribble as "terrible things are drawing near" is a constant selfevident prophecy,since bad shit happens all the time,view the bible for what it is,a compilation of bronze-age drivel spouted from zealous ppl in a time of severe ignorance of the natural world.

Stephanie Lucas Denton
Stephanie Lucas Denton

@Miranda J. We do. It is called the "Muratorian Fragment" circa 170. Also check out Bart Ehrman's "Lost Scriptures'' containing many translated Early Christian documents, including the Muratorian Fragment, as well as the gospel of Thomas from the 4th century discovered at Nag Hammadi (not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls) in Egypt in 1945.

sara jones
sara jones

@craig hill

From then on, the Jewish scribes solidified the following process for creating copies of the Torah and eventually other books in the Old Testament.

  1. They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
  2. Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
  3. The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
  4. They must verbalize each word aloud while they were writing.
  5. They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the word "Jehovah," every time they wrote it.
  6. There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
  7. The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
  8. The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc).
  9. As no document containing God's Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried, in a genizah - a Hebrew term meaning "hiding place." These were usually kept in a synagogue or sometimes in a Jewish cemetery.

The final item is why we have no original manuscripts of the Old Testament today.

http://www.scottmanning.com/archives/scribeswritingoldtestament.php



Although the existing copies of the Masoretic Text date back only to the tenth century, two other important textual evidences bolster the confidence of textual critics that it is accurate. The first is the successive discoveries of manuscripts at Qumran by the Dead Sea since 1947. These revealed portions of manuscripts several centuries older than any previously known. The second is the comparison of the Masoretic text to the Greek translation called the Septuagint (or LXX), which was written around 200-150 B.C. The oldest existing manuscripts date back to the fourth century A.D. Both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal an amazing consistency with the Masoretic Text, assuring us that God was indeed divinely and sovereignly protecting His Word through thousands of years of copying and translating.



http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131227-ancient-bible-codex-washingtonianus-freer-logion-religion-culture/



The Masoretic Text of the Old Testament


By V. S. Herrell


The Masoretic Text, other than the Dead Sea Scrolls, is the only existing representation of the Old Testament in Hebrew. The oldest fragments date from the 9th century AD, but the oldest complete texts come from the 10th and 11th centuries AD. However, the Hebrew text that it contains is clearly not the original Hebrew, nor even the Hebrew that was in use in the 1st century AD. The Hebrew of the 1st century AD was closely akin to the Greek Septuagint that we have today; this is clear because, although the Hebrew was little used, when it was used in ancient writing it was clearly in agreement with the Greek Septuagint rather than the Masoretic Text. For example, although Philo and Josephus both used the Greek Septuagint, it is believed by most scholars that they frequently had access to a Hebrew Bible and even consulted it on a few occasions. It is through evidence like this that we see that the then current Hebrew disagreed with the Hebrew Masoretic Text of today. In the 1st century, the Christians and all other Greek speaking Israelites, including 1,000,000 of them who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, used the Greek Septuagint. Jesus and His Apostles wrote in Greek and quoted the Greek Septuagint. Of this there can be no doubt. This is a fact that can be confirmed in any encyclopedia or scholarly book on the subject. As we have already pointed out, we know this because the quotations of the Greek New Testament are exactly aligned with the Greek Septuagint, but in sharp opposition to the Hebrew Masoretic Text. There is, however, no reason to believe that they were in disagreement with the Hebrew that was current in the 1st century AD.

What we do know is that toward the end of the 1st century AD and into the 2nd century, the Talmudic, Edomite Jews were actively attacking the Greek Septuagint because it was used by the Christians. They felt that they could discredit the Christians merely for the reason that they used Greek, and at the same time, they began twisting the Hebrew Scriptures to try and disprove that Jesus was the true Messiah. This controversy roared on until at least the 4th and 5th centuries AD. We have already noted how the early Catholics attacked the Vulgate translation of Jerome because it was the first to be based upon Hebrew, and they continued for a very long time to use the Old Latin because it was based upon the Greek Septuagint. One of the most famous examples of how the Jews attacked the Greek Septuagint regarded the word virgin. The particular verse in question is Isaiah 7:14, which reads in the Greek Septuagint:


"Therefore, the Master Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will conceive in the womb, and will bring forth a Son, and you will call His Name Emmanuel."

Scriptures in Matthew 1:23. The Jews attacked the Septuagint from the beginning because they claimed that it had been corrupted by the Christians and that the Christians changed the word in the Septuagint to read virgin instead of young woman so that it would support the reading in Matthew. Of course, the Edomite Jews did not believe that Jesus was the true Messiah; this was why they were attacking the Septuagint. The Jews are the ones who changed the Hebrew, replacing the word virgin withyoung woman. The early motive of the Edomite Jews was to destroy Christianity, not just the Septuagint. But the Christians did not give in, so the Jews changed their strategy. They instead decided to corrupt the Old Testament and gain control of the Christians by giving them a corrupted Old Testament. By the 3rd century they began collecting every Hebrew manuscript they could, and this was easy to do because the Christians used the Greek Septuagint and cared little for the Hebrew. , they called themselves Talmudists; from the 5th century to the completion of their text in the 10th-11th centuries, they called themselves Masoretes.


 http://www.biblebelievers.org.au/masorete.htm


Stephanie Lucas Denton
Stephanie Lucas Denton

James Degenhardt Actually you are incorrect on several points. Roman politicians were not at the Council of Nicaea. It was called together by Constantine, the Roman emperor that converted to Christianity, however, bishops of the fledgling churches participated, and Roman politicians had nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, Constantine provided subsides and the use of imperial transport to encourage around 220 bishops to be there.The council was called to resolve the matter of the doctrine of the bishop Arius, the "Trinitarian Controversy,"  so the books of the Bible were not of issue at the time. Early Christians already had the "Muratorian Fragment" from about 200, which was the general consensus of the New Testament, actually referred to as the "New Testament" by Iraneaus of Lyons about 170 CE. So you see, information you have gleaned from the Da Vinci Code is horribly and woefully inaccurate. If you would like to reference my sources, please refer to Joseph Lynch, "Early Christianity - a Brief History" Oxford University Press, New York, 2010, pages 73 and pages 165-167.

Tom Stevens
Tom Stevens

@Stephanie Lucas Denton The Muratorian Fragment has been dated to 170 AD only on the assumption that it was copied from an older Greek text. Its language (Latin) points to an 8th century composition, though it certainly could be much later too. It is also very suspicious that the most famous historian of the day "discovered" it. Not only that but the text's blatant protest against the Hermetic writings predating the Gospels indicate it was "discovered" (read, "created") to put to rest the idea that the Hermetic writings were the earlier teachings from which the Gospels had been derived. And idea that was hotly debated after the Renaissance. 

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