THE oldest surviving Christian Bible can now been viewed online after a painstaking conservation project involving institutions in the UK, Germany, Egypt and Russia.
About half of the 1,600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus, meaning The Sinai Book, was analysed and treated before high-resolution digital images of the pages were created.
The fourth-century book is considered to be one of the most important texts in the world and this is the first time in centuries scholars have been able to view so much of it in one place.
Dr Scot McKendrick, head of Western manuscripts at the British Library, which is home to a large part of the original book, said the wide availability of the document presented many research opportunities.
"The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world's greatest written treasures," said Dr McKendrick. "This 1,600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the Bible was transmitted from generation to generation."
He added: "The availability of the virtual manuscript for study by scholars around the world creates opportunities for collaborative research that would not have been possible just a few years ago."
The Codex Sinaiticus contains the oldest complete New Testament and one of the oldest Greek translations of the parts of the Old Testament.
Named after the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, where the book was preserved for many centuries, the Codex Sinaiticus was moved on three occasions after it was discovered by the German biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf in the mid-19th century.
The British Library has 347 leaves, after it purchased them from the Soviet government in 1933.
A further 43 leaves are held at the University Library in Leipzig, Germany, parts of six leaves are in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg and a final 12 leaves and 40 fragments remain at the Monastery of St Catherine, where monks uncovered them in part of the northern wall in 1975. The book is considered to be too delicate to move from any of its locations, so work had to be carried out in all four places before the project could be completed.
Professor Timothy Lim, of Edinburgh University, an expert on biblical manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, said that because scholars previously had to visit four different libraries to study the text – handwritten by three different scribes – the new arrangement will significantly improve understanding of the New Testament.
"Gathering all the parts together will allow people to talk about it as a whole and learn more about it and improve speed of access," he said. "The actual pages are not that difficult to read so now if you are holding a lecture, you can display a page and examine it there and then."
To mark the online launch, the British Library is staging an exhibition which runs until 7 September.