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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rescuing the Codex Sinaiticus

THE Codex Sinaiticus has been described as “the most important, exciting, and valuable book in existence.” This is not just because it is at least 1,600 years old but because it forms a vital link in our catalog of Bible manuscripts. Its rediscovery, by Tischendorf just over a hundred years ago, is a fascinating story.

Konstantin von Tischendorf was born in Saxony, northern Europe, in the year 1815 and educated in Greek at the University of Leipzig. During his studies, he was disturbed by higher criticism of the Bible, voiced by famous German theologians seeking to prove that the Christian Greek Scriptures were not authentic. Tischendorf became convinced, however, that a study of early manuscripts would prove the genuineness of the Bible text. As a result, he determined to research for himself all known manuscripts, hoping to discover others in the course of his travels.

After four years spent searching through Europe’s finest libraries, Tischendorf, in May 1844, reached the Monastery of St. Catherine, situated 4,500 feet [1,400 m] above the Red Sea in Sinai. Access to the monks’ fortresslike retreat was by a basket suspended on a rope through a small wall opening.


For some days he was permitted to search through their three libraries, without success. Then, just as he was about to leave, he spotted what he had been looking for—ancient parchments! They filled a large basket standing in the hall of the main library. The librarian told him that they were to be burned, just as two full baskets had already been. Among these parchments, Tischendorf was amazed to find 129 leaves from the oldest manuscript he had ever seen, a Greek translation of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. He was given 43 sheets, but the rest were denied him.

Tischendorf revisited the monastery in 1853 to discover only a fragment of Genesis from the same fourth-century manuscript. He was convinced “that the manuscript originally contained the entire Old Testament, but that the greater part had been long since destroyed.” The complete manuscript probably consisted of 730 leaves. It was written in Greek uncial (capital) letters on vellum, fine sheep and goat skins.

Six years later Tischendorf made his third visit to the monks at Sinai. On the eve of his departure, he was casually shown not only the leaves he had saved from the fire 15 years earlier but many others as well. They contained the entire Christian Greek Scriptures plus part of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Tischendorf was permitted to take the manuscript to Cairo, Egypt, to copy it, and eventually to carry it to the czar of Russia as a gift from the monks. Today it reposes in the British Museum, exhibited alongside the Codex Alexandrinus. The earlier 43 sheets are in the University Library of Leipzig, in the German Democratic Republic.

We should be grateful to Tischendorf for devoting his life and talents to searching for ancient Bible manuscripts and particularly for rescuing the great Codex Sinaiticus from destruction. But our highest thanks go to Jehovah God, who has seen to it that his Word has been so accurately preserved for our benefit today.

- October 15, 1988 Watchtower, WTB&TS

Additional Reading:

One of the most exciting Biblical discoveries was made by a German scholar, Count Tischendorf, who journeyed to Palestine in 1844. His quest was for ancient copies of the Bible written in the original tongue. Tischendorf had spent his whole life searching for these handwritten copies of the Bible. His journeys often took him to out-of-the-way places. It was not unusual, then, for him to find himself one day at the monastery of St. Catherine, situated at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the hall of the monastery the German scholar saw “a great and wide basket,” which excited his interest. It contained old and tattered parchments. The monks were using them to start fires.

What the monks were using to kindle fires was the very thing Tischendorf had spent his life to find! Here were more than a hundred leaves—pages of a Bible in very old Greek handwriting. Because the writing was all in capital letters with no divisions between words, Tischendorf knew he had found what scholars call an “uncial” manuscript, a rare find indeed! He could not conceal his exultant joy. Surprised, the monks perceived that they had been burning something valuable; they quickly took away the basket. But they did allow him to take away forty-three of the leaves.

Tischendorf took his discovery to Germany. His find was regarded as sensational, for the parchments were attributed to the fourth century A.D. The find excited other scholars; they too wanted to obtain the rest of this Biblical treasure. Not wanting any scholars to get to the monastery before him, Tischendorf kept the location of his find a secret.

Not being a wealthy man, Tischendorf never found it easy to find the means for travel. But in 1853 he was able to go back to the monastery. The monks were uncooperative. Tischendorf left with nothing but a single tiny scrap with a few verses from Genesis.


Six more years passed before he could go back again. This time he was cautious and concealed his purpose. And even though he had now come armed with a commission from the czar of Russia, he talked about everything except Bible manuscripts. After spending several days in a chilly, dark library he was ready to leave; for there was no trace of the treasure he had once saved from the fire. Had it been burned after all? Tischendorf called for the camels to be brought to the gates the next morning.

On the last night, in a casual way, he talked to the monastery steward about Bible manuscripts. As they entered his cell for refreshments, the steward, eager to show his own learning, remarked: “And I, too, have a Septuagint,” an ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. From a shelf over the door of his cell the monk took down a bulky bundle wrapped in red cloth. Before Tischendorf’s astonished gaze were not only the leaves he had saved from the flames fifteen years before, but other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures. Trying to disguise his unbounded joy, Tischendorf asked to borrow the volume for the night. “There by myself,” said Tischendorf, “I gave way to my transports of joy. I knew that I held in my hand one of the most precious Biblical treasures in existence, a document whose age and importance exceeded that of any I had ever seen after twenty years’ study of the subject.”

How to persuade the monks to give up this treasure—that was Tischendorf’s problem. He solved it by suggesting that the monks present it as a gift to the czar of Russia, the acknowledged champion of the Eastern Orthodox churches. After long negotiation the Codex Sinaiticus, as the manuscript came to be called, was presented to the czar. In return the monks received 9,000 rubles. In 1933 the Soviet government sold the manuscript to the British Museum for $500,000. There it remains today, this priceless treasure, one of the most important ancient manuscript Bibles in existence.

But even before Tischendorf’s time the long parade of ancient manuscript finds had begun. We may go back many years to one day in 1628, several years after the King James Bible had appeared. A package from the East was unloaded at an English port. It was from the patriarch of Constantinople to King Charles I. Unwrapping the gift, the king found a very old handwritten Greek Bible consisting of nearly eight hundred vellum leaves. The king turned the book over to scholars. It was a Greek manuscript of the fifth century. It came to be called Codex Alexandrinus. This treasure sparked new interest in ancient manuscripts. All over Europe scholars searched old libraries. Before long other Bible treasures came to light.

- March 1, 1957 Watchtower, WTB&TS

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the Septuagint (the Old Testament in the version that was adopted by early Greek-speaking Christians) and the Christian New Testament. No other early manuscript of the Christian Bible has been so extensively corrected.

A glance at the transcription will show just how common these corrections are. They are especially frequent in the Septuagint portion. They range in date from those made by the original scribes in the fourth century to ones made in the twelfth century. They range from the alteration of a single letter to the insertion of whole sentences.

One important goal of the Codex Sinaiticus Project is to provide a better understanding of the text of the Codex and of the subsequent corrections to it. This will not only help us to understand this manuscript better, but will also give us insights into the way the texts of the Bible were copied, read and used.

By the middle of the fourth century there was wide but not complete agreement on which books should be considered authoritative for Christian communities. Codex Sinaiticus, one of the two earliest collections of such books, is essential for an understanding of the content and the arrangement of the Bible, as well as the uses made of it.

The Greek Septuagint in the Codex includes books not found in the Hebrew Bible and regarded in the Protestant tradition as apocryphal, such as 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4 Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach. Appended to the New Testament are the Epistle of Barnabas and 'The Shepherd' of Hermas.

The idiosyncratic sequence of books is also remarkable: within the New Testament the Letter to the Hebrews is placed after Paul's Second Letter to the Thessalonians, and the Acts of the Apostles between the Pastoral and Catholic Epistles. The content and arrangement of the books in Codex Sinaiticus shed light on the history of the construction of the Christian Bible.

The ability to place these 'canonical books' in a single codex itself influenced the way Christians thought about their books, and this is directly dependent upon the technological advances seen in Codex Sinaiticus. The quality of its parchment and the advanced binding structure that would have been needed to support over 730 large-format leaves, which make Codex Sinaiticus such an outstanding example of book manufacture, also made possible the concept of a 'Bible'. The careful planning, skilful writing and editorial control needed for such an ambitious project gives us an invaluable insight into early Christian book production.

The History of the Codex Sinaiticus -