Last week my two teenage granddaughters (TEENAGE GRANDDAUGHTERS??  Yikes.  How’d this happen to me…?) were visiting us in London, their first time there.  We did tons of great tourist stuff, and it was fantastic.  One of the things we did is take them to the public exhibition of manuscripts at the British Library, and among the amazing things there — Leonardo Da Vinci notebooks, the Magna Carta, Beatles songs written on envelopes and scrap paper, Lewis Carroll’s own copy of Alice in Wonderland, etc. etc. — is the very famous Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence, dating from around 370 CE or so.  I showed my granddaughters and explained a bit.  They’re not Bible geeks (oh boy are they not), but still, it was impressive.

It made me think that I should talk about it a bit here and its remarkable discovery here on the blog.  It was found by probably a scholar who was almost certainly the most intrepid of manuscript-hunters of modern times, Constantine von Tischendorf. His story is very interesting. Here is what I say about him and his most famous discovery in my book Misquoting Jesus.


The one nineteenth-century scholar who was most assiduous in discovering biblical manuscripts and publishing their texts had the interesting name Lobegott Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-74). He was called “Lobegott” (German for “Praise God”) because before he was born, his mother had seen a blind man, and had the superstitious belief that this would cause her child to be born blind. When he was born completely healthy, she dedicated him to God by giving him this unusual first name.

Tischendorf was an inordinately ardent scholar, who saw his work on the text of the New Testament as a sacred, divinely ordained task. As he once wrote his fiancée, while still in his early twenties: “I am confronted with a sacred task, the struggle to regain the original form of the New Testament.” This sacred task he sought to fulfill by locating every manuscript tucked away in every library and monastery that he could find. He made several trips throughout Europe and into the “East” (meaning what we would call the Middle East), finding, transcribing, and publishing manuscripts wherever he went.

One of his earliest and best known successes involved a manuscript that was already known, but that no one had been able to read. This is the famous codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This was originally a fifth-century Greek manuscript of the New Testament that had been erased in the twelfth century so that its vellum pages could be used to record some sermons by the Syriac church father Ephraim. Since the pages had not been erased thoroughly, some of the underwriting could still be seen. But it could not be seen clearly enough to decipher most of its words – even though several fine scholars had done their best. By Tischendorf’s time, however, chemical reagents had been discovered which could help bring out the underwriting. Applying these reagents carefully, and plodding his way slowly through the text, Tischendorf could make out its words, and so produced the first successful transcription of this early text, gaining himself something of a reputation among those who cared about such things.

Some wealthy patrons were induced to provide financial support for Tischendorf’s journeys to other lands in Europe and the Middle East to locate manuscripts. By all counts, his most famous discovery involves one of the truly great manuscripts of the Bible still available, the codex Sinaiticus. The tale of its discovery is the stuff of legend, though we have the account direct from Tischendorf’s own hand.

Tischendorf had made a journey to Egypt in 1844, when he was not yet thirty years of age, arriving on camelback eventually at the wilderness monastery of St. Catherine. What happened there on May 24, 1844 is still best described in his own words:

It was at the foot of Mount Sinai, in the Convent of St Catherine, that I discovered the pearl of all my researches. In visiting the monastery in the month of May 1844, I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian who was a man of information told me that two heaps of papers like these, mouldered by time, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen. The authorities of the monastery allowed me to possess myself of a third of these parchments, or about forty-three sheets, all the more readily as they were designated for the fire. But I could not get them to yield up possession of the remainder. The too lively satisfaction which I had displayed had aroused their suspicions as to the value of the manuscript. I transcribed a page of the text of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and enjoined on the monks to take religious care of all such remains which might fall their way.

Tischendorf attempted to retrieve the rest of this precious manuscript, but could not persuade the monks to part with it. Some nine years later he made a return trip, but could find no trace of it. Then in 1859 he set out once more, this time under the patronage of the Czar of Russia, Alexander II, who had an interest in all things Christian, especially Christian antiquity. This time again Tischendorf could find no part of the manuscript, until the last day of his visit. Asked into the room of the convent’s steward, he discussed with him the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), and the steward told him “I too have read a Septuagint.” He proceeded to pull from the corner of his room a volume wrapped in a red cloth. Tischendorf continues:

I unrolled the cover, and discovered, to my great surprise, not only those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket, but also other parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete, and in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Pastor of Hermas. Full of joy, which this time I had the self-command to conceal from the steward and the rest of the community, I asked, as if in a careless way, for permission to take manuscript into my sleeping chamber to look over it more at leisure.

He recognized immediately this manuscript for what it was – the earliest surviving witness to the text of the New Testament: “the most precious Biblical treasure in existence – a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined.” After a complicated and prolonged set of negotiations, in which Tischendorf not so subtly reminded the monks of his patron, the Czar of Russia, who would be overwhelmed with the gift of such a rare manuscript and would no doubt reciprocate by bestowing certain financial benefactions on the monastery, Tischendorf eventually was allowed to take the manuscript back to Leipzig, where at the expense of the Czar he prepared a lavish four-volume edition of it, which appeared in 1862, on the 1000th year anniversary of the founding of the Russian empire.

To this day the monks of St. Catherine’s monastery maintain that Tischendorf was not “given” the manuscript, but that he absconded with it.

Following the Russian Revolution, the new government, needing money but not being interested in manuscripts of the Bible, sold codex Sinaiticus to the British Museum for £100,000; it is still part of the permanent collection of the British Library, prominently displayed there, in the library’s manuscript room. If you ever go to London, you can see it there!











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2023-08-30T11:53:57-04:00September 5th, 2023|History of Biblical Scholarship, New Testament Manuscripts|

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  1. Silver September 5, 2023 at 6:07 am

    In Craig Evans’ article, which you have recently been addressing, he states, “ The skeletal remains of at least three other executed persons have been recovered.” (in addition to Yehohanan who still had the nail in his feet [and presumably not including the recent Cambridgeshire find]). Please are you able to expand on this statement and give any details of these discoveries and information as to how it is known that these bodies had been executed?

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 2:02 pm

      I’m afraid I don’t know what he was referring to. If you find out, let me know!

  2. Silver September 5, 2023 at 6:24 am

    In the article by Evans which you have recently been addressing, there is one statement which I do not think you have discussed. He cites your colleague Jodi Magness when he says, ‘The burial narratives of the New Testament Gospels are not only “consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law,” as archaeologist Jodi Magness has said1 they are consistent with Roman law and with Roman literary and archaeological evidence.’
    Please are you able to comment on this claim?

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 2:04 pm

      Yes, I asked her about it (her office is across the hall from mine!). She was NOT referring ot the questoin of whether burial of a crucified victim on the day of his death was consistent with archaeological evidence. There IS NO archaeological evidence that can be relevant for that. She was simly saying that the kind of tomb that was used and the preparation of the body are what one can find in archaeological evidence at the time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the issue that Craig and I were addressing.

  3. TomTerrific September 5, 2023 at 6:54 am


    You related this story in one of your books, don’t you?

    BTW, my eldest granddaughter graduated college this spring and her sister is right behind her.

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 2:05 pm

      Whoa. Not that we’re getting old or anything….

  4. Bennett September 5, 2023 at 8:17 am

    I saw the manuscript when my daughter was studying for a master’s degree at the University of London. It is truly inspiring.

    So, I have a question unrelated to this topic (sorry). I’ve been discussing the “Render unto Caesar…” story and I have read that this story cannot be true because the denarius was not being used in Judea until the time of the revolt in 70CE. Also, that taxes were likely paid in kind rather than coin before about 44 CE. If so, this would mean that the author of Mark was really addressing Vespasian’s tax that was being used to build the Temple to Jupiter in Rome. Please correct my understanding. I think the story is really about the crisis for Jews and Christians over having to pay the tax to build a temple to a pagan god. What is your take?

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 2:07 pm

      I’ve read someone saying that too and have not checked it out to see if i’s true or not. But I’d be amazed if coinage wasn’t involved in the payment of tribute.

  5. Seeker1952 September 5, 2023 at 8:54 am

    Would it be accurate to say that, in the gospels as written, Jesus’s miracles were the biggest factor in attracting large numbers of people (but not necessarily the biggest factor in attracting his closest disciples) to him?

    I recently reread Mark, rather carefully, and that’s a clear impression I came away with.

    Not only that but, at least in Mark and excepting the Passion, aren’t miracles also the single biggest part of the content?

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 2:09 pm

      Yup, it’s definitely the view of the Gospels. (And Mark has surprisingly little teaching in it, as you’ve noticed)

  6. Seeker1952 September 5, 2023 at 9:09 am

    It’s never seemed realistic to me that his closest disciples would simply drop everything and follow Jesus simply because he told them to. That seems like a dramatic device.

    So I asked myself what it would take for me to act as the disciples did. The first answer that came to mind was a stunningly beautiful young woman.

    Have scholars proposed other kinds of characteristics of Jesus – as portrayed in the gospels as written – that might have had a similarly powerful attraction for the disciples?

    I think that Catholic writer GK Chesterton said something like Jesus was human in every way except that (it seemed like) he was walking 6 inches off the ground.

  7. giselebendor September 5, 2023 at 9:49 am

    Tischendorf’s name is indeed interesting. Reminds me of
    Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Theophilus became of course Amadeus, “loved by God”, Gottlieb in German.
    As randomness (
    or prophecy?) would have it,just as Jesus’ Aramaic/Hebrew name means ” Salvation”,so does Mozart’s name seem to explain his entire unique genius,a prodigious,seemingly supernatural talent that had to have been God-given, by a God who loved him,personally. Remember the film ” Amadeus”?
    Names tell so much.They too are History’s ancient witnesses.

    Who knows what other treasures Sinai might yet yield.Or even the Qumran dessert,still.
    I remember reading that some of the Qumran manuscripts were used to wrap fish. I hope this was a tall tale.
    But here,with Codex Sinaiticus in Tischendorf’s amazing story,the same pretty much happens! Manuscripts go to the fire.
    O well,by the 19th century the NT was very much finalized,so from the monks’ viewpoint, who needed any novelties?Or worse, perhaps even heresies.

    Lastly, it’s frightful to see the role of money in the handling of such vital documents:once the Abbot hears there may be money brought in, the manuscripts are saved.Or,when money is scarce- luckily!-,for what seems a pittance,a glorious manuscript finds a true home in a top museum.

  8. Maggie0299 September 5, 2023 at 11:16 am

    Good morning Dr. Ehrman,
    I’ve been studying the authenticity of Matt 28:19. I’m sure you are well aware of the baptismal formula of the father, son and holy spirit found in in all surviving manuscripts contradicting the 10 verses found in the book of Acts etc. that baptize in the name of Jesus only. And then you have Eusabesis commentary on 28:19 where he writes to baptize in HIS NAME. Do you know if Sinicatus includes Matt. 28:19? What are your thoughts on what some claim was a forgery of this verse after the formation of the trinity?

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 5:11 pm

      Yes, Matt 28:19-20 is in all the manuscripts. There are some texgtual scholars who have wanted to to argue it is an interpolation, but as often happens, that appears mainly to be because they can’t make sense of it (thinking — wrongly — that it expresses the 4th century doctrine of the trinity)

  9. bstephens47 September 5, 2023 at 11:39 am

    Hi Dr Ehrman, I am wondering if you (or any other blog readers!) know whether any good books have been written on how the Christian concept of God has changed over time? I came across The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, which may cover some of this, although it’s more broad than just Christianity. Thanks for any suggestions!

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 5:12 pm

      Yes, that’s a famous book. I’m afraid that nothing comes to mind offhand. Maybe others on the blog have some suggestions for us?

    • Miles September 17, 2023 at 8:40 am

      Bart does not endorse her work but I found Karen Armstrong’s A History of God very interesting. It focuses on the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It may not give you the scholarly rush Bart’s followers typically crave but it’s still a good read. I’d be very interested in hearing scholarly reviews on that book.

      • BDEhrman September 18, 2023 at 2:32 pm

        Ah, I think she’s done wonderful things for public scholarship on religion!

    • SteveHouseworth September 20, 2023 at 9:45 pm

      Try Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God”. I found it extremely enlightening. Makes me wonder how future generations would classify our current age of conceiving god.

  10. Ch_Cas September 5, 2023 at 11:40 am

    Dr. Ehrman, why do we doubt that John is the source for Gospel of John? Iranaeus seems to think he was the source, and Iranaeus knew Polycarp personally. And Polycarp knew John. If the Gospel wasn’t based on John’s testimony, wouldn’t Polycarp have warned Iranaeus and others about this fake narrative? I’m not saying John personally wrote it but it seems likely, just based off this stuff, that someone wrote it using John’s recollection of events, and Polycarp, who knew John very well, affirmed this as being John’s testimony.

    What am I missing? Why isn’t this the best explanation for how the Gospel of John came to be?

    • BDEhrman September 6, 2023 at 5:15 pm

      Mainly because nothing in the Gospel gives any suggestion that it’s written by John, and it is not said to be written by him until a hundred years later (Irenaeus). It”s intereting that we have a letter by Polycarp that quotes Matthew, Mark, and Luke (thought not by name) but never quotes the Gospel of John. That’s odd, if his teacher had written it. In any event, John was an illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasant who couldn’t write, and the Gospel of John was written by someone living outside of Israel who shows no evidence of knowing Aramaic, and almost certainly writing near the end of the firs tcentury after John was long dead.

  11. cbm1203 September 5, 2023 at 2:29 pm

    Question for Gold Member Q&A:
    Do the differences (“inconsistencies”) among the Gospels highlight the different perspective of each of the Gospels? For example, do the different accounts of the events at Jesus’s tomb provide special insight into each Gospel author’s unique perspective about the life and teaching of Jesus?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:36 pm

      Most definitely — especially when an author (say Matthew) changed what he found in another source (Mark).

  12. petfield September 5, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    I have so many thoughts on this!
    1. How cool is it to have Bart Ehrman as your grandfather! I mean, you can be sitting at the food table for a Christmas meal, and ask him offhand “Grandpa, why doesn’t Paul mention the Son of Man at all? That’s weird!” – and you’d actually get an informed answer on that (or at least, a very very educated guess!)!
    2. Tischendorf was the real-life equivalent of Indiana Jones!
    3. A sad realization-existential question: how many papyri of unimaginable historical and theological importance were burnt by some random ignorant morons just for a sliver of heat?
    4. How fascinating would it be to discover some day a large first century copy of Mark or Matthew?
    5. Last – a question: have you ever thought that maybe we don’t have anything before 125, because these texts were written much later? For example, couldn’t it be that Mark was written in, say, 110?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:40 pm

      1. I have to admit, I’ve yet to be asked that by a family member…. 3. Many! 5. The texts are dated on a number of grounds. It appears that Matthew and Luke were probably known by authors alluding to their teaching around 100-110, and since they were based on Mark it had to be earlier than that. The main reason texts aren’t cited is because they were not widely circulated among, and there were not many skilled writers among the Christians, and most of the writings that small group produced have not survived. Triple whammie.

  13. brenmcg September 5, 2023 at 8:55 pm

    There’s a textual variant in John 8:59. KJV has “Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, **going through the midst of them, and so passed by.**”

    Most translations leave the last few words out.

    What do you think the chance is of these words being original?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:49 pm

      The aren’t found in our four oldest and best Greek manuscripts, or the oldest form of the Latin version, or the oldest form of the Coptic; they appear to be taken from Luke 4:30, as the John passage was harmonized by scribes whose change came to be the dominant text through the middle ages. The editors of the widely used United Bible Society text (including my mentor Bruce Metzger) gave the shorter text (without those words) a somewhat rare “A” rating — expressing their high level of confidence that the words were not original. That’s the standard judgment among textual experts.

  14. VerdantChief September 5, 2023 at 9:43 pm

    Was St. Catherine’s Monastery ever properly compensated for this manuscript?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:50 pm

      Depends whom you ask. Tischendorf said yes. When you go to the monastery today you’ll see a placard stating that he had absconded with it.

  15. RM September 6, 2023 at 12:30 am

    I am a sucker for anything grand-dad grand-kids. Happy to see you guys on a field trip.

  16. stevenpounders September 6, 2023 at 1:56 am

    I was in London for three weeks this past August, staying at a hotel about 10 minutes walk from the British Library (on Tottenham Court road). I went to see the Codex Sinaiticus three times.

    Has the monastery of St Catherine’s asked for its return?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:54 pm

      I’m not sure what the current state of the question is, but when you go to the monastery today you’ll see a placard stating that he had absconded with it.

  17. Silver September 6, 2023 at 3:29 am

    Much has been written and discussed on the blog recently about crucifixion. I understand that ‘σταυρος’, the Greek for cross can also mean stake and consequently there is some debate as to shape of the cross on which Jesus was put to death (Jehovah’s Witnesses in particularly, I believe, refer to it as a ’torture stake’). Please have you encountered evidence, from the gospels or elsewhere, which would throw some light on this question?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:55 pm

      For me the compelling thing is how later authors in the Christian tradition, still living in the Roman empire where crucifixions happened, describe it as having the shape of the mast of a ship (and similar analogies), as having a cross beam.

  18. henrybond September 6, 2023 at 4:41 am

    Hi Bart – I hope ok to comment here. Could you please review this essay question I have been set and tell me the best place to access your view? In an essay? Did God become human or did a human become God? Answer the question by comparing the views of Bart Ehrman with a traditional Christian understanding of the incarnation. 2000 words. – Thank you Dr Bond.

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 1:56 pm

      I’m afraid I can’t evaluate your essay. But I do hope you gave the right answer. 🙂
      I should point out, though, that my book with that title explicitly does not address the question of whether Jesus *is* (or *was*) God, but only the question of when he “became God” in the minds/understanding of his followers.


  19. blclaassen September 6, 2023 at 10:58 am

    Fascinating history but I want to hear more about the Beatles songs!

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 2:38 pm

      Hand written, on scrap paper. Amazing.

  20. Wetedge September 6, 2023 at 7:49 pm

    Shout out to that manuscript room at the British Library. I was there in 2010 after spending a few overwhelming hours at the British Museum. I could have spent the entire day in that one room, it was so amazing……glad we happened to check it out. Was also awesome to see Robert Falcon Scott’s diary from his fateful trip to the southpole. Sorry, off topic I know, but it triggered a great memory. If my memory serves it was the lyrics to ” I wanna Hold Your Hand” written on the envelope ?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 2:02 pm

      Yup — they rotate various Beatle hand-written songs. Amazing.

  21. John.Feldmann September 7, 2023 at 10:04 am

    Why are almost all of these questions not about the topic?! Nevertheless, I have a somewhat pedantic question for you this time: what precisely makes a set of texts a codex in historical methodology? I had previously assumed that it was an already collected set of texts that is discovered as a collection, but following this narrative, it sounds to me as if it was Tischendorf who collected these texts together, in order to give birth to the Codex Sinaiticus. Is a codex found by the historian/archaeologist or created by them?

    • BDEhrman September 10, 2023 at 2:09 pm

      Ah, good questoin. A codex is the form of book we are accustomed to today, constructed by pages on which writing is (almost always) on both sides, cut into pretty much consistently sized dimensions, and then sewn together into a binding so the book can be leafed thorugh. The alternative in antiquity was a scroll, written on one side and rolled up. Sinaiticus is a codex, as are all the surviving NT manuscripts. Almost all other books in antiquity before this were on scrolls.

  22. Bewilderbeast September 10, 2023 at 8:21 am

    It sure seems like searching for manuscripts with ulterior motives and with money involved and more than a little duplicity is ancient practice! Human beings are human beings. We have always had these traits of wanting to prove something and wanting to please someone. “Lobegott” somehow sprang the (switched) words lobby hobby to my suspicious mind.

  23. SteveHouseworth September 20, 2023 at 9:54 pm

    I am in the midst of reading R.G. Price “The Gospel of Mark As Reaction and Allegory”. Considering Mark as a mythical and allegorical text seems to solve many problems regarding where it was probably written, background of the author, i.e. a Jew who knew of Paul’s teaching, the nature of Jesus as representing the Jewish nation, and the nature of many miracles described.

    Are you familiar with this work?
    Do other scholars describe this original gospel as myth and allegory?
    Even if one thinks Jesus was a real person, the gospel of myth and allegory could still be the original intent of the author.

    • BDEhrman September 22, 2023 at 6:44 pm

      No, not many scholars agree with that understanding of Jesus or Mark. (Apart from Robert and other mythicists, I’m ont sure of any who does?) If you want to see a debate I had with Robert, you can find it easily online. We’re (distant) friends, but we don’t agree on Jesus!

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