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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