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What I Saw at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai

Yesterday I responded to a reader of the blog who wanted me to repeat a post from a few years ago about my visit to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, the famed place where Moses allegedly received the Ten Commandments.   The full story took two posts, and here is now the second, where I explain one of the most memorable experiences of my travels.

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In my last post I began to relate an anecdote about a traveling adventure I had several years ago, when giving lectures for a UNC trip to Egypt and Jordan with a stop at the famed St. Catherine’s monastery in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, the place where Tischendorf had discovered the biblical manuscript codex Sinaiticus in the mid 19th century, and where a fire at the monastery in the 1970s had uncovered a hidden room found to contain manuscripts, including the pages from the Old Testament of the codex Sinaiticus that Tischendorf had not come away with from the monastery when he took the bulk of the manuscript with him back to Russian.   (That is the longest sentence I’ve ever produced on the blog; it’s because I’m reading Proust right now….)

For me, one of the highlights of this trip was to be a visit to the monastery, a place that I had wanted to see for years.   It is located in a completely barren location in the wilderness and is the one and only thing to see in the entire region.   It’s not the kind of place that you can take in while seeing other regional sites.   There aren’t any regional sites.   And so we had one day set aside to see the monastery while heading up north on a cruise on the Gulf of Aqaba, traveling toward Jordan where we were scheduled to go to Petra.

And then something really disappointing happened.   As I said, the monastery has thousands of visitors ever year.   But as it turns out, on this particular day (because we had been unexpectedly delayed for unrelated reasons), the tour guide for the trip learned, it was to be closed to outsiders.  There was an orthodox religious holiday.   Ugh.   That one day was one of the major reasons I had wanted to go on the trip.

As it turns out, along with the UNC alumni on the trip there were other alumni groups doing the same itinerary, so we all mingled together (there may have been something like 50-60 of us altogether?).  The largest group was from the University of Texas at Austin.   If you’ll remember, the only non-Greek monk at the monastery was Father Justin, himself a graduate of UT Austin.   The tour guide knew this, and got in touch with him (over email I suppose).   She explained the situation, that she had a group of alums from Texas with her, and they would very much like to see the monastery, but this was their only chance.   Could he somehow arrange to allow us to see it even though it was closed?

He agreed.  In fact, he said he would give us a private tour.  Wow.

We went to the monastery and met up with him.   I met him one on one, and as it turns out he knew very well my mentor, Bruce Metzger, and we had a nice talk about scholarship on the manuscripts of the New Testament.   The monastery not only had once housed the codex Sinaiticus, but also other manuscripts of the Bible, one other that was also famous: a Syriac manuscript of the Gospels discovered in the late 19th century by two British women – twin sisters, whose story can be found in the intriguing book Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers found the Hidden Gospels – a manuscript still in the monastery.  And so he and I had a very nice private conversation about the holdings of the monastery library.

Unfortunately, the library was under renovation as they were modernizing it for temperature and humidity control.  So we couldn’t see it on our tour.   But Father Justin graciously showed us all around the rest of the place (we even saw the Burning Bush, which, luckily, was no longer burning) along with the very nice little museum they have that displayed some of the monastery’s icons and manuscripts (including the Syriac Gospels manuscript discovered by the twins, tucked away in a corner display).  It was a very interesting and enlightening tour, of the oldest continuously-functioning monastery in the Christian world.

When the tour was over, we were heading off to have lunch, and Father Justin beckoned to me.  He wanted to say something to me in private.   We huddled together as everyone else went off, and he said he wanted to show me something.

He unlocked the door into the library undergoing renovation, took me through the place, up a set of dark stairs; he unlocked a door at the top and into a room filled with boxes piled up, with a table in the middle that had a large relatively flat box on it.   He took me to the box, and lifted the top off, and there, inside, was a manuscript.

Father Justin didn’t say anything, he was just smiling.   Oh my God.  I said, That’s Codex Sinaiticus!!   He said, yes it is!  It was the remaining leaves from codex Sinaiticus, the ones that Tischendorf had not taken away with him, the ones discovered in the 1970s.   Right there in front of my eyes.   Unprotected.   Simply sitting in this box.

This portion was pages from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament.  Father Justin pointed to the beginning of a section on the top page; it was the story of Balaam’s ass.

For me this was flat out amazing.   I had known about this manuscript for over thirty years.  It was the most famous manuscript of the Bible in the world.  And here it was in all its glory, sitting on the table.

We looked at the manuscript for a few minutes and he explained to me some of its striking features, before he had to take me back down to rejoin the group.   But it was an amazing few minutes, the absolute highlight of my trip, and probably my most memorable moment from any of the trips abroad I’ve taken.


How a Book Gets Its Title
Visiting the Monastery at Mount Sinai: A Blast From the Past

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Comments

  1. tautological  July 15, 2018

    Amazing story! Thank you for sharing. Maybe now I’ll have to root for the Longhorns this fall…

    Did Father Justin know your work and, frankly, who you were? The subtext tells me he did, and I can’t imagine he would grant this privilege to just anyone.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2018

      When I told him my name he seemed to know who I was, but he didn’t say, one way or the other.

  2. SidDhartha1953  July 15, 2018

    Concerning long sentences, I read yesterday (I think in an introductory essay in the NRSV) that Paul’s characteristically long sentences are actually characteristic of some of the pseudo-Pauline letters, e.g. Colossians and Ephesians, but not his undisputed letters. That raises the question: is it likely that a single forger is responsible for the six disputed letters? How would one make such a judgment?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2018

      Yes, that’s right: the sentences in Col and esp. Eph can be much longer than what you find in Paul. But it appears there was not just one forger for the DeuteroPaulines. The Pastorals were apparently all written by the same person, but the other three each had their own authors.

  3. godspell  July 15, 2018

    I get the feeling you couldn’t have been more excited if he’d shown you the Ark of the Covenant. 😉

  4. flshrP  July 15, 2018

    You really lucked out. A personal guided tour of the inner recesses of that library.
    I had a similar experience on one of my visits to Moscow in the 1990s. My Russian counterpart took me on a personal guided tour of the WWII monument and museum in the outskirts of the city. He told me about his experiences as a 17-year old artilleryman fighting the Japanese in Mongolia in 1938, his experiences at Stalingrad where he was wounded, and his eventual arrival at the River Elbe where he met the American GIs. They patched up his chest wound and he was back in the line in about 6 weeks. One way or the other the Russian soldier fought until the end. Can’t get much better than that for someone like me who’s a WWII history buff.

  5. forthfading  July 15, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Great story. To your knowledge, was Father Justin a scholar? Did he hold the appropriate credentials? Why would he be allowed in the monastery?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2018

      Yes, he is definitely a scholar. But not in the normal mode (PhD teaching at a university). I’m not sure how / where he got his training. His joining the monastery: they made an exception to their rule that only Greeks can be there; I don’t recall why he got the exception.

  6. doug  July 15, 2018

    Did you take any photos of the Codex Sinaiticus pages? Or would that have been considered improper?

  7. prestonp  July 16, 2018

    [Father Justin beckoned to me. He wanted to say something to me in private. We huddled together as everyone else went off, and he said he wanted to show me something.

    He unlocked the door into the library undergoing renovation, took me through the place, up a set of dark stairs; he unlocked a door at the top and into a room filled with boxes piled up, with a table in the middle that had a large relatively flat box on it. He took me to the box, and lifted the top off, and there, inside, was a manuscript.

    Father Justin didn’t say anything, he was just smiling. Oh my God. I said, That’s Codex Sinaiticus!! He said, yes it is! It was the remaining leaves from codex Sinaiticus, the ones that Tischendorf had not taken away with him, the ones discovered in the 1970s. Right there in front of my eyes. Unprotected. Simply sitting in this box.

    For me this was flat out amazing. I had known about this manuscript for over thirty years. It was the most famous manuscript of the Bible in the world. And here it was in all its glory, sitting on the table. Bart]

    If He brought you into the same room and sitting there at a table was an average sized man, nothing striking about him whatsoever, except his clothing was bizarre and his eyes shone with wisdom and betrayed something like indefinable pain, reading to a child and bouncing him on his knee was Jesus?

    • Silver  July 16, 2018

      Sorry, I don’t understand this comment. Can you explain please?

      • prestonp  July 18, 2018

        “Silver July 16, 2018
        Sorry, I don’t understand this comment. Can you explain please?”

        You make a good point. I don’t know what I meant either. Just this. I would be impressed looking at the same document Bart did. Glad he was thrilled by it and I couldn’t help but think how the One about Whom it is written is left out of the picture. Without Jesus none of it matters. Without Him, it means nothing. Every word in the New Testament was written about Him and for Him and because of Him; He is the reason for all the effort people put into documenting Who He was, what He said and did and yet these “documents” can become more important than He is.

        Can you imagine what it would be like to meet Him? Can you imagine what that would be like in your wildest dreams? He, Who spoke the words that revolutionized the world, Who lived a sinless life, Who spoke to the winds and the waves and they responded, Who said and acted just like He was the God the the universe, that in reality that man was Himself God? Can you imagine looking into His eyes, the very eyes of the One Who put us here and spoke and creation appeared?

        I look forward to meeting Him face to face, no longer seeing Him through a glass darkly. He is my hero, my model of self-giving love, my best pal, and I still don’t know what He looks like.

        So, just a reminder. More books and songs and articles and debates and universities and more people world wide and hospitals have been dedicated to Him than any other human being. It is He after all Who is the centerpiece of civilization, as cool as it is to see an historic and famous book about Him.

  8. mikezamjara  July 16, 2018

    Hi Dr Ehrman, I want t ask if there is a software for textual comparison of biblical texts a beginner like me can use. Anoher question is about MT Sinaí. In your opinion is there any evidence that the exodus ever happened? Have there been expeditions in search for evidence in mount sinaí?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2018

      1. No, not really; 2. I think it is a very big legend; 3. There’s nothing to be found there.

  9. Judith  July 16, 2018

    It most definitely was worth missing lunch for but my hope is that you had had breakfast that morning!

  10. Duke12  July 16, 2018

    FYI, Fr. Justin has his own blog:

    http://www.fatherjustinsblog.info/

    He was also interviewed by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary (Crestwood, New York) in 2012:

    https://www.svots.edu/content/interview-archimandrite-justin-librarian-monastery-st-catherine-mount-sinai

  11. Amy  July 17, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, this story reminded me of a question I have wondered…how often do you accompany an alumni group on these tours? I looked into the one this year some time ago but it was (not surprisingly) already full. Is there any sort of cycle, or do you just decide when you are asked based on that years itenarary? I may try to jump in on the next opportunity!
    Kind regards,
    Amy

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2018

      Basically I go every time I’m asked! I suppose that’s every three years or so.

  12. Sixtus  July 19, 2018

    A great story. The whole monastery episode reminded me of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book I can heartily recommend to readers of this blog. But your story had a happier ending.

  13. fedcarroll77  July 19, 2018

    What a fantastic story and adventure! In the manuscript he showed you did you get to read the entirety of it? Was it similar to the DSS copy? Was the context in a legend form of writing? So many questions and never enough answers! I’ve heard rumored that the codex was written by a 19th century writer, I cannot recall his name. I know as of current dating it cannot be the case. Has that legend of this resurfaced in recent years? And has it been dispelled?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2018

      I just saw the top page. But that was amazing enough. the 19th century forger you’re thinking of was named Simonides. He wanted to claim this in order to malign Tischendorf, his nemesis who discovered the ms. He could definitely not have been the forger of this massive ms. When Tischendorf found in at the monsatery, Simonides was only 16 years old!!

  14. fedcarroll77  July 20, 2018

    So why year did Tischendorf discover the ms? The reason I ask is that some put it at 1844. And Simonides was born in 1820. That would put him at the age of 24. But then again the ms would of taken many years to copy. Well onto my next question. Has there been definitive proof that he did not copy it? Sources say that he was a fantastic script writer and forger. We’re there carbon dating some on the material for age l? Or was it just done by style of writing?

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