Tischendorf on Trial for Removing Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament
Is Constantine Tischendorf a hero or thief?
November 26, 2018
Constantine Tischendorf. Photo: Tischendorfarchive Alexander Schick © www.bibelausstellung.de/Courtesy of Helmut Constantin Behrend.
Legendary Leipzig scholar Constantine Tischendorf died surrounded by controversy at the relatively young age of 59. Known for his skills at discovering and deciphering rare ancient manuscripts, Tischendorf’s chance finding of Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest New Testament manuscript, at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai—and his later removal of the manuscript—made him both famous and infamous. In “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred”
in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review
, eminent New Testament scholar Stanley Porter reexamines the allegations against Tischendorf in light of new evidence from the Russian archives.
Tischendorf, who spent his career at the University of Leipzig, travelled extensively in search of lost and forgotten manuscripts of the Bible. His deep religious commitments drove him to search for the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible. It was on such an expedition that Tischendorf succeeded in finding the oldest complete copy of the New Testament: Codex Sinaiticus, which dates to the mid-fourth century C.E.
He claimed that one night while visiting the Eastern Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, he spied an ancient-looking manuscript in a basket of fire kindling. Upon closer inspection, he discovered a very old copy of the Bible, now known as Codex Sinaiticus. Tischendorf could not contain his excitement and immediately requested it. The monks, tipped off to its value by his enthusiasm, only allowed him to take 43 sheets with him.
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Constantine Tischendorf was said to have salvaged sheets of Codex Sinaiticus—the oldest New Testament—from a basket of fire kindling at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. Is he a hero or thief? Photo: Courtesy of St. Catherine’s Monastery.
This small prize was not enough to satisfy Tischendorf, and after a failed attempt to buy the manuscript, he returned to St. Catherine’s hoping to examine the rest of the manuscript, but he was almost entirely unsuccessful. Not one to give up, Tischendorf returned a third time to the monastery under the patronage of the Czar of Russia. It looked like it was going to be another fruitless trip until just before he was scheduled to depart. On February 4, 1859, a monk revealed the remaining sheets of Codex Sinaiticus to Tischendorf. This time Tischendorf was careful to contain his delight, but he did request permission to borrow the manuscript in order to make an identical copy. Granting this favor was complicated due to a power struggle within the church leadership, but eventually, Tischendorf was allowed to remove Codex Sinaiticus with a promissory note for its safe return; it has never returned to St. Catherine’s.
Tischendorf did complete a facsimile edition of the text, but Codex Sinaiticus was gifted to the Russian Czar and remained in the Russian National Library until an economic downturn made it necessary for them to sell it to the British. To date, the majority of the Codex remains in the British Library. These facts have colored the recovery of this important manuscript with accusations against Tischendorf, its revealer, of theft.
The text of Codex Sinaiticus differs in numerous instances from that of the authorized version of the Bible in use during Tischendorf’s time. Read “What’s Missing from Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament?” to compare these differences.
Stanley Porter, the Dean of McMaster Divinity College, argues that many salient details are omitted from this all too common telling of the events. At the time of Tischendorf, there was nothing uncommon about removing, buying or gifting ancient manuscripts in this manner. He also demonstrates that from the beginning, there were discussions about donating the manuscript to the Russian Czar, as would be appropriate for an Eastern Orthodox monastery, but that the succession problems within the church leadership lead to a more complicated than normal process, which allowed allegations against Tischendorf to linger. Stanley Porter explains how newly revealed documents from the Russian archives exonerate Tischendorf and provide the rest of the story of Codex Sinaiticus’s long journey west.
This promissory note left by Constantine Tischendorf in exchange for the oldest New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, has been the basis of theft accusations, but scholar Stanley Porter argues that this is only one part of the story. Photo: Tischendorfarchive Alexander Schick © www.bibelausstellung.de/Courtesy of St. Catherine’s Monastery.
Physically, Codex Sinaiticus is located in four places: the 43 original sheets in Leipzig; a few remnants forgotten in the Russian National Library; the majority of the text in the British Library; and approximately a dozen sheets that were later discovered after an earthquake at St. Catherine’s. But the digital age has brought the entire manuscript back together in a virtual online museum at www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/.
Learn more about the controversy surrounding Constantine Tischendorf and his removal of Codex Sinaiticus by reading “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred” by Stanley Porter in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.——————
BAS Library Members:
Read the full article “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred”
by Stanley Porter in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
Related reading in the BAS Library:
Hershel Shanks, “Who Owns the Codex Sinaiticus?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/Decenber 2007.
Charles W. Hedrick, “The 34 Gospels,” Bible Review, June 2002.
Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Major Septuagint Manuscripts—Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus,” Bible Review, August 1989.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
Related reading in Bible History Daily:
Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament
Does the Gospel of Mark Reveal Jesus’ Anger or His Compassion?
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 23, 2015.