Tischendorf on Trial for Removing Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament

Is Constantine Tischendorf a hero or thief?


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.


Posted in Archaeologists, Biblical Scholars & Works, Artifacts and the Bible, Bible Versions and Translations, New Testament.

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  • Steven says

    Leipzig does not have “43 original sheets”, it has 43 leaves or folio, which is 1/2 of 43 sheets (4 pages on a sheet, 2 on a folio, there are 86 pages in Leipzig.)

    More info at:

    Quires – Sheets – Folia – Pages (recto and versa)

    Steven Avery

  • Steven says

    We now have hard textual evidence that Sinaiticus was written using Codex Claromontanus (or one of its two daughter mss) as an exemplar.

    Codex Sinaiticus Authenticity Research
    Homeoteleuton – Text Omitted Because Of Similar Endings

    This effectively ends the myth of it being a 4th century ms. found by Tischendorf, and strongly supports the 1840s production chronology.


  • Gorstak says

    Hahahahaha!!!! The script survived about 1000 years and then suddenly monks decided to burn it! Hahahahaha!!!!! I can’t believe normal person can believe in it! But British need different excuses for stilling treasures that don’t belong to them all around the world. But to make so bizarre and stupid excuse is unbelievable and it’s humiliation for everyone! Only shameless ppl can tell that documents that were stolen were actually “saved”, from monks who were keeping holy scriptures more than anything about 1000 years and suddenly decided to burn it! And humanity is lucky that right in that moment thief appeared to “save” it! Ahahahahaha!

  • Raymond says

    The Codex Sinaiticus also know as Alepha hailed as the best and oldest manuscript is controversial because it differs from the Texus Receptus, (Received Tex).
    Some considerations:
    Its condition was pristine when found, either it was just copied or never used! Since the monks were burning it for fuel, must had been kept on the shelf never used. You probably have books in pristine condition from not being use very often, then you have other books that are worn out by over use.

    Next we ask why would it be in such good condition, then being disposed of when Tischendorf came upon it. Could it be that it was a manuscript influenced by Gnostic’s of the 1st-3rd centuries. Gnosticism having fallen out of favor and those manuscripts were not use any longer kept on the shelves of the churches of that era.

    Finally, judge for yourself, you do not have to be a Textual Critic Scholar to figure it out. Compare some verses and it becomes clear.
    John 1;14,18;3:16 “Only Begotten: In TR out of Alepha. Are we better with it or without.
    1 Tim. 3:16 “God” is changed to “He”
    Here is what John said “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is in the world” 1 John 4:3. This is the reference of Gnosticism already working in the 1st. cent. to deny his Deity.
    Ray Nichols

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