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The Codex Sinaiticus: a bit about its history and significance

July 23, 2008
A leaf from a folio of Codex Sinaiticus.  Actual size is 14-7/8 in. x 13-1/2 in.

A leaf from a folio of Codex Sinaiticus. Actual size is 14-7/8 in. x 13-1/2 in.

Communism’s religious antipathy and inevitable lack of funding provided a providential boon for the Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century Greek Biblical manuscript.

Textual historian Bruce Metzger documents the codex’s sale in 1933 by the Russians shortly after the revolutions that left the new U.S.S.R. gaunt:

“After the revolutions in Russia, the U.S.S.R., not being interested in the Bible and being in need of money, negotiated with the Trustees of the British Museum for the sale of the codex for 100,000 pounds (then slightly more than $500,000). The British Government guaranteed one-half the sum, while the other half was raised by popular subscription, contributions being made by interested Americans as well as individuals and congregations throughout Britain.” (Bruce Metzger: The Text of the New Testament, Third Edition, Oxford, p. 45)

Acquisition of the codex by the British Museum led to its twentieth-century publication by Oxford University Press. The New Testament was issued in 1911, and the Old Testament followed in 1922. (Metzger, p. 45)

The codex was a proven survivor when Dr. Constantin von Tischendorf discovered what was left of it at St. Catharine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai in 1844. Tischendorf, searching for Biblical manuscripts in the Middle East, found pages of the codex in a basket by a fire. The monks were using its leaves to stoke their oven.

St. Catharine's monastery, Mt. Sinai

St. Catharine's monastery, Mt. Sinai

The monks granted Tischendorf 43 leaves of the codex that he salvaged from the fire basket. When he returned to St. Catharine’s in 1853, the monks would not discuss the manuscript. He returned again in 1859, under the patronage of Czar Alexander II. Perhaps the scent of money was even sweeter to the monks than smoke. The monastery steward produced a manuscript containing most of the Old Testament, an intact New Testament, and two non-canonical works from the second century, the Epistle of Barnabas, and The Shepherd of Hermas.  The trove had been secreted in a red cloth in a closet. But the steward would not sell Tischendorf the manuscript. An appeal to the Abbot yielded copying time for Tischendorf and his associates, who transcribed 110,000 lines of text in two months. (Metzger, p. 44)

Tischendorf ultimately persuaded the monks to present the codex to the Czar, as protector of the Greek Church. Metzger likens the transaction to that between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite over the field of Machpelah Abraham wished to buy as a burial plot (Genesis 23). The Czar returned the favor with a silver shrine, 7,000 rubles for the monastery library, 2,000 rubles for the monks in Cairo, and various honorary degrees for monastery authorities. (Metzger, pp. 44-45) Remarkably, St. Catharine’s monastery regards the manuscript as stolen.

The codex originally contained the entire Bible, but the ignorant monks of St. Catharine’s burned a fair amount of the Old Testament before Tischendorf informed them it was too valuable to use for lighting stoves. The codex remains the only known complete copy of the Greek New Testament in uncial script, a formal, carefully executed hand script using separated capital letters. The codex was heavily corrected over time by various scribes. Typos are nothing new.

Codex Sinaiticus may have been written in Egypt, commissioned by Emperor Constantine.  The manuscript remains divided among four locations: 347 leaves in the British Library in London; 12 leaves and 14 fragments in St. Catharine’s Monastery in Sinai; 43 leaves in the Leipzig University Library, Germany; and fragments of three leaves in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.

The Codex Sinaiticus Project has assembled images of all extant leaves of the manuscript online for universal viewing.  The site will go live Thursday, July 24, 2008.  It is thrilling to see the pages, but far more wonderful to me to see God’s providential preservation of his Word despite the divisive depravity of man’s indifference.

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