Romantic Story of "Codex Sinaiticus"

The announcement, made in the House of Commons, that the British Museum has the opportunity of acquiring, by purchase from the government of the Soviet Republics, the famous Codex Sinaiticus will send a thrill through the heart of very one who is interested in the his­tory of the Bible.

By Sir Frederic Kenyon*

The announcement, made in the House of Commons, that the British Museum has the opportunity of acquiring, by purchase from the government of the Soviet Republics, the famous Codex Sinaiticus will send a thrill through the heart of very one who is interested in the his­tory of the Bible. The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the greatest books in the world. It ranks with the Codex Vaticanus as one of the two oldest manuscripts of the Greek Bible, being perhaps as much as a century older than the Codex Alexandrinus, which has long been one of the chief glories of the British Museum. And in addition to its intrinsic value, it has around it the glamor of the romantic story of its discovery.

Its discoverer was the great German Biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf, and the story of its discovery is that which he himself tells. In the month of May, 1844, at the end of a four years' tour of the libraries of Europe in search of manuscripts of the Bible, with a view to the preparation of a critical text of the Greek New Testament, he was visiting the monastery of St. Catharine at Mt. Sinai. There, one day, he found in a waste-paper basket, among a number of leaves of manuscripts on their way to be consigned to the furnace, forty-three leaves of a manuscript of the Old Testament, obviously of very great antiquity. No objection was made to his appropriating this supposed waste paper, and he was informed that much similar material had already been consigned to destruction. Further inquiry elicited that some other portions of the same manuscript survived; but by this time the interest of the monks had been aroused by the visitor's evident eagerness, and he was allowed to take no more. He could only warn the monks that such leaves were too valuable to be used to feed the mon­astery's furnaces. On his return to Europe he presented the precious leaves to his sovereign and patron, King Frederick Augustus of Sax­ony, and in the University Library of Leipzig they have since remained.

The Reward

Nine years later Tischendorf revisited Sinai in the hope of securing the rest of the manu­script, the age and value of which had been confirmed by the study of the rescued leaves; but this time all his inquiries were met by blank negatives. He gathered the impression that it must have been disposed of to some other visitor, and was probably already in Eu­rope; so he gave up his search. In 1859, how­ever, he once more returned to Sinai, this time under the powerful patronage of the Czar Alex­ander II, the protector of the Greek Church. He worked at such manuscripts as he could have access to, without more thought of the lost treasure; but on the last evening of his visit (February 4, 1859) he happened to talk to the steward of the monastery about the Sep­tuagint version of the Old Testament, and showed him a copy of the edition of it which he had recently published. The steward re­marked that he, too, had a copy of the Septua­gint, which he proceeded to produce. It was a mass of loose and unprotected leaves of vellum, merely wrapped in a napkin; but there before the astonished eyes of the visitor, when the nap­kin was unrolled, lay the very manuscript which he had been so long seeking.

A short examination showed that the prize was far greater than he had ever anticipated. Not only was there much of the Old Testament, but (far more valuable) there was the whole of the New Testament, perfect from beginning to end, together with two early Christian works which were sometime associated with the canonical books, the epistle of Barnabas and a great part of the "Shepherd" of Hermas. Of the former no Greek copy was then known to exist; and Tischendorf (thinking it, as he said, sacrilege to sleep) spent the rest of the night in transcribing it. He could not prolong his visit to the monastery, but he persuaded the monks to send the manuscript to Cairo, where a first transcript of it was hurriedly made; and on his return to Europe he set more pow­erful forces in motion.

Eventually the monks were prevailed on to present the precious treasure to the czar, the patron of their church, in return for gifts to the value of 9,000 rubles; and so it was con­veyed to the Imperial Library at St. Petersburg, which was its home until the Russian Revolu­tion. An edition in facsimile type was pub­lished in 1862, some advance sheets of which were a feature of the Great Exhibition of that year in London.

The Codex Sinaiticus is a magnificent vol­ume. As an example of the scribe's art it is more impressive than its rival in the Vatican. Its leaves, of fine vellum, measure 15 inches by 13Y2 inches, and the text is arranged in four columns on each page, except in the poetical books of the Old Testament, which have only two columns. When the volume lies open, showing eight columns across a wide expanse of vellum, it recalls the appearance of the papy­rus rolls from which it was no doubt copied. Like practically all early manuscripts, it has no ornamentation; its beauty consists in its admirable penmanship. The writing is a rather large uncial, the work (according to Tischen­dorf) of four different scribes; but the whole of the New Testament is in one hand. Pale­ographers are agreed in assigning its date to the fourth century. Earlier than about the middle of that century it cannot be, since it has in its margins the section numbers com­piled for the Gospels by Eusebius, who died in 340 A. D.; and other evidence proves that it cannot be materially later.

The Contents

In contents the Codex (as already stated) has the whole of the New Testament, with the epistle of Barnabas and part of the "Shepherd" of Hermas. These occupy 148 leaves. Of the Old Testament there are ninety-nine leaves (about two fifths of the whole), of which forty-three are at Leipzig. The Leipzig leaves con­tain portions of Chronicles, 2 Esdras, Esther, Tobit, Jeremiah, and Lamentations; the St. Petersburg (henceforth, we hope, the British Museum) leaves, small fragments of Genesis and Numbers, the remainder of Tobit and Jere­miah, and the whole of Judah, Isaiah, the minor prophets (except Hosea, Amos, and Micah), and 1 and 4 Maccabees.

For the text of the Greek Bible in both Tes­taments it is of primary authority. At the time of its discovery the text of the only man­uscript of equal age, the Codex Vaticanus, was very imperfectly known; but when editions of that manuscript were published by Tischendorf in 1867 and by Vercellone and Cazza in 1868, it became evident that these two earliest author­ities presented a text of the Gospels differing in many important details from that of which the Codex Alexandrinus was the principal rep­resentative. It is, on the whole, a shorter text; for example, it omits the last twelve verses of St. Mark and the episode of the woman taken in adultery, and has shorter versions of the Lord's prayer and the incident of the pool of Bethesda in St. John. Together these two manuscripts are the champions of that type of text which Westcott and Hort desig­nate as "neutral," which is embodied in their edition oftheNOW Testament-, and which has left decisive marks on our own Revised Ver­sion.

The place of origin of the Sinaiticus has been a matter of some dispute among scholars, but opinion has generally come round to the view that it was probably written in Egypt. There is reason, however, to believe that at an early date it was in the library at Cwsarea, which has always been known to have been an important center of Biblical study, and which has recently come more into notice through the identifica­tion by Lake, Streeter, and others of a specifi­cally "Caesarean" type of the Gospels text. The Sinaiticus has been extensively corrected, and there is good reason to connect one group of correctors with Cwsarea. The study of these corrections is therefore important, and this is one reason for satisfaction that the manuscript should be in a place easily accessible to schol­ars; for the attribution of corrections often depends on such questions as the color of ink, for which no photographs can take the place of the original.

Enough has perhaps been said to show the value of the new acquisition which is now within the reach of our nation. Since the date of discovery, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus have been in the forefront of all controversy on the text of the Bible. Quite recently (as was announced in these columns two years ago) portions of papyrus manuscripts have come to light which are perhaps a hundred years older; but these consist only of thirty mutilated leaves of the Gospels and Acts and ten each of the Pauline epistles and the Revelation. The Sinai­ticus and Vaticanus still remain the oldest sub­stantial authorities for our Bible text, and as such are of outstanding value among all books. The nation will surely not grudge for such a book a price considerably less than that which is paid for a single picture of the Italian Renaissance. With the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus in the British Museum, and the Codex Bezae (the principal representa­tive of the so-called "Western" text of the Gos­pels and Acts) at Cambridge, this country may more than ever claim to be the home of Bible scholarship, a claim justified by such names as Walton, Mill, Tregelles, Westcott, Hort, Wordsworth, and Sanday in the past, and White, Lake, Streeter, and Burkitt today in the sphere of New Testament criticism, and Holmes and Parsons, Swete, Brooke, and McLean in respect of the Septuagint.

* This invaluably informative article is reprinted from the London Times of December 20, 1933. The acquisition of this Codex by the British Museum for £100,000 ($510,000), is the greatest book purchase of all time, twice, in fact, as much as was ever before paid for any single printed or written document. Its value, and the important role it has played in the establishment of the Biblical text, is here told. These facts should be familiar ground to every worker in the advent movement.—Editors.

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By Sir Frederic Kenyon*

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