The Fascinating Tale of the Sinaitic Manuscript

The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the two most important and earliest witnesses we possess of the Greek New Testament (Sinaiticus being the oldest complete manuscript of the NT), Codex Vaticanus being the other, Vaticanus dating to the fourth century CE and Sinaiticus dating to the mid-fourth century CE. Ever since I first read the story of Constantin von Tischendorf's discovery of the Sinaitic manuscript in 1859, I never forgot it, and for some odd reason the tale blesses me immensely -- much as does Christian, in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, when he loses and then finds his lost scroll (Bible). I hope you enjoy the following, as written by Neil R. Lightfoot in his book, How We Got the Bible.


"And the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses ... and Moses went up" (Exod. 19:20). According to Exodus 19, Mount Sinai presented an almost indescribable sight -- thunders and lightnings, a thick cloud, smoke and fire, the blast of God's trumpet, and the quaking of the mountain. Then, in the hearing of the people, God spoke the Ten Commandments.


For long centuries Jebel Musa [pictured above], the "mountain of Moses," has been identified as the site where Moses received the Law. Today, below a shoulder of this mountain in a narrow gorge stands impressively the Monastery of St. Catherine [pictured below]. Built by the Emperor Justinian in about A.D. 550, it is one of the oldest of all existing monasteries.

The monastery was built as a fortress -- a part of Justinian's rather extensive defense system. But it was also built for the safety of monks in the area who were being raided by Saracen [Muslim] tribes. The monastery was situated illogically in the gorge because the monks pointed to this particular spot as the place where God spoke to Moses in the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6). Surrounded by high granite walls, the monastery has every appearance of a fort. Inside the walls, the interlacing of narrow passages, covered walks, and whitewashed buildings leave one with the impression of a resurrected Byzantine city.


The monastery bears the name of St. Catherine. Who was Catherine? According to one legend, she was a beautiful, intelligent Christian young lady who refused the immoral advances of the fourth-century Emperor Maximian. She was imprisoned and placed on the wheel to be executed [pictured below: see the wheel at her left hand]. When the wheel broke, as if it refused her death, she was beheaded. Angels with gentle hands, so the story goes, carried her body to the vicinity of Sinai where, the monks claim, they found it and laid it to rest in the chapel of the monastery.


Through the centuries many pilgrims made their difficult journeys to the monastery. In 1844 a young man of promise came to Sinai at the age of twenty-nine. He came not as a religious pilgrim but as a New Testament scholar in search of the manuscripts at St. Catherine's.


The young man who arrived by camel caravan under the walls of the monastery, who waited for the checking of his credentials and then was hauled over the wall astride a crossbar, was Constantin von Tischendorf [pictured below]. At that time the door was thirty feet high -- for protection. Tischendorf, possessed with the special gifts of a quick mind and a brilliant memory, had started his life's work early and was now pursuing it with endless energy. He had resolved to devote himself to the study of the New Testament text and in his words "to reconstruct, if possible, the exact text, as it came from the pen of the sacred writers."

In 1841 Tischendorf had published his first critical edition of the Greek New Testament. At that time, however, textual information from even the most important manuscripts was often defective and from others was not available at all. So Tischendorf proposed to visit the central libraries of Europe in order to copy or collate (make a list of readings) all the uncial manuscripts [manuscripts constructed with rounded capital letters] of the New Testament. Sorely in need of the necessary funds, he was able to scrape together enough to get him to Paris at a time, he says, when he was unable to pay for the suit that he wore.

In Paris, Tischendorf was successful where all previous scholars had failed: he deciphered and published the celebrated Ephraem Manuscript. This extraordinary accomplishment, along with his other publications, enabled him to obtain the means to extend his travels and studies. He visited Holland, England, Switzerland, and Italy, gathering a harvest beyond all his expectations. Then he looked toward the East -- to Egypt, to Sinai, to Palestine, to the island of Patmos, to Constantinople, and to Greece. He recorded all these journeys in his Travels in the East.


Upon departing, on his Eastern venture, he wrote his brother: "Thus I go forth with cheerful confidence. . . . Nor does hope fail me as to the success of my researches with respect to manuscripts. It is thence that Europe has derived its riches, and many a monastery still contains unexamined recesses. . . . Should I never return, I know that I shall have fallen in a worthy cause." It was this "worthy cause" that now brought him to Sinai.

At the monastery Tischendorf was given an apartment of several rooms, including a study, and whatever manuscript he wished from the library. The library itself was in poor condition. Tischendorf entered it with anticipations that had built up for years. After examining the volumes one by one, frequently being disappointed, he then received a great surprise. Tischendorf, twenty years later, tells the story:
It was at the foot of Mount Sinai, in the Convent of St. Catherine, that I discovered the pearl of all my researches. In visiting the library of the monastery, in the month of May, 1844, I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian, who was a man of information, told me that two heaps of papers like these, mouldered by time, had already been committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek [the Septuagint, or LXX], which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen.

The authorities of the convent allowed me to possess myself of a third of these parchments, or about forty-three sheets, all the more readily as they were destined for the fire. But I could not get them to yield up possession of the remainder. The too lively satisfaction I had displayed had aroused their suspicions as to the value of this manuscript. I transcribed a page of the text of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and enjoined on the monks to take religious care of all such remains which might fall in their way.
In 1845 Tischendorf returned to his home in Leipzig and in the next year published the forty-three sheets he had obtained. They were parts of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. In honor of Frederick Augustus, his patron and the king of his homeland, Saxony, Tischendorf named the work Codex Friderico-Augustanus. Tischendorf continued his labors. In the meantime, however, he told no one where he had found the forty-three sheets. The sheet he had copied from the codex, before he left Sinai, became a goad [properly, a stick used to prod animals, causing them to move in a desired direction] for him to try to acquire the rest of the manuscript.


So again, in 1853, he came to the monastery at Sinai. How disappointed he was! The whole monastery knew nothing of the precious manuscript he had seen nine years earlier. But he accidentally found a clue to it, a small piece of parchment in the same ancient handwriting of the forty-three leaves, which was being used as a bookmark. The parchment fragment contained a few verses of Genesis 24, proof enough for him that the original codex must have included the entire Old Testament. But at the same time it dawned on him that the bookmark might be all that remained, that perhaps someone else had taken the manuscript away from the monastery.

After several more years this seemed even more probable to him. He therefore published the fact that years earlier he had discovered at Sinai not only the forty-three leaves but eighty-six other leaves as well. He wanted the world to know that he had been the discoverer of the ancient manuscript.


In 1859, this time under the patronage of Alexander II, the Czar of Russia, Tischendorf once again made his way to St. Catherine's. Could it be possible that the priceless manuscript was still there, lying undetected in some obscure corner? To the unkempt, disarranged library he went again. He found not a trace of what he was looking for. With these disappointments, now at the age of forty-five, Tischendorf knew he might never return to Sinai. Tischendorf relates what happened next:
After having devoted a few days in turning over the manuscripts of the convent, not without alighting [pausing] here and there on some precious parchment or other, I told my Bedouins, on the 4th of February, to hold themselves in readiness to set out with their dromedaries [camels] for Cairo on the 7th, when an entirely fortuitous circumstance carried me at once to the goal of all my desires. On the afternoon of this day I was taking a walk with the steward of the convent in the neighbourhood, and as we returned, towards sunset, he begged me to take some refreshment with him in his cell.

Scarcely had he entered the room, when, resuming our former subject of conversation, he said: "And I, too, have read a Septuagint" -- i.e., a copy of the Greek translation made by the Seventy. And so saying, he took down from the corner of the room a bulky kind of volume, wrapped up in a red cloth, and laid it before me. I unrolled the cover, and discovered, to my great surprise, not only those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket, but also other parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete, and, in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Shepherd of Hermas.

Full of joy, which this time I had the self-command to conceal from the steward and the rest of the community, I asked, as if in a careless way, for permission to take the manuscript into my sleeping chamber to look over it more at leisure. There by myself I could give way to the transport of joy which I felt. I knew that I held in my hand the most precious Biblical treasure in existence -- a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined during twenty years' study of the subject. I cannot now, I confess, recall all the emotions which I felt in that exciting moment with such a diamond in my possession.
There at last was the fulfillment of his greatest wish. And there was more. Tischendorf had set out to reconstruct the text of the New Testament, using the very best manuscripts at his disposal. Here now was a complete New Testament.


Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (New York: MJF Books, 2003), 43-48.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.