On this day in 1859, the Codex Sinaiticus was discovered in Egypt, in the Monastery of Saint Catherine, by the Leipzig archaeologist Constantin von Tischendorf. The Codex Sinaiticus is an ancient handwritten copy of the Greek Bible, and alongside the Codex Vaticanus, it is the finest Greek text of the New Testament. Also including much of the Old Testament, it is an inestimably important document in the history of Christianity. The Codex was written sometime in the 4th century (between 325 and 360 AD), and is an Alexandrian text-type manuscript. The exact circumstances in which it ended up in an Egyptian monastery are still unknown; some think it may actually have been written in Egypt, while others say it was more likely written in Rome.
Constantin von Tischendorf paid his first visit to the Monastery of Saint Catherine in 1844, and discovered some parchments from an important ancient document, the Septuagint, casually discarded in a wastepaper basket. The German archaeologist was allowed to bring them back to his homeland, and deposited them in the Leipzig University Library. He returned for a second time in 1853, and then a third time in 1859—on this occasion under the patronage of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, who was extremely eager to recover any other lost manuscripts from the distant Sinai monastery. Indeed, von Tischendorf went on to discover one of the most important religious documents in existence, on 4 February.
The reason that the Codex Sinaiticus is so important is because it contains the earliest complete copy of the Christian New Testament, hand-written in the old Greek vernacular language of koine. In addition, the Codex also includes the Septuagint, an early translation of the Hebrew Bible that was adopted as the Old Testament by early Greek-speaking Christians. No other early version of the Bible has been so extensively annotated and corrected, and these corrections range from changes made by the original scribes in the 4th century to those made by monks in the 12th century. Thus it provides an invaluable insight into the history of book-making, the history of the Bible, and the reconstruction of the Bible’s original text.
Constantin von Tischendorf certainly provided immense assistance to generations of Christian scholars by bringing the Codex Sinaiticus from the Monastery of Saint Catherine to the Leipzig University Library. However, there is still a great, and unresolved, controversy over exactly how he extracted the Codex from the monks. And, to this day, the monastery still maintains that it was essentially stolen from them by a duplicitous German academic.
Photo Credit: © Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / Alamy
Photo Caption: Discovered in Egypt, the Codex Sinaiticus is an inestimably important document in the history of Christianity.