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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Codex Sinaiticus

Looking Back

Friday February 12 2020

Looking Back: The 'Codex Sinaiticus'

A story from February 1934 about the discovery and arrival in Britain of one of the oldest Bible manuscripts.


The "Codex Sinaiticus"

By the Rev. T. B. Stewart Thomson

NO event of recent months has stirred our imaginations more deeply than the offical intimation that a courier from Russia reached our shores on Christmas Eve, bringing with him the famous Codex Sinaiticus, which has been purchased, after three years' negotiations, by the British Museum for £100,000, and was formally handed over to its authorities on the 27th of December.

There is something ironical in the spectacle of an anti-Christian government raising money by the sale of one of the treasures of Christendom. Fortunately there is no fear of such money being used, directly or indirectly, for Soviet propaganda against religion. An undertaking has been given that the £100,000 will be spent in Great Britain for the purchase of machinery and other goods.

One can hardly doubt that the Museum authorities have secured a good bargain. A quarter of a million pounds was the price originally demanded; and, had it not been for the financial crisis in the United States, it seems likely that the Codex, like so many other treasures of the Old World, would have found a resting-place in the palace of some transatlantic millionaire.

No doubt there will be critics of the whole transaction, who wll claim that we cannot afford such luxuries in the present financial state of our country. Yet it is peculiarly fittting that Great Britain, as the home of Biblical scholarship, should become the custodian of this priceless and historic manuscript, whose importance in the critical investigation of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, can hardly be overestimated. It is good, too, to remember that "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."

What is the Codex Sinaiticus - or א (aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), as it is usually called for short by students of the Bible? The oldest New Testament MSS. are the papyrus fragments found at Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt. Some of these scattered writings are preserved at Philadelphia, U.S.A., and others in the British Museum. The earliest vellum manuscript is that known as "B" (Codex Vaticanus graecus), dating from the fourth century, and one of the treasures of the Vatican.

Second only in age and important to "B" is the British Museum's Christmas gift to the nation. It gets its name from the fact that it was discovered in the Monastery of St. Catherine, on Mount Sinai, by the famous German scholar Lobegott Tischendorf. In the year 1844 he visited the monastery, and hunted through its library, where he discovered the forty-three leaves of the Codex Friderico Augustanus (so called after his royal patron), which he took home with him to Leipzig - the only part of the Codex Sinaiticus which has not been acquired by Great Britain. Ten years later he returned, in an effort to discover and secure the remainder of the famous manuscript, but in vain.

It was only after long effort that Tischendorf finally succeeded in gaining from the Russian Government of that day, with the support of the Tsar, the necessary financial backing for a fresh attempt. He reached Sinai on the last day of January 1859, and began a careful search for the missing leaves. Four days later the steward of the monastery called his attention to a manuscript which had been overlooked; and to Tischendorf's joy it proved to contain, not merely the leaves left behind in 1844, but also a large number of others containing the New Testament, Barnabas, and part of the Shepherd of Hermas.

Almost beside himself with joy, the German savant sat up all night, copying the then unique Barnabas. Then he hastened to Cairo to meet the prior; and ultimately, after long delays incident to the election of a new archbishop, Tischendorf received permission to carry the original to Europe, in order to edit it. The manuscript was ultimately given by the monks to the Russian Emperor, whom they regarded as the head of their Church. In 1917, on the assassination of the last of the Tsars, it became the property of the Soviet Government; and now it has been acquired once more by a Christian nation.

The Old Testament is imperfect, even with the addition of the two hundred pages preserved at Leipzig. Bu the New is complete, and also contains, as we have seen, the so-called Epistle of Barnabas and a portion of The Shepherd of Hermas. Certain lost leaves, thinks Professor Alexander Souter of Aberdeen University, may have contained the Didache. It has also been conjectured that this Bible and"B" were two of the fifty copies of Holy Scripture ordered by Constantine from Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, for the churches in Constantinople. Certainly the two manuscripts show a close textual alliance.

In all, 346½ leaves have survived, of which the New Testament occupies 147½. The manuscript is written in block letters on thin vellum, and is, according to Mr. Maggs, the Museumexpert who so successfully carried out these long negotiations, wonderfully well preserved. The pages measure 43 by 38 centimetres, arranged in four narrow columns of writing - a rather large uncial script - whlie the margins of the text bear the section numbers compiled for the Gospels by Eusebius, who died in A.D. 340.

A note may be added about the two non-scriptural documents included in the Codex. The Letter of Barnabas is now general regarded by Biblical scholars as being a genuine document, though not apostolic or canonical. In Jerome's time it was still read among the apocryphal scriptures. Though it can hardly have been written by Barnabas the Apostle, the document is full of interest in its resemblances to the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Shepherd of Hermas is a remarkable book, a threefold collection of visions, commandments, and parables, formerly attributed to the Hermas mentioned by St. Paul. But, in the words of Bishop Westcott, "Evidence, both internal external, is decisive against a belif in its Apostolic date." Nevertheless it is quoted as canonical by such early fathers of the Church as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. It may be said to bear the same relation to the Epistle of St. James as does the Epistle of Barnabas to that to the Hebrews.

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