The Sinaiticus: We Almost Didn’t Know It Existed

Biblical scholars do not know who constructed/compiled the first "New Testament." But they do know that it was accomplished by the Fourth Century (the 300s) because the earliest known copy of the 27 books in the New Testament has been dated to the Fourth Century. This copy is known as the Sinaiticus, and it is a copy of the New Testament in Greek, which was the same language of the books of the New Testament.

There is another side to the Sinaiticus, though, that is every bit as fascinating as it is important to biblical scholars. That is the story of how it was discovered.

The story of the discovery of the Sinaiticus centers on one Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-1874). In 1844, at age 29 and on behalf of the University of Leipzig, Tischendorf traveled throughout much of the Middle East searching for early Biblical manuscripts. As part of his travels he stopped at the monastery of St Catharine at the foot of Mount Sinai.

One day he noticed the monks stoking the oven fire with parchments from a trash can. Upon close inspection, he discovered they were early Greek copies of Old Testament books (dating over 1000 years)! He searched through the basket and discovered forty-three leaves. One monk told him that two basket loads of such parchments had just been burned. Tischendorf was able to keep some of these parchments and, in 1846, presented them to his patron (who paid his bills), the King of Saxony, Frederick Augustus.

In 1853 Tischendorf was able to visit the monastery of St Catharine again, but had no success in finding more manuscripts. He visited again in 1859, this time with the Czar of Russia, Alexander II, as his patron. He again met with no success until the day before he left. He gave a gift to the overseer of the monastery, a published copy of the Greek manuscripts he had earlier taken back to Europe. The overseer mentioned that he already had a copy of these. Upon seeing it, Tischendorf realized that it not only contained a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, but the New Testament as well. He stayed up the entire night studying the parchment; it was that earliest complete New Testament in Greek mentioned earlier, the Sinaiticus. Tischendorf later wrote in his diary "It really seemed a sacrilege to sleep."

Yet the overseer would not allow him to buy this volume. The next day Tischendorf left for a scheduled trip to Cairo. While there he located the abbot of the monastery (a position over that of overseer) and convinced him to have the Greek New Testament volume brought to Cairo for more study. Once it was there, Tischendorf convinced the abbot to give it to the Czar of Russia (remember that he was paying Tischendorf’s bills) in exchange for certain favors by the Czar (who was the protector of the Greek Orthodox Church, to which St. Catharine monastery belong). And so that volume known as the Sinaiticus eventually made it to Russia where it was studied and reprinted.

Yet as fascinating as that is, it almost pales compared to this. Russia experienced a revolution in 1917, and the czar was killed. The Communist came to power and they had a great need for money and so sold many works from their museums. Being an atheistic government, they saw no need to have such a "useless" treasure as the Sinaiticus and decided to sell it. They found a buyer in the British Museum. In December 1933 the Sinaiticus was sold to the British Government for the price of $50,000 (in 1933 dollars). And that is where it resides today.

©2004 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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