Friday, December 07, 2007

I am not familiar with the Biblical Archaeology Review, its reputation or slant. But in browsing through Barnes & Noble at lunch one day this week, I took note of the current issue. The lead story is Who Owns the World's Oldest Bible?, with a picture of St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai on the cover.

The story concerns, of course, the mid 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, which is the oldest complete New Testament.

The Codex Sinaiticus contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament—from the mid-fourth century. Originally, it contained the Old Testament too, but most of that is now missing.The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the big three...fourth or fifth century codices of the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) that include the New Testament as well. Vaticanus is at the Vatican. Alexandrinus is at the British Library. And Sinaiticus is, well, in four different places. And thereby hangs my tale. Each venue of Sinaiticus maintains that it owns the part that resides there. The major part is at the British Library (formerly part of the British Museum) in London. A lesser part is at the University Library of Leipzig. A few fragments are in St. Petersburg at the Russian National Library. Finally, the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, where it all originated, have discovered a few more leaves. The monks would like it all back.

The BAR article is behind the firewall and not available online. I have copied a portion of one of the side bar articles, below:

Why is Sinaiticus Significant?

Codex Sinaiticus, written around the middle of the fourth century A.D., is arguably the earliest extant Christian Bible. It contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. Only one other nearly complete manuscript of the Christian Bible--the Codex Vaticanus--is of a similarly early date. The only Christian manuscripts of scripture that are definitely of an earlier date contain relatively small portions of the text.

Three principal aspects of the codes contribute to its great significance: it roles as text, canon and book.

Codes Sinaiticus represents one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the Septuagint and the New Testament. It is customarily given primacy of position in the lists of surviving manuscripts consulted for establishing the oldest text to these two traditions and is usually represented as ..."01" for the New Testament....
By the middle of the fourth century there was wide, yet neither complete nor universal, agreement over the books to be considered as authoritative for Christian communities. The Codex Sinaitiucs, being one of the earliest intact collections of such books, is essential for an understanding of the contents and the arrangement of the Biblical canon, as well as the uses made of it. The Greek Septuagint in the codex comprises books not included in the Hebrew Bible and regarded in the Protestant traditions as apocryphal: 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4th Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach. Appended at the end of the New Testament in the codex are the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The idiosyncratic sequence of books is also remarkable: Within the New Testament, the Letter of the Hebrews is placed after Paul's Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Acts of the Apostles between the Pastoral and Catholic Epistles. All these facts have to be considered carefully when reconstructing the history of the canonization of the Christian books.

This process of canonization has also influenced and been influenced by the medium in which it-the codex-has been transcribed and transmitted. From our earliest evidence onward, and in contrast to earlier and most contemporaneous practices, Christians preferred the format of the codex over the roll, particularly, albeit not exclusively, when copying sacred literature. And from the fourth century onward, parchment was increasingly used instead of papyrus, which had previously been the predominant choice. The quality of Codex Sinaiticus's parchment and the advanced binding structure that would have been needed to support and contain within one volume over 730 large-format leaves make the Codex Sinaiticus one of the most outstanding examples of book manufacture in its time. The careful planning, skillful writing, and editorial control needed for such an ambitious project gives us an invaluable insight into professional Christian book production that would exert its influence for many centuries afterwards.--Dr. Juan Garces, curator, Codex Sinaiticus Project, British Library.

The story addresses how the codex managed to end up, by and large, in the British Library. The key player was one Constantin von Tischendorf, a 19th century German scholar. In 1844, Tischendorf visited the monastery as part of an extended research trip throughout the Levant, in search of biblical documents. If the story can be believed, he stumbled upon a large basket full of old parchment. These sheets, like two baskets before them, were old and mouldy and destined to be burned. He was allowed to keep 43 leaves, but the rest was refused him, perhaps due to suspicion at his eagerness. Upon return to Europe, he deposited these leaves at the University of Leipzig.

Tischendorf would return again and again to the monastery, trying vainly to gain access to the parchments. Finally, in 1859 he met with success. Though a Protestant, he went as the emissary of the Orthodox tsar, Alexander II of Russia. [In one glaring mistake, the author of this article needs to know that the Tsar was NOT "after all, the head of the Orthodox Church."] Tischendorf jockeyed between Cairo, the monastery and Constantinople, trying to negotiate release of the codex. He even became involved in a dispute between the Patriarchs at Constantinople and Jerusalem, which involved the Sinai monastery. At long last, he received permission to borrow the codex to have it copied, save for a few leaves retained at St. Catherine's. Tischndorf even signed a receipt acknowledging same (said receipt being prominently displayed in the monastery to this day).

The rest of the story can be guessed. The codex was "presented" to Alexander II. The Russians interpreted it as a gift from the monastery to the Orthodox tsar. Protestations from the monastery over the decades went unanswered. In 1930, the Soviets were in need of hard cash and sold the codex, save for a scrap or two, to the British, for 100,000 pounds.

Today, all four depositories--the British Museum, the University of Leipzig, the Russian National Library and St. Catherine's Monastery--are working together to preserve and conserve the document. Ultimately, it will be digitized, available online with translations and in facsimile editions. A television documentary is in the works, as well. As a condition for their essential participation, the monastery insisted that the real story be told of how they lost control of the codex. And, oh yes, they still want it back.

Another side bar article in the magazine is An America Monk in Sinai. This is an interview with Fr. Justin, the librarian of the monastery, who grew up Baptist in Texas. He is the monk pictured on the cover of the magazine, and I believe he was the monk who accompanied the exhibit of icons to the Getty Museum last year, as well. And in the small world category, he is also a friend of a friend of mine.


Milton Burton said...
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Jacob said...

Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, helped create and heads an organization called the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts - The organization's ambitious goal is to take hi-resolution digital photographs of all the existing New Testament Manuscripts in the world. (You can see some of what they've done on the Website.) Dr. Wallace and his team have been to St. Catherine's Monastery, as well as the library on the island of Patmos, and his work is bringing to the world some of the textual treasures that are in Orthodox monasteries and churches and libraries. Help spread the word and, if you feel so inclined, support the work.

Dixie said...

Wow! What a facinating post! And digitally preserving the text--great news! Looking forward to knowing more as this situation progresses.

Re: the Getty exibition of the Sinai icons. Was Father Justin in the DVD that was offered by this exibit? I seem to recall the name. I have never been much for traveling (probably because my work forces it on me) and I surely have never had any interest in traveling to the Mideast but that DVD showing St. Catherine's has completely changed my mind. God willing, I am hoping to go there in a few years.

John said...

Dixie, yes I believe he is the one in the DVD. And thanks for reminding me--I ordered the DVD but forgot about it and haven't watched it yet! I hope to visit there, as well--perhaps as early as this coming May.

Jacob said...
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Jacob said...

Fr. Justin was at Dr. Daniel Wallace's class today at DTS, and I was able to sit in on it. He spoke about his work at St. Catherine's and discussed Codex Sinaiticus, with slides of the mss., and various other things related to that.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to talk with him afterwards, as my ride was leaving.

I hope to see you again sometime soon, maybe at the Pre-Lenten retreat this Saturday at Holy Trinity GOC in Dallas or at the DL the next morning at St. Seraphim where the Archimandrate from the retreat will be speaking - and which we hope to attend.