Is Constantine Tischendorf a hero or thief? Tischendorf on Trial for Removing Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament

Ellen White  November 26, 2018  

Legendary Leipzig scholar Constantine Tischendorf died surrounded by controversy at the relatively young age of 59. Known for his skills at discovering and deciphering rare ancient manuscripts, Tischendorf’s chance finding of Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest New Testament manuscript, at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai—and his later removal of the manuscript—made him both famous and infamous.

codex-sinaiticus

In “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred” in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, eminent New Testament scholar Stanley Porter reexamines the allegations against Tischendorf in light of new evidence from the Russian archives.

Tischendorf, who spent his career at the University of Leipzig, travelled extensively in search of lost and forgotten manuscripts of the Bible. His deep religious commitments drove him to search for the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible. It was on such an expedition that Tischendorf succeeded in finding the oldest complete copy of the New Testament: Codex Sinaiticus, which dates to the mid-fourth century C.E.

He claimed that one night while visiting the Eastern Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, he spied an ancient-looking manuscript in a basket of fire kindling. Upon closer inspection, he discovered a very old copy of the Bible, now known as Codex Sinaiticus. Tischendorf could not contain his excitement and immediately requested it. The monks, tipped off to its value by his enthusiasm, only allowed him to take 43 sheets with him.

Physically, Codex Sinaiticus is located in four places: the 43 original sheets in Leipzig; a few remnants forgotten in the Russian National Library; the majority of the text in the British Library; and approximately a dozen sheets that were later discovered after an earthquake at St. Catherine’s. But the digital age has brought the entire manuscript back together in a virtual online museum at www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/.
 


 
The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.
 


constantine-tischendorf

Constantine Tischendorf. Photo: Tischendorfarchive Alexander Schick © http://www.bibelausstellung.de/Courtesy of Helmut Constantin Behrend.

Constantine Tischendorf was said to have salvaged sheets of Codex Sinaiticus—the oldest New Testament—from a basket of fire kindling at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. Is he a hero or thief? Photo: Courtesy of St. Catherine’s Monastery.This small prize was not enough to satisfy Tischendorf, and after a failed attempt to buy the manuscript, he returned to St. Catherine’s hoping to examine the rest of the manuscript, but he was almost entirely unsuccessful. Not one to give up, Tischendorf returned a third time to the monastery under the patronage of the Czar of Russia. It looked like it was going to be another fruitless trip until just before he was scheduled to depart. On February 4, 1859, a monk revealed the remaining sheets of Codex Sinaiticus to Tischendorf. This time Tischendorf was careful to contain his delight, but he did request permission to borrow the manuscript in order to make an identical copy. Granting this favor was complicated due to a power struggle within the church leadership, but eventually, Tischendorf was allowed to remove Codex Sinaiticus with a promissory note for its safe return; it has never returned to St. Catherine’s.

Tischendorf did complete a facsimile edition of the text, but Codex Sinaiticus was gifted to the Russian Czar and remained in the Russian National Library until an economic downturn made it necessary for them to sell it to the British. To date, the majority of the Codex remains in the British Library. These facts have colored the recovery of this important manuscript with accusations against Tischendorf, its revealer, of theft.
 


 
The text of Codex Sinaiticus differs in numerous instances from that of the authorized version of the Bible in use during Tischendorf’s time. Read “What’s Missing from Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament?” to compare these differences.
 


 
Stanley Porter, the Dean of McMaster Divinity College, argues that many salient details are omitted from this all too common telling of the events. At the time of Tischendorf, there was nothing uncommon about removing, buying or gifting ancient manuscripts in this manner. He also demonstrates that from the beginning, there were discussions about donating the manuscript to the Russian Czar, as would be appropriate for an Eastern Orthodox monastery, but that the succession problems within the church leadership lead to a more complicated than normal process, which allowed allegations against Tischendorf to linger. Stanley Porter explains how newly revealed documents from the Russian archives exonerate Tischendorf and provide the rest of the story of Codex Sinaiticus’s long journey west.

This promissory note left by Constantine Tischendorf in exchange for the oldest New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, has been the basis of theft accusations, but scholar Stanley Porter argues that this is only one part of the story. Photo: Tischendorfarchive Alexander Schick © http://www.bibelausstellung.de/Courtesy of St. Catherine’s Monastery.

Physically, Codex Sinaiticus is located in four places: the 43 original sheets in Leipzig; a few remnants forgotten in the Russian National Library; the majority of the text in the British Library; and approximately a dozen sheets that were later discovered after an earthquake at St. Catherine’s. But the digital age has brought the entire manuscript back together in a virtual online museum at www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/.

Learn more about the controversy surrounding Constantine Tischendorf and his removal of Codex Sinaiticus by reading “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred” by Stanley Porter in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
——————
BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred” by Stanley Porter in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


Related reading in the BAS Library:

Hershel Shanks, “Who Owns the Codex Sinaiticus?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/Decenber 2007.

Charles W. Hedrick, “The 34 Gospels,” Bible Review, June 2002.

Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Major Septuagint Manuscripts—Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus,” Bible Review, August 1989.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

——————————————————————–

RESCUED FROM A WASTEBASKET?
 

From “Answers To Your Bible Version Questions” ©2001 David W. Daniels.
Reproduced by permission

Question: Can you prove the perverted Sinaiticus was found in a wastebasket?

Answer: As of 2016: No. In fact, I can prove that it was NOT found in a wastebasket. It turns out that the scholar I trusted, Constantin Tischendorf, who supposedly discovered the Sinaiticus, lied about what really happened. This amazing story, with evidence, is covered in my book Is the ‘World’s Oldest Bible’ a Fake? (2017). Nevertheless, the wastebasket story has been repeated for over 150 years.

There are many sources for the Sinaiticus story, that it was found after being deposited in a kindling bin at St. Catherine’s monastery, deep in the Egyptian (“Sinai”) Peninsula. First I’ll tell you the story. I’ll go into detail about “who said what.” Then I’ll present my conclusion, based upon the new evidence I’ve found.

The Story

This story is told by many people. The following are various scholars who recite this incident and about what happened to the texts:

I. John William Burgon (latter 1800s)
A contemporary of Constantin Tischendorf, himself an excellent Bible scholar, spent 8 years comparing Sinaiticus (?), Alexandrinus (A), Vaticanus (B), Ephraemi Rescriptus (C), and Bezae Cantabrigiensis (D). It is no coincidence, as a defender of the Received Text, that he was not invited to join the Revision Committee in 1871-1881. After the English Revised New Testament and its corrupted Greek text were released in 1881, Burgon wrote in The Revision Revised (1883), p. 319:

“We suspect that these two manuscripts are indebted for their preservation, ‘solely to their ascertained evil character’; which has occasioned that the one eventually found its way, four centuries ago, to a forgotten shelf in the Vatican Library; while the other, after exercising the ingenuity of several generations of critical Correctors, eventually (viz in A. D. 1844) got deposited in the wastepaper basket of the Convent at the foot of Mount Sinai.” [emphasis mine]

“Had B [Vaticanus] and ALEPH [Sinaiticus] been copies of average purity, they must long ago since have shared the inevitable fate of books which are freely used and highly prized; namely, they would have fallen into decadence and disappeared from sight.”

Again, on pages 342-343, he said, tongue-in-cheek:

“And thus it would appear that the Truth of Scripture has run a very narrow risk of being lost forever to mankind. Dr. Hort contends that [Vaticanus]… lay ‘perdu’ (abandoned) on a forgotten shelf in the Vatican library;- Dr. Tischendorf, that [Sinaiticus] had been deposited in a waste-paper basket in the convent of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai;­­- from which he rescued it on the 4th of February, 1859;

“-neither, we venture to think, a very likely circumstance. We incline to believe that the Author of Scripture hath not by any means shown Himself so unmindful of the safety of the Deposit, as these distinguished gentlemen imagine.”

II. Dr. Benjamin G. Wilkinson (early 1900s)
In 1930, Benjamin Wilkinson published Our Authorized Bible Vindicated in England and America. In it he documented both the Preserved and Perverted manuscripts. Here is what he said about Tischendorf’s discovery:

“The story of the finding of the Sinaitic Manuscript by Tischendorf in a monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai illustrates the history of some of these later manuscripts.

“Tischendorf was visiting this monastery in 1844 to look for these documents. He discovered in a basket, over forty pages of a Greek manuscript of the Bible. He was told that two other basket loads had been used for kindling.

“Later, in 1859, he again visited this monastery to search for other manuscripts. He was about to give up in despair and depart when he was told of a bundle of additional leaves of a Greek manuscript. When he examined the contents of this bundle, he saw them to be a reproduction of part of the Bible in Greek. He could not sleep that night. Great was the joy of those who were agitating for a revision of the Bible when they learned that the new find was similar to the Vaticanus, but differed greatly from the King James.”

(As quoted in David Otis Fuller, Which Bible?, p. 254, emphasis mine).

III. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix
Geisler and Nix (Later 1900s) in 1968 published (through the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago) the definitive work for Fundamentalists on the manuscripts of the Bible.

Because of their book, A General Introduction to the Bible, some of the most conservative of Christians in their Bible colleges finally abandoned the King James Bible and the Textus Receptus, and embraced the perverted 44 Alexandrian manuscripts as containing “something closer” to the long-lost truths of Scripture.

This book was used to raise the reputation of Westcott and Hort, and at every corner to denigrate the Byzantine texts, the Gothic and other preserved manuscripts (now represented in the Textus Receptus), and ultimately to try to sound a death-knell to the preserved words in the King James Bible.

Here is their section on the “Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph)”, pp. 273-274 (392-394 in the 1986 edition), paragraphed and slightly edited for clarity [My comments appear in brackets]:

“This fourth century Greek manuscript is generally considered to be the most important witness to the text because of its antiquity, accuracy1, and lack of omissions.

“The story of the discovery of aleph is one of the most fascinating and romantic in textual history.

“It was found in the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai by the German Count Tischendorf, who was living in Prussia by permission of the czar.

“On his first visit (1844), he discovered forty-three leaves of vellum, containing portions of the LXX (I Chronicles, Jeremiah, Nehemiah and Esther), in a basket of scraps which the monks were using to light their fires. He secured it and took it to the University Library at Leipzig, Germany. It remains there, known as the Codex Frederico-Augustanus [after his patron, Frederick Augustus, King of Saxony].

“Tischendorf’s second visit, in 1853, proved unfruitful; but in 1859, under the authority of Czar Alexander II, he returned again. Just before he was to return home empty-handed, the monastery steward showed him an almost complete copy of the Scriptures and some other books. These were subsequently acquired as a ‘conditional gift’ to the czar.2

“This manuscript is now known as the famous Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph). It contains over half the Old Testament (LXX), and all of the New, with the exception of Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. All of the Old Testament Apocrypha,3 with the addition of the “Epistle of Barnabus”, and a large portion of the “Shepherd of Hermas” are also included….

“In 1933 the British government purchased Aleph for the British Museum for 100,000 pounds, about $500,000 at that time. It was published in a volume entitled ‘Scribes and Correctors of Codex Sinaiticus’ (London, 1938)….”4 [emphasis mine]

IV. Constantin von Tischendorf
Here is the testimony of Tischendorf himself (1864):

“I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket, full of old parchments; and the librarian informed me that two heaps of papers like this, mouldered by reason of age, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find among this heap of documents a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient I had ever seen.”

The following comes from Which Version? Authorized or Revised? by Philip Mauro (Boston, Massachusetts: Scripture Truth Depot, 1924), pp. 36-37:

“The monks allowed him to take forty-five of the sheets. But nothing more transpired until fifteen years later, when he again visited the monastery, this time under the direct patronage of the Czar of Russia. And then he was shown a bulky roll of parchment leaves, which included, among other manuscripts of lesser importance, the Codex now known as the Sinaitic.

“Naturally enough Dr. Tischendorf was highly elated by his discovery. Indeed his enthusiasm was unbounded. He says,

“‘I knew that I held in my hands the most precious Biblical treasure in existence;’ and he considered this discovery to be ‘greater than that of the Koh-i-noor (diamond) of the Queen of England.’”

V. Dr. Samuel C. Gipp, in The Answer Book, (1996 printing), had this to say:

“One of the most prominent manuscripts which has been discovered since 1611 is the Sinaitic manuscript. This witness, though horribly flawed, was found amongst trash paper in St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai in 1841 by Constantine Tischendorf.” (p. 110)

VI. Dr. Thomas Holland
Thomas Holland, a man for whom I have great respect, has discussed these and other issues in in his book Crowned with Glory: The Bible from Ancient Text to Authorized Version (2000). He agreed completely with Philip Mauro and Tischendorf.5

VII. James R. White
James White is no friend to those who believe God preserved His words, or that the King James Bible is the English representative of that preservation. In his scathing book, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), White vilifies the King James camp, making unsupported statements and sweeping generalizations about the kind of people who believe the King James is God’s preserved words. He gives an account of Tischendorf’s search for manuscripts at St. Catherine’s:

“The single greatest example of an uncial codex written on vellum is Codex Sinaiticus, which today is almost always abbreviated with the single symbol of the Hebrew letter ‘aleph,’… This great codex contains the vast majority of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, in Greek. The story of how it was found is evidence of God’s providence.6

“Constantin von Tischendorf embarked on a journey to the Middle East in 1844 searching for biblical manuscripts. While visiting the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, he noted some scraps of parchment in a basket that was due to be used to stoke the fires in the oven of the monastery. Upon looking at the scraps he discovered that they contained part of the Septuagint,7 the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

“This was exactly what he was looking for, and so he asked if he could take the scraps to his room for examination, warning the monks that they should not be burning such items. His obvious excitement worried the monks, who became less than cooperative in providing further information about manuscripts at the monastery.

“Years passed by. Tischendorf attempted to find more manuscripts at the monastery in 1853 but to no avail.

“Six years later he visited yet once again, and this time on the very evening before he was to leave he presented a copy of the Septuagint (which he had published) to the steward. Upon looking at Tischendorf’s gift, the steward remarked that he, too, had a copy of the Septuagint. From the closet in his cell he produced a manuscript, wrapped in a red cloth. The monk had no idea of the treasure he held in his hands, for this was none other than the Codex Sinaiticus, which at that time was no less than 1,500 years old!

“Tischendorf, having learned his lesson years earlier, hid his amazement and asked to examine the work. He spent all night poring over it, and attempted to purchase it in the morning, but was refused. The story of how the codex was eventually obtained is long, involved, and controversial. It resides today in the British Museum.” (pp. 32-33) [emphasis mine].

A Helpful Summation

Here is a simple timeline, utilizing the above data, plus the present state of Sinaiticus, to make the official story understandable.

1844 – Tischendorf goes to St. Catherine’s monastery, at the foot of what is called “Mt. Sinai.” He finds a wastebasket of manuscript sheets to be burned. He is told two other piles like it were already incinerated. He gets permission for 43 folia (1/2 sheets) only. His enthusiasm makes him suspect to the monks. They tell him about no more “kindling” (manuscripts).

The 43 folia are taken to the University Library at Leipzig, Germany. They are known as the Codex Frederico-Augustanus.

1853 – Tischendorf returns to St. Catherine’s Monastery. He finds no more manuscripts anywhere, and no one shows him any.

1859 – Tischendorf’s third trip to the monastery, this time under the authority of Czar Alexander II. On February 4th, the last day of his visit, he gives one of his published “Septuagint” books to the steward. The steward in turn shows Tischendorf a copy he held back: A codex wrapped in red cloth. Tischendorf pores over it that night.

He attempts to buy the “Sinaiticus” (as we now call it) and is rebuffed. He tells them that the czar would be on their side if they made it a gift.

November: They accept, as a “conditional gift.” Silver and rubles were paid to some monasteries, and the leaders were conferred Russian decorations.

1933 – The British government buys Sinaiticus for 100,000 pounds and it is placed in the British Museum.

1911 – The New Testament text is photographed in sepia tones by Kirsopp and Helen Lake and published as Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus: The New Testament, Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas (Oxford: Clarendon Press). The parts of the Old Testament at the British Library are photographed a few years later. But very few people get any access to see more than a page or two of the codex.

2009 – All available pages of the Codex Sinaiticus are carefully photographed and placed online at codexsinaiticus.org. For the first time people can see all known pages, in color, for themselves.

2010 – A color-modified version of the Codex Sinaiticus is published by the British Library. (More about this is in the book Is the ‘World’s Oldest Bible’ a Fake? (2017).)

Fodder for Kindling?

Starting in December 2015 I started to investigate the Sinaiticus for myself, and I put what I found into the book, Is the ‘World’s Oldest Bible’ a Fake? which came out in 2018.

Let me summarize some of what I found.

Tischendorf told a story filled with impossibilities.

The basket Tischendorf described was for storage of manuscripts, as it had been done since early Greece and Rome. He should have known that. Those sheets of vellum were animal skin, not paper. And it doesn’t burn: it smolders and stinks! So they wouldn’t have burnt Greek manuscripts. They have a library, and the monks read Greek! And vellum was durable and rare to obtain in a desert. They would wash the ink off and reuse it, creating a palimpsest. Tischendorf knew that, too: he got famous deciphering a palimpsest, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus!

But this means that Tischendorf’s story wasn’t the only lie; so was the conversation he claimed to have with Kyrillos (or Cyril) the librarian! Tischendorf covered up whatever actually happened. The closest he came to telling anything truthful was in a letter he sent to his brother, saying he had “come into possession” of the 43 folia in 1844 – with no description of how he “came into possession” of those folia.

So if he lied about the entire 1844 story, did he lie about the rest, as well? It turns out that every major happening in his story was in a place without witnesses. So no one could verify what Tischendorf said. So in sum, the only thing really worth throwing into the fire was Tischendorf’s phony Sinaiticus story!

On top of that, it is clear that someone stained all the Sinaiticus pages that Tischendorf brought to Cairo in 1859, and that Tischendorf never said a thing about it. They were all witnessed as white before then (and the Leipzig CFA pages still are), but after that the 1859 pages were stained and aged-looking.

The question is: will you place your faith in Tischendorf’s faulty fireplace kindling story, or in the tried, tested and proved words of the living God?


Footnotes:

1. The Sinaiticus was not “accurate.” When examining the text at codexsinaiticus.org/en/ , we can see the truth. It was first written with Alexandrian Gnostic changes, then mistakes changed, then parts were conformed to the Greek Orthodox text, until the monks gave up. Which of all these writers and correctors was supposed to be “accurate”?
Return to text

2. The footnote gives more details. “Actually, Tischendorf pulled a bit of ‘ecclesiastical diplomacy’ in convincing the monastery that it would be to their advantage for them to give the manuscript to the czar, whose influence as protectorate of the Greek Church could be to their advantage. In return for the manuscript, the czar gave them a silver shrine, 7,000 rubles for the library at Sinai, 2,000 rubles for the monks in Cairo, and conferred several Russian decorations on the authorities of the monastery.”
Return to text

3. Actually, Sinaiticus as we have it only has six books of the Apocrypha: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 4 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon and Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach.
Return to text

4. The book, Scribes and Correctors of Codex Sinaiticus by H.J.M. Milne and T.C. Skeat (London: British Museum, 1938) is only about theories about “scribes and correctors.” It is not a printing of the Codex Sinaiticus, which wasn’t made fully public until was placed online in 2009.
Return to text

5. See Chapter 2, “Tampering with Texts,” under Tischendorf. Available as a book at Amazon.com and included in the SwordSearcher software, www.swordsearcher.com
Return to text

6. For a fuller description of the story, see Is the ‘World’s Oldest Bible’ a Fake? (2017), pp. 9-11, 70-74, 82-83, and 110-111. Available from Chick Publications, http://www.chick.com.
Return to text

7. See page 47, “What Is the Septuagint?”
Return to text