Was Codex Sinaiticus Really Found in the Trash?

Titus, 2:9 - 3:15 / Philemon, 1:1 - 1:10
Titus, 2:9 – 3:15 / Philemon, 1:1 – 1:10

When considering the issue of the preservation of the Scriptures, sadly, tempers will sometimes become heated as heretofore sacred theories are challenged on Biblical and historical grounds. I haven’t “officially” begun my series on the subject, but I wanted to jump start it once more by correcting a piece of Christian folklore you may have heard about an important manuscript copy we possess – Codex Sinaiticus.

This document is the oldest complete copy of the New Testament we have. It specifically contains “parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete, and in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Pastor of Hermas.”[1]

The folklore story is that this precious document was found in a trashcan, soon to be burned in the fire. How ridiculous, the legend goes, to believe God would preserve His word in a document which was regarded as nothing more than trash!

Here is a typical argument in this vein from a proponent:[2]

Question: Was the Sinaiticus Codex actually rescued from a wastepaper basket? What is your evidence for this?

Answer: Yes, it was. It was deposited with lots of other paper, in the desire to burn it and bring warmth to the monastery. This story comes from many sources, including someone who knew the facts and examined the evidence for himself, and Tischendorf, the man who acquired the Sinaiticus. There are many sources for the Sinaiticus story, that it was found after being deposited in a kindling bin at St. Catherine’s monastery. Please remember: it gets COLD in monasteries! They needed to burn whatever they had to make themselves warm.

I have no desire to get involved in a protracted, heated discussion on text types or textual criticism. I have very modest goals with this post – to allow Constantine Tischendorf himself to give his own account of how he discovered the manuscript. Bottom line – it was not discovered in the trash.

While visiting the a monastery in search of old manuscript copies of the New Testament, Tischendorf saw old, mouldered and useless leaves from the manuscript about to be burnt. He showed enthusiastic interest in them and the monks became suspicious, allowing him to cart off some 45 of the leaves but refusing to tell him anything about where they came from. Some years later, on a third visit to the monetary, Tischendorf was shown the complete manuscript. It had been carefully wrapped in cloth and kept in a monk’s room.

Don’t take my word for it – read Tischendorf’s own words, in context, on the matter. Those who disagree with the plain historical record of the man who found the document are in clear error. They must reckon with Tischendorf’s own account. I pray that they do so: [3]

Excerpt from Tischendorf’s Own Account

tischendorfI here pass over in silence the interesting details of my travels—my audience with the pope, Gregory XVI., in May, 1843—my intercourse with Cardinal Mezzofanti, that surprising and celebrated linguist—and I come to the result of my journey to the East. It was in April, 1844, that I embarked at Leghorn for Egypt. The desire which I felt to discover some precious remains of any manuscripts, more especially Biblical, of a date 28which would carry us back to the early times of Christianity, was realized beyond my expectations. It was at the foot of Mount Sinai, in the convent of St. Catherine, that I discovered the pearl of all my researches. In visiting the library of the monastery, in the month of May, 1844, I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian, who was a man of information, told me that two heaps of papers like this, mouldered by time, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers 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 that I had ever seen. The authorities of the convent allowed me to possess myself of a third of these parchments, or about forty-five sheets, all the more readily as they were destined for the fire. But I could not get them to yield up possession of the remainder. The too lively satisfaction which I had displayed, had aroused their suspicions as to the value of this manuscript. I transcribed a page of the text of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and enjoined on the monks to take religious care of all such remains which might fall in their way.

On my return to Saxony there were men of learning who at once appreciated the value of the treasure which I brought back with me. I did not divulge the name of the place where I had found it, in the hopes of returning and recovering the rest of the manuscript. I handed up to the Saxon government my rich collection of oriental manuscripts in return for the payment of all my travelling expenses. I deposited in the library of the university of Leipzig, in the shape of a collection which bears my name, fifty manuscripts, some of which are very rare and interesting. I did the same with the Sinaitic fragments, to which I gave the name of Codex Frederick Augustus, in acknowledgment of the patronage given to me by the king of Saxony; and I published them in Saxony in a sumptuous edition, in which each letter and stroke was exactly reproduced by the aid of lithography.

But these home labors upon the manuscripts which I had already safely garnered, did not allow me to forget the distant treasure which I had discovered. I made use of an influential friend, who then resided at the court of the viceroy of Egypt, to carry on negotiations for procuring the rest of the manuscript. But his attempts were, unfortunately, not successful. “The monks of the convent,” he wrote to me to say, “have, since your departure, learned the value of these sheets of parchment, and will not part with them at any price.”

I resolved, therefore, to return to the East to copy this priceless manuscript. Having set out from, Leipzig in January, 1853, I embarked at Trieste for Egypt, and in the month of February I stood, for the second time, in the convent of Sinai. This second journey was more successful even than the first, from the discoveries that I made of rare Biblical manuscripts; but I was not able to discover any further traces of the treasure of 1844. I forget: I found in a roll of papers a little fragment which, written over on both sides, contained eleven short lines of the first book of Moses, which convinced me that the manuscript originally contained the entire Old Testament, but that the greater part had been long since destroyed.

On my return I reproduced in the first volume of a collection of ancient Christian documents the page of the Sinaitic manuscript which I had transcribed in 1844, without divulging the secret of where I had found it. I confined myself to the statement that I claimed the distinction of having discovered other documents—no matter whether published in Berlin or Oxford—as I assumed that some learned travellers who had visited the convent after me had managed to carry them off.

The question now arose how to turn to use these discoveries. Not to mention a second journey which I made to Paris in 1849, I went through Germany, Switzerland, and England, devoting several years of unceasing labor to a seventh edition of my New Testament. But I felt myself more and more urged to recommence my researches in the East. Several motives, and more especially the deep reverence of all Eastern monasteries for the emperor of Russia, led me, in the autumn of 1856, to submit to the Russian government a plan of a journey for making systematic researches in the East. This proposal only aroused a jealous and fanatical opposition in St. Petersburg. People were astonished that a foreigner and a Protestant should presume to ask the support of the emperor of the Greek and orthodox church for a mission to the East. But the good cause triumphed. The interest which my proposal excited, even within the imperial circle, inclined the emperor in my favor. It obtained his approval in the month of September, 1858, and the funds which I asked for were placed at my disposal. Three months subsequently my seventh edition of the New Testament, which had cost me three years of incessant labor, appeared, and in the commencement of January, 1859, I again set sail for the East.

I cannot here refrain from mentioning the peculiar satisfaction I had experienced a little before this. A learned Englishman, one of my friends, had been sent into the East by his government to discover and purchase old Greek manuscripts, and spared no cost in obtaining them. I had cause to fear, especially for my pearl of the convent of St. Catherine; but I heard that he had not succeeded in acquiring any thing, and had not even gone as far as Sinai; “for,” as he said in his official report, “after the visit of such an antiquarian and critic as Dr. Tischendorf, I could not expect any success.” I saw by this how well advised I had been to reveal to no one my secret of 1844.

By the end of the month of January I had reached the convent of Mount Sinai. The mission with which I was intrusted entitled me to expect every consideration and attention. The prior, on saluting me, expressed a wish that I might succeed in discovering fresh supports for the truth. His kind expression of good will was verified even beyond his expectations.

After having devoted a few days in turning over the manuscripts of the convent, not without alighting here and there on some precious parchment or other, I told my Bedouins, on the 4th of February, to hold themselves in readiness to set out with their dromedaries for Cairo on the 7th, when an entirely unexpected circumstance carried me at once to the goal of all my desires. On the afternoon of this day, I was taking a walk with the steward of the convent in the neighborhood, and as we returned towards sunset, he begged me to take some refreshment with him in his cell. Scarcely had he entered the room when, resuming our former subject of conversation, he said, “And I too have read a Septuagint, i. e., a copy of the Greek translation made by the Seventy;” and so saying, he took down from the corner of the room a bulky kind of volume wrapped up in a red cloth, and laid it before me. I unrolled the cover, and discovered, to my great surprise, not only those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket, but also other parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete, and in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Pastor of Hermas. Full of joy, which this time I had the self-command to conceal from the steward and the rest of the community, I asked, as if in a careless way, for permission to take the manuscript into my sleeping-chamber, to look over it more at leisure. There by myself, I could give way to the transport of joy which I felt. I knew that I held in my hand the most precious Biblical treasure in existence—a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined during twenty years’ study of the subject. I cannot now, I confess, recall all the emotions which I felt in that exciting moment, with such a diamond in my possession. Though my lamp was dim and the night cold, I sat down at once to transcribe the Epistle of Barnabas. For two centuries search has been made in vain for the original Greek of the first part of this epistle, which has been only known through a very faulty Latin translation. And yet this letter, from the end of the second down to the beginning of the fourth century, had an extensive authority, since many Christians assigned to it and to the Pastor of Hermas a place side by side with the inspired writings of the New Testament. This was the very reason why these two writings were both thus bound up with the Sinaitic Bible, the transcription of which is to be referred to the first half of the fourth century, and about the time of the first Christian emperor.

Early on the 5th of February, I called upon the steward, and asked permission to take the manuscript with me to Cairo, to have it there transcribed from cover to cover; but the prior had set out only two days before also for Cairo, on his way to Constantinople, to attend at the election of a new archbishop, and one of the monks would not give his consent to my request. What was then to be done? My plans were quickly decided. On the 7th, at sunrise, I took a hasty farewell of the monks, in hopes of reaching Cairo in time to get the prior’s consent. Every mark of attention was shown me on setting out. The Russian flag was hoisted from the convent walls, while the hillsides rang with the echoes of a parting salute, and the most distinguished members of the order escorted me on my way as far as the plain. The following Sunday I reached Cairo, where I was received with the same marks of good-will. The prior, who had not yet set out, at once gave his consent to my request, and also gave instructions to a Bedouin to go and fetch the manuscript with all speed. Mounted on his camel, in nine days he went from Cairo to Sinai and back, and on the 24th of February the priceless treasure was again in my hands. The time was now come at once boldly and without delay to set to work to a task of transcribing no less than a hundred and ten thousand lines, of which a great many were difficult to read, either on account of later corrections or through the ink having faded, and that in a climate where the thermometer, during March, April, and May, is never below 77º Fahrenheit in the shade. No one can say what this cost me in fatigue and exhaustion.

The relation in which I stood to the monastery gave me the opportunity of suggesting to the monks the thought of presenting the original to the emperor of Russia, as the natural protector of the Greek orthodox faith. The proposal was favorably entertained, but an unexpected obstacle arose to prevent its being acted upon. The new archbishop, unanimously elected during Easter week, and whose right it was to give a final decision in such matters, was not yet consecrated, or his nomination even accepted by the Sublime Porte. And while they were waiting for this double solemnity, the patriarch of Jerusalem protested so vigorously against the election, that a three months’ delay must intervene before the election could be ratified and the new archbishop installed. Seeing this, I resolved to set out for Jaffa and Jerusalem.

Just at this time the grand-duke Constantine of Russia, who had taken the deepest interest in my labors, arrived at Jaffa. I accompanied him to Jerusalem. I visited the ancient libraries of the holy city, that of the monastery of Saint Saba, on the shores of the Dead sea, and then those of Beyrout, Ladikia, Smyrna, and Patmos. These fresh researches were attended with the most happy results. At the time desired I returned to Cairo; but here, instead of success, only met with a fresh disappointment. The patriarch of Jerusalem still kept up his opposition; and as he carried it to the most extreme lengths, the five representatives of the convent had to remain at Constantinople, where they sought in vain for an interview with the sultan, to press their rights. Under these circumstances, the monks of Mount Sinai, although willing to do so, were unable to carry out my suggestion.

In this embarrassing state of affairs, the archbishop and his friends entreated me to use my influence on behalf of the convent. I therefore set out at once for Constantinople, with a view of there supporting the case of the five representatives. The prince Lobanow, Russian ambassador to Turkey, received me with the greatest good-will; and as he offered me hospitality in his country-house on the shores of the Bosphorus, I was able the better to attend to the negotiations which had brought me there. But our irreconcilable enemy, the influential and obstinate patriarch of Jerusalem, still had the upper hand. The archbishop was then advised to appeal himself in person to the patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops, and this plan succeeded; for before the end of the year the right of the convent was recognized, and we gained our cause. I myself brought back the news of our success to Cairo, and with it I also brought my own special request, backed with the support of Prince Lobanow.

On the 27th of September I returned to Cairo. The monks and archbishops then warmly expressed their thanks for my zealous efforts in their cause; and the following day I received from them, under the form of a loan, the Sinaitic Bible, to carry it to St. Petersburg, and there to have it copied as accurately as possible.

I set out for Egypt early in October, and on the 19th of November I presented to their imperial majesties, in the Winter Palace at Tsarkoe-Selo, my rich collection of old Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and other manuscripts, in the middle of which the Sinaitic Bible shone like a crown. I then took the opportunity of submitting to the emperor Alexander II. a proposal of making an edition of this Bible worthy of the work and of the emperor himself, and which should be regarded as one of the greatest undertakings in critical and Biblical study.

I did not feel free to accept the brilliant offers that were made to me to settle finally, or even for a few years, in the Russian capital. It was at Leipzig, therefore, at the end of three years, and after three journeys to St. Petersburg, that I was able to carry to completion the laborious task of producing a fac-simile copy of this codex in four folio volumes.

In the month of October, 1862, I repaired to St. Petersburg to present this edition to their majesties. The emperor, who had liberally provided for the cost, and who approved the proposal of this superb manuscript appearing on the celebration of the Millenary Jubilee of the Russian monarchy, has distributed impressions of it throughout the Christian world; which, without distinction of creed, have expressed their recognition of its value. Even the pope, in an autograph letter, has sent to the editor his congratulations and admiration. It is only a few months ago that the two most celebrated universities of England, Cambridge and Oxford, desired to show me honor by conferring on me their highest academic degree. “I would rather,” said an old man, himself of the highest distinction for learning—“I would rather have discovered this Sinaitic manuscript than the Koh-i-noor of the queen of England.”

But that which I think more highly of than all these flattering distinctions is, the conviction that Providence has given to our age, in which attacks on Christianity are so common, the Sinaitic Bible, to be to us a full and clear light as to what is the word written by God, and to assist us in defending the truth by establishing its authentic form.


[1] Constantine Tischendorf, When Were Our Gospels Written? An Argument by Constantine Tischendorf with a Narrative Discovery of the Sinaitic Manuscript (New York, NY: American Tract Society, 1866), 34. Retrieved electronically from the Christian Classics Etheral Library (CCEL) –  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/tischendorf/gospels.ii.iii.html.

[2] David W. Daniels, “Bible Versions: Your Questions Answered” (Ontario, CA: Chick, 2002). Retrieved electronically from http://www.chick.com/ask/articles/wastebasket.asp. Interestingly, this author discounts Constantine Tischendorf’s own testimony of how he discovered the manuscript and relies upon the second-hand account of another man instead!

[3] This is not even Tischendorf’s full account. There is a larger back-story where he recounts his travels around Europe and the East on a quest for New Testament manuscripts. I didn’t include that here. Feel free to visit the link in the previous footnote and read the entire matter for yourself.

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