Codex Sinaiticus, one of the most important early manuscripts of the New Testament, is over-rated. Even though it is often heralded as “The World’s Oldest Bible,” having been produced in the mid-300’s, its text is so riddled with scribal errors that many much younger manuscripts can be shown to be more accurate – whether one uses the Byzantine Text, or the primarily Alexandrian Nestle-Aland compilation, as the basis of comparison. It does not really deserve the description that so often appears in Bible footnotes that cite “The most reliable manuscripts” when referring to its readings. Its text-critical importance lies in that it constitutes early confirmation of readings found in Codex Vaticanus, which, besides being slightly earlier, was written much more carefully.
In the past few years, a conspiracy theory has developed about Codex Sinaiticus, consisting of the claim that the manuscript is not from the 300’s but is instead from the 1800’s – specifically, that it was made by Constantine Simonides, who was both a scholar and a notorious forger. Before introducing his claims and the evidence against them, let’s review today the basic history of how Codex Sinaiticus was brought to the attention of European researchers.
|Saint Catherine's Monastery|
(Photo: Joonas Plaan)
In May of 1844, the textual critic Constantine Tischendorf visited Saint Catherine’s Monastery onThose 43 sheets [more accurately, leaves] containing text from the Greek Old Testament were published in 1846 by Tischendorf as “Codex Frederico-Augustanus,” so-named after Frederick, king of
Mount Sinai, and there, “in the
middle of the great hall,” he saw “a large and wide basket full of old
parchments.” According to Tischendorf,
the librarian informed him that the monks had “already committed to the flames” two
heaps of papers like these. Tischendorf
examined the contents of the basket, and found there “a considerable number of
sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek,” and he was then allowed to
take “a third of these parchments, or about forty-three sheets,” which, if it
had not been for his intervention, “were destined for the fire.”
That, at least, is the way Tischendorf tells the tale, in a special chapter of his little book When Were Our Gospels Written?. The monks of the monastery later insisted that Tischendorf’s account was wrong, that the basket was simply a basket used for carrying detached manuscript-pages, and that they were not disposing of the ancient contents of their valuable and extensive library by tossing legible parchments into any fire. Indeed, J. Rendel Harris, who visited the monastery later in the 1800’s, claimed to have seen the basket to which Tischendorf referred, and after investigating the matter, he considered the monks’ protests to be entirely justified, and regarded Tischendorf’s version of events as an amusing myth. (Tischendorf’s view of the monks at Saint Catherine’s Monastery may be deduced from a comment that he wrote in a letter in 1844, when he was at the monastery: “I have now been in the
Catherine Monastery eight days. But oh, these
monks! If I had the military strength
and power I should be doing a good deed if I threw this rabble over the walls.”)
Tischendorf might have lied so as to depict himself as a sort of hero, rescuing the manuscript in the nick of time. Or he might have misunderstood what he had been told, and misunderstood why the pages were in the basket – like someone who sees a library’s book-return box for the first time and assumes that people are throwing away their books in a small dumpster. In any event, he returned to the monastery in 1853, and found no more intact pages of the manuscript – only a fragment from the book of Genesis.
In 1859, Tischendorf again visited Saint Catherine’s monastery, hoping to find the rest of the manuscript of which he had acquired 43 sheets in 1844. (Although he had published the contents of those pages, he had not revealed where they had been acquired.) According to Tischendorf’s account, on February 7 of 1859, “the steward of the convent” showed Tischendorf “a bulky kind of volume wrapped up in a red cloth,” and when it was opened, Tischendorf recognized that its pages included some of the pages that he had seen, but not obtained, in the basket in 1844:
“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.” (These last mentioned books are compositions from the early 100’s.) Inwardly Tischendorf was “full of joy,” but he strategically asked in a casual way if he could borrow the manuscript to look at it more closely. His request was granted, and once he was alone with the manuscript, “though my lamp was dim and the night cold,” he writes, “I sat down at once to transcribe the Epistle of Barnabas.”
Not long after this, the manuscript was transferred to
and it was eventually deposited in the Russian library at Saint
Petersburg, where it was regarded as a gift to Czar
Alexander II. Tischendorf studied the
manuscript there. A sample of its script
was released in 1860, and the full contents were published in 1862, in a
special Greek font that resembled the uncial handwriting of the copyists. Once again, Tischendorf’s account of how this happened contradicts the claims of the monastery’s monks, for some of them
insisted that Tischendorf had promised to return the manuscript upon request.
A note to this effect, with Tischendorf’s signature, is still extant at the monastery; in it, Tischendorf states that there has been delivered to him “as a loan an ancient manuscript of both Testaments, being the property of the aforesaid monastery,” and “This manuscript I promise to return, undamaged and in a good state of preservation, to the Holy Confraternity of Mount Sinai at its earliest request.” Eventually, instead of the manuscript, the monks of the monastery received a donation and a collection of medallion-awards.
This brings us up to the time when Constantine Simonides enters the picture. In a letter that was published in The Guardian newspaper on September 3, 1862, Simonides claimed that he had produced Codex Sinaiticus in 1839, while he had resided at Mount Athos (an important monastery-center in Greece which has a vast manuscript-library), using, as its basis, the contents of a printed copy of the text of Codex Alexandrinus, three manuscripts from Mount Athos, and a printed Greek Bible published by Zosima, based in Moscow. He claimed to have obtained the required amount of parchment from an ancient codex at
Athos that consisted almost entirely of blank pages.
Simonides claimed that after finishing this large project, he donated it to a retired church-leader, Constantius, whose home was on the Greek
. Constantius, in turn (again – it is claimed
by Simonides), after sending a contribution to Simonides, donated the codex to
Saint Catherine’s monastery, and that, according to Simonides, is how its pages
turned up there in 1844, when its pages were first encountered by
Tischendorf. Simonides also claimed that
he himself had visited Saint Catherine’s monastery in 1844 and 1852, and had
seen the codex there. island of Antigonus
With all this in the background, we shall test Simonides’ claims. But first, it should be pointed out that some well-distributed versions of the history of how Tischendorf encountered Codex Sinaiticus are far from accurate. Let us remove these boulders from the field today, or at least one of them. Specifically, James White, in his book The King James Only Controversy, on pages 56-57 of the 2009 edition, describes Tischendorf’s 1844 visit to Saint Catherine’s monastery very differently. White claims that Tischendorf “noticed some parchment scraps in a basket that was to be used to stoke the fires in the monastery’s oven.” And in a footnote, White says, “If you’re wondering why these scraps would be in a trash can, the answer is that ancient books, be they made of papyri or vellum, decay over time. Bits of pages, the final or initial pages in a codex, were very subject to loss; they would, over time, find their way to the floor and need to be picked up or pose a real fire hazard.”
In some online comments, White categorically denies that Codex Sinaiticus was found in a trash can. Yet, with equal confidence, he describes Tischendorf’s 1844 visit to Saint Catherine’s monastery as follows:
“So, they have someone from the outside world there amongst them; that makes them a little bit nervous, and so there’s this monk, and he’s just, you know, carrying a basket with him with some old scraps of stuff that they don’t need anymore, and von Tischendorf looks in there and realizes, ‘That’s a page from the Septuagint.’ And he stops him, and he goes, you know, ‘This freakish guy from Europe is grabbing my trash can, and he’s all excited about the trash in my trash can, and he’s telling me, “Don’t burn this! Don’t burn this!”’”
White continues, moving on to describe the 1859 visit: “On the final night of his visit, in 1859, he decided to be a nice guy. And he had published a version of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. So he had an extra copy with him. And he decided to be nice to his steward, who had been taking care of him, and he said, ‘I’d like to give this to you as a present. And the monk looked at it, and said, ‘Oh, I have one of these. Let me show it to you. So the monk takes him into his room, and in what we would call a closet, he reaches up, and he pulls something down that is wrapped in a red cloth. Now, monks do not wrap garbage in red cloths. They don’t keep garbage wrapped in red cloths in their closets. And so he pulls this thing out, and he unwraps the red cloth, and there von Tischendorf is staring at Codex Sinaiticus.”
In the same lecture, White says about Codex Sinaiticus: “It was not found in a trash can, despite how many times D. A. Waite or Dave Hunt or anybody else says that it was. It was not.”
It is no credit to D. A. Carson, John MacArthur, Mike Baird, Norman Geisler, and the others who have recommended White’s book, that this twisted version of events not only made it through the initial editing of The King James Only Controversy in 1995, but also survived to be reprinted in the second edition. For in real life, what White refers to as “scraps” were the 43 parchment sheets that Tischendorf published as Codex Frederico-Augustanus. That is, they were (and still are) pages from the Old Testament portion of Codex Sinaiticus.
|The stamp of Leipzig University Library|
is still on the pages of Codex Sinaiticus
that Tischendorf took in 1844.
White, in a 2006 online article, says, “Any “scholar” who can’t even get this story straight is not really worth reading, to be honest.” Okay, if you say so, professor. It is White who needs to get the story straight: he repeatedly affirms that Tischendorf found “scraps” in a “trash can” and then says that Codex Sinaiticus was not found in a trash can. He does not realize that the pages which Tischendorf saw in a basket were pages from Codex Sinaiticus! One can say that Tischendorf did not find Codex Sinaiticus in a trash can (because it was a basket, not a trash can), but one cannot say that Tischendorf found pages of the Septuagint in a trash can, and then say that he did not find pages from Codex Sinaiticus in a trash can, because those pages from the Septuagint that Tischendorf obtained in 1844 are pages of Codex Sinaiticus.This error has been spread by James White and Alpha & Omega Ministries for over 20 years! He should openly acknowledge his mistake, and withdraw his error from future circulation, and give a public apology to Douglas Stauffer, who White mentions in the following statement: “Sinaiticus was not found in a trash can. It was clearly prized by its owner, and well cared for. The only reason Stauffer and those like him continue to repeat the story is for its impact upon those ignorant of history and unlikely to actually look into it for themselves. But for anyone serious about the subject, such dishonesty destroys one’s credibility.”
Considering that it is James White who is mixed up, such a confidently worded statement destroys his credibility and makes him a laughingstock. But he should not bear the blame alone, for his colleagues and co-workers have allowed his error to circulate for over 20 years, either because they, too, are ignorant about the history of how Tischendorf first encountered pages from Codex Sinaiticus, or because they find such a combination of bravado and ignorance highly entertaining.
With all that in the background, we shall focus on the claims of Constantine Simonides, and the evidence against them, in the next post.