Thursday, February 28, 2019

James White and Codex Sinaiticus

            In 1995, James White wrote The King James Only Controversy, and in 2009, a second edition appeared.  In both editions, White badly misrepresents the means by which Constantine von Tischendorf acquired Codex Sinaiticus at Saint Catherine’s monastery.  This is something that should be sorted out, lest readers of White’s book continue to be misinformed about this. 
            Tischendorf’s own report of his encounters with the manuscript is accessible; he has left us his account in a section of his little book When Were Our Gospels Written? – With a Narrative of the Discovery of the Sinaitic Manuscript.  On page 28 of that book, Tischendorf affirms that in May of 1844, at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai, “I discovered the pearl of all my researches.”  It may be easier to simply present Tischendorf’s statements rather than summarize them:
            “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 paper 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.”
            Tischendorf related that after returning to Europe, he named the pages he had gotten at St. Catherine’s monastery Codex Frederico-Augustus, and they were deposited at Leipzig University, where they remain to this day.  He also says that years later, in 1853, he visited Saint Catherine’s monastery again, but found only “a little fragment” of the manuscript which he had previously seen, in dismantled form, in the basket.
            On page 32, Tischendorf described his third visit to Saint Catherine’s monastery, in January and February of 1859.  He writes that on February 4, he encountered substantially more pages of the manuscript that he had encountered in 1844:  in the course of a conversation with the steward of the monastery,
            “As we returned toward 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.”
            That is enough from Tischendorf for our present purpose.  It should be noticed that we only have Tischendorf’s word for the details involved.  Now let us turn to James White’s version of events, from the second edition of The King James Only Controversy, pages 56-58: 
            “Tischendorf embarked on a journey to the Middle East in 1844, searching for Biblical manuscripts.  While visiting St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, he noticed some parchment scraps in a basket that was to be used to stoke the fires in the monastery’s oven.”
            Here White has placed a footnote:  “If you’re wondering why these scraps would be in a trash can, the answer is that ancient books, be they made of papyrus or vellum, decay over time.  Bits of pages, the final or initial pages of a codex, were very subject to loss; they would, over time, find their way to the floor and need to be picked up to avoid a real fire hazard.”
            White continues:  “Upon examining them he discovered they contained part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  This was exactly what he was looking for, so he asked if he could take the scraps to his room for further examination, warning the monks not to be burning such items.”
            White then briefly describes Tischendorf’s third visit to Saint Catherine’s monastery (in 1859), when he encountered the steward’s manuscript:  “From the closet in his cell he produced a manuscript, wrapped in a red cloth.  The monk had no idea of the treasure in his hands, for this was none other than Codex Sinaiticus, which at that time was at least fifteen hundred years old!”
            Up to this point, one might think that White’s version of events is not much different from Tischendorf’s account.  But then we reach White’s footnote on page 58, where – after reporting that D. A. Waite claimed that some individuals “just about worship” Codex Sinaiticus – White states, “This, after alleging, inaccurately, that before being found À was about to be burned (one will note that that the steward at St. Catherine’s kept the manuscript in his cell, wrapped in a red cloth, hardly the way one treats trash.”
            Did White fail to perceive that the “parchment scraps in a basket” that Tischendorf encountered in 1844 were pages of Codex Sinaiticus?  That is exactly what happened.  White’s imaginative footnote demonstrates that when he wrote, he pictured those “scraps” as if they were “bits of pages” or pages from the beginning and end of codices, rather than the full pages from Old Testament books which constitute what used to be called Codex Frederico-Augustus, that is, those pages are the portion of Codex Sinaiticus (quires 35.1 – 37.3 and 47-49, to be precise) which bear the library-stamp of Leipzig University.  You can see them (and the Leipzig University library-stamp upon them) at the Codex Sinaiticus website.         
            In 2006, White demonstrated a complete unawareness that the pages in the basket in 1844 were part of Codex Sinaiticus, stating, “Sinaiticus was not found in a trash can.  It was clearly prized by its owner, and well cared for.”   White still did not realize that what was presented to Tischendorf on 1859 was affirmed by Tischendorf himself to include “those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket.”  The monks (as T. C. Skeat pointed out in his essay The Last Chapter in the History of the Codex Sinaiticus) had rebound the pages sometime after 1844 and before 1859.   
            (It is possible that the monks were simply rebinding the pages when Tischendorf saw the unbound pages in a basket in 1844.  This may be a good place to mention that David Parker, like J. Rendel Harris before him, has expressed strong suspicions about the veracity of Tischendorf’s description of the monks’ activities during his first visit to Saint Catherine’s.  Harris (who himself was a visitor to St. Catherine’s) pointed out that the monks there use baskets simply as baskets, to carry things, and have never been in the habit of burning books.  Parker (p. 131) suggests that Tischendorf misapprehended both why the pages were in the basket, and what he was told about what the monks were doing with the pages.  He concludes, “Although there are no grounds for believing it to be deliberately misleading, one cannot take Tischendorf’s account at face value.”  The correctness of this verdict is augmented by the discovery of pages from Codex Sinaiticus among the 1975 “new finds” which indicate that the monks at Saint Catherine’s respectfully consigned damaged codex-pages to a genizah, rather than to an oven.  The entire notion that the monks at Saint Catherine’s monastery in the 1800s were burning manuscripts in a stove appears to be completely fictitious.)
            White clearly says in an online lecture (listen to the audio here) that Tischendorf found scraps of parchment “in a trash can” and, in the same lecture, denies that Codex Sinaiticus was found in a trash can.  He was so confident in his misunderstanding of events that when addressing claims that Codex Sinaiticus had been found in a trash can – which is essentially where Tischendorf, rightly or wrongly, claimed to have first seen its pages, and which is where White affirms that Tischendorf found “scraps of parchment” in 1844 – he wrote, “I’m sorry, but any “scholar” who can’t even get this story straight is not really worth reading, to be honest.”
            No doubt if there is a third edition of The King James Only Controversy in the future, this shortcoming will be rectified.  In the meantime, owners of the second edition are encouraged to add notes in the margin of page 57 to explain that the “parchment scraps” which White says that Tischendorf found in 1844 in a basket were actually pages of Codex Sinaiticus, and that the claim about the monks burning manuscripts in an oven is a dubious claim by Tischendorf.  

(Readers are invited to check the data in this post, and to explore the embedded links to additional resources, and this short video from 2011.) 


John Podgorney said...

Thanks for clarifying this James. Good work!

jryan said...

i have noticed this myself after reading the book and hearing the quotes by da waite and others and james white saying 'they never found them in a burn basket but wrapped in red cloth' i have wondered this very thing. great post someone finally mentioned this

mikek17 said...

Mr. Snapp:

Thank you for this article. I would also like to point out that, concurrent to the skepticism presented about the monks' supposed treatment of the ms. in question, it is largely improbable on the surface that such a habit of book-burning existed because canons of the Orthodox Church explicitly punish such an act. For example, Canon 68 of the Trullo canons punishes anyone who destroys Scriptural texts unless they are unreadable with one years' excommunication.