On entering the British Museum you are, at first, a little doubtful whether you have come to the world-famous museum or a shopping mall. Directly in front of you is a shop selling books and souvenirs. Through a doorway to th left is an even larger shop, selling books and souvenirs. Through a similar doorway to the right is a third shop, selling – you’ve guessed it – books and souvenirs. You dare not mount the grand staircase for fear of finding a fourth shop.
Take courage, however. If you push your way through shops on left and right, ignoring the books and souvenirs, you will find that, apart from the cafe – which sells food and souvenirs – the rest of the building is indeed a museum. To the left lie the Assyrian, Greek and Egyptian galleries, to the right is the part of the museum devoted to books and other ancient manuscripts.
If you go to the right as far as possible, at the far end of the final room and on the left is a small wooden case beneath whose dingy glass there is an open book written in capital Greek letters. It doesnot have any of the gilded pictures whichbrighten the pages of other books in the room and I suspect that many visitors pass it by with only the briefest of glances. The name, prominently displayed over the case, means little to them. After all, who has ever heard of the Codex Sinaiticus?
Readers of these august pages are, of course, the exception, but let me briefly review the history of how this famous document came to light.
Santa Katarina is a Greek Orthodox monastery whichnestles at the foot of the traditional Mount Sinai, from whose summit God is supposed to have thundered the Ten Commandments.
It was during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, or soon thereafter, that some scribe at the monastery made a coy of the New Testament and some sections of the Old Testament, plus two later books of unknown authorship known as the “Epistle of Baranabas” and “The Shepherd of Hermas”. This scribe, writing of course in the Greek language, used 346 leaves of vellum or calf skin. Each page had four columns of 49 lines.
The manuscript stayed at Santa Katarina for some 1,500 years, but the monks may not have attached much importance to it and it was relegated to a dark corner of the library.
The drama of the discovery of this priceless manuscript began with a German scholar named Konstantin von Tischendorf, who visited Santa Katarina in 1843. While there he investigated the contents of the library, claiming that he spotted a monk carrying a basket full of crumpled sheets of parchment down to the kitchen to be used for lighting the fires. Upon examining these “worthless” pages, he discovered that they belonged to the oldest Greek Bible he had ever seen. There were 43 leaves which were a portion of the Greek Septuagint. He learned that there were another 80 leaves, but the monks’ suspicions were aroused and he was not allowed to see them.
He waw able to persuade the monks to use something else for their kindling and managed to track down most of the book from which the pages had come. The monks, apparently, made no demur when heasked to be allowed to keep what he had found and Tischendorf was able to return to civilisation and announce his discovery, which caused world-wide excitement.
He took the 43 leaves and presented them to his patron, King Frederick Augustus of Saxony, and they are now in the University Library at Leipzig under the title of Codex Frederico Augustanus.
Nine years later Tischendorf returned to Santa Katarina, but was not given access to any more manuscripts. Six years later he again visited the monastery, when one of the monks showed him a quantity of loose leaves wrapped in cloth. On opening it, Tishcnedorw saw not only 199 more leaves of the Old Testament but also the entire New Testament.
Tischendorf offered to buy the manuscript at any price, but the monks flatly refused. Fortunately for him a new archbishop was about to be appointed to the monastery and the monks were anxious to secure the fvour of the Tsar of Russia, who was the patron of the Greek church. He was able to persuade the monks to allow him to take the leaves and show them to the Tsar. Tischendorf claimed that the monks gave him the leaves to present to the Tsar, the monks claim that they only loaned them to him. Whatever the case, the manuscript was never returned to the monastery, but was kept in St Petersburg, where it remained until 1933.
By this time Russia was under the rule of atheistic communism, which attached little value to a Biblical manuscript, so when the British government offered the communists 100,000 pounds for the manuscript, the deal was closed and this invaluable document is now on display in the British Museum in London, though many pages are still missing.
In 1975 a fire broke out in the Santa Katarina monastery and part of a wall was damaged. When builders came to restore the wall, they found behind it a small storeroom in which they discovered a collection of manuscripts. No word of this sensational discovery leaked to the outside world until 1977 when a Greek scholar, Professor Agourides, who was visiting Santa Katarina heard of it.
Professor Agourides mentioned the find to Martin Hengel and at a seminar in Germany Hengel in turn communicated the information to a scrolls scholar named J. H. Charlesworth, who seems to have been the first scholar to sense the importance of the find. Charlesworth promptly took off for Santa Katarina where he learned that more than 3,000 items had been found, but he was not allowed to see the room where the discovery had been made, far less the documents themselves. To this day there has been no further announcements. The monks are keeping tight-lipped about it, but it is suspected that some of the missing leaves of the Codex Sinaiticus are there, waiting to be studied by scholars when they have the opportunity.
The monks of Santa Katarina, however, have never reconciled themelves to the fact that the famous manuscript does not grace their library any more. It now appears that, in an age of litigation, the monks are seriously considering suing the British Museum for the reutn of the Codex Sinaiticus.
I am not sure in whose courts they intend to lodge their case; the decision of an Egyptian court is unlikely to carry much weight with the museum authorities. A British court is, I trust, unlikely to give them a favourable decision and it is difficult to see upon what grounds any other court could claim jurisdiction.
Personally I hope that the Codex Sinaiticus stays where it is. Not only is Santa Katarina still fairly remote, but the monastery authorities rightly point out that they are a place of prayer and worship, not a tourist attraction. As a result they have very erratic opening times, so that your chances of gaining admission to the monastery are comparable to those of winning a lottery.
In addition, their past and present attitude towards preservation of and access to whatever treasures they have does not give us much confidence in their fitness as guardians of the materials of scholarship. I would gladly subscribe to a fund to provide them with modern Bibles and prayer books for their worship, in exchange for which they can surrender all their ancient manuscripts to the world of scholarship, where they rightly belong.
Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income