Fun things happen when you pick up a paper book in a physical library!
An air of romanticism and adventure surrounds the stories of many famous manuscripts of the Bible. For instance, the “crown of Aleppo,” a great 10th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, was in the aftermath of the 1947 pogrom smuggled out of Syria in a washing machine! Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th century manuscript that originally contained the entire Bible in Greek, is no exception.
Constantin von Tischendorf brought this manuscript to the attention of the Western world in the mid 19th century after traveling to Sinai and seeing the codex at St. Catherine’s monastery. According to his own account, while visiting the monastery in May, 1844, he found some 43 sheets of the manuscript in the library’s waste bin waiting to be burned. He was allowed to take approximately a third of this cache but was unable to get the monastery to depart with the remainder, even with the intervention of “an influential friend, who then resided at the Court of the Viceroy of Egypt”. When he returned to the monastery in February, 1859, he was shown what turned out to be more or less the rest of the manuscript. He then managed to get permission to take the manuscript for the purposes of transcribing it. A Bedouin working for him was sent to fetch it and brought it to him at Cairo. Then in September (again, according to Tischendorf) he was given permission from the monks to take the manuscript to St. Petersburg in order to copy it more carefully (despite the firm opposition of the Patriarch of Jerusalem). An interesting feature of even Tischendorf’s account is that, though “loaned” the manuscript, he never mentions any intention of returning it! In fact, he presented it to Emperor Alexander II, instead. You can read his account of the affair in the first chapter of his When were Our Gospels Written? (2d. ed.; London: The Religious Tract Society, 1867) here.
One can imagine that other people involved tell a very different version of the story! D. C. Parker narrates the ensuing politics and disputes in his book Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible. The monastery may or may not have desired to donate the manuscript (or have it returned). Monetary remuneration may or may not have been promised. Relationships between the monastery and the archbishop fell apart. The monastery saw financial difficulties. Angry letters (partly about money) flew back and forth. In 1933, the manuscript was sold to the British Library. (A. V. Zakharova has researched the correspondence in the Russian government archives and presented her findings here.)
Suffice to say this was and is a hot button issue, to put it mildly! Which brings me back to that first sentence. Here in the Mills library at McMaster we have a copy of the third printing of the eighth edition of Codex Sinaiticus: The Ancient Biblical Manuscript now in the British Museum: Tischendorf’s Story and Argument Related by Himself (the title under which later editions of his When were our Gospels were published). On a blank page between the translator’s preface and Tischendorf’s account, I found this hand-written note:
Tischendorff [sic], a true thief, stole the Codex from the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine’s.
It was not given to him and the monks of Holy Orthodoxy received no payment.
In Sinai, the Holy Fathers of St. Catherine have in their possession a letter, signed by the thief doctor, stating that he would return the manuscript to them.
He did not! He profited from lies.
I know this to be true.
Here’s a photograph of the page:
Isn’t it interesting what you find in library books?