The Tischendorf letter at Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Reader Ted Weis wrote,

Do you happen to have a photo of the letter that von Tischendorf wrote, saying that he would return codex Sinaiticus?

Well…, yes and no. A picture. But not a good one. There is now a museum or display area of a few small rooms in the Monastery near Moses’ Well. Signs are posted to restrict photography. A photo that I have from this year is too blurry to make sense of. A copy of the letter is posted on one wall and a sign about Codex Sinaiticus (in Greek, English, and Arabic), reads this way:

Codex Sinaiticus

The Codex Sinaiticus dates to the middle of the fourth century, and is possibly one of the fifty copies of the Holy Scriptures sent to Constantine the Great by Eusebius of Caesarea. This same manuscript was likely donated to the Monastery of Sinai at its foundation, where it was preserved until the middle of the nineteenth century. It was seen in the library of the Monastery by the German scholar Constantine Tischendorf on his visits in 1844 and 1859. The first folios that he took, he presented to the University of Leipzig. The rest he gave to the Emperor of Russia, folios he had received as a loan so that they might be published, secured with lying promises to the monks. In Russia they remained until 1933, when they were sold by the Soviet Union to the British Library in London, where they are to this day. In 1975, certain folios of the Codex came to light among the New Finds in the tower of Saint George. The monks of Sinai have never ceased in their justified request for the return of their Codex.

The photo below shows the sign on the right and a copy of the Tischendorf letter on the left.

Sinaticus Sign and Tischendorf Letter at Saint Catherine's Monastery. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Tischendorf letter & sign at Saint Catherine's Monastery. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

I remember visiting the Monastery library on two previous occasions. At that time we were taken into the library during the visit. I saw a copy of the Tischendorf letter and an English translation. Here is a scan of a slide I made in 1986. Click on image for a larger photo.

Tischendorf Letter at Saint Catherine's in 1986. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Tischendorf Letter at Saint Catherine's in 1986. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The letter on the left is written in Greek. James Bentley says it was “bad Greek” and that the translation is “not very competent.” Here, he says, is what Tischendorf wrote:

I the undersigned, Constantin von Tischendorf, sent at present to the East by orders of Alexander, Tsar of All Russias, testify by the present letter that the Holy Confraternity of Mount Sinai, in accordance with the letter of His Excellency Ambassador Lobanov, has handed over to me, as a loan, an ancient manuscript of both Testaments, being the property of the aforementioned monastery and consisting of 346 folia and a small fragment. These I wish to take with me to St Petersburg in order that I may compare the original with the copy made by me when that is printed.

This manuscript is entrusted to me under the conditions laid down in the aforementioned letter of Mr Lobanov, dated 10 September 1859, numbered 510. I promise to return it, undamaged and in a good state of preservation, to the Holy Confraternity of Mount Sinai at its first request.

Several years ago I read James Bentley’s Secrets of Mount Sinai: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible — Codex Sinaiticus (Doubleday, 1986). It is an interesting book and may still be available. The foreword is by James H. Charlesworth.

Sorry I can’t do better, but I hope this will be helpful to those who are interested in the history of Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament.

The largest part of Codex Sinaiticus is now in the British Library, but there are portions in three other places including Saint Catherine’s. The available pages of the manuscript are available online at the Codex Sinaiticus website.

4 responses to “The Tischendorf letter at Saint Catherine’s Monastery

  1. Thanks so much!

    I’ve heard about this letter for years, but didn’t really know if it existed until now. The documentation provided is splendid!

    There’s another book about this prized Codex that was recently published in 2010. It’s by D.C. Parker and entitled, “Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible.”

  2. Tim, I think this is letter has nothing to do with the Codex Sinaiticus. The guys at Evangelical Textual Criticism indicate that it is a letter that Tischendorf wrote saying that he would be unavailable to teach because of a trip to the east. You can run the comments there through Google translator. http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2008/12/tischendorf-on-leave-of-absence.html

    Thanks for your input.
    Ferrell

  3. This in not a “letter” from Tischendorf – this is the posting from Prof. Tischendorf for the wintersemester 1858/1859 for the students of the University Leipzig that he is on a trip in the orient and that he will give no lectures at this Semester. From this trip he brought with him the Codex Sinaticus

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