Ausgabe 17/2007

Raiders of the Lost Codex Scholars Piece Together Ancient Bible

Parts of the 1,600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus -- which includes the world's earliest complete New Testament -- are scattered between Leipzig, London and St. Petersburg. Now researchers want to digitize the fragments and publish the whole volume on the Internet. But controversy still rages over the proper ownership of the relic.


St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt, where a German scholar found the Codex Sinaiticus, a Bible manuscript that may date from the time of the Roman emperor Constantine.

St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt, where a German scholar found the Codex Sinaiticus, a Bible manuscript that may date from the time of the Roman emperor Constantine.

In 1844, Constantin von Tischendorf, a scholar from the German city of Leipzig, traveled by camel from Cairo through the Sinai Desert. His arduous 13-day journey took him past "fresh tiger tracks" and through sandstorms. He was weakened by foul water "that affects the lower abdomen," plagued by ants and mosquitoes, and on one occasion his tent was simply blown away.

In May of that year, his caravan reached a steep range of granite hills where God -- according to Exodus -- appeared to Moses as a burning bush. The spot was marked by a spiritual fortress shaded by cypress, pomegranate and olive trees: St. Catherine's Monastery, built in 550 AD. A man wearing a Greek Orthodox robe appeared at the high monastery door and pulled the guest up with a rope.

A short time later, the German adventurer writes, a "completely priceless gem" fell into his hands. When he pulled a stack of loose pages from a wastebasket containing damaged pieces of parchment, his heart almost skipped a beat.

The discovery at the base of Mt. Sinai counts among the great sensations of scientific history -- on a par with Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy and Howard Carter's excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb. After a total of three trips to Egypt the professor from Saxony had retrieved 400 pages of a tattered Bible, including about one-third of the Old Testament and the oldest complete version of the New Testament. The academic world simply called the find "Number One."

The book, made of animal skins, cost the lives of more than 350 cows. It is written in brown and black ink made of crushed gallnuts and soot. The titles of the psalms and the Song of Songs are in red, and are of "the greatest elegance," as Tischendorf put it.

A story of high adventure swirls around the Codex Sinaiticus. Tischendorf was granted an audience with the pope. The czar of Russia showered him with money and financed his final mission. Despite his fame, though, a shadow hangs over the man, who some insist was a thief.

Scattered Book, Checkered Reputation

Parts of the ancient Bible is now scattered around the world. Forty-three pages are in the eastern German city of Leipzig. Three hundred forty-seven pages went to Russia in Tischendorf's lifetime, but Joseph Stalin later sold them to the British government for the record sum of £100,000. Five pages are in storage at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Another 12 remain in Egypt, at St. Catherine's Monastery, which still houses the world's oldest intact community of Christian monks. Members of this community have been celebrating morning mass without interruption for almost 1,500 years.

A page from the Book of Jeremiah in the Codex Sinaiticus.

A page from the Book of Jeremiah in the Codex Sinaiticus.

Since its rediscovery, no one has ever seen the book in one piece. But that's now likely to change. Theologians and scholars of ancient scripts have joined forces in a large-scale project to finally assemble a complete Codex Sinaiticus on the Internet. Each page will be newly examined, transcribed and digitized. The German Research Foundation (DFG) has contributed €200,000 to support the effort.

However, opinion on Tischendorf is as diffuse and puzzling as the ancient pages themselves. Christfried Böttrich, an expert on the New Testament at Germany's University of Greifswald, claims that "Tischendorf was a man without blemish and above reproach."

But the monks at St. Catherine's have a less flattering view. They think he stole the manuscript. "The Codex Sinaiticus Was Stolen," was the headline of a 2000 article in the Sunday Times about a conference a British parliamentary committee held on stolen artifacts. Prince Charles, who is chairman of the St. Catherine's Foundation, has reportedly demanded the return of the manuscripts to Egypt.

No one disputes that Tischendorf was a master in his field. In 1840, as a young doctor, he found the key to translating a 5th-century Bible in Paris that had been considered indecipherable. The academic world was astonished. But in private many scholars considered Tischendorf a know-it-all.

He made more enemies with his field work. The British at the time were searching enthusiastically through the Holy Land for old manuscripts and other early records relating to the Messiah. But during his first expedition in 1844, Tischendorf rode single-mindedly to ancient Coptic churches in the Libyan desert, looking for -- and bringing home -- fragile pages of parchment.

Tischendorf cut a smartly dressed, almost bourgeois, figure. He wore top hats and believed his mission was holy ("I go in the name of the Lord"). On his second trip in 1844 he went to Mt. Sinai and found a total of 129 pages in a wastebasket in the library of St. Catherine's Monastery. The abbot let him have 43 pages, and the young man went home to Germany, where he was celebrated as a star.

But he couldn't stop thinking about the 86 pages he had left behind.

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