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.

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.

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.

Enter the Russians

Porfiri Uspenski, a bearded Russian clergyman and icon scholar, was traveling in Egypt at the time. Uspenski worked for the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Holy Synod. He visited the Mt. Sinai monastery twice, in 1845 and 1850, and the monks gave him five pages of the Codex, which are now in St. Petersburg.

In 1853 Tischendorf packed his bags and traveled back to the monastery. This trip proved to be disappointing. He was able to find only a tiny scrap of the manuscript -- in use by the monks as a bookmark. The rest had disappeared. Six years later, though, he returned in grand style with sponsorship from the czar of Russia, and he was able to hand out bribes "like a Russian prince," as he put it.

This mission was almost a failure: There seemed to be no sign of the codex. Camels for Tischendorf's return trip had already been reserved when the abbot invited his guest to his room for a final drink. The monk pulled a bundle of papers from a red cloth and showed him not only the pages he'd left behind, but another 260 pieces of parchment.

Tischendorf was flabbergasted. In the pale moonlight, he leafed through the oldest known copy of Jeremiah, the Book of Revelation and the Epistles. "There were tears in my eyes," he wrote, "and I was happier than I had ever been before." He went to the abbot and offered him 10,000 thaler, but the abbot refused to sell.

He did, however, allow the professor to borrow the near-complete manuscript so it could be reproduced and printed in Europe -- in return for a receipt and the promise to return the pages as soon as possible. But Tischendorf came up with another idea: Wouldn't it be wonderful, he said, to present the czar with the handwritten documents to commemorate the upcoming 1,000-year anniversary of the Russian monarchy? He assured the abbot that it would bring the monastery fame, good fortune and money. The monks supposedly agreed.

"Unfortunately this plan for the gift stalled," says Böttrich, the New Testament expert. Malcontents at the St. Petersburg court were against the idea, and ten years later the pages were still in the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Archbishop of Sinai, who was responsible for the monastery, only signed off on a deal between the monks and the Russian court on Nov. 18, 1869. The brotherhood received 9,000 gold rubles in return -- and they also apparently wanted a steamship.

Many details surrounding the deal still aren't fully explained. The gift deed has disappeared, and records relating to the transfer of the Codex are now being kept in the Russian state archives, where Natalya Smelova, a member of the Internet project, is analyzing them.

The Codex, Virtually Complete

The project is in full swing in Leipzig. Wearing white cloth gloves, conservator Ute Feller removes pages one by one from a basement storage container. Inspectors with magnifying glasses make painstaking lists of folds and stains. Each "shaving," each note in the margin, and each "wounding" of the parchment is noted.

Meanwhile experts at London's British Library are using scientific tools to unravel the Codex the way pathologists would inspect a mysterious dead body. They plan to use multispectral analysis to highlight hidden traces of ink, and holes in the binding may answer other questions: When did the magnificent work break apart? What did the cover look like?

Even the withdrawn priests of Sinai are involved in the sleuthing effort. During construction work on the abbey back in 1975, a rubble-filled room was exposed where additional parts of the Codex Sinaiticus were found. This material has been kept strictly protected and was even off-limits to academia -- until now.

All the research -- which also involves American and Russian experts -- has shed light on what many consider to be one of the world's first books. It was created between 330 and 350 A.D. Scribes would have sat at small tables with inkwells and pencils, scratching chains of uppercase Greek letters onto the light-colored animal skins. "Scribe A" was the most original: He wrote with a flourish, but he was sloppy. He forgot four pages from the Gospel of St. Luke. He simply eliminated the famous definition of love in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Was it intentional? "Scribe D" noticed the mistakes and added the missing text in the margin.

But who commissioned the work in the first place? Many researchers believe the order came straight from Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. In 313 AD he lifted all state sanctions against what was then a persecuted "Jesus cult." He ordered a number of churches built, and had 50 magnificent Bibles made to spread the little-known religion of brotherly love throughout the Roman Empire. The Codex may have originated during this period.

The New Testament section of the Codex proves how old it is. It includes not just the usual text but also two apocryphal chapters, which were later removed by church fathers. The Epistle of Barnabas was written by a student of the Apostles, and the Shepherd of Hermas consists of five visions of the apocalypse dating from the start of the 2nd century.

The researchers plan to present their results to the world by 2010 using a Web site. Hundreds of thousands of words will have to be translated and digitized by then. The work is slow, and some Mt. Sinai monks still grow incensed when the name of Constantin von Tischendorf comes up.

"The experts have spent the last two months working on a small report on the early history of the manuscript," one insider says. "The text is only one page long, but they just can't seem to finish it."

He explains the reason for the foot-dragging: "Any kind of consensus disappears whenever they have to decide how to phrase the parts about the legal status of the manuscript."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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