The Dead Sea Scrolls have enjoyed the spotlight since their discovery in 1947. Within the approximately 1000 fragments found in the caves above Qumran, Israel, were found portions of all the books of the canonized Jewish Bible with the exception of the Book of Esther. But when and where was the oldest copy of the Christian Bible, including a complete copy of the New Testament, found? You might be surprised to find out that this discovery predates the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls by over 100 years.
Aptly enough, this journey searching for the oldest Christian Bible takes us back to Mt. Sinai, where the law was originally given to the Children of Israel by God.
Mt. Sinai and its monastery are lonely places, off the beaten track, both for travelers and for scholars. In the mid-19th century, travel increased between Europe and the Levant due to changing political conditions. The door opened for a biblical scholar from Leipzig, Constantin von Tischendorf, to travel to the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai in 1844, researching ancient Biblical texts. He was shown 43 pages containing parts of the Old Testament, and was given them as a present from the monks. With those pages he returned to Leipzig and named them the Codex Frederico-Augustanus in honor of his patron, Frederick Augustus II, King of Saxony. At this point the location of the discovery was kept a secret. Also, because there were just a few pages, dating them with accuracy was difficult, so the enormity of the discovery was not fully understood.
Only during a subsequent trip in 1859 under the patronage of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, did von Tischendorf get a look at more of the Codex (347 pages) and realized that it dated from the 4th century CE. Today scholars date the Codex as being written between 325-360 CE. Written in Greek without any word breaks or punctuation, it represents a seminal time in early Christianity – the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the time of Constantine the Great. The Codex, which was written in columns in book form, contained hundreds of pages and was written on animal skin – parchment – part of the reason it was preserved so well.
During this trip, Constantin requested that he be allowed to take the Codex, now known as the Codex Sinaiticus (the Sinai Codex) back to the Tsar, the protector of Greek Orthodox Christians. The monastery of St. Catherine’s either loaned or gave this part of the Codex to Tishendorf who returned with it to St. Petersburg. Tishendorf studied it thoroughly and published a print facsimile in 1862 before presenting it to Tsar Alexander II. In 1869, after sitting for 7 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Codex found a home in the Imperial Library (today’s National Library of Russia).
In the summer of 1933, the British took advantage of Stalin’s desire to raise foreign capital and bought the Codex for 100,000 British pounds. One small piece, which must have been stored separately from the bulk of the Codex in St. Petersburg and contains parts of Genesis, is still in the National Library of Russia today.
Another 40 years will pass before other fragments, mostly of the Old Testament will be discovered by the monks of St. Catherine’s on May 26, 1975, when the monks are cleaning one of the monastery’s chapels.
Today, the Codex Sinaiticus is spread among 4 institutions: the bulk is in the British Library; the original 43 pages remain in Leipzig University Library; one small fragment from Genesis is in the National Library of Russia; and the newly found fragments are at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Luckily, with the help of modern technology, you can see the entire Codex Sinaiticus in one place here.