Tischendorf Recovered

Dan Graves, MSL

I resolved, in 1840, to set out for Paris. . . though I had not sufficient means to pay even for my traveling suit; and when I reached Paris I had only fifty thalers left. The other fifty had been spent on my journey," wrote Constantin Tischendorf. Today we don't have any of the actual pages written by the Bible authors. One of our earliest complete copies of the New Testament was brought to light by this scholar.

Constantin was born in Langenfeld, Saxony (in what is now Germany) on this day, January 18, 1815. As he studied, he encountered scholarship that denied the inspiration of the Bible. Constantin thought that "the history of the early Church, as well as that of the sacred text, contains abundant arguments in reply to those who deny the credibility of the Gospel witness."

He became a Bible scholar and set out with a thin wallet and relentless ambition to search for old manuscripts (hand-written books) so he could produce an edition of the Bible as close to the original text as possible. In 1844 he searched throughout Egypt, Sinai, Palestine, and the Middle East. "To some, all this may seem mere learned labor: but permit me to add that the science touches on life in two important respects; to mention only two--to clear up in this way the history of the sacred text, and to recover if possible the genuine apostolic text which is the foundation of our faith--these cannot be matters of small importance. The whole of Christendom is, in fact, deeply interested in these results."

In May of 1844, at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, he saw a large basket filled with tattered parchments. According to Tischendorf, the librarian said two similar basketfuls had been burned as rubbish. Considering that the monastery preserved over 3,000 manuscripts, many for over a thousand years, this claim has seemed improbable to some scholars. On the other hand, the fact that the monastery allowed over 1100 other manuscripts to lie buried for 200 years under a collapsed building does not speak highly for the monks' concern or care of the treasures entrusted to them either. Constantin poked through the basket and found 129 pages of the Old Testament in Greek. He was excited, for this was the oldest Biblical manuscript he had ever seen-- dating from the 4th century.

The monks let him keep 43 leaves but would not let him look at the rest. Their attitude was the same when he visited in 1853. He trekked to the monastery again in 1859. On the last day of his visit, a steward "took down from the corner of the room a bulky kind of volume, wrapped up in a red cloth, and laid it before me. I unrolled the cover, and discovered, to my great surprise, not only those very fragments which, fifteen years before, I had taken out of the basket, but also... the New Testament complete, and, in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Pastor of Hermas. Full of joy, which this time I had the self-command to conceal from the steward and the rest of the community, I asked, as if in a careless way, for permission to take the manuscript into my sleeping chamber to look over it more at leisure." Immediately, Constantin began to make a complete copy of the Epistle of Barnabas, of which no good original had been known.

A few days later, he wheedled permission to take the manuscript to Cairo, where he and associates exhausted themselves, copying 110,000 lines in a few feverish days. Documents show that the monastery reluctantly allowed him to remove the precious volume to Russia to replicate it. By receipt, Tischendorf promised to return it. At that point there were no hard feelings as is shown by the fact that when the monks found some missing leaves they forwarded them to him. However, Tischendorf proceeded to present the codex to the Tsar as a gift. When the monastery requested its property back, the Russians maneuvered politically until they extracted an agreement to sell them the valuable document.

The Communists who took over Russia in 1917 had little interest in Bible manuscripts. Cash-strapped, they sold it to the British Museum on Christmas Day, 1933 for the large sum of £100,000. The ancient book is known as Codex Sinaiticus. It and other old manuscripts that Constantin found, are invaluable for checking the accuracy of our translations. It turns out that the last verses of Mark and the story of the woman taken in adultery were not included in Sinaiticus, suggesting these were later additions to scripture; whereas the presence of Barnabas and Hermas indicated the copyists accepted them as inspired.


  1. Bentley, James. Secrets of Mount Sinai; the story of the Codex Sinaiticus. London: orbis, 1985.
  2. Christian History institute. Glimpses # 55 "Treasure in a Trash Pile."
  3. "Codex Sinaiticus." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Sinaiticus
  4. Tischendorf, Constantin. "Discovery of the Sinaitic Manuscript." http://www.purl.org/TC/extras/tischendorf-sinaiticus.html
  5. Various internet and encyclopedia articles.

Last updated June, 2007.