Monday, February 4, 2019

The Discovery of Codex Sinaiticus

On this day in 1859, German scholar Constantin von Tischendorf, nearing the end of his third visit in 15 years to the remote Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of (the reputed) Mt. Sinai, was invited to sit down for a drink with a young monk (the monastery’s steward) in his cell. Von Tischendorf showed the monk a copy of his translation of the Septuagint, published in Leipzig a few years earlier. (The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was produced in Alexandria, Egypt during the third and second centuries BC, under the direction of 70 – Latin septuaginta – Jewish Scholars. When New Testament authors quote the Old Testament Scriptures, they are usually quoting from the Septuagint, which is typically annotated in study Bibles as LXX.) The monk replied that he too had a copy of the Septuagint, and after retreating to the closet of his cell, brought forth an ancient codex (a manuscript bound in book form, as opposed to a rolled scroll) wrapped in a red cloth.

The codex in fact contained a complete copy of the New Testament in addition to most of the Old Testament in Greek (though portions were missing, because the monks had periodically used pages from the codex as kindling, as von Tischendorf had already discovered, to his horror, on one of his previous visits) as well as copies of some extra-biblical manuscripts, some of which were previously known only in Latin translations (The Epistle of Barnabas) or in name only (The Shepherd of Hermas). This mid-fourth century AD manuscript, which became known as Codex Sinaiticus, is still the oldest known manuscript of the complete New Testament in existence.

Von Tischendorf, being permitted to freely peruse the manuscript that evening, his last in the monastery, stayed up all night reading it. He recorded in his diary – kept in Latin, like a true scholar – “quippe dormire nefas videbatur – needless to say, to sleep seemed like a crime.” After much diplomatic wrangling, the manuscript was allowed to leave the monastery for study and copying. Today portions of the Codex reside in various places: Leipzig University, The British Library, and the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg. In 1975, during restoration work at the monastery, a forgotten room was discovered below a chapel in which were found many parchment fragments and 12 additional complete leaves of the Codex Sinaiticus, which remain at the monastery.

In addition to its importance as an early biblical manuscript, it is also an outstanding example of scribal craftsmanship, as Robert Bringhurst as pointed out. The text is written with a very even hand in resplendent Greek uncial script, arranged in four narrow columns on each page. Careful analysis of the proportions used in the layout reveal a scheme of exceptional cleverness and subtlety – just the kind of game that scribes, typographers, and designers at the height of their craft have enjoyed playing for millennia. The four columns considered as a complete text block express the reciprocal proportions of the surrounding page (that is, they are in the same proportions, but rotated 90 degrees). But, almost miraculously, if one were to remove the gutters between the columns, the entire textblock would collapse into a rectangle in unison with the page itself (same proportions, in the same orientation, just at a smaller size)!