Textual Criticism - Lesson 23

Tischendorf and the Discovery of Sinaiticus (Part 2)

This lecture summarizes the life of Constantine von Tischendorf [1815-1874], and his very important discovery of Codex Sinaiticus.

Daniel Wallace
Textual Criticism
Lesson 23
Watching Now
Tischendorf and the Discovery of Sinaiticus (Part 2)


A. 1815-1874

B. Wanted to prove F.C. Baur wrong


A. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (1841)

B. St. Catherine’s Monastery (1844)

C. Further visits to St. Catherine’s (1844, 1853, 1859)


A. 1859

B. The oldest complete NT manuscript by 500 years

C. Manuscript ultimately sent to St. Petersburg, Russia

D. Sold to the British government for 100,000 pounds (1933)


A. Hidden store room was discovered during repair work (1975)

1. 1,000s of mss

2. Portion of Codex Sinaiticus from the Book of Numbers

B. Numbers

1. 1,200 manuscripts and 50,000 fragments, including 12 complete leaves of Codex Sinaiticus and 14 fragments

2. 2nd largest collection of ancient MSS (3,300 MSS)


A. Tischendorf found no part of OT earlier that 1st Chronicles

B. Monks stored, not destroyed, manuscripts

C. For centuries, MS were kept at separate locations within the monastery

D. Parchment doesn’t burn easily

E. Did Tischendorf fabricate his story of MS burning by monks?

F. Fragment saying Tischendorf promised to return the MS (1964)

G. Conclusion on Tischendorf and his visits to St. Catherine’s Monastery

  • Since the original autographs of the Bible no longer exist, the primary goal of Biblical Textual Criticism is to determine the exact wording of the original inspired text dispatched from the author with as much accuracy as possible. As a secondary goal, we desire to trace changes to the text and get a window into ancient Christianity.

  • Contrary to popular textual critics, the wrong way to record textual variants is to count each unique variant and multiply by the number of existing manuscripts, rendering millions of variants. On the contrary, the correct method is to count the same variant that occurs across all manuscripts as one variant, rendering not millions but hundreds of thousands of predominantly minor variants.

  • Compared to other ancient literature, the field of Biblical textual criticism possesses “an embarrassment of riches.” New Testament TC absolutely dwarfs the resources of other ancient literature, not only in number of manuscripts and the recent time in which they were produced, but also confirming quotations by extra-biblical writings.

  • The vast majority of NT Variants are minor, easily explained scribal errors that don’t affect the meaning of the text. Among 400,000 textual variants of the NT, over 99% make no difference to the meaning, and less than 1% are both meaningful and viable.

  • Recent attempts to change the goals of NTTC such that critics no longer seek to obtain the original autographs in favor of understanding a writer’s historical contexts undermine the original goal of NTTC. However, faithful textual critics must not subscribe to the notion of a “multivalence” of the original text, but instead pursue the primary goal: to get as close as possible to the original autographs.

  • The vast majority of all copies of the New Testament were probably recorded on scrolls, but copied in codex format. This may lend to the theory that Christians used cutting-edge, easier-to-use media technologies to further the word-based faith.

  • Various materials were used in creating NT manuscripts. Wallace discusses papyrus, parchments, and paper, each with advantages and disadvantages for transmitting the text faithfully.

  • There are three fundamental issues that significantly affect the transmission of the NT Text: early copies and causes of corruption, the role of canon in shaping the text, and the emergence of localized text forms.

  • Because of the radical nature of Christianity, it took some time for OT-based Jews to accept the NT as canonical. But over time, coinciding with the progressive development of a certain “canon-consciousness,” scribes were compelled to modify texts in various ways, not for malicious reasons, but in efforts to clarify, preserve, and revere the sacred scriptures.

  • Although questioned by some critics, most TCs acknowledge four major localized forms of the NT text: Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine, and (questionably) Caesarian. These “cross-pollinated” text families have arisen from diverse historical, cultural and socio-political factors, but all serve to strengthen, and not weaken the integrity of the NT text.

  • While it is undeniable that NT scribes made mistakes of various types in copying the inspired text, understanding the often simple reason for these mistakes renders much reward in understanding the sacred text. The fundamental principle of textual criticism is this: select the reading that best explains the rise of the other readings.

  • Contrary to popular belief, intentional scribal changes were not malicious in nature, but rather displayed pious intentions and a high view of scripture. Scribal corruptions for the most part, did not reflect a desire to obfuscate, but to clarify the scripture.

  • This lecture introduces papyri, critically important as the earliest witnesses of New Testament text. Papyri are some of the most important documents of NT MSS.

  • Since papyri are the earliest records of NT text (containing 50% of NT) they are critical in revealing the original text shape of the NT text. Even Codex Sinaticus and Vaticanus, the two most important NT MSS in the world, are confirmed by Papyri.

  • This lecture describes the most important new Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. These documents contain the full text of the NT written many times over, on parchment, written in all caps.

  • This lecture continues the discussion about the most important New Testament manuscripts: the Majuscules, formerly known as uncials. This lecture describes Codex Alexandrinus - A, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus - C, Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph), and Codex Washingtonianus - W - 1906.

  • Since the field of TC is so small, obtaining resources are very expensive. However the internet is still a great place to conduct free TC research. In this lecture, major internet resources for studying NT manuscripts are compared and contrasted.

  • Founded 2002 by Daniel Wallace, the mission of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is to be a premiere resource in the great and noble task of determining the wording of the autographa of the New Testament. This is facilitated through high-resolution digital photography of extant Greek New Testament manuscripts so that such images can be preserved, duplicated without deterioration, and accessed by scholars doing textual research.

  • The KJV has been rightfully called “the single greatest monument to the English language,” but this is more from a literary rather than a translation standpoint. This is because the Greek MSS behind the KJV text is far inferior to that of modern translations in terms of textual basis, late MSS dates, and a less than perfect process of creation.

  • The arguments used to position the Textus Receptus as the sole textual basis for the true word of God range from questionable to downright irrational. Proponents of this position rely on view of the so-called “doctrine of preservation,” which illegitimately uses certain Bible texts to argue its dubious claims.

  • This lecture describes the major problems of TR-only people, who subscribe to an unbiblical Doctrine of Preservation, which as defined, effectively emerges as a Marcionite view of the Bible. Wallace claims that while there is no biblical, exegetical, or empirical basis to argue for the doctrine of preservation, God has overwhelmingly preserved Scripture in a way that is not true of any other ancient literature.

  • In this lecture, Daniel Wallace describes the discovery of Sinaiaticus, and its importance to the field of textual criticism. He recounts fascinating details about his visits to St. Catherine’s, the oldest Christian monastery, at the base of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

  • This lecture summarizes the life of Constantine von Tischendorf [1815-1874], and his very important discovery of Codex Sinaiticus.

  • This lecture describes highlights of the history of NT TC since the TR. Describing the formation of the textus receptus, Wallace also characterizes major players in the process of arriving at the modern text.

  • This lecture describes Westcott and Hort, and how they dethroned the Textus Receptus by proving that the Textus Receptus was late, inferior, and secondary.

  • This lecture is 1 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism. Eclecticism is the process of compiling a text from multiple sources, while reasoned eclecticism consists of rectifying the differences and evaluating variants based on both their attestation and intrinsic merit.

  • This lecture is 2 of 3 lectures on reasoned eclecticism.

  • This lecture illustrates the principles of reasoned eclecticism.

  • Was Jesus "moved with compassion" or "indignant" when he saw that his disciples could not heal the man with leprosy?

  • Why was the man waiting for so many years at the pool of Bethesda? Was there really an angel stirring up the waters and healing the first one in?

  • Do these two passages call Jesus “God”? Thankfully, the Bible affirms the divinity of Christ many other ways and in many other passages than these two.

  • This lecture presents some very technical arguments for why Daniel Wallace believes that the phrase “ουδεουιός” (nor the Son) is not an authentic part of Matthew 24:36.

  • This lesson teaches you to appreciate the rigorous historical research required in biblical studies and the importance of respecting dual authorship. It sharpens your understanding of external and internal textual evidence and their implications for a passage's authenticity.
  • The text of Mark 16:9-20 is most likely not part of the original inspired text of scripture, and v 8 is Mark's intended ending.

  • This lecture evaluates popular translations of the Bible in terms of their textual basis. The bottom line is that while all translations are interpretations, The Spirit of God has ensured that the truth of the scriptures can be found in any one of them, and reading widely among different versions is good to promote understanding about different concerns of TC.

  • As time progresses in the field of Textual Criticism, we continue to get razor-thin closer to the original manuscripts. The good news is that with all the known variants, no essential doctrine of the Christian faith is jeopardized by any viable variant, so we can have great confidence in the text of our Bibles to provide us all we need for life and godliness.

Dr. Daniel Wallace is one of the world's leading textual critics. His ministry, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM.org) is currently the most prolific organization for discovering, photographing, and cataloging ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In this class, he discusses the issues of textual variants, how ancient manuscripts were made, the types of errors that we can see in the manuscripts, the issue of the Textus Receptus and its role in the King James translation of the Bible, the historic work of Westcott and Hort, and ends with discussions of the most famous textual problems.

Dr. Wallace gives a three hour summary of this class in our Academy program. The first of the lectures is here.

Please visit Dr. Wallace's ministry, Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and support them financially. 

Thank you to our friends at Credo House for sharing this class with us. You can purchase their workbook or the DVDs for the class from them.



I. Methods of Doing NTTC

A. Tischendorf and the Discovery of Sinaiticus – Part 2

Introduction: We continue on our two-part series on Tischendorf and Codex Sinaiticus. I gave you a bit of the background of the monastery at St. Catharine’s at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. Now I am going to provide some background on Tischendorf and his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus. Constantine von Tischendorf was a young man when he first became known. The von was added by the Russian government as part of an honorary title. He was born by the name of ‘Lovalgott’, Lovalgott Fredrick Constantine Tischendorf. He went by the name of Constantine. He lived in the era of F.C. Bowers reign over school theology. We talked about Bowers before in reference to P52 and how he applies the Hegelian dialectic in viewing the New Testament. Bower argues that we can’t know what the original New Testament says since we don’t have the early manuscripts. Tischendorf set out to find them to prove Bowers wrong. Tischendorf was driven by his evangelical view. Tischendorf was not some liberal German scholar; he was driven by his love of Christ and the Gospel and this would eventually kill him. He worked himself to death and died just short of his 60th birthday.

Constantine von Tischendorf: In 1841, at the age of twenty-six, he went to Paris and decoded Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus which I have also considered in a previous lecture. The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus was a palimpsest with the under-text almost impossible to read. It took him two years to decipher ninety-nine percent of it. This brought him immediate fame and got him some funding from Fredrick of Saxony; he went to St. Catharine’s monastery for the first time in 1844. He came with a letter of recommendation as that was the only way you could get into the monastery. He had to stand at the base of the monastery at a small outhouse having to ring a sort of doorbell. They would drop a rope down with a bucket where he put the note. After being approved, they dropped a net for him to hold onto and then pulled him up. And that was how he got into the Monastery. They did this up until 1861. This was also done at Matera in a monastery in Greece. During that time, it took twelve days to travel from Cairo to Mount Sinai by camel. By the time he got there, he still didn’t know whether he would be allowed into the monastery. So, when Tischendorf arrived at the monastery he said in his own words; ‘it was in April 1844 that I embarked at leghorn for Egypt. The desire was that I hoped to discover any remains of any manuscripts, more, especially Biblical of a date that would carry us back to the early times of Christianity was realized beyond my expectations. It was at the foot of Mount Sinai in the convent of St. Catharine’s that I discovered the pearl of all my research. In visiting the library of the monastery in the month of May, I perceived in the middle of the great hall, a large and wide basket, full of old parchments. And the librarian, who was a man of information, told me that two heaps of papers like these had been already committed to the flames. It was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers, a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen.’

Codex Sinaiticus: Tischendorf was twenty-nine years old when he made this discovery. He made two more visits to St. Catharine’s and in 1853; he only found one small scrap of this codex. He was able to take about forty-five leaves of the Old Testament text with him back to Germany where he had them
published. So he came back in 1853 where he only found a single small scrap of this parchment of Codex Sinaiticus from Genesis and it was being used as a bookmark. We don’t have any other verification of that or how he got a hold of it. But in the second visit, he gave the second edition of his Greek New Testament to the monastery. He makes three visits ultimately: 1844, 1853 and 1859. In 1859 under the sponsorship of the Czar of Russia, Alexander II, he goes back to St. Catherine’s, but they didn’t want to have a German scholar to do this but instead a Russian Scholar. And on the last day of his visit on February 4th, the steward of the monastery showed him a codex in his own room. And so in Tischendorf’s own words, ‘he took down from the corner of the room a bulky kind of volume, wrapped up in a red cloth and laid it before him. 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 other parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament complete and in addition, the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Shepherd of Hermas. Full of joy, this time I had the self-command to conceal that from the steward.’ The first time around when he got excited, they wouldn’t give him any more leaves. ‘I ask as if in a careless way for permission to take the manuscript to my sleeping chamber to look over it more at leisure. I knew that I held in my hand the most precious Biblical treasure in existence; a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined in the twenty years study of the subject.’ He was a little jazzed about this thing.

They still have that red cloth that it came in today on display at the British Library. Well, the details of Tischendorf’s story have never been collaborated. But the fact is, he did find the oldest complete New Testament at that time and today it is the oldest complete New Testament by five hundred years. At first, he wasn’t allowed to take the manuscript from the monastery. He went to Cairo where they had another little outpost there. He got permission to transcribe the manuscript there at Cairo with two assistants where they copied it out in just a few weeks’ a hundred and ten thousand lines of text. But he wanted to get the manuscript published and he wanted it out of Egypt. Why? He really didn’t seem to respect the religious life of the monks very much. He didn’t like the way they worshipped, saying that it would be better to spend their time reading the Bible. He also talks about the pure drudgery of life there at the monastery. A later protégée of Tischendorf would say, ‘this piece belongs in a museum.’ As much as I admire Tischendorf’s evangelical view, I do have to question some the motives of his story and also his story. Bruce Metsker in his Text of the New Testament has been a book that most New Testament students have been weaned on in regards to textual criticism. He says that Tischendorf suggested that it would be to the Monk’s advantage if they made this a gift to the Czar of Russia whose influence as a protector of the Greek Church they would want in connection with the election of the new Abbott. What would be more appropriate as a gift than this Greek manuscript? But it may have been more arm twisting than an overture of gratitude as to why these monks would give over the manuscript to the Czar of Russia. The manuscript ultimately got sent to St. Petersburg, Russia. This was also tied in to who was going to become the new archbishop of the monastery with the manuscript ending up in Russia. It was published and put on display in the public library. Tischendorf’s discovery was celebrated throughout Europe. He made a lot of public appearances and he dined with royalty. But today, if you discover a new manuscript, there is no popularity involved in it. So, the manuscript stayed in Russia until 1933.

Right in the middle of World War I, in 1917, you had the Bolshevik revolution with the new communist government taking over. Then in 1929, the great depression comes about which affected the whole world. So, the Russian government needed money and thus able to sell Codex Sinaiticus to the British
Government for one hundred thousand pounds. This was the most expensive price ever paid for a manuscript at that time in history. You remember that Yale University offered to buy P75 which had Luke and John in it for fifty million dollars. Codex Sinaiticus has the whole New Testament. The British
Government first said that they didn’t have the money to buy the manuscript but would put half of it toward the manuscript if the British citizens would raise the remaining fifty thousand pounds. Their American cousins sent money to these British people to help with the purchase. So the manuscripts arrived in December 1933 and T C Skeet was the scholar who worked on the manuscript and eventually published it.

The Nag Hammadi Collection: Two of the largest manuscript discoveries relating to the Bible was the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and the Nag Hammadi collection of early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. There was a third discovery that
happened much more recently and it has hardly received any press and I’m baffled as to why. This third discovery was so much larger than these other two discoveries. In 1971 a fire broke out in the northern wall of St. George’s monastery in the Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank. Four years later they were able to repair the damage. On May 25, 1975, the cleanup began. The monk in charge was cleaning up this area and noticed a small fragment of a manuscript and then the next a whole leaf. So, as he dug through this hole, he discovered a storeroom; it was a hidden room that nobody knew about. He only had an oil-light to see by. He spent several hours a day going through this room. He found thousands of fragments of manuscripts and on June 5th, 1975 he discovered a four column manuscript leaf. Note that Codex Sinaiticus was the only four column manuscript in the world. This was a portion of Codex Sinaiticus that he had found from the Book of Numbers. He ended up pulling out 47 large boxes of manuscripts and fragments. It was estimated to be over two thousand pounds of manuscripts. The national library in Athens sent people to help work on this and in 1998 a catalog in Modern Greek was
published. There were twelve hundred manuscripts and fifty thousand fragments of manuscripts. There were over one hundred and fifty Septuagint manuscripts and ninety New Testament manuscripts. This is the largest cash of New Testament manuscripts in the last fifty years. The second largest is the one we made in Albania in the year 2007 which consisted of twenty-eight manuscripts.

They also discovered twelve complete leaves of Codex Sinaiticus and fourteen fragments of this manuscript. The latest manuscript came from the 18th century. All of this plays an important role in thinking about the significance of the Tischendorf story in 1844. In 2002, I visited St. Catharine’s for the first time and stayed there for nearly nine days. I came with a colleague, an orthodox priest and we had asked permission to examine four of these Greek manuscripts. Father Simeon, who at the time was the librarian, told us that we were the first outsiders to examine these manuscripts found in 1975. While we were looking at them, I discovered two more manuscripts inside those four. One was a palimpsest manuscript where the upper text was a New Testament manuscript and the undertext was a majuscule manuscript from the Major Prophets and the Septuagint. It is one of twenty-one majuscule manuscripts of the Major Prophets. The other manuscript of which I spent most of my time with at the library was the Protoevangelium of James or the Gospel of James written around AD 145 is an apocryphal Gospel which expands backward in time to the infancy stories contained in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and presents a narrative concerning the birth and upbringing of Mary. I went there to transcribe the whole thing and when I got into the second quire, the second fold of leaves, the text changed. It was no longer the Protoevangelium of James but instead the Assumption of the Virgin, another ancient apocryphal text. It is the sixth copy of the Assumption of the Virgin in Greek in existence. Well, Father Justine, who is the librarian, is the first American to live at the monastery. He is the son of Baptist missionaries and grew up in El Paso and went to the University of Texas by the name of Russel Hicks. The St. Catharine’s monastery now has a second largest collection of manuscripts in the world, just after the Vatican. They have thirty three hundred manuscripts. They were able to purchase a very expensive digital camera in order to help them record some of these manuscripts. These funds came from money that Prince Charles fund raised in Britain.

Tischendorf and the Burning of Manuscripts: Now, what I think really happened when Tischendorf visited the St. Catharine’s monastery, here are seven key facts. First, the New Find manuscripts from St. George’s are a game changer. Except for the scrap of parchment from Genesis used as a bookmark,
Tischendorf found no part of the Old Testament earlier than 1st Chronicles. This allowed him to claim that the monks had been tearing out leaves from the codex and burning them. But when leaves from the Pentateuch were discovered in 1975 as well as leaves from the Shepherd of Herman; in other words, leaves from the outside of this codex from the front and the back, a different picture emerges from what actually happened. The outer leaves of the codex are always most susceptible to damage. If the monks had been burning leaves from the codex, presumably, they would have started from the beginning. So, these would have been the outer quires of the codex. Rather than burning them, monks moved the leaves from one part of the compound to another. The outer leaves of several manuscripts had been left behind. The second thing is that the latest manuscripts stored there was from the 18th century. This shows that the practices of the monks close to the time of Tischendorf were to store manuscripts, not to burn them. That is keeping with practices known from antiquity of both Christian and Jewish Scribes. St. Catharine’s changed their ‘MO’ in the 19th century. A hundred years earlier they had been storing these manuscripts and not burning them. For centuries, they do one thing; in fact some scholars would say that there is no actual evidence of Christian scribes ever burning copies of Scripture. Those documents that became worn, the standard practice was to bury them, not to burn them. You see that with the Dead Sea, these manuscripts were in jars and buried in caves. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts were in jars. A number of our New Testament Papyri have been found buried next to graveyards, not burnt at all. Not only this, but the third point, for centuries these manuscripts were kept in multiple locations at St. Catharine’s monastery.

There is a common library that was built perhaps a hundred years before Tischendorf came. The manuscripts even during his time were not centralized. So how could a monk keep Sinaiticus in a room in his cell? Perhaps they were careless about the location of these manuscripts, but that is a far cry from destroying them. Fourth, parchment doesn’t burn easily. Of course, paper and papyrus burns easily, but parchment is not a thing that you would ever want to burn because the odor would be much worst and the smoke wouild be stronger than the heat. The smell and the smoke are just overwhelming for the benefit for whatever heat you would get from it. Fifth, did Tischendorf fabricate this story? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. He was a great textual critic, evangelical but at the same time it sure looks better if this was a rescue mission rather than a theft, doesn’t it. Perhaps, he was simply mistaken about the manuscript. He said the manuscript was in this basket; the same kind of basket that they used for kindling as they used for manuscripts. But Tischendorf’s Modern Greek was so bad that he couldn’t produce it. This means that he couldn’t understand what they were saying. Yet, he said that he had talked to the librarian, a man of information. The monks didn’t know English or German or other modern languages. So, I’m not so sure that he got what was being said correctly. I suspect that he looked into one of the kitchens and while they were making bread, he saw the same kind of baskets that they used for keeping manuscripts. He perhaps thought they were burning manuscripts. The sixth point, there was a note by Tischendorf that was discovered at the monastery over a hundred years later saying: ‘I, the undersigned, Constantine Tischendorf attest that St. Catharine’s monastery has given to me as a loan an ancient manuscript of both Testaments, being the property of St. Catharine’s monastery, containing three hundred and forty-six leaves and a small fragment; these I will take with me to St. Petersburg in order that I might collate the copy previous made by me with the original at the time of publication. This manuscript, I promise to return undamaged and in a good state of preservation to St. Catharine’s at the earliest request.’ This note was not known to exist until 1964 when it was published. But, is it genuine? They probably forged the Patten of Mohammed and so they weren’t averse to forging such things.

So, I ask the librarian, Father Simeon, whether he had any other documents signed by Tischendorf. This was all written in Modern Greek. He thought for a moment and he remembered that he did have. On his second visit in 1853, he signed his copy of the Greek New Testament. That was on display but the cover was closed. I photographed that and compared the two signatures and they seemed to have matched. The note said, ‘the present New Testament has been published as a small gift by the undersigned for the common library of Sinai.’ Remember, I told you that his name of Constantine Von Tischendorf? That was added later and so if this was a forgery, they would have probably put it in there. He spoke of the common library. It suggested a time where the manuscripts were still not collected in one place, otherwise, he would have said for the library.

My conclusion is: there is still much to learn about Tischendorf’s visits to St. Catharine’s. There are many questions that are left unanswered as least for now. But what has been presented in the west for over a century, that the original Indiana Jones that rescued one of the most important Biblical manuscripts from destruction just in time is almost surely a myth.