The Codex Sinaiticus and the Manuscripts of Mt Sinai in the Collections of the National Library of Russia


A.V. Zakharova

The study is concerned with the history of a treasure of Christian letters, the celebrated Sinai Bible that Prof. Constantine Tischendorf discovered in St Catherine Monastery and brought to Russia in 1859. This history was governed by various factors: Prof. Tischendorf's scholarly interests; controversies among Sinai brethren; complicated ecclesiastical and administrative status of Sinai Archbishopric; rivalries between Jerusalem and Constantinople Patriarchies; interests of Orthodox Christian communities in Ottoman Empire; Russia's international prestige and role in political and ecclesiastical developments in 19th-century Eastern Christian community. All these determined both the intricacy of Sinai Bible acquisition by Russia, and the ambiguity of historiographical representation2.

This paper intends to avoid ethical judgment on matters like the appropriateness of alienating the treasure or individual responsibility and intrinsic motivation of persons involved.

Our principal goal is to publish new Russian archives related to the acquisition . We recognize that it will not suffice to reconstruct the complete and unbiased history of the Sinai Bible3. This would require comprehensive investigation in a broader range of sources including various archives, and above all, those kept at St Catherine's on Mount Sinai.

Discovery, publication and acquisition of the Sinai Bible were described by Constantine Tischendorf in detail4. Here are the main points.

In 1844, Tischendorf discovered a part of the Bible at Mt Sinai Monastery, and obtained it for Frederick Augustus II King of Saxony. In February 1859, being commissioned by the Russian Government to find and purchase old manuscripts, the scholar discovered a greater part of the same codex at St Catherine's. Intending to publish the treasure, he spared no effort in order to acquire the manuscript. The brethren wished to present the Bible to Alexander II in appreciation of Russian Imperial patronage for the community. Official donation could not take place until the newly elected head of the community, Archimandrite Cyril, was ordained as Archbishop of Sinai. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, however, was opposed to the promotion of Rev. Cyril. In August 1859, Tischendorf went to Constantinople to seek assistance from Prince A.B. Lobanov-Rostovsky, Russian minister at the Ottoman court. Then, without waiting for Rev. Cyril's ordination, the scholar decided to take the manuscript to Petersburg on loan for publishing purposes. Having obtained a letter of guarantee from Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky (dated 10 September /Old style/ 1859), and consent from the brethren, he took the manuscript away on 16/28 September. When the 4-volume luxury edition of Sinai Bible was completed in 1862, C. Tischendorf presented the original ancient manuscript to Emperor Alexander II. Meanwhile, the question of transferring the manuscript to the full possession of the Russian Sovereign remained unresolved for some years. In 1869, the new Archbishop of Sinai, Callistratus, and the monastic community, signed the official certificate of presenting the manuscript to the Czar. The Russian Government, in turn, bestowed the Monastery with 9000 rubles and decorated the Archbishop and some of the brethren with orders5.

The story has been well known and repeatedly published in many scholarly and popular editions6. However, between 1860s and 1880s, and then in 1930s (when the Soviet Government sold the manuscript to the British Museum), the press set rumors of the manuscript being presented to Russia without the brethren's consent or any compensation7.

Doubts as to the appropriateness of the steps taken by Tischendorf and the Russian Government towards the Sinai Monastery were represented in the article New Documents on Constantine Tischendorf and the Codex Sinaiticus published by Ihor Ševčenko in 19648. The author distrusted the Tischendorf version and referred to Archbishop Cyril's papers he found on Mt Sinai, and some previous publications, in reconstructing the actual situation.

Ševčenko proposes the following manuscript acquisition version. He assumes that Tischendorf and Archimandrite Cyril made a verbal arrangement in 1859 on presenting the Bible to Emperor Alexander II in return to Russian minister's support in confirming Cyril's appointment as Archbishop of Sinai. But according to the official agreement, testified by the letter of Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky of 10 September /Old style/ 1859, and by Tischendorf's affidavit of 16/28 September 1859, the Sinai community only consented to lend the treasure to Tischendorf for publication. The manuscript was to be returned to the monastery on demand. Correspondence between Tischendorf and Archbishop Cyril is not indicative of the latter's consent on presenting the Bible to Alexander II. On the contrary, Archbishop Cyril's memorandum published by Ševčenko and written between 1867 and 1869 runs as follows:

<> neither did the Community of Sinai ever contemplate nor did it deliberate in common upon any idea of offering or donating it to the Russian Imperial Government. Quite to the contrary, many [monks] were displeased even with its temporary cession, and from that time forth found the pretext for launching periodic accusations against their Archbishop, Kyr Cyril. Kyr Cyril, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, having learned [?] [of the affair], and being opposed in 1859, for reasons of his own, to the promotion of Kyr Cyril to the Archbishopric of Sinai <>, in addition to leveling other vain and false accusations against Kyr Cyril - they were shown to be such after official investigation - also accused Kyr Cyril to the effect that His Grace had allegedly donated the manuscript in question to Russia in order to gain Her protection and to obtain his installation and consecration to the Archbishopric of Sinai. <> Such behavior on the part of the Patriarch of Jerusalem called forth an affidavit of Prince Lobanov, under the date 1/13 November 1859, to the effect that the manuscript had been given to Mr. Tischendorf ad interim, and that it would be returned to the Monastery as its possession9.

Consequently, according to Ševčenko, Tischendorf was by no means authorized to present the Bible to Alexander II in 1862. The transfer of the manuscript into the ownership of the Russian Government was eventually formalized by Cyril's successor, Archbishop Callistratus, through the diligence of Russian minister in Constantinople, Count N.P. Ignatyev, in 1869. Ševčenko suggests that both financial and political pressures were exerted to attain the goal10. In particular, referring to the extracts from Ignatyev's letters published by A.A. Dmitrievsky, the author maintains that in 1867 the minister arrested monastic earnings from Russia, and in 1869 withheld the monies and decorations bestowed by Russian Emperor on the Sinai brethren in compensation for the Bible.

Thus, according to I. Ševčenko, although the Sinai community felt no desire to present the Bible to the Russian Government, actions taken by Tischendorf and the pressures exerted by Count Ignatyev made them, after a decade of confrontation, yield their treasure to Russia. This view has been widely recognized and is still dominating scholarly opinion, both in Russia and elsewhere.

Subsequent archival studies have provided fresh insight into Russian acquisition of the Sinai Bible. Thus in 1993, K. Aland published more than a dozen letters written by Constantine Tischendorf to his wife Angelica, adding significant details to his own story of the Sinai Bible acquisition, and attesting to his straight dealings with the Sinai Monastery11.

Among extremely rich sources on the history of the Codex Sinaiticus in the Russian State History Archives (RGIA) in St-Petersburg and the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire (AVPRI) in Moscow are: letters by Tischendorf, Archbishop Callistratus, Russian consuls in Egypt and ministers in Constantinople (A.B. Lobanov-Rostovsky, E.P. Novikov, N.P. Ignatyev), reports to His Majesty the Emperor, and extensive correspondence between Government Ministries and departments supervising the Sinai Bible case at different stages between 1859 and 1871. Almost none of the sources were examined or published in investigating the history of the treasure. Analysis of archival findings allows a more objective and comprehensive insight in Russian acquisition of the Codex Sinaiticus. The successive stages are described below.

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1 The article, first published in Montfaucon. Études de paléographie, de codicologie et de diplomatique, Moscow-St.Petersburg, 2007, pp. 209-266 ), is translated into English by M. Dubyanskaya and revised by the author.
The author is obliged to Mr. Robert McCabe, and the Directorial Board of the National Library of Russia for support to this study; and to the leaders of Arkhiv vneshnej politiki Rossijskoj Imperii (the Archive of Foreign Policy of Russian Empire, hereinafter: AVPRI) and Rossijskij gosudarstvenny istoriceskij arkhiv (the Russian State History Archives, hereinafter: RGIA) for permission to publish archival documents. (back to the text)

2 For source material, see: I. Ševčenko, "New Documents on Constantine Tischendorf and the Codex Sinaiticus", in Scriptorium, XVIII/1, 1964, pp. 55-80 (reprinted in I. Ševčenko, Byzantium and the Slavs in Letters and Culture, Cambridge (Mass.), Napoli, 1991, pp. 187-227). (back to the text)

3 For purposes of this paper, documents in French and Modern Greek are presented in original spelling and punctuation. Russian documents are published in English translation. For the original texts see the Russian version. More important documents are reproduced in whole, others by extracts. Now the author is preparing to publish a full set of material from Russian archives relating to the acquisition of the Sinai Bible. (back to the text)

4 C. von Tischendorf. Die Sinaibibel. Ihre Entdeckung, Herausgabe und Erwerbung, Leipzig, 1871. See also other works by Tischendorf quoted by Ševčenko. "New Documents on Constantine Tischendorf and the Codex Sinaiticus", in Scriptorium, p. 57, n. 14. (back to the text)

5 As far as we know, information on the reward was first published by C.R. Gregory (Novum Testamentum Graece. Ad antiquissimos testes denuo recensuit apparatum criticum apposuit Constantinus Tischendorf. Editio octava critica maior. Vol. III. Prolegomena scripsit C.R. Gregory, Leipzig, 1884, pp. 351-352). (back to the text)

6 See works mentioned by Ševčenko. Op. cit., pp. 56-58, nn. 6-11, 15, 23.(back to the text)

7 Cf. H. Brugsch, Wanderung nach den Türkis-Minen und der Sinai-Halbinsel, Leipzig, 1866, pp. 4748; G. Ebers, Durch Gosen zum Sinai, Leipzig, 1872, pp. 302309; P. Schaff. Through Bible Lands, New York, 1878, p. 191; Archimandrite Grzegorz Peradze, "Dokumenty, dotyczące zagadnień odnalezienia i tekstukodeksu Synajskiego", in Ἐλπίς 8/2, 1934, pp. 134135. (back to the text)

8 Ševčenko, "New Documents". (back to the text)

9 For the full Greek text with English translation see ibid, pp. 69-71. (back to the text)

10 Ibid, pp. 77-80, nn. 75, 84, 85. (back to the text)

11 K. Aland, "Konstantin von Tischendorf (18151874). Neutestamentliche Textforschung damals und heute", in Sitzungsberichte der Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig Philologisch-historische Klasse, 133/2, 1993, pp. 3-47. (back to the text)

© The National Library of Russia, 2009