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Feature on Quire 85, folio 2 recto
Feature on Quire 85, folio 2 recto.

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History of Codex Sinaiticus

The text which follows, concerning the history of the Codex Sinaiticus, is the fruit of collaboration by the four Institutions that today retain parts of the said Codex: the British Library, the Library of the University of Leipzig, the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and the Holy Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai (Saint Catherine’s). These Institutions recognize that events concerning the history of the Codex Sinaiticus, from 1844 to this very day, are not fully known; hence, they are susceptible to widely divergent interpretations and recountings that are evaluated differently as to their form and essence. Although they have not come to a full accord over the recent history of the Codex, the four collaborating Institutions offer the present, common, agreed text as the basis of a common formulation, as a framework of historical reference that may be completed by yet further documents, and as a basis for dialogue and the interpretation of events.

The Codex Sinaiticus is named after the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, where it had been preserved until the middle of the nineteenth century. The principal surviving portion of the Codex, comprising 347 leaves, is now held by the British Library. A further 43 leaves are kept at the University Library in Leipzig. Parts of six leaves are held at the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg. Further portions remain at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

On 9 March 2005, a Partnership Agreement was signed between the four institutions listed above for the conservation, photography, transcription, and publication of all surviving pages and fragments of the Codex Sinaiticus. Included among the aims and objectives of the Project was a provision:

To undertake research into the history of the Codex . . . , to commission an objective historical narrative based on the results of the research which places the documents in their historical context, written by authors agreeable to all four Members, and to publish the outcomes of the research through the project website and other related print publications, such publications to include the full texts of relevant documents (either as transcripts or digital surrogates) wherever the permission of the owners can be secured to publish the documents in this way.

The following text is a synopsis of the history of the Codex, which has been agreed by all four Partners. It is based on the evidence that has been thus far identified and made available to the Project.

The first written record of the Codex Sinaiticus may be identifiable in the journal of an Italian visitor to the Monastery of Saint Catherine in 1761. In it the naturalist Vitaliano Donati reported having seen at the Monastery ‘a Bible comprising leaves of handsome, large, delicate, and square-shaped parchment, written in a round and handsome script’.

Over eighty years later, in 1844, Codex Sinaiticus re-emerges from the mists of history. Sometime between 24 May and 1 June, the monks at Saint Catherine’s brought to the attention of the visiting German biblical scholar, Constantine Tischendorf, 129 leaves of the Old Testament portion of the Codex. According to his own published account (no other record has so far been identified), Tischendorf then obtained 43 of these leaves from the Monastery. In January 1845, he returned to Leipzig, together with this portion of the Codex and many other manuscripts that he had collected during his travels in the Eastern Mediterranean. The following year, Tischendorf published the 43 leaves now at Leipzig under the title of Codex Friderico-Augustanus. He did so in honour of King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, who had supported Tischendorf’s journeys in 1843 and his edition of 1846. At that point the leaves were described merely as ‘from a monastery in the Orient’, a phrase which has given rise to various interpretations. Subsequently the 43 leaves became part of the collections of Leipzig University Library.

After 1844 several sightings of the Codex were recorded by visitors to the Monastery. According to his own account, the Russian Archimandrite Porfirij Uspenskij examined 347 leaves of the Codex during his visit in 1845. The leaves that he saw included the 86 seen, but not removed by Tischendorf in 1844. During the same visit Uspenskij obtained three fragments of two pages of the Codex, which had previously formed part of the bindings of books at the Monastery. Together with other manuscripts and artefacts that he had obtained from his extensive travels in the Middle East, these fragments were taken to Russia by Uspenskij. Subsequently, in 1883, they were acquired by the Imperial Library in Saint Petersburg. During his second visit to the Monastery in 1853, Tischendorf obtained several other manuscripts, including a fragment of the Codex that had originally formed part of the same leaf as one of the fragments acquired by Uspenskij. According to Tischendorf, this latest fragment was discovered serving as a bookmarker. It was later acquired by the Imperial Library. In 1911 a further fragment, taken from a binding, was identified in the collection of the Society of Ancient Literature, Saint Petersburg.

In 1859, Tischendorf made his third and final visit to Saint Catherine’s, this time under the patronage of the Russian Tsar Alexander II. According to his own account, he first saw the 347 leaves of the Codex on 4 February. Recognising the significant benefit to biblical scholarship of transcribing their complete text, but also the difficulties of doing so at the Monastery, Tischendorf requested that all the leaves be transferred to the Monastery’s metochion in Cairo. On 24 February, the Codex was brought to Cairo, and for three months, from March to May, Tischendorf was allowed access to the Codex, one gathering at a time. This detailed examination confirmed the German scholar’s belief that the 347 leaves were ‘the most precious biblical treasure in existence’. After further travels in the Middle East, Tischendorf returned to Cairo on 12/24 September, and four days later on 16/28 September, he signed a receipt for the loan of the 347 leaves. In the receipt Tischendorf stated that the purpose of the loan was to enable him to take the manuscript to Saint Petersburg and there compare his earlier transcription with the original as part of his preparations for its publication. He promised to return the Codex to the Monastery intact and as soon as it was requested, but at the same time referred to additional conditions stated in an earlier letter from the then Russian Ambassador to the Porte, Prince Lobanov, to the Monastery. Dated 10/22 September 1859, this letter refers to Tischendorf’s assertion that the community at Saint Catherine’s wished to donate the Codex to the Tsar. As the Donation could not be taken for granted, the Ambassador recognized that up and until, and always provided that it would be realized, ownership of the manuscript remained with the Holy Monastery, to which the manuscript ought to be returned, at its earliest request. In their reply to Lobanov, dated 17/29 September, the community expressed their support for Tischendorf in his endeavours and devotion to the Tsar, but made no explicit reference to the issue of donation.

What happened next is in its essentials now clearly documented. After further intense study of the Codex in Russia, Tischendorf published his lavish print facsimile edition in 1862. This edition was presented to its dedicatee and funder, Tsar Alexander II, at a formal audience in Zarskoje Zelo on 10 November 1862. At the same occasion, the Codex was also handed over by Tischendorf, his scholarly work completed. For the next seven years the manuscript remained in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saint Petersburg; only in 1869 was it moved to the Imperial Library. In that same year, 1869, an act of donation of the Codex to the Tsar was signed first, on 13/25 November, by the then Archbishop of Sinai, Kallistratos, and the synaxis of the Cairo metochion, to which the Codex had been transferred in 1859, and second, on 18/30 November, by Archbishop Kallistratos and the synaxes of both the Cairo metochion and the Monastery of Saint Catherine’s itself.

Yet recent research has also brought to light a wide range of perspectives on each of these key events. In relation to the loan, conflicting evidence has emerged as to whether a donation to the Tsar was part of the original intention of all involved in the agreement of 1859. As for the ten years between the receipt and the act of donation, this period has become increasingly recognised as one of great complexity and difficulty for Saint Catherine’s. Most notably, the death of Archbishop Konstantios at Constantinople in 1859 was followed by a protracted vacancy of the Archiepiscopal Throne, as well as by a very turbulent period of succession. Although elected by the Brotherhood to succeed Konstantios as Archbishop, Kyrillos Byzantios was refused consecration as such by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. At length, it became possible for Kyrillos to be consecrated by the Patriarch of Constantinople, and hence, to be recognized by the political authorities of the Ottoman Empire, to which, at the time, Egypt belonged. Yet, very soon afterwards, Kyrillos’s actions led to a severance with the Brotherhood, to his repudiation by them, and to their election of a new Archbishop, Kallistratos. The latter was duly consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, but not recognised by either the other Patriarchs and Orthodox Churches or the political authorities, since they continued to consider Kyrillos, who resided in Constantinople after his disavowal by the Brotherhood, as the legitimate and rightful Archbishop. Finally, in 1869, Kallistratos achieved recognition as Archbishop by all canonical and state authorities. The concurrent resolution of such an apparently intractable situation and of the status of the Codex, both through Russian diplomacy, has been variously interpreted. There is certainly evidence to suggest that Russian diplomats directly connected their intervention over the Archiepiscopal succession with the official donation of the Codex by the Monastery to the Tsar. A policy of protracted obstruction, inconstancy and wavering adopted by the Monastery proved ineffectual in that it led to the Donation of 18/30 November.

Yet, the travels of the Codex did not end there. By the summer of 1933, it had become known in Britain that the Soviet Government of Joseph Stalin wished to raise foreign capital – this to support the second Five Year Plan – by selling the Codex through the London booksellers Maggs Brothers. With the strong support of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, the Trustees of the British Museum persuaded the Treasury to support a payment of £100,000 upon delivery of the Codex to London. To achieve this, the Treasury had agreed in October 1933 to provide £93,000 from the Civil Contingencies Fund on condition that a public fund-raising appeal was organised by the Museum. The Museum had committed to contribute £7,000 from its own funds. The full sum was paid by cheque to Arcos Ltd, the Soviet Government’s trading company, which was responsible for the delivery of the Codex to Britain. The Codex itself arrived in London on 26 December 1933, and on the following day was delivered to the British Museum, where, after having been checked against the published facsimile, it was put on public display. Championed by the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the former Director of the British Museum Sir Frederic Kenyon, the public campaign raised £46,500 by May 1934. By October of the following year the campaign had returned to the Treasury a grand total of £53,563. A concerted British national effort, focused on the long-term preservation of the Codex, was then brought to an end.

Shortly after the arrival of the Codex in London, concerns about its continuing separation re-emerged. In a telegram, dated 29 January 1934, Archbishop Porphyrios of Sinai asserted the Monastery’s claim to be the ‘sole rightful owner’. In its reply, sent the following day, the British Museum referred the Monastery to the Soviet Government. At the same time the Museum’s director, Sir George Hill, initiated a re-examination of the events of 1859 to 1869. Based on the documentary evidence that the Museum had been able to access (the relevant Russian archives were at that point inaccessible) and a legal opinion from Lord Hanworth, Hill remained confident of the legality of his acquisition. While he faced numerous other expressions of concern over other issues relating to the purchase of the Codex from the Soviets, very few concerns over either their title to it or right to sell it were aired by the British press, governing class, or public. Of greater concern were such issues as the retention by the Russians, almost certainly unintentional, of one tiny fragment of one of the 347 leaves that came to the Imperial Library in 1869.

Over forty years later, in 1975, the Monastery uncovered further, previously unknown parts of the Codex. On 26 May, during the clearance of a chamber underneath Saint George’s Chapel on the north wall of the Monastery, the Skeuophylax Father Sophronios noted a large cache of manuscript fragments. Within these were soon noted several leaves and fragments of the Codex Sinaiticus. Thus, today at the Holy Monastery of Sinai there are to be found, at least, eighteen leaves in their entirety or in fragments, whose provenance is due either to the New Finds of 1975, or from the bindings of manuscripts in which, from time to time, they had been incorporated.

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