Formation & Codification

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus
Codex Sinaiticus
The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai
Codex Sinaiticus; unnumbered bifolium
Ink on parchment; ff. 730 (originally); 363 x 332mm
Passages from the Book of Numbers; Greek
Uncertain provenance (Rome? Caesarea? Alexandria?); fourth century

This most famous and important ancient manuscript of the Bible, named after the place of its discovery, Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa, the Mount of Moses), originally contained the complete Greek Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as at least two early Christian writings later considered not to belong to the New Testament canon, namely the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. Today, portions of the Old Testament have been lost, but the whole of the New Testament has been preserved, and Codex Sinaiticus provides the only complete copy of the Greek New Testament that pre-dates the ninth century. Hence it is also the only complete copy in an uncial script (although Codex Alexandrinus contains portions of every New Testament book).

Constantin von Tischendorf was the first European scholar to see the Codex Sinaiticus and understand its antiquity and importance. On his first visit to the monastery in 1844, he saw 128 leaves of the codex in the library, of which he managed to take forty-three. These were subsequently deposited in the library of the University of Leipzig where he was a Privatdozent (lecturer). Tischendorf returned to the monastery twice more, in 1853, and again in 1859 under the patronage of Alexander II, the Russia Czar, with the aim of discovering further parts of the same manuscript. On this last visit he was shown the rest of the codex, and, recognizing its immense value, undertook first to transcribe it. He then asked to take the original manuscript to Russia, where it would be published for the benefit of scholars, writing his famous promissory note, “This manuscript I promise to return, undamaged and in a good state of preservation, to the Holy Confraternity of Sinai at its earliest request.” Instead, the codex was retained by the Russian Empire, and after the Revolution was sold to the British Museum in 1933. In 1975 additional leaves and fragments of the Codex Sinaiticus were discovered at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

The remains of Codex Sinaiticus are therefore now held in four places: the larger part (347 leaves) is in the British Library; 43 leaves are in the Library of the University of Leipzig; parts of three leaves are held by the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg; and a dozen or more leaves remain at Saint Catherine’s Monastery. The two-best preserved leaves among those at Sinai are illustrated here.

Codex Sinaiticus is believed originally to have contained at least 730 leaves (1460 pages), measuring 381 by 345 millimeters. It was inscribed in four columns per page, and is the only biblical manuscript known in this format, with forty-eight lines to the column (but only two columns per page in Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Job). The manuscript was written by three scribes of very similar hand in a simple, regular, and upright uncial, the letters lacking ornamentation. There is no use of accents or breathing marks, but paragraphs are indicated by a slight extension of the initial letter of the line into the left margin, with the preceding line not filled out to the right margin. Sinaiticus is very heavily corrected. After the scribes finished their work it appears that the manuscript was reviewed and emended before it left the scriptorium. At a later time, perhaps in the sixth or seventh century, the manuscript was again subjected to thorough correction. A colophon at the end of Esdras and Esther indicates that at least some of these later changes were in accordance with “a very ancient manuscript that had been corrected by the hand of the holy martyr Pamphilus.” Pamphilus (240–309) had assembled the great Christian library at Caesarea, which housed many early Christian writings and was rich in biblical materials.

The character of the text of Codex Sinaiticus varies from one book to another, owing to the different manuscripts used as exemplars. In general it represents the Alexandrian text, but an appreciable number of readings, especially in the Gospel of John, are more closely related to the Western textual tradition, of which the principal early witnesses are Codex Bezae and a few earlier papyri (P 29, P 38, P 48).

Codex Sinaiticus incorporates numbers from the canon tables devised by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (ca. 260–ca. 339), and hence the manuscript cannot be dated earlier than the fourth century.

The bifolium illustrated here provides the passage in which Moses, leading the Hebrews through the Sinai desert after the exodus, strikes the rock to bring forth water (Numbers 20:2–13). The hole and pressure marks at the fore-edge of this folio suggest that at some point a tab, possibly of leather, was attached to it so that the codex might be readily opened at this passage, which would naturally have held particular interest for the monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. It may be mentioned in this connection that the Spanish nun, Egeria (or Etheria), a fourth-century pilgrim to the Holy Land, visited Sinai among other sites, and remarked appreciatively in her travel diary (Itinerarium Egeriae or Pereginatio Aetheriae) that at the sacred places it was customary to read the biblical narratives relating to them.
HYG (author bios)

Lake and Lake, 1911-22; Milne and Skeat, 1938; Sevcenko, 1964; Charlesworth, 1981.

« Formation & Codification