The importance of the written word
St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai is famed for its unique collection of manuscripts. Jill Kamil looks into the wealth of the scriptorium and the plan to update its literary wealth
Deep in South Sinai, snuggled amidst dry gorges and naked valleys, 17 centuries of uninterrupted asceticism in an orthodox monastic centre trace back to the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Never in its long history has St Catherine's Monastery been conquered, damaged, or destroyed. It is famous for its icons and manuscripts, and it is the latter that is about to receive attention.
The Ministry of Culture, in cooperation with the custodians of the monastery, have announced a three-phase project, the first of which includes comprehensive documentation of all the manuscripts -- one of the richest monastic collections in the world and second in importance only to the Vatican.
So far, so good, and I'm glad to hear about the project. But then we get this:
The holy fathers of St Catherine's exercise much secrecy and reserve regarding their heritage, especially their sacred manuscripts. This is largely owing to their unfortunate experience with Konstantin von Tischendorf, a German scholar from the vicinity of Leipzig. He took a precious codex, the oldest translation of the Bible into any language, to old St Petersburg and gave the monks a handwritten note saying that he was taking the work on loan in order to copy it and promising to return it undamaged. The monks counted on the return of the precious codex, but they never saw it again.
The great significance of the Codex Syriacus or the Syrian codex, which is now of international fame, is that it is the only known copy of the Greek New Testament in its original uncial script. It was discovered in 1892 and the text is a palimpsest -- which is to say, a text partly erased so that the parchment on which it was written could be used again, as indeed, it was. In this case, the underlying fifth-century text is now so faded as to be virtually invisible.
This is very confused. The manuscript described in the first paragraph is the Codex Sinaiticus, not the Codex Syriacus. Tischendorf's role and honesty in handling the manuscript continues to be debated. The second paragraph then refers to the palimpsest Codex Syriacus, which is a different manuscript. As one might guess, it is in Syriac (follow the link and scroll down to "The Old Syriac") and therefore isn't in Greek uncial letters or any other kind of Greek letters. Kamil has conflated the two manuscripts and includes information about both as though they were the same.
Then the garbling gets even worse:
Its discovery revolutionalised biblical analysis. Before then, von Tischendorf and other scholars believed the Gospel according to Matthew was earlier than Mark's, and that John and Matthew had been direct eye-witnesses to the events in the life of Jesus. Study of the codex led Tischendorf to think otherwise. Through literary detective work, he studied the order of events in the ancient texts, compared biblical stories, and provided evidence -- subsequently hotly disputed but today generally accepted -- that the Gospel of St Mark was written before those of Matthew and Luke. If this is indeed so, then it is somewhat startling to learn that some of the most treasured biblical stories do not appear in it. Were they, perhaps, later additions? Although it is not known exactly where the codex was written, it was certainly not in the monastery where it was found; it had not then been built.
Marcan priority was first proposed in the 1830s, whereas Tischendorf (at least according to his version of the story) located Sinaiticus at St. Catherine's Monastery piecemeal between 1844 and 1859. Syriacus was located in 1892 by Agnes Smith Lewis and her sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson. The discovery of Marcan priority had nothing to do with Tischendorf and progress on the Synoptic problem was not based on study of Sinaiticus or Syriacus. See Stephen Carlson's Synoptic Problem FAQ and Two-Source Hypothesis website for specifics on the history of research.
Von Tischendorf presented the Syrian codex to then Czar of Russia Alexander II. After Tischendorf's death in 1917, however, the Russian revolution in the same year resulted in financial problems for Russia which caused the precious bible, consisting of 346 folia and a small fragment, to be sold to the British Museum for the then enormous sum of GBP100,000. Little wonder that the monks were subsequently reluctant to let anyone gain access to their library. They have been suspicious of scholars who wish to carry out research in their archives ever since -- even if they hold the highest credentials.
This is Codex Sinaiticus again. Tischedorf died in 1874. At least some of the Codex remains in St. Petersburg.
Then a few paragraphs down:
Among the greatest treasures is Mt Sinai Arabic Codex 151, which is probably the oldest Arabic translation of the Bible from its original Aramaic -- the language in common use for 1,000 years.
It's misleading to say "from its original Aramaic." Only a few chapters of the Bible in Daniel and Ezra (and one verse in Jeremiah) were originally written in Aramaic. I think what she's trying to say is that this Arabic Bible was translated from a Syriac version, as was most literature translated into Arabic.
A little farther down, on the room full of manuscripts rediscovered in 1975:
The horde included ancient biblical texts and other documents, as well as Greek texts in uncial script which shed new light on the history of Greek writing. To their delight the monks recognised some dozen leaves of their sacred Syrian Codex; today the 53 leaves originally purloined by von Tischendorf are preserved in Leipzig, 346 leaves and a fragment are in the British Museum, and the dozen newly-discovered leaves remain at St Catherine's.
This is Codex Siniaticus again. And, again, some material (I don't know how much) remains in St. Petersburg.
The main points of the article -- that St. Catherine's is an incredibly important repository of manuscripts and that the new work on documenting the collections is a good thing -- are correct. But it's a pity that the piece was otherwise so carelessly researched. I thought Jill Kamil was more on top of things than that. I hope next time she deals with New Testament manuscripts and research she'll start by having a look at Mark Goodacre's New Testament Gateway.
UPDATE (3 December): Peter Head comments at Evangelical Textual Criticism.