Today’s Factismal: The Codex Sinaiticus (“paper book from Sinai”) was discovered 156 years ago; we are still discovering new parts today.
There is an old adage that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. For anthropologists, that is doubly true – not only do they look for treasures like the riches of King Tut, but they also dig through piles of trash called middens looking for clues as to how people once lived. And sometimes the two collide.
That was the case for the Codex Sinaiticus. Constantin von Tischendorf was an archeologist that would have made Indiana Jones proud. He was a renowned scholar who read Ancient Greek and Aramaic and who was willing to take long, dangerous journeys in search of priceless manuscripts. And in the Greek monastery at Mount Sinai, he hit the jackpot.
While digging through a trash basket, he found scraps of what appeared to be very old paper with Bible verses written in Ancient Greek. He asked the monks why the papers had been thrown in the trash; you can imagine his horror when he was told that the paper was worthless and being used to start fires! Tischendorf convinced the abbot to give him the paper and not to burn any more old manuscripts until he had an opportunity to look them over. And, though it took him fifteen years and three more trips, he eventually rescued what is widely regarded to be one of the most complete copies of the original Bible ever found.
Known today as the Codex Sinaiticus (“paper book from Sinai”), the ancient text has helped scholars understand how the text has changed over the centuries and to trace the history of the writing of the Bible. It has also shed a strong light on how manuscripts were created in the period of its writing (somewhen between 325 CE and 360 CE). The Codex Sinaiticus was transcribed by at least four different scribes and proof-read by several others; there are literally thousands of hand-written notes in the margins correcting mistakes that had been made.
Interestingly, the work on the Codex Sinaiticus and other ancient manuscripts continues today. The papyrus and vellum of ancient documents has been rained on, scorched by fire, eaten by bugs, and left out in the Sun to fade. As a result, only fragments are readable by scholars. However, their work is being made easier now by citizen scientists who volunteer to identify patterns that the anthropologists can use to translate the works. If you’d like to help, then consider going to Ancient Lives: