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The critic who found the Codex Sinaiticus

18 September 2015

John Court reads a first-person account of how a great 19th-century discovery was made, with a new introduction

Constantine Tischendorf: The life and work of a 19th century Bible hunter
Stanley E. Porter
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT894)


THE year 2015 provides another significant anniversary — the bicentenary of the birth of Constantine Tischendorf on 18 January 1815 at Lengenfeld, south of Leipzig, in Germany. He was to be a pioneer of biblical text criticism, a Bible expert who became a Bible-hunter, searching for earlier manuscripts to reinforce the reliability of the Early Christian message.

His prime discovery — at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, made between 1844 and 1859 — was the fourth-century text of the majority of the Bible, now known as Codex Sinaiticus. The readings of this text, incorporated in the English Revised Version, stimulated no small controversy, for example on the ending of St Mark’s Gospel.

On my bookshelf is a shabby paperback, published in January 1934, Codex Sinaiticus by Dr C. Tischendorf, who is described on the cover as “the discoverer of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript purchased by the British Museum for £100,000”. (Ownership of the Codex had been transferred to the Russian Tsar in 1868. The manuscript was eventually bought by Britain in 1933.)

My paperback contained the graphic account of his quest in Tischendorf’s own words, the frustrations, and the ultimate success.

It is this account that Stanley Porter has rescued for today’s readers, forming 63 pages of this present book. Porter is a specialist in textual criticism, and an enthusiastic promoter of Tischendorf’s achievement, to the benefit of numerous students. He is also the proud owner of one of the original facsimile editions of Sinaiticus (for which Tischendorf from his own expertise carefully created a special type, and selected the best paper).

Porter provides 110 pages of detailed introduction to the life and work of Tischendorf, as well as the background to this narrative of the search, and also a selected bibliography. He tackles controversial issues, such as the treatment of the Sinai monks.

It is interesting to compare this with D. C. Parker’s book on Codex Sinaiticus, published for the British Library in 2010.


Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

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