Kevin McGrane on the development of the basket and saved by fire story

Steven Avery

In the Cooper paper

A Review of 'The Forging of Codex Sinaiticus' by Dr W.R. Cooper against detailed background of the discovery of the Codex -
Kevin McGrane

Originally placed here

1844 saved from burning myth - "ich bin in den Besitzgelangt von"

This has a timeline development which can be placed below


Tischendorf's 1844 trip to St Catherine's Monastery

On his first trip to St Catherine's monastery in Sinai in 1844, Tischendorf took away 43 leaves from an uncial parchment manuscript of the Scriptures in Greek,62 and named them 'Codex Friderico-Augustanus' in honour of his patron King Frederick-Augustus II of Saxony. These have ever since been retained in Leipzig and form part of what is now known as Codex Sinaiticus. Tischendorf published a handsome lithographed facsimile of the document in 1846. It was not until 1855, however, that Tischendorf admitted publicly that the leaves were part of a larger collection that he had seen on one of his trips, 'in the vicinity of Egypt', without specifying where. His much later account of his discovery, which appeared in 1860, is a tale that appears to have developed somewhat apart from the truth, and continued to be embellished in the telling throughout the following decade.

Tischendorf's unlikely personal account of his first visit to Sinai is often repeated—that in St Catherine's monastery he came across leaves of a manuscript in a basket of materials ready to be burned and so rescued them from destruction—suggesting that the codex was considered of no value, a worthless manuscript merely fit for fuel.63 Tischendorf tried out this romantic story with the Emperor and Empress of Russia in November 1859, and noticed that it excited shock and amazement.64 He repeated the story in a letter to the Archbishop of Sinai in April I860,65 and incorporated it in published works in Latin that same year.66 It reached a more embellished form in 1862, when such a story would become very useful, and was disseminated in German, French, and English.67 However, the story is best considered as containing unreliable disinformation: few scholars believe it entirely, and it has the support of no witnesses, but the continual denial of the monks there that such ever was the case. Thankfully the tale is not actively promoted by the museums holding parts of the manuscript.

62 Containing parts of 1 Chronicles, 2 Esdras [=Ezra and Nehemiah], Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Esther.

63 In private correspondence to his brother Julius on June 15,1844, he merely states that as a result of his researches at St Catherine's 'I came into possession of ('ich bin in den Besitzge langt von') the 43 leaves, the propriety of which is hardly convincing. There is not the slightest mention of discovering them or finding them in a waste basket, or saving them from the fire.

64 Letter to his wife Angelika from St Petersburg, November 20,1859.

65 Letter to Angelika, April 18,1860, from St Petersburg. In Tischendorf's account to Cyril the Archbishop of Sinai he states that he found the manuscript in a basket in the library in 1844. It is more than a little surprising that the Archbishop had to wait until 1860 to hear the account of the discovery in his own monastery, sixteen years after the event itself.

66 Tischendorf, Notitia editionis Codicis Bibliorum Sinaitici (Leipzig, 1860). Tregelles in a review of the latter work in 1861 gives the English reader the first taste of what is to become the 'canonical' Tischendorf account: the manuscript 'was found (he states) in a basket with other fragments, destined for the fire by the monks.' Tregelles sagaciously distanced himself a little by including the parenthetical 'he states', and with good reason: he had shown Tischendorf letters in 1850 detailing examination of the Codex Sinaiticus in 1845 by the Egyptologist and archaeologist Major Charles Kerr Macdonald, and Tischendorf had deceived Tregelles by positively denying its existence, i.e. Tischendorf claimed certain knowledge that the Codex was not at St Catherine's (which in turn implies that Macdonald was fabricating), rather than he simply did not know whether it was there or not. When in 1862 Tregelles saw the manuscript for himself and compared it with Macdonald's and Uspensky's accounts, he knew for certain that Macdonald's and Uspensky's descriptions from 1845 were correct, and that Tischendorf had misled him for 13 years. It was these letters that mentioned the destruction of old manuscripts by fire, and Tischendorf later used that concept in a different sense to construct his account of the discovery with the romantic element of being saved from certain destruction, as well as justification for his rather dubious removal of the 43 leaves.

Another account (arguably earlier than the Notitia) is found in Vetus Testamentum Graece Iuxta LXX Interpretes, 3rd edition (Leipzig, 1860), which mentions recovery from the basket of waste papers, but does not include mention of the fire.

67 The German original from which the 'canonical' versions were taken in English and French translation is Tischendorf's Aus Dem Heilige Lande (Leipzig 1862), p.108, which reads

‘In der Mitte derm Bibliothek, deren Bücher und Handschriften ringsum auf Regalen aufgestellt waren, stand ein Korb
mit Bestell von verschiedenen alten theilweise verdorbenen handschriften, dergleichen schon zwei,Körbe voll als unbrauchbar ins Feuer geworfen worden waren. In diesem Korbe fand ich zur grössten.Ueberraschung mehrere Fragmente von einer griechischen Bibelbandschrift auf Pergament, in der ich.sogleich eine der ältesten, die es gibt, erkennen musste. Es gelang leicht die Abtretung eines Theils,derselben zu veranlassen.’

The following year the account appears as follows in Waffen der Finsternis wider die Sinaibibel (Leipzig, 1863):

‘Im Mai 1844 stand in der Sinaibibliothek, deren Handschriften und.Bücher auf Regalen aufgestellt waren, auch ein großer Korb mit weggeworfenen Pergamenten,.dergleichen, wie mir der Bibliothekar bemerkte, als er mich zur Untersuchung schreiten sah, schon 2.Körbe voll ins Feuer geworfen worden waren. Aus diesem Korbe nun zog ich zu meinem höchsten,Erstaunen verschiedene alttestamentliche Reste der Sinaibibel hervor. Nachdem mir der geringere.Theil derselben ohne Schwierigkeit bei anscheinender Werthlosigkeit abgetreten worden war,,bemühte ich mich umsonst um die übrigen Fragmente.’

The present reviewer regards it as an element of a disinformation campaign, as part of the Russian government's political manoeuvrings at the time. As other visitors to St Catherine's in the nineteenth century noted, baskets were used to hold disbound sections of manuscripts.
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