The hands that wrote Codex Sinaiticus
In 1846 Constantin Tischendorf, a professor of theology at Leipzig University, brought 43 leaves of an Old Testament manuscript from Egypt back to Leipzig. Originally published as Codex Friderico-Augustanus, the leaves eventually came to be known as part of Codex Sinaiticus. Written in Greek, in biblical majuscule script on large sheets of parchment, the manuscript would most likely once have comprised the entire Bible but is now incomplete, missing a large part of the Old Testament. What survives is half of the Old Testament in Greek (known as the Old Greek or Septuagint), the complete New Testament, the Deuterocanonical books (such as Maccabees), and the New Testament apocryphal books the Epistle of Barnabas and parts of The Shepherd of Hermas. Dated to the 4th century, Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest known manuscript of the entire text of the New Testament and one of the oldest surviving and most complete early copies of the Bible.
Tischendorf had found the manuscript in St Catherine’s monastery, which houses one of the world’s oldest working libraries and sits at the foot of Mount Sinai (after which the manuscript is now named). In 1859, 13 years after his first publication of leaves from the codex, Tischendorf returned from a third visit to the monastery at Mount Sinai, this time carrying the majority of the manuscript. He went to St Petersburg and there published its contents in 1862. The Russian government sold the manuscript to the British Museum in 1934, and since 1999 the manuscript has remained distributed across two continents, the largest portion being held in the British library, with other parts still remaining at Leipzig University, the Russian National Library and St Catherine’s monastery.
There is little known about the manuscript’s origins and history before it found its way into Tischendorf’s hands. Two scholars, H J M Milne and T C Skeat, produced the first book-length study of the codex in 1938. Entitled Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus, Milne and Skeat’s book argued that the whole manuscript was copied by three different scribes. Tischendorf himself had thought there were four scribes (A, B, C and D) and a number of extra correctors. Milne and Skeat based their argument on the handwriting in the manuscript. While the scribes used the same script (biblical majuscule) the researchers identified three individual scribal hands, known as scribes A, B and D.
Dr Dirk Jongkind, who was curator of the British Library’s Codex Sinaiticus Digitisation Project before becoming a Vice Principal of Tyndale House, has spent a lot of time with Sinaiticus. His book Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus, focuses on the three scribes and their scribal behaviour or habits, their cooperation or collaboration, and their characteristic copying errors. The careful eye of the text critic is able to uncover evidence of the three scribes sharing out the tasks and responsibilities involved in creating Codex Sinaiticus, with various hands producing certain pages and correcting others. For example, Scribes A and D can be seen to have worked closely together, their hands alternating throughout the books of 2 Esdras to 4 Maccabees. Throughout the manuscript we find evidence of pages being removed and replaced and various ad hoc attempts to cover up previous mistakes. Despite seeming on the surface to be incredibly neat and organised, the composition of Sinaiticus was an astoundingly complicated operation.