July 24, 2008

The disputes that surround the Codex Sinaiticus Bible

Posted at 12:47 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

One may be able to see the Codex Sinaiticus virtually reunited from today. This doesn’t solve the complex four way dispute over its ownership that continues behind the scenes though. The British Museum would do well to remember this case when suggesting that the issue of the Elgin Marbles can be solved by providing the Greeks with copies.

The Times

From The Times
July 24, 2008
Ancient Bible with a murky past is on the path to a new era of clarity

The story of the Codex Sinaiticus Bible, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence, reads like a script from an Indiana Jones film.

Ever since a German explorer controversially removed it from an Egyptian monastery, four countries have fought for control over the ancient manuscript.

From today, extracts from the 4th-century Greek original can be viewed online. Behind the scenes, however, “harsh and negative” discussions continue between Britain, Russia, Egypt and Germany to establish who has the right to the priceless artefact.

The relic was discovered in 1844 at the fortress-like Monastery of St Catherine by Constantin von Tischendorf, a professor at Leipzig University. Tischendorf claimed to have found it in the monastery’s rubbish bins and arranged for its quick transfer out of the country. The Egyptian authorities and many scholars believe that he duped the monks into handing the manuscript to Tsar Aleksandr II, who had paid Tischendorf to recover it.

In 1933 it found its way to the British Library after the Government paid Stalin £100,000 for 347 pages – more than £5million in today’s money. Smaller sections remain at libraries in Leipzig and St Petersburg and at St Catherine’s monastery.

For the first time the British Library will bring all the extracts together. The entire Codex will be available to web users by next July but the Book of Psalms and the Gospel of Mark go online today.

“Being able to access the world’s oldest New Testament at the click of button is of huge value,” said Professor David Parker, a historian involved in transcribing the text for the website. “Hopefully it’ll heal some wounds and move away from the kind of resentment and animosity which has gone on for a terribly long time. For a scholar that was very hard to witness.”

Juan Garces, curator of the Codex project at the British Library, admitted that the manuscript’s ownership was a sensitive issue. “The whole Tischendorf story is in dispute,” he told The Times. “We are now trying to clarify the murky history of the manuscript. No one is sure 100 per cent what happened. Some relevant documents have not been assessed. We are hoping to do that.”

He added: “These disputes, like the Elgin Marbles, tend to be quite harsh and negative.”

Biblical scholars were thrilled at the news that the Codex, divided since 1844, was finally being put back together, albeit virtually. In the past, anyone wishing to examine the document first hand would have had to approach the British Library “on bended knee”, said Christopher Tuckett, a professor of New Testament studies at Oxford University. “To have it available just at the click of a button is fantastic. You could do in two seconds what would take hours and hours of flicking through the leaves,” he said.

The surviving copy of St Mark’s Gospel, handwritten in Greek more than 1,600 years ago, ends abruptly after Jesus’s disciples discover the empty tomb. Mark’s last line has them leaving in fear and makes no mention of the Resurrection.

“It cuts out the post-Resurrection stories,” Dr Garces said. “That’s a very odd way of ending a gospel.”

The Codex’s parchment, which is probably made of cow hide, is arranged in booklets called quirers, which were numbered in sequence. “It was the cutting edge of technology in the 4th century,” Dr Garces said.

The British Library bound its quires into two volumes after acquiring them from the Soviet Union. One is kept on show in a climate-controlled bulletproof display case. Visitors can peer at the ancient book but see only two pages at a time.

Visitors to http://www.codexsinaiticus.org, however, will be able to browse the full text as well as access translations and the thousands of corrections that were made to the Bible.

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