Plundering Egypt of its historical treasures was once the privilege and pastime of the imperial powers, grounded in a patronizing assumption of moral and intellectual superiority. It resulted in the theft from the Monastery of St Catherine of its greatest treasure: the Codex Sinaiticus.
Through a process of textual and historical analysis, German scholars of the 19th century had thrown doubt on the apostolic origins of the New Testament, arguing that the gospels were written at least a generation or two after the events they described and subjected to later editorial mischief while only four of the thirteen letters attributed to Saint Paul were actually written by him. This was too much for Lobegott Friedrich Constantin Tischendorf, the most brilliant biblical scholar of his age, who believed fervently in the literal truth of the bible. By using the same methods of textual and historical analysis as his opponents, coupled to a search for ancient manuscripts, he was determined to reveal the earliest, unadulterated form of the scriptures to demonstrate their divine inspiration in the time of Jesus.
In 1844, his mission brought him to the monastery of St Catherine where the pompous Lutheran scholar felt only contempt for the learning of the monks and sneered at their warmth and hospitality, despite the plum brandy generously offered him. The Saxon Protestant could not appreciate the raw spirituality of Eastern monasticism.
Though lacking the benefits of a German university system, the monks’ library was a treasure house of ancient manuscripts. It was here that Tischendorf discovered some leaves of parchment from the Old Testament with an extraordinary note on one leaf in which a scribe claimed to have checked the manuscript against the original biblical texts (now lost) of Origen, thus linking a work of the early 4th century with the authority of the great Alexandrian scholar working at the beginning of the 3rd century. Tischendorf was ecstatic and claimed to have rescued forty three parchment leaves from a pile of over a hundred that were destined for the fire. An implausible story given that the monks had preserved the manuscripts for over fifteen hundred years. Tishendorf’s report is yet a further example of his campaign to denigrate the monks.
He was now determined to get his hands on the rest of the manuscript, and to achieve this end, he sought the assistance of the Czar of Russia, protector of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Czar agreed to finance the trip in return for any valuable manuscripts that might be unearthed. On returning to the monastery in 1859, Tischendorf had little luck in tracking down the manuscript and was on the point of leaving when a young steward showed him a codex of 346 parchment leaves that he had been reading in his cell. This was it! The original collection from which he had removed the earlier leaves, including a complete New Testament, two uncanonical books, The Epistle of Barnabas and visionary book, The Shepherd, along with half of the Old Testament. Already stung by his earlier behaviour, however, the monks rebuffed his requests to remove the manuscript and only allowed him to copy it out under severe restrictions.
A dispute, however, between St Catherine’s monastery and the other Eastern Orthodox Churches played into Tischendorf’s hands. The patriarch of the monastery had recently died and all the abbots of the sister monasteries had met to elect a new one. Their choice had fallen on Cyril, but he needed to be ratified and ordained by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who refused to comply. Tischendorf offered to intercede with the Czar on their behalf if they would offer the Codex as a gift in return. Despite the pressure, the monks declined. The most they were ready to concede was to offer it as a loan. It was with this agreement that the Codex was sent to Russia with a promissory note, signed by Tischendorf, to return it after completing a facsimile copy. The letter is now on display in the Monastery museum.
The Codex was never returned! As a result of internal wrangling, Cyril soon lost his position as Head of the Monastery and the Czar was quick to exploit the new situation by agreeing to back the new choice, Kallistratus, on the condition that the monastery forgo the return of the Codex and accept a sweetener of 9000 roubles. The deal tied up, Tischendorf was raised to the hereditary Russian nobility to become von Tischendorf and the monastery received a facsimile copy as compensation.
While Tischendorf’s nefarious dealings deprive him of any moral standing in the affair, his hopes of confirming the existence of a divinely sanctified text were also dashed. With typical Teutonic thoroughness, he applied himself to uncovering the original biblical text under all the slips of the pen, omissions and corrections but failed to arrive at an unequivocal original. Most notoriously, the Codex was missing the final eleven verses of the Gospel of St Mark which spoke of witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. This omission has since become the centre of an enduring dispute about the divine inspiration of these critical verses. Since there is no reference to them in any writings of the holy fathers before the 5th century, and since they are also absent from the only other 4th century codex, the Codex Vaticanus, most biblical scholars judge them to be a later Biblical addition.
In Tennessee, however, The Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following continues to see these verses as a divine injunction, and in obedience to verse 18, preachers grab poisonous snakes in witness to their faith. The founder of the Church, George Hensley, survived until seventy-five before succumbing to a poisonous bite, but some of his followers have not been so lucky.
With the coming of the Russian Revolution, the Codex lost it’s prestige in the eyes of the atheist government and was sold to the British Museum for a quick buck while Von Tischendorf’s hereditary peerage vanished in the ashes of Russia’s aristocratic regime.
Mark Chapter 16 (the missing verses)
9. Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
10. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.
11. And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.
12. After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
13. And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.
14. Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.
15. And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
17. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
19. So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.
20. And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.