Provided by
D.A. LaGue


In 1841, a young scholar sent a letter to his fiancée, ‘I am confronted with a sacred task,’ he wrote, ‘the struggle to regain the original form of the New Testament.’

Lobegott Tischendorf was born in 1815 and was one of the most prolific publishers of Biblical Greek manuscripts in the 19th century. Between 1841 and 1872, he prepared eight editions of the Greek New Testament and twenty two volumes of Biblical manuscripts; he eventually would publish more than 150 books and articles relating to biblical criticism.

His life long pursuit of the original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament began in 1844 when he traveled extensively throughout the Near East. While visiting the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, he happened to see some ancient manuscripts in a waste-paper basket, they were being used to light the monasteries oven. As he examined the leaves, he was astonished to find they were copies of the Septuagint; the Greek translation of the Old Testament commissioned in 250 B.C. Tischendorf recognized this version of the Old Testament as written in an early Greek script dating from the 4th century A.D.. He went on to retrieve 43 such leaves which turned out to be the earliest known copies of the Greek Old Testament.

After convincing the monks to let him purchase the leaves, which contained portions of 1 Chronicles, Jeremiah, Nehemiah and Esther, he returned to the University at Leipzig. As he compared the ancient manuscripts to modern translations, he found that the texts matched almost flawlessly.

His next find would be even more astounding. He returned to the monastery on Mt. Sinai in 1859 under the patronage of the Czar of Russia. The day before he was scheduled to leave, he presented the steward of the monastery with a copy of the modern Septuagint that he had recently published in Leipzig. The steward told him that he already had a copy of the Septuagint and produced, from a closet in his cell, a manuscript wrapped in a red cloth.

Tischendorf could hardly believe his eyes as he unfolded the parchment. Concealing his excitement, he asked if he could stay and look further at the manuscript. The monk agreed and Tischendorf stayed up all night poring over the document. He found it to be beyond his wildest hopes; not only was there an almost complete version of the Old Testament but also an entire Greek New Testament that was completely intact and in excellent condition. What he had spent his life searching for was now before his eyes.

The next morning he tried to buy the manuscript but without success and was forced to leave without the precious treasure. However, upon travelling to Cairo he was introduced to the ruling abbot of the monastery who happened to be in city at the time. Tischendorf convinced him that what the monks held was of incredible significance to the historical validity and reliability of the Bible.

At the Abbots command, Bedouin messengers were sent to bring the manuscript to Cairo where Tischendorf would be allowed to copy it. Working feverishly with hired help, Tischendorf went about copying what has now become known as Codex Sinaiticus; one of the oldest and most important texts of the Old and New Testament.

Through further negotiations Tischendorf was able to secure the entire manuscript as a gift from the monastery at Mt. Sinai to the Czar of Russia. In 1862, on the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of the Russian Empire, the manuscript was published in lavish style. It is now housed in the British Museum.

Matthew 24:35 records the words spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ that, ‘heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away.’

For the past 200 years, the reliability of the Bible has been under constant assault as to its accuracy and validity. It is one of the most scrutinized documents of antiquity and yet it continues to been found amazingly consistent over thousands of years of transmission. New archeological discoveries continue to verify that there is a remarkable, almost word for word, correspondence between what we read today and the earliest known copies of the original autograph books of the Old and New Testament.

Tischendorf’s discoveries could have showed how flawed and corrupted our modern translations have become but they demonstrated the exact opposite. The Christian can wholeheartedly trust that the text before him is an accurate and reliable translation of the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

And as the Word of the God, ‘it is to be believed, as God’s instruction in all that it affirms, obeyed as God’s command in all that it requires, and embraced as God’s pledge in all that it promises.’


Aland, The Text of the New Testament
Metzger. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament
Black, New Testament Textual Criticism
The Columbia Encyclopedia
The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy

** The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy Article X
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

    5 replies to "Historical Renewal Friday: Lobegott Tischendorf"

    • Dan Wallace

      Thank you for the great summary on the greatest discovery made by the greatest New Testament textual critic who has ever lived! This should help many believers to understand the importance of this discipline for their lives and faith.

      I do have a couple of questions and corrections to make, however, about the blog. Your comment that the leaves of the Septuagint “matched almost flawlessly” with modern translations was confusing. Are you saying modern translations of the Septuagint? If so, then this means that the copies of the Septuagint (or LXX) that were already known to exist did not differ significantly from the text of Sinaiticus. That seems to be a bit of an overstatement to me. There are many differences between the manuscripts in these books of the Old Testament. What is the source of your information that says that Tischendorf “found that the texts matched almost flawlessly”?

      Second, although it is true that Tischendorf recorded in his journal that the monks were burning copies of the scriptures in their fires, this has come to be seriously doubted in light of the New Finds Manuscripts. Discovered in 1975 at St. Catherine’s, they reveal that the attitude of the monks and priests in the 1800s toward their manuscripts was preservation at all costs. The library moved from one side of the compound to the other in that era, and when the books were transported several loose leaves were left behind most likely because the monks didn’t know which manuscripts they belonged to. But in 1975, a fire broke out in one of the kitchens close to the old library. When the fire was put out, the monks peered through the charred floorboards of the kitchen floor and saw beneath them a storehouse or geniza, filled with manuscripts. The geniza had been boarded up for more than a century. Once the priests found a way to get into it, they were amazed at what they found: hundreds of manuscripts! After a quarter of a century, a catalogue was produced of the discoveries. It reveals over 1200 manuscripts and speaks of more than 50,000 fragments of manuscripts! Included in the list are 26 leaves from Codex Sinaiticus, from the Hexateuch and apostolic fathers. In other words, the endsof Codex Sinaiticus. The latest manuscript that they discovered was from the eighteenth century. The evidence points to a monasterial modus operandi that speaks loudly against Tischendorf’s claim that the monks were burning books. One suspects that he wrote this so that his removal of manuscripts from Sinai would look like a rescue operation and thereby gain sympathy in Europe.

      Third, although it is often claimed that a gift was given to the monastery for Sinaiticus, it might be better to see this more as hush money. Tischendorf left a note with the monks that said essentially that he was borrowing the manuscript and would bring it back when they requested. The Czar seemed to turn this loan into a gift and decided the manuscript was too precious to send back.

      So, on the one hand, Tischendorf did indeed make a great discovery—the oldest complete New Testament in any language by 500 years! On the other hand, his telling of the story does not seem to completely fit in with the historical evidence. The monks and priests of Sinai need to be absolved of the carelessness they have been accused of.

      Finally, the “almost word for word” correspondence between modern translations and the ancient manuscripts is again a bit of an overstatement. As folks who read Parchment and Pen know, I am a strong defender of the essential reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. But at the same time, even if we had the original documents intact, we would not say that any translation comes close to corresponding almost word for word. And with the hundreds of thousands of textual variants for the New Testament alone—the vast majority of which are inconsequential—I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to speak of word for word accuracy.

    • vangelicmonk

      Great blog entry and great commentary on it Dan. Thanks!!! It is a
      fascinating story.

    • D.A. LaGue


      Interesting comments on Tischendorf – would love to know your source
      materials for the updated opinions. I also have some thoughts/responses
      on your other comments as well – as I am new to blogs (and rather a
      labored typist) – I will need some time to set down my thoughts in an
      ordered fashion. These next two weeks are extremely busy – day and
      evening meetings – look for them the first week of Sept. as I look forward
      to dialogue.

    • Dan Wallace

      D.A., my sources on Tischendorf are essentially four: (1) the New Finds catalog from St. Catherine’s Monastery; (2) discussions with the librarian there about Tischendorf, spanning now several years; (3) my own visit to the monastery in 2002 so I could see for myself what the aura of the place was like; and (4) the handwritten note that Tischendorf wrote to the monastery before he left Cairo in 1859 when he took Sinaiticus with him. That note is not well known to outsiders. But it was genuine and definitely written by Tischendorf.

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