III. The Ancient Codices.
The Vatican Codex and the Sinaitic
This brings us to the consideration of those “ancient manuscripts” or “codices” as they are usually called, to which the modern editors have attributed so high a degree of credibility, and by which their decisions in the construction of a Greek Text for the R.V. have been so largely influenced; and especially to the consideration of the two most venerable of all the existing witnesses to the sacred text, namely the Codex Vaticanus, so called because its repository is the papal palace (the Vatican) at Rome, and the Codex Sinaiticus, so called because it was discovered by Tischendorf in a monastery on Mt. Sinai in Arabia.
These Mss. are supposed, from the character of the writing, and from other internal evidences, to date from the fourth century. The next oldest are supposed to date from the fifth century. Hence, upon the generally accepted theory to which we have referred above, the testimony of the two codices just named is to be accepted as decisive in the case of disputed readings. Therefore, the Revisers of 1881 committed themselves to the leading of these two “ancient witnesses.” Did they lead towards or away from the true text of the inspired Writings? That is the deeply important matter into which we propose now to inquire. In addition to the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, there are three other very ancient Mss. These are:
1. Codex Alexandrinus. This Ms. has been kept for a long time in the British Museum in London. It contains all the Gospels (except small parts of Matthew and John) and all the rest of the N.T. except 2 Cor. 4:13-12:6 (fifth century)
2. Codex Ephraemi. kept in Paris, containing only portions of the Gospels, the Acts, Epistles and Revelation (fifth century).
3. Codex Bezae, kept at Cambridge, England, containing nearly all the Gospels and nothing else of the N.T. except portions of Acts (sixth century). It has a very bad reputation, as fully exposed by Dean Burgon. No editor appears to attach importance to it.
The Discovery of the Mt. Sinai Ms.
This famous Codex (with facsmilies of the handwriting, and with an account of its discovery) is published in full in Dr. Scrivener’s work entitled “A Full Collation of the Codex Sinaiticus” (1864).
Constantine Tischendorf, a noted German scholar, who was indefatigable in the quest of old manuscripts, was visiting, in the year 1844, a monastery on Mt. Sinai, and in the course of that visit he chanced to find one day, among the waste, some leaves of vellum which, upon inspection, were found to contain parts I of I the Septuagint Version of the O.T. in a script which indicated that the Ms. was of great antiquity.
In describing his famous discovery Tischendorf says:
“I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket, full of old parchments; and the librarian informed me that two heaps of papers like this, mouldered by reason of age, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find among this heap of documents a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient I had ever seen.”
The monks allowed him to take forty-five of the sheets. But nothing more transpired until fifteen years later, when he again visited the monastery, this time under the direct patronage of the Czar of Russia. And then he was shown a bulky roll of parchment leaves, which included, among other manuscripts of lesser importance, the Codex now known as the Sinaitic.
Naturally enough Dr. Tischendorf was highly elated by his discovery. indeed his enthusiasm was unbounded. He says, “I knew that I held in my hands the most precious Biblical treasure in existence;” and he considered this discovery to be “greater than that of the Koh-i-noor (diamond) of the Queen of England.”
As usual in such cases this important “find” made a great stir, especially amongst those who devote themselves to the study of antiquity. We are all aware of the marked tendency of human nature to exaggerate the importance of every “find”. Examples of this sort greet us from time to time. The discovery of the tomb of an. Egyptian king is regarded as a matter of such supreme interest to all the world, that even trivial details connected with it are cornmunicated by cable to the ends of the earth, and are given prominence in the daily newspapers.
Thus an ancient article recently exhumed from the rubbish of a long buried city will oftentimes start a wave of excitement throughout the world; whereas an article of identical sort, known to have been in existence for some time, would be treated with complete indifference. We need not wonder, therefore, that the great scholar was carried away by his chance discovery, and that he succeeded in impressing upon others also his own idea of the surpassing importance of his “find.”
Dean Burgon, speaking of Tischendorf and his discovery, aptly remarks:
“Happy in having discovered (in 1859) an uncial Codex, second in antiquity only to the oldest before known (the Vatican Codex), and strongly resembling that famous fourth century Codex, he suffered his judgment to be overpowered by the circumstance. He at once remodelled his 7th edition (i.e. the 7th edition of his Greek Text of the New Testament) in 3,505 places, to the scandal of the Science of Comparative Criticism, as well as to his own grave discredit for discernment and consistency.”
Evidently then, Tischendorf was carried off his feet by the subjective influence of his discovery; for he at once surrendered his judgment to this particular Ms. easily persuading himself that, because of its apparent antiquity, and without regard to any other considerations, it must needs be right in every instance where it differed from later manuscripts.
Thus, having fully committed himself to that view, he naturally adhered to it thereafter.
Unfortunately, however, the weight of his great influence affected the whole school of Comparative Textual Criticism. For Dean Burgon goes on to say:
“But in fact the infatuation which prevails to this hour (1883) in this department of sacred science can only be spoken of as incredible.”
And he proceeds to show, by proofs which fill many pages “that the one distinctive tenet of the three most famous critics since 1831 (Lachmann, Tregelles and Tischendorf) has been a superstitious reverence for what is found in the same little handful of early (but not the earliest, nor yet of necessity the purest) documents.
In this connection it should be always borne in mind that those text-makers who profess to adopt as their controlling principle the acceptance on disputed points of the testimony of “the most ancient manuscripts,” have not acted consistently with that principle. For the fact is that, in the compilation of their Greek Texts they have not really followed the most ancient manuscripts, but have been controlled by two manuscripts only. Those two are followed even against the counter evidence of all other available manuscripts, amounting to over a thousand, some of which are practically of equal age, and against the evidence also of Versions and of quotations from the writings of “fathers” much older than the two Codices referred to. But to this feature of our subject we expect to return.