Key document on Codex Sinaiticus discovered
British Library’s case for ownership strengthened by an agreement signed by the Archbishop of Sinai and a Tsarist official in 1869
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 18 February 2010
london. The British Library’s case for ownership of the disputed Codex Sinaiticus has been strengthened by the discovery of a key document in the archives of the Russian foreign ministry. It is an agreement signed by the Archbishop of Sinai and a Tsarist official in 1869, transferring ownership of the earliest known text of the Bible, dating from around 350AD.
The Codex Sinaiticus remained in St Petersburg until 1933, when it was sold by Stalin to the British Museum Library (now the British Library). Within a month of its arrival in London, St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai asserted a claim to be its “sole rightful owner”. In recent times the monastery has not actively pursued a legal claim, but states that it “laments the loss”.
Until now the existence of the 1869 agreement was suspected, but the Soviet (and later Russian) government had barred access to the file. After prolonged efforts in recent years, a National Library of Russia researcher was allowed to see the document last year, and it was published in January.
The agreement records that the monks of Sinai relinquished ownership of 347 leaves of the Codex Sinaiticus. Signed on 18 November 1869, it states: “We, Callistratus Archbishop of Sinai and the holy congregation of the local fathers present here and the Sinaite hermits, declare, confirm and certify anew the already made donation of the Old and New Testament manuscript of Mt Sinai to His Majesty the Emperor.” The agreement was received by Count Ignatyev, who had met the archbishop in Cairo.
In return the monastery was given a donation of 9,000 rubles (£1,350) and a number of Tsarist decorations. The 347 leaves had originally been taken from St Catherine’s in 1859 as a loan by German scholar Constantine Tischendorf, who was acting for Tsar Alexander II.
The 1869 document is now cited in an agreed statement by St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, the National Library of Russia and the Leipzig University Library, all of which hold sections of the Codex Sinaiticus (by far the largest part is in London). This historical account emphasises that the 1860s represented a period of “great complexity for St Catherine’s”, because of problems relating to the acceptance of two archbishops.
If the 1869 donation is regarded as entirely legal, then so too is the British Library’s ownership, following the purchase of the manuscript for £100,000 in 1933.
Despite different attitudes to the removal of the Codex Sinaiticus in the 19th century, St Catherine’s has co-operated with the three European libraries on a scholarly project to create a digitised version of the manuscript, which went on the web last year. A facsimile of the codex is due to be published by the four institutions in October.
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