Sinai monks in historic agreement with British Library over Codex Sinaiticus

Ownership dispute has been set aside for joint study and digitisation of the world’s oldest bible


An emotional reunion took place in the vaults of the British Library last month, when the archbishop responsible for St Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt was shown the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest Bible. The manuscript, which had almost certainly been at the desert monastery from the sixth century onwards and possibly from two centuries earlier, was taken to Russia in the 19th century in controversial circumstances. It is so precious that only four scholars have been allowed full access to the manuscript in the past 20 years.

Archbishop Damianos told The Art Newspaper about the moment when he was finally able to look at the Old Testament. He turned to the Psalms, the pages of which are worn at the edges from the fingerprints of generations of monks. “I felt spiritual shock, a feeling of electricity. I was completely overcome by emotion and a sense of continuity with the past, but also spiritual peace,” the archbishop said.

In a remarkable deal, the Greek Orthodox monks of Sinai and the British Library have agreed to set aside their differences on the question of who is the manuscript’s rightful owner and will now work together to digitally reassemble the Codex Sinaiticus. The British Library owns the main part of the manuscript, which is claimed by St Catherine’s, but in 1975 the monks discovered 12 more leaves which had been left behind in the monastery. The University of Leipzig library and the National Library of Russia, which have further sections of the codex, are also co-operating.

A formal agreement between the four parties was signed in London on 9 March, following years of delicate negotiations. Although hurdles remain to be overcome, the project could provide a model which might be used to handle other restitution claims faced by libraries and museums around the world.


The Codex Sinaiticus project will, for the first time, give full access to what is arguably the world’s most important single Christian manuscript (the Dead Sea scrolls are earlier, but they comprise numerous manuscripts and only cover the Old Testament). The Codex Sinaiticus is also the earliest known book, in the sense of a substantial bound volume.

The manuscript arrived in Russia unbound, and was rebound in the UK in 1935. Although originally in one very large volume, it is now in two: the Old Testament is kept in the vaults and the New Testament is on permanent show in the library’s Ritblat Gallery, currently open at the concluding verses of St John. On this page, ultraviolet light has recently revealed that the last verse was originally omitted, and a concluding design was later blotted out and the missing words added.

Although a very scarce facsimile was published in Oxford in 1911-22, its quality is unsatisfactory for a detailed examination of the text.

The codex was written by three scribes, and the use of computer images that reveal details invisible to the naked eye may well make it possible to determine who made the corrections. Some are contemporary with the original manuscript, while others are later. The texts will be examined in depth. For instance, in Codex Sinaiticus the Gospel of St Mark ends at chapter 16, verse 8, with the discovery that Christ’s tomb was empty, although later Bibles have another 12 verses on the Resurrection. The study may well transform our understanding of the development of early Biblical texts.

Restitution claim

Last month’s agreement is remarkable because the Codex Sinaiticus has long been the subject of a restitution claim. St Catherine’s Monastery believes that the manuscript was wrongly taken by the German scholar Constantine Tischendorf in the mid 19th century. All parties have now agreed to participate in international historical research, to document how the codex left Sinai.

“We want to discover the truth, even if it turns out not to support our position. But if at the end of the research there is no firm evidence either way, then we reserve the right to maintain our claim”, says Archbishop Damianos.

The British Library takes a similar position, expressed in more secular terms. Clive Field, collections director, put it succinctly in a private meeting with the monks: “Complete transparency, depth of scholarship; that is our commitment.”

The key question to be addressed is the arrangement which the Czar’s government negotiated with St Catherine’s. This is assumed to be reflected in a letter sent on 18 November 1869 by Archbishop Callistratus of St Catherine’s. Only brief extracts of the letter have been published, and it is also unclear whether it was signed by all the monks, which the present archbishop argues would have been necessary for such an important decision.

This letter is believed to be in the archives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since Tischendorf was acting as an agent for the Czar. Astonishingly, the Russian authorities recently refused a request to open the file, but the hope is that it will be supplied now that the director of the National Library of Russia is behind the project. Letters written by Tischendorf to his wife from Egypt also survive with his descendants in Germany, and it is hoped that Leipzig University library may be able to facilitate access to these.

The British Library describes the Codex Sinaiticus Digitisation Project as a “blockbuster of scholarship”. It encompasses four main strands: conservation, digitisation, transcription and scholarly commentary. On the conservation front, the section most in need of work are the 12 leaves discovered at Catherine’s in 1975, since these are cockled and fragile, and have never been conserved. The main part of the text, in London, is in remarkably good condition. Only after conservation, can digitisation be undertaken.

The text will be transcribed, and translated into English, German, Spanish and modern Greek. There will be a full scholarly commentary on the texts, along with a history of the manuscript. The facsimile and commentary will then be published in various forms: on the web, in a CD-Rom and in a high-quality printed facsimile, as well as in popular publications. The four-year project will cost £680,000, and £150,000 has already been committed by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sinai monks in historic agreement with British Library'