KONSTANTIN VON TISCHENDORF: In Search of Ancient Bible Manuscripts

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Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf [1815-1874]

TischendorfTischendorf was a world-leading biblical scholar who rejected higher criticism, which led to his noteworthy success in defending the authenticity of the Bible text. He was born in Lengenfeld, Saxony, in northern Europe, the son of a physician, in the year 1815. Tischendorf was educated in Greek at the University of Leipzig. During his university studies, he was troubled by higher criticism of the Bible, as taught by famous German theologians, who sought to prove that the Greek New Testament was not authentic. Tischendorf became convinced, however, that thorough research of the early manuscripts would prove the trustworthiness of the Bible text.

Karl LachmannSubsequent to Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) came Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf, best known for his discovery of the famed fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus manuscript, the only Greek uncial manuscript containing the complete Greek New Testament. Tischendorf went further than any other textual scholar to edit and make accessible the evidence contained in leading as well as less important uncial manuscripts. Throughout the time that Tischendorf was making his valuable contributions to the field of textual criticism in Germany, another great scholar, Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) in England made other valued contributions. Among them, he was able to establish his concept of “Comparative Criticism.” That is, the age of a text, such as Vaticanus 1209, may not necessarily be that of its manuscript (i.e. the material upon which the text was written), which was copied in 350 C.E., since the text may be a faithful copy of an earlier text, like the second-century P75. Both Tischendorf and Tregelles were determined defenders of divine inspiration of the Scriptures, which likely had much to do with the productivity of their labors. If you take an opportunity to read about the lengths to which Tischendorf went in his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, you will be moved by his steadfastness and love for God’s Word.

Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

We are indebted to Tischendorf for dedicating his life and abilities to searching through Europe’s finest libraries and the monasteries of the Middle East for ancient Bible manuscripts, and especially for rescuing the great Codex Sinaiticus from destruction. However, our highest thanks go to our heavenly Father, who has used hundreds of men since the days of Desiderius Erasmus, who published the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516, so that the Word of God has been accurately preserved for us today. We can be grateful for the women of the twentieth and now the twenty-first century who have given their lives to this great work as well, such as Barbara Aland.

From the days of Johann Jacob Griesbach (1745-1812), to Constantin Von Tischendorf (1815-1874), to Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-1875), to Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), to Kurt Aland (1915-1994), to Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007),[1] we have been blessed with extraordinary textual scholars. These scholars have devoted their entire lives to providing us the transmission of the New Testament text and the methodologies by which we can recover the original words of the New Testament authors. They did not construct these histories and methodologies from textbooks or in university classrooms. No, they spent decades upon decades in working with manuscripts and putting their methods of textual criticism into practice, as they provided us with one improved critical edition after another. As their knowledge grew, the number of manuscripts which they had to work with fortunately grew as well.

Samuel Tregelles stated that it was his purpose to restore the Greek New Testament text “as nearly as can be done on existing evidence.”[2] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort declared that their goal was “to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can now be determined from surviving documents.”[3] Metzger said that the goal of textual criticism is “to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most nearly conforming to the original.”[4] Sadly, after centuries, textual criticism is losing its way, as new textual scholars have begun to set aside the goal of recovering and establishing the original wording of the Greek New Testament. They have little concern for the certainty of a reading as to whether it is the original.


Rules of Textual Criticism

In the second principal recension of Tischendorf (as enumerated in Reuss 1872), the Introduction sets forth the following canons of criticism with examples of their application (see Tregelles 1854, pp. 119-21):

Basic Rule: “The text is only to be sought from ancient evidence, and especially from Greek manuscripts, but without neglecting the testimonies of versions and fathers.”

  1. “A reading altogether peculiar to one or another ancient document is suspicious; as also is any, even if supported by a class of documents, which seems to evince that it has originated in the revision of a learned man.”
  2. “Readings, however well supported by evidence, are to be rejected, when it is manifest (or very probable) that they have proceeded from the errors of copyists.”
  3. “In parallel passages, whether of the New or Old Testament, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, which ancient copyists continually brought into increased accordance, those testimonies are preferable, in which precise accordance of such parallel passages is not found; unless, indeed, there are important reasons to the contrary.”
  4. “In discrepant readings, that should be preferred which may have given occasion to the rest, or which appears to comprise the elements of the others.”

“Those readings must be maintained which accord with New Testament Greek, or with the particular style of each individual writer.”[5]


Tischendorf and Three of the Most Important Greek New Testament Manuscripts

Codex Sinaiticus - Bible Treasure

Codex Sinaiticus (01, א) alone has a complete text of the New Testament. It is dated to c. 330–360 C.E.

The Codex Sinaiticus Project has described the Sinaiticus as “one of the most important books in the world.”[6] F. J. A. Hort felt that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (as well as a few other early manuscripts) represented a text that reflected the original writing. Textual scholars have repeatedly told the story of how Constantin von Tischendorf rediscovered Codex Sinaiticus. We might begin with a short biography. Tischendorf was born in Lengenfeld, Saxony, near Plauen, in the year 1815. In 1834, he was educated in Greek at the University of Leipzig, and largely influenced by Georg Benedikt Winer. He soon took a special interest in New Testament criticism. However, Tischendorf became troubled by higher criticism of the Bible, which was at the root of German theologians’ efforts to undermine the Greek New Testament as not authentic. To the contrary, Tischendorf was certain that a study of early manuscripts would enable textual scholars to restore the originals. Accordingly, he went on a quest to research all known manuscripts himself, believing that he would find others throughout his travels.

Tischendorf spent four years searching through some of the finest libraries in Europe. It was in May of 1844 that he reached the Monastery of St. Catherine, located 4,500 feet above the Red Sea in Sinai. Gaining access to this impregnable fortress sanctuary was by way of a basket being lowered by a rope through a small opening in the wall.

Tischendorf was given permission to search their three libraries, which produced nothing noteworthy for some days. Then, as he was about to give up and continue his journey, he caught sight of exactly what he was looking for, ancient parchments, which filled a large basket in the hall of the main library. Likely shocking him to his very core, he listened as the librarian told him that they were going to be burned as two full baskets had already met the same fate. He spent hours on the manuscript, poring over the details and Tischendorf was shocked to find 129 leaves from the oldest manuscript that he had ever seen. It was a Greek translation of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. The librarian gave him 43 sheets but denied him the rest.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Tischendorf came back in 1853 when he found a mere fragment of the same manuscript that we now know dates to c. 330–360 C.E. He “deposited in the library of the University of Leipzig, in the shape of a collection which bears his name, fifty manuscripts, some of which convinced him that the manuscript originally contained the entire Old Testament, but that the greater part had been long since destroyed.”[7] Codex Sinaiticus most likely consisted of 730 leaves. It was written in Greek uncial. Some six years later, Tischendorf returned to visit the monks at Mount Sinai for the third time. Just before he was scheduled to leave, he was shown the leaves that he had saved from the fire some fifteen years earlier, but also many others as well. They consisted of the entire Greek New Testament, as well as part of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.

Eventually, Tischendorf was given permission to take the manuscript to Cairo, Egypt, to make a copy, and ultimately, he carried the manuscript to the czar of Russia, to whom it was presented as a gift from the monks. Today, it can be found in the British Museum alongside codex Alexandrinus. Modern textual scholars have identified at least three scribes (A, B, and C) who worked on Codex Sinaiticus, with at least seven correctors (a, b, c, ca, cb, cc, e).[8] James H. Ropes describes the quality of Codex Sinaiticus:

Codex Sinaiticus is carelessly written, with many lapses of spelling due to the influence of dialectal and vulgar speech, and many plain errors and crude vagaries. Omissions by homeoteleuton abound, and there are many other careless omissions. All these gave a large field for the work of correctors, and the manuscript does not stand by any means on the same level of workmanship as B.[9]

National Library of Russia
A two-thirds portion of the codex was held in the National Library of Russia from 1859 until 1933

It can still be said that Codex Sinaiticus is considered one of the most reliable witnesses to the Greek New Testament text. However, it is true that the scribe of Sinaiticus was not as careful as the scribe of the Vaticanus. Not only was he more inclined to errors, but to creative corrections as well. F. J. A. Hort offered a comparison between the scribe of Vaticanus (B) and the scribe of the Sinaiticus (א): “Turning from B to א, we find ourselves dealing with the handiwork of a scribe of a different character. The omissions and repetitions of small groups of letters are rarely to be seen; but on the other hand, all the ordinary lapses due to rapid and careless transcription are more numerous, including substitutions of one word for another.… The singular readings are very numerous, especially in the Apocalypse, and scarcely ever commend themselves on internal grounds. It can hardly be doubted that many of them are individualisms of the scribe himself.”[10]

Codex Vaticanus
Codex Vaticanus (“Book from the Vatican”), Facsimile, Fourth century. It is one of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, which includes the Greek translation of the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as most of the Christian Greek Scriptures.

Codex Vaticanus (03, B) contains the Gospels, Acts, the General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, the Epistle to the Hebrews (up to Hebrews 9:14, καθα[ριει); it lacks 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation. It is written on 759 leaves of vellum and is dated to c. 300–325 C.E.

Arguably, one could say that Codex Vaticanus is the most valuable witness that we have for the Greek New Testament.[11] It is of course named Vaticanus because it has been stored in the Vatican library from a time prior to 1475.[12] For centuries, the Vatican authorities kept the B (03) a private treasure and discouraged work on it by outside scholars. Paul D. Wegner writes, “At the beginning of the nineteenth century Napoleon carried off this codex to Paris with other manuscripts as a war prize, but on his death in 1815 it was returned to the Vatican library. Constantine von Tischendorf applied for and finally obtained permission to see the manuscript in order to collate difficult passages. He copied out or remembered enough of the text to be able to publish an edition of Vaticanus in 1867. Later that century (1868–1881) the Vatican published a better copy of the codex, but in 1889–1890 a complete photographic facsimile of this manuscript superseded all earlier attempts.”[13]


The writing in Codex Vaticanus is “small and delicate majuscules, perfectly simple and unadorned”[14] as Metzger put it. The Greek runs continuously, with no separation between the words, and all letters are an equal distance from one another so that to the modern eye, each line looks like one long word. Some scholars feel that Vaticanus is a little earlier than Sinaiticus because of it having no ornamentation at all, while others feel that Vaticanus and Sinaiticus were among the fifty manuscripts ordered by Constantine the Great. Skeat, however, goes a step further, arguing that Vaticanus was to be a part of the fifty manuscripts but was a reject, “for it is deficient in the Eusebian canon tables, has many corrections by different scribes.[15] Whether Skeat is correct or not, Codex Vaticanus is one of the most important manuscripts for the text of the Septuagint and especially the Greek New Testament.


Tischendorf claimed that Codex Vaticanus was copied by three scribes (A, B, C), suggesting that two worked on the Old Testament while the third copied the entire New Testament.[16]  Kenyon accepted Tischendorf’s view, while T. C. Skeat, who had an opportunity to do a more extensive examination of the codex, contested the position of a third scribe (C) and argued that there were only two scribes, both working on the Old Testament (A and B), and one of them copying the entire New Testament (B).[17] Other paleographers agree with Skeat. Scribe (A) wrote Genesis through 1 Kings (pp 41–334) and Psalms through Tobias (pages 625–944). Scribe (B) wrote 1 Kings through 2 Esdra (pp 335–624), Hosea through Daniel (pp 945–1234), and the entire New Testament.[18] One corrector worked on Vaticanus soon after its writing, and another corrector from the 10th or 11th century worked on the manuscript. The latter corrector traced over the faded letters with fresh ink. However, he also omitted words and letters he judged to be wrong, as well as adding accent and breathing marks. Vaticanus is a representative of the Alexandrian text-type, the Alands placing it in Category I, “manuscripts of a very special quality which should always be considered in establishing the original text …. B is by far the most significant of the uncials.” (Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament 1995, 109, 109)

Codex_ephremi - Codex Ephraemi

Codex Ephraemi (04, C) dates to the fifth century C.E., with 209 leaves surviving, of which 145 contain material from every New Testament book except Second Thessalonians and Second John. It is a noted palimpsest, i.e. a manuscript written over a partly erased older manuscript in such a way that the old words can be read beneath the new. Codex Ephraemi is about 12 inches by 9 inches (31 cm by 23 cm), and it is the earliest example of a manuscript containing just one column of writing on each page.

The Scriptural text that had appeared on this fifth-century codex was removed in the twelfth century, being written over with a Greek translation of thirty-eight sermons of the Syrian scholar Ephraem. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that textual scholars noticed the Bible text beneath. While there was some progress made over the years in trying to decipher the text that lay beneath, it was difficult because of the faint and unclear condition of the ink that had been erased, not to mention the ragged state of many of the leaves, and the other text that overlapped with the original text. In an effort to read the text, some chemicals were applied to the manuscript. Eventually, most textual scholars of the time felt that the erased text was beyond recovery.


However, a name that we have heard before, Konstantin von Tischendorf, went to work on Codex Ephraemi in the early 1840s. It took Tischendorf two years, but he eventual deciphered the manuscript. How was he able to succeed where others had failed? Tischendorf had a good eye for the Greek uncial script and was blessed with excellent eyesight. Moreover, he discovered that if he held the parchment up to the light, the erased text was legible enough for him to make it out. Today scholars would use infrared, ultraviolet, and polarized light to illuminate the ancient text.

Metzger says that even “though the document dates from the fifth century, its text is of less importance than one might assume from its age. It seems to be compounded from all major text types, frequently agreeing with secondary Alexandrian witnesses but also with those of the later Koine or Byzantine type, which most scholars regard as the least valuable. Two correctors referred to as C2 or Cb and C3 or Cc, have made corrections in the manuscript. The former probably lived in Palestine in the sixth century, and the latter seems to have done his work in Constantinople in the ninth century.”[19] Today, Codex Ephraemi is kept in the National Library in Paris, France.

We should be extremely grateful to Tischendorf for devoting his life and his talents to searching endlessly over the entire Middle East for ancient Bible manuscripts and especially for rescuing the great Codex Sinaiticus from certain destruction. Hundreds of men and women have given their lives in order to preserve and restore God’s Word. But our highest thanks go to God, who has seen to it that his Word has been so accurately preserved and restored in the critical Greek texts (WHNU) and the Hebrew texts (e.g., BHS), which we access by way of our literal translations for our benefit today.


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[1] These textual scholars provided us with histories of the transmission of the New Testament text and methodologies. However, we have had dozens of textual scholars who have given their lives to the text of the New Testament. To mention just a few, we have Brian Walton (1600-1661), John Fell (1625-1686), John Mill (1645-1707), Edward Wells (1667-1727), Richard Bentley (1662-1742), Johann Albert Bengel (1687-1752), Johann Jacob Wettstein (1693-1754), Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791), Johann Leonard Hug (1765-1846), Johann Martin Augustinus Scholz (1794-1852), Karl Lachmann (1793-1851), Erwin Nestle (1883-1972), Allen Wikgren (1906-1998), Matthew Black, (1908-1994), Barbara Aland (1937-present), and Carlo Maria Martini (1927-2012).

[2] Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament, 174.

[3] Westcott and Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, 1.

[4] Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, v.

[5] Bibliography of Textual Criticism “T”, http://www.bible-researcher.com/bib-t.html (accessed June 12, 2016).

[6] http://codexsinaiticus.org/en/

[7] When Were our Gospels Written? – Christian Classics .., http://www.ccel.org/ccel/tischendorf/gospels.ii.iii.html (accessed March 28, 2016).

[8] Aland, Kurt; Barbara Aland (1995). The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 107.

[9]  James H. Ropes, “Vol. III: The Text of Acts,” The Beginnings of Christianity, Part I: Acts of the Apostles, ed. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London: Macmillan, 1926), p. xlviii.

[10] Westcott and Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, 246–47.

[11] Kurt Aland; Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 109.

[12] Ibid. 47

[13] Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History Methods & Results (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 260.

[14] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th ed.) (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 67.

[15] Ibid. 48.

[16] Constantin von Tischendorf, Editio octava critica maior, ed. C. R. Gregory (Lipsiae 1884), 360.

[17] Kurt Aland; Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 109.

[18] H.J.M. Milne & T.C. Skeat, “Scribes and Correctors” (British Museum: London 1938).

[19] Bruce M. Metzger; Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th ed.) (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 68.


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