Secrets of Mount Sinai The Story of Finding the World's Oldest Bible by James Bentley (Orbis, £12.95).
FAR the longest and most Important and interesting part of this book is taken up with the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus in the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai by Constantin Tischendorf in 1844, and his gradual prising of it away from the monks, until it ended up in the British Museum.
It is a fascinating story, perhaps especially because of its disedifying aspects. Dr Bentley will not accept the famous story that Tischendorf found the first leaves of the Codex in a rubbish basket, but considers this to be part of the systematic propaganda by which the scholar denigrated the owners of the Codex as ignorant and obscurantist, in order to justify his alienation of the priceless work.
Another disedifying aspect is that Tischendorf says nothing about these first 43 leaves in his published works until he has secured the whole of the Codex; no doubt he was anxious to avoid any other scholars being alerted to the treasure. The most scandalous part of the story is the underhand means by which Tischendorf persuaded the monks to part with the Codex, as a loan which he promised to give back on the first time of asking, ostensibly for him to check the printing of a facsimile.
They consistently refused to give the manuscript away, until they were finally bribed in 1868 by the paltry sum of £1350, and the promise of support for one candidate against another in the struggle for a new superior. The result of this sculduggery has been a century of justified suspicion of scholars' attempts to discover about the manuscript treasures of the library of St Catherine's, even at the finding of a new chache of manuscripts in 1971 a suspicion which has considerably delayed the release and publication of these finds.
It is a pity that this story is supplemented by attempts to add spurious journalistic interest to the Codex Sinaiticus. One can pardon a few journalistic superlatives, but there is no need to describe the differences from the previous text of the New Testament as "nearly shocking" (page 23), or to claim that the variations in the text "force us to reconsider... the resurrection of Jesus Christ himself" (ibid).
The book would have been better also, If it had been filled out, not with accounts of various papyrus finds, discovery, of the Dead Sea Scrolls and so on, which have nothing to do with the Sinai, but with more detail of the negotiations with the Tsar and others. The story of the discovery and of the characters involved Is rich enough without these additions. It Iforms not only an important chapter in the history of the improvement of the text of the Bible, but also an important chapter in modern Church history.