Monday, April 11th, 2022
Subtitle: Constantine, Constantine, and Two of the Four Greatest Bible Manuscripts
Categorize this under ’tis strange and yet true.
Curiously, one name keeps popping to the surface as I research the history of the B-I-B-L-E: Constantine. If you wonder if I am referring to the Roman Emperor by that name, my answer would be a resolute, firm yes. And it would be a much weaker, wimpier yes — a sort of, kind of yes. It would be more of a “yes, I guess, but not exactly.”
Pffft… what kind of yes is that? How can my answer be both resolute, strong yes and a wimpy yes? Why do I deflate my affirmative answer with the words “sort of, kind of, I guess yes”? Well, you see… because both my yes-es are actually true. I need to qualify or generalize my affirmative answer because I am and I am not talking about an individual person. In addition to the man Constantine, I mean just the name Constantine itself. The name Constantine itself “just happens” to reappear at various times and in various incarnations over and over in the history of the publication and transmission of the Bible. As I said, ’tis strange, and yet true.
Do you need to be convinced? Okay, then, follow along.
First of all, and as mentioned previously, I present the man himself: Constantine the Great. Constantine, as you may have learned, was the first Roman Emperor to publicly convert to Christianity. Incidentally, I say “publicly convert” because historians think it possible that at least one prior emperor had privately embraced Christianity. But Constantine went public with his conversion. He let everyone in the empire know that he had rejected the old pantheon of gods for a new triune one. As the first unabashed and publicly-proclaimed Christian Emperor, Constantine set out to improve the standing and reputation of his newly-adopted, once-maligned and persecuted religion. To that end, Constantine recognized the need to draw some clear lines demarcating exactly what Christianity is and what it is not. Thus, he commissioned the first officially sanctioned compilation and publication of the Christian Bible, including all the recognized books of the Old and the New Testaments. The wording of the last sentence really matters a lot. So I will get back to it in a later post. Just know that Constantine wanted an officially recognized Christian Bible available for reference and use throughout the whole Roman Empire. He deemed it necessary to have one standard, official text.
Secondly, I hereby present the immensely important intercontinental city of Constantinople, founded by… guess who? In addition to being the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great decided to move the capitol of the Roman Empire over 850 miles eastward. His new capitol was named after him: Constantine’s capitol was called Constantinople. And it became an important center for commerce and for Christianity (and consequently for the Bible) for the next one thousand years, until the Muslim Turks captured it and renamed it Istanbul. In the history of the Bible, Constantinople matters because it can be marked as the precise place where some of the most important copies of Bible either originated or resided for many centuries before making their escape westward.
Thirdly, I must present a nineteenth-century Prussian Bible hunter serendipitously named… you guessed it: Constantine. His full name was Constantine von Tischendorf. Now, to call him a “Bible-hunter” may sound strange. Still, a Bible hunter is precisely what he was. Constantine Tischendorf traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East searching through libraries and monasteries for the oldest copies of Bible, be they known or merely rumored. Technically, the oldest copies of the Bible are known as manuscripts, because they are hand-written copies. Fortuitously (or should I rather say providentially?), Constantine Tischendorf the manuscript hunter succeeded in finding and recovering not one but two of the world’s most important biblical manuscripts. Those two biblical manuscripts are now known as the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus and the Codex Sinaiticus. He (literally) uncovered the first in Paris, and somewhat accidentally discovered the second while visiting Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. Incidentally, Saint Catherine’s Monastery just happens to be named for Constantine’s mother Catherine; but to clarify, I mean Constantine the Great’s mother, not Constantine Tischendorf’s. Tischendorf’s mother’s name was Christiane Eleonore.
So Constantine Tischendorf personally deserves credit for finding and publishing two of the four greatest and most complete biblical manuscripts. And those two great manuscripts may well have been commissioned by none other than Constantine the Great, some scholars suggest. And thus Constantine von Tischendorf (quite possibly) recovered what Constantine the Great once commissioned over 1,500 years before.
While there is much more to this saga of Constantine-to-Constantine Bible transmission, we will sign off here for now, except to say that what you read in your nearest copy of the Bible comes to you courtesy of Constantine.