Unraveling Biblical History in a Monastery

January 14th, 2009  |  by  |  Published in Features, Jan. 2009  |  6 Comments

St. Catharines monestery in Egypt

St. Catharine's monestery in Egypt

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles called Working Conditions, about the unusual work environments in which some University of Hawaiʻi faculty conduct their research.

The images are familiar—a beat up hat, a jeep speeding through the Egyptian desert, the search for ancient objects.

Professor of Classics Robert Littman may not wield a whip or find himself in a pit full of snakes, but, like Indiana Jones, he endures dust and rustic conditions in his quest to bring early treasures into the modern world.

For more than 30 years, Littman has journeyed to the Monastery of St. Catherine, a 6th-century, fortress-like structure at the base of Egypt’s Mount Sinai. He stays for one to two weeks at a time, poring over ancient manuscripts.

“It’s an austere place, very quiet and serene,” he says of the complex where he is working on two manuscripts referred to as Sinai One and Two.

Biblical manuscripts

He has theorized that they are copies, made by the monks at St. Catherine’s in the10th and 15th centuries, of the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest manuscript of the Greek Bible, which contained all of the New Testament, and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Several books in the latter, from Genesis to 1 Chronicles, are missing. “If I can establish that Sinai One and Two contain complete Septuagint copies, we will have important insight into how the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible developed,” he explains, “what was original, what was added and how valid and historically true is the material.”

Throughout history the Bible has undergone numerous changes. “The story of some disciples’ encounter with the resurrected Christ at the end of the Gospel of Mark (16:9–20) does not appear in the Codex Sinaiticus, but was added later,” notes Littman, “appearing in some texts around the 6th century, which was when Christianity was making its decisions about the divinity of Christ.

“As we learn about these changes, we can get a better understanding of the relationship between sacred and secular history and a better interpretation of how people lived and what they believed in those days.”

Monastic life

When Littman first traveled to St. Catherine’s, there were no roads and few people. “I went by jeep and slept in a sleeping bag,” he says.

These days several hundred tourists a day arrive from a Red Sea resort town two-and-a-half hours away. They come to climb Mt. Sinai—where Moses purportedly received the Ten Commandments—and visit the church, museum and a long-lived shrub said to be the burning bush.

The rest of the monastery is off limits, and Littman is one of the few allowed access. He sleeps, breakfasts and sups in a small, stone-floored guest room furnished with a single bed, small table and lamp. He spends 12 hours a day in the library, which contains most of the 2,000 manuscripts handwritten on parchment.

The library was rebuilt in the mid-20th century. Small windows in walls some 30 feet high admit desert dust. There is electricity for lights and dial-up Internet access in the librarian’s office but no air conditioning.

Littman sits at one of the four desks provided for scholars to study manuscripts delivered by and used under the watchful eye of the librarian.

Deciphering and comparing

Littman first transcribes the cursive Byzantine Greek writings into printed text on his computer, adding Greek accents and punctuation. Then he compares passages to other known Greek manuscripts of the Bible and looks for differences, a task that can take many years.

His daily work is interrupted only for afternoon chapel services and a communal lunch with the 25 resident monks. No talk is allowed at mealtime, he notes. He once made the rookie mistake of whispering and was sternly reprimanded.

The Codex Sinaiticus harbors a storied past. A monastery fire, political intrigue involving a German scholar and the Russian tsar and a large-sum payment from Britain to Russia left parts of the ancient text in the hands of four different countries and access to its pages limited.

Thanks to Littman, one of the originators of the international Codex Sinaiticus Project and a member of its Scholarly Edition Working Party, a copy of the entire manuscript, together with hypertext, translation and commentary, is available online.

Based on the Codex Sinaiticus, Littman also produced the scholarly Book of Tobit in Codex Sinaiticus in 2008. It is the first Greek text (with English translation and commentary) of Tobit, a book from the biblical apocrypha, to be published since a version based fragments discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Indy would be pleased.

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  1. Fujio Matsuda says:

    January 15th, 2009at 11:36 pm(#)

    What fascinating work! Does Prof. Littman give pubic lectures on the finndings of his research? I’d like to learn about the genesis of Genesis.

  2. Will Turner says:

    January 16th, 2009at 11:33 am(#)

    This article needs editing — repeated paragraphs and “desert” for “dessert”.

  3. Online Editor says:

    January 16th, 2009at 12:30 pm(#)

    Thanks Will! I removed the repeating paragraphs and fixed the incorrect usage of dessert. Mahalo for your sharp eye!

  4. Online Editor says:

    January 16th, 2009at 12:33 pm(#)

    Fujio – We’ll ask him and get back to you! thank you for your comment

  5. tammy glynn says:

    January 18th, 2009at 12:06 pm(#)

    Bravo Prof. Littman,
    what painstaking and terrribly interesting research!
    your student (2002)

  6. Kay Bate says:

    January 20th, 2009at 4:08 pm(#)

    Dr. Littman is truly one of the most brilliant intellectual minds that I have ever encountered. His patience and perseverance while working on the St. Catherine’s manuscripts show a passion for truth that is inspirational. Several years ago, I attended several excellent lectures on his study of the Bahariya oasis tombs in Egypt and have been fascinated by the way he has combined the study of ancient languages with his extensive knowledge of archeology and long-time interest in medicine. The University of Hawaii is lucky to have a historian of this caliber on staff. Please let us know about further updates on his projects.