Thursday, May 22, 2008


People who travel with me to the Holy Land are on pilgrimage. It’s not a vacation; they’re not tourists. It’s a journey of faith, a “touching the wound” experience. Of course, that experience is different for different people. For some, the pilgrimage is not complete until they’ve been to the place where Jesus was born, knelt down, and touched the star that marks the spot (The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). For others, it’s Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. They want to see the Skull and enter the Tomb to make sure it’s really empty. I understand that.

But what constitutes pilgrimage for me? I’ve been there so many times that there’s nothing new anymore. How do I avoid the “Been there; done that” mentality? Part of it lies in the joy I get from experiencing the power of place all over again for the very first time in the eyes of those whom I take with me. I take them to places of faith, read the Scriptures about what happened there, reflect theologically on it with them, and then sing a song of faith and hope with them. I’m already thinking about how I’ll get my little troupe to the next holy site when I turn and see them wasted, undone by the power of the place. I’d been there so many times doing my thing that I forget how powerful it is.

But this time I went to one place that was pilgrimage for me. It was St. Catherine’s in Sinai. The Greek Orthodox monastery was the site, famous to textual critics, where Karl von Tischendorf discovered the fourth century Greek manuscript that has come to be known as Codex Sinaiticus. The story is well-known among Greek scholars. Tischendorf, on mission from the Russian Czar to find holy relics, visited the monastery at St. Catherine’s. The story is that the monks, originally hermetic scholars who copied the Scriptures for centuries before the invention of the printing press, through centuries of isolation had become illiterate. Unaware of what they had, they were warming themselves against the desert chill by tossing manuscripts into the fire. Tischendorf asked to see one of the manuscripts and was stunned to find himself looking at a Greek manuscript of the New Testament older by centuries than anything he’d ever seen before – Codex Sinaiticus. He “borrowed” it and took it to Russia. It was later purchased by the British Museum where it remains to this day (It should be returned to St. Catherine’s!).

As a young textual critic back in the late 70’s, my late teacher, Dr. George Balentine, told me that story and helped me to understand the importance of that find. Codex Sinaiticus, along with Codex Vaticanus, became the core of what would be the basis of a complete reevaluation of the Greek manuscript tradition underlying the English Bible. All modern translations of the Bible are today based on the Greek text preserved in the manuscript tradition of Codex Sinaiticus. For me, going to St. Catherine’s was a “touching the wound” experience.

I stood at St. Catherine’s looking into the ossuary where the scholars’ skulls were lined up like a “great cloud of witnesses” and whispered a prayer of gratitude for those holy hermits who faithfully copied and preserved the Scriptures out in the desert for all those lonely centuries. You should too. Had they not done so, you would not now have a Bible to read. It’s their legacy to you. Something to think about.

No comments: