“Clear Light” on the Bible From Russia’s Oldest Library

TWO scholars are on the hunt for ancient Bible manuscripts. They individually travel through deserts and search caves, monasteries, and ancient cliff dwellings. Years later, their paths cross in Russia’s oldest public library, where some of the most exciting Bible discoveries the world has ever known come together. Who were these men? How did the treasures they discovered end up in Russia?

Ancient Manuscripts​—Champions of God’s Word

To meet one of these two scholars, we must go back to the beginning of the 19th century when Europe was being swept by the winds of an intellectual revolution. It was a time of scientific progress and cultural achievement, which promoted a skeptical view of traditional beliefs. Higher critics sought to undermine the Bible’s authority. In fact, scholars were voicing doubts about the authenticity of the Bible text itself.

Certain sincere defenders of the Bible discerned that new champions​—as yet undiscovered ancient Bible manuscripts—​would undoubtedly uphold the integrity of God’s Word. If manuscripts older than those then extant could be found, they would serve as silent witnesses to the purity of the Bible text, even though repeated attempts had long been made to destroy or distort its message. Such manuscripts could also expose the few places where erroneous renderings had crept into the text.

Some of the hottest debates on the authenticity of the Bible raged in Germany. There a young professor slipped away from his comfortable academic life to go on a journey that would lead him to one of the biggest Bible discoveries of all time. His name was Konstantin von Tischendorf, a Bible scholar whose rejection of higher criticism led to notable success in defending the authenticity of Bible text. His first journey to the wilderness of Sinai in 1844 met with unbelievable success. A casual look into a monastery wastebasket revealed an ancient copy of the Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Hebrew  Scriptures​—the oldest one that had ever been discovered!

Exultant, Tischendorf managed to take away 43 sheets. Although he was convinced that there were more, a return visit in 1853 produced only a fragment. Where were the rest? His funds exhausted, Tischendorf sought the patronage of a wealthy sponsor, and he decided to leave his homeland again in search of ancient manuscripts. Before going on this mission, though, he would appeal to the czar of Russia.

The Czar Takes an Interest

Tischendorf may well have wondered what kind of reception that he, a Protestant scholar, would get in Russia, a vast land espousing the Russian Orthodox religion. Happily, Russia had entered a favorable era of change and reform. An emphasis on education had led to the founding of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Library in 1795 by Empress Catherine II (also known as Catherine the Great). As Russia’s first public library, it had made a wealth of printed information accessible to millions.

Hailed as one of the finest libraries in Europe, The Imperial Library did have one drawback. Fifty years after it was founded, the library contained only six Hebrew manuscripts. It could not keep up with Russia’s rising interest in the study of Bible languages and translations. Catherine II had sent scholars to European universities to study Hebrew. After the scholars returned, Hebrew courses sprang up in major Russian Orthodox seminaries, and for the first time, Russian scholars started work on an accurate translation of the Bible from ancient Hebrew into Russian. But they faced a lack of resources and even opposition from conservative church leaders. True enlightenment had yet to begin for those seeking Bible knowledge.

The czar, Alexander II, was quick to appreciate Tischendorf’s mission and extended his patronage. Despite “jealous and fanatical opposition” from some, Tischendorf returned from his mission to Sinai with the rest of the copy of the Septuagint. * Later named the Codex Sinaiticus, it is still one of the oldest Bible manuscripts in existence. Back in St. Petersburg, Tischendorf hastened to the czar’s residence, the Imperial Winter Palace. He proposed that the czar support “one of the greatest undertakings in critical and Biblical study”​—a published edition of the newly found manuscript, which was later placed in The Imperial Library. The czar readily agreed, and an elated Tischendorf later wrote: “Providence has given to our age . . . the Sinaitic Bible, to be to us a full and clear light as to what is the real text of God’s Word written, and to assist us in defending the truth by establishing its authentic form.”

Bible Treasures From the Crimea

Another scholar searching for Bible treasures was mentioned at the outset. Who was  he? A few years before Tischendorf returned to Russia, The Imperial Library received a proposal so unbelievable that it drew the czar’s interest and brought scholars to Russia from all over Europe. They could hardly believe their eyes. Before them was an enormous collection of manuscripts and other material. It numbered a staggering 2,412 items, including 975 manuscripts and scrolls. Among these were 45 Bible manuscripts dating earlier than the tenth century. As incredible as it seemed, all these manuscripts had been collected almost single-handedly by a man named Abraham Firkovich, a Karaite scholar who was then more than 70 years old! But who were the Karaites? *

This question was of great interest to the czar. Russia had extended its borders to encompass territory previously held by other states. This had brought new ethnic groups into the empire. The picturesque Crimea region, on the shores of the Black Sea, was populated by a people who seemed to be Jewish but who had Turkish customs and spoke a language related to Tatar. These Karaites traced their descent from Jews exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. Unlike rabbinic Jews, however, they rejected the Talmud and emphasized the reading of the Scriptures. The Crimean Karaites were eager to present to the czar evidence of their distinctness from rabbinic Jews, thereby giving them a separate status. By presenting ancient manuscripts owned by Karaites, they hoped to prove that they had descended from Jews who had immigrated to the Crimea after the Babylonian exile.

When Firkovich undertook his search for ancient records and manuscripts, he started with the Crimean cliff dwellings of Chufut-Kale. Generations of Karaites had lived and worshipped in these small houses built from the stones carved out of cliffs. The Karaites never destroyed worn-out copies of the Scriptures where the divine name, Jehovah, appeared because they considered such action sacrilege. The manuscripts were carefully placed in a small storehouse called a genizah, meaning “hiding place” in Hebrew. Because the Karaites had deep respect for the divine name, such parchments were seldom disturbed.

Undeterred by the dust of centuries, Firkovich searched the genizah sites carefully. In one, he found the famous manuscript of 916 C.E. Called the Petersburg Codex of the Latter Prophets, it is one of the oldest copies of the Hebrew Scriptures in existence.

Firkovich managed to amass great numbers of manuscripts, and in 1859 he decided to offer his vast collection to The Imperial Library. In 1862, Alexander II helped to purchase the collection for the library for the then enormous sum of 125,000 rubles. At that time, the entire library budget was no more than 10,000 rubles a year! This acquisition  included the renowned Leningrad Codex (B 19A). It dates from 1008 and is the world’s oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Scriptures. One scholar noted that it is “probably the single most important manuscript of the Bible, for it established the text of most modern critical editions of the Hebrew Bible.” (See the accompanying box.) That same year, 1862, Tischendorf’s Codex Sinaiticus was published, to worldwide acclaim.

Spiritual Enlightenment in Modern Times

The library now known as The National Library of Russia houses one of the world’s largest collections of ancient manuscripts. * Reflecting Russian history, the name of the library has been changed seven times over the course of two centuries. One well-known name is The State Saltykov-Shchedrin Public Library. Though the turmoil of the 20th century did not leave the library unscathed, its manuscripts survived intact through both world wars and the siege of Leningrad. How do we benefit from such manuscripts?

Ancient manuscripts are the reliable basis for many modern Bible translations. They allow sincere truth-seekers to enjoy a clear version of the Holy Scriptures. Both the Sinaiticus and the Leningrad codices have made valuable contributions to the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses and released in its complete form in 1961. For example, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica, used by the New World Bible Translation Committee, are based on the Leningrad Codex and use the Tetragrammaton, or divine name, 6,828 times in the original text.

Relatively few Bible readers are aware of their indebtedness to the quiet library in St. Petersburg and its manuscripts, some bearing the city’s former name, Leningrad. Yet, our greatest debt is to the Bible’s Author, Jehovah, who gives spiritual light. The psalmist therefore petitioned him: “Send out your light and your truth. May these themselves lead me.”​—Psalm 43:3.


^ par. 11 He also brought a complete copy of the Christian Greek Scriptures dating back to the fourth century C.E.

^ par. 13 For more information on the Karaites, see the article “The Karaites and Their Quest for Truth,” in the July 15, 1995, issue of The Watchtower.

^ par. 19 Most of the Codex Sinaiticus was sold to the British Museum. Only fragments remain in The National Library of Russia.

[Box on page 13]


In his wisdom, Jehovah has seen to it that his Word, the Bible, has been preserved until modern times. The diligent work of scribes throughout the ages has been involved in its preservation. The most meticulous of these were the Masoretes, professional Hebrew scribes who worked from the sixth to the tenth century C.E. Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Over time, this increased the danger of losing the proper pronunciation as Aramaic replaced Hebrew. The Masoretes developed a system of vowel points to add to the Bible text in order to indicate the correct pronunciation of Hebrew words.

Significantly, the Masoretic vowel points in the Leningrad Codex allow for the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton​—the four Hebrew consonants making up the divine name—​as Yehwah’, Yehwih’, and Yeho·wah’. “Jehovah” is now the most widely known pronunciation of the name. The divine name was a living, familiar term to Bible writers and others of ancient times. Today, God’s name is known and used by millions who acknowledge that ‘Jehovah alone is the Most High over all the earth.’​—Psalm 83:18.

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Manuscript room of The National Library

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Empress Catherine II

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Konstantin von Tischendorf (center) and Alexander II, czar of Russia

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Abraham Firkovich

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Both images: National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg

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Catherine II: National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg; Alexander II: From the book Spamers Illustrierte Weltgeschichte, Leipzig, 1898