Approximately 1,300 years ago, a scribe in Palestine erased a Syriac text from a book of the Gospels due to the scarcity of parchment in the desert during the Middle Ages. This was a common practice of reusing manuscripts during that time period.
Ultraviolet photography reveals lost text from a 1,300-year-old palimpsest
A groundbreaking discovery by a medievalist has unveiled one of the oldest textual witnesses to the Gospels, offering a unique glimpse into the early history of the Bible’s transmission.
The Bible’s story has a new chapter, thanks to the unearthing of one of the oldest textual witnesses to the Gospels. Approximately 1,300 years ago, a scribe in Palestine erased a Syriac text from a book of the Gospels, only to repurpose the scarce parchment. Today, Grigory Kessel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) has restored the hidden words in this layered manuscript, known as a palimpsest, through ultraviolet photography. This technique has revealed one of the earliest translations of the Gospels, originating from the 3rd century and copied in the 6th century.
A Rare Glimpse into the Syriac Christian Tradition
I was fortunate to find a fragment from the fourth manuscript of the Old Syriac Gospels. This time, however, the 6th-c. codex was reused twice: first for the Apophthegmata partum in Greek and later (ca. end of the 10th c.) for a Georgian liturgical book. https://t.co/iRXae8te6B
— Grigory Kessel (@grigory_kessel) March 8, 2023
Kessel explains that several translations of the Old and New Testaments exist within the Syriac Christian tradition. Previously, only two manuscripts containing the Old Syriac translation of the gospels were known, with a third recently identified by the Sinai Palimpsests Project. The discovery of this small fragment, housed in the Vatican Library, represents the fourth textual testimony to the Old Syriac version, shedding light on the earliest phase of the Gospels’ transmission.
Ancient Texts Offer Unique Insights
In contrast to the original Greek of Matthew 12:1, the Syriac translation presents a slightly different version. The Greek text reads: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and his disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat,” the Syriac translation says, “[…] began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them.”
Claudia Rapp, Director of the OeAW’s Institute for Medieval Research, praises Grigory Kessel’s discovery, attributing his success to his extensive knowledge of ancient Syriac texts and script features.
New Testament: Significance of the Syriac Translation
The Syriac translation predates the oldest surviving Greek manuscripts, such as the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, by at least a century. The oldest extant manuscripts with the Syriac translation hail from the 6th century and are also on palimpsests. Rapp concludes, “This discovery demonstrates how productive and important the interaction between modern digital technologies and basic research can be when it comes to medieval manuscripts.”
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