23 April 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

A fragment with the oldest Syriac translation of the New Testament discovered

A researcher from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with the help of ultraviolet photography, was able to discover a small manuscript fragment of a Syriac translation written in the 3rd century and copied in the 6th century.

A scribe in Palestine erased a book of the Gospels inscribed with a Syriac text about 1,300 years ago. Because parchment was scarce in the desert during the Middle Ages, manuscripts were frequently erased and reused.

The lost words on this layered manuscript, known as a palimpsest, have now been made legible by a medievalist from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (AW). Grigory Kessel found one of the earliest translations of the Gospels, copied in the third in the sixth century, on individual surviving pages of this manuscript. The results are published in the journal Studies in the New Testament.

One of the oldest fragments that testifies ancient Syrian version

“The tradition of Syriac Christianity knows several translations of the Old and New Testaments,” says medievalist Grigory Kessel. “Until recently, only two manuscripts were known to contain the Old Syriac translation of the gospels.” While one of these is now kept in the British Library in London, another was discovered as a palimpsest in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. The fragments from the third manuscript were recently identified in the course of the “Sinai Palimpsests Project”.

Photo: Austrian Academy of Sciences
Photo: Austrian Academy of Sciences

The small manuscript fragment, which can now be considered as the fourth textual witness, was identified by Grigory Kessel using ultraviolet photography as the third layer of text, i.e., double palimpsest, in the Vatican Library manuscript. The fragment is so far the only known remnant of the fourth manuscript that attests to the Old Syriac version – and offers a unique gateway to the very early phase in the history of the textual transmission of the Gospels. For example, while the original Greek of Matthew chapter 12, verse 1 says: “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.”

Syrian translation before codex sınaticus

Claudia Rapp, Director of the Institute for Medieval Research at the OeAW, is also pleased: “Grigory Kessel has made a great discovery thanks to his profound knowledge of old Syriac texts and script characteristics,” she says. The Syriac translation was written at least a century before the oldest Greek manuscripts that have survived, including the Codex Sinaiticus. The earliest surviving manuscripts with this Syriac translation date from the 6th century and are preserved in the erased layers, so-called palimpsests, of newly written parchment leaves.

“This discovery proves how productive and important the interplay between modern digital technologies and basic research can be when dealing with medieval manuscripts,” Claudia Rapp says.

The Sinai Palimpsests Project aims to make the centuries-old valuable palimpsest manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt readable again and available in digital form.

Austrian Academy of Sciences

DOI: 10.1017/S0028688522000182

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