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Fragment of ancient Gospels translation discovered in Vatican Library

21 April 2023


Ultraviolet photography reveals the hidden text containing part of St Matthew’s Gospel in Old Syriac

Ultraviolet photography reveals the hidden text containing part of St Matthew’s Gospel in Old Syriac

A FRAGMENT of a fourth manuscript of an ancient translation of the Gospels has been discovered as an “undertext” in the Vatican library.

Ultraviolet photography has revealed that part of a tenth-century Georgian codex in the Vatican Library had been copied over parchment that had been twice recycled, forming a palimpsest, with new text overlaid on to old. Two leaves of the fragment contain undertext from the Old Syriac translation of the Gospels, which was made in the third century, but copied by a scribe on the parchment in the first half of the sixth century.

The Old Syriac translation was buried under another palimpsest of text in Greek, meaning it was twice hidden: a double palimpsest.

The Syriac translation was produced at least one century before the oldest Greek manuscripts that have survived, including the Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest known complete text of the New Testament.

The fragment contains the text of Matthew 11.30-12.26, and offers what is described as a unique insight into the textual transmission of the Gospels. For example, while the original Greek of Matthew 12.1 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”.

The medievalist, Dr Grigory Kessel, who made the discovery, wrote in a paper in the journal New Testament Studies: “The Old Syriac translation is one of the oldest translations of the Gospels, and was produced on the basis of the Greek in the beginning of the third century; hence it predates the standard Syriac translation known as Peshitta. This translation is important because it offers a large number of rare and unique variant readings.

“The finding of a fragment of what can now be considered the fourth manuscript containing the Old Syriac translation is a welcome addition to the corpus of available evidence, and may help to clarify some of the open questions that surround this ancient translation of the Gospels.”

Three other fragmentary manuscripts of Old Syriac translations of the Gospel are in existence: one is held by the British Library; another palimpsest is in St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai; and the third, also a palimpsest, is also in the monastery. This fourth fragment came from St Catherine’s, but went into a private collection, before arriving in the Vatican library.

Dr Kessel, a specialist in Syriac literature and manuscripts from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, hopes that further fragments of the fourth manuscript may yet be discovered.

“As is often the case with manuscripts of St Catherine’s Monastery, we find them scattered today all around the world. Scholars try to trace them, and hence there is a chance that, if some of the missing leaves of that Georgian manuscript are found, we will find among them additional leaves that originally belonged to the Syriac Gospel book containing the Old Syriac translation.”

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