Medievalist discovers lost words of ancient Syriac Gospel translation on palimpsest manuscript

Around 1,300 years ago in Palestine, a scribe erased a Syriac text inscribed on a book of the Gospels. Parchment was a scarce resource in the desert during the Middle Ages, so manuscripts were frequently erased and reused.

A medievalist from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) has successfully deciphered the lost words on this manuscript, known as a palimpsest. Grigory Kessel discovered that some of the individual surviving pages of this manuscript contained one of the earliest translations of the Gospels, which was originally made in the 3rd century and then copied in the 6th century. The research findings have been published in the journal New Testament Studies.

One of the oldest fragments that testifies ancient Syrian version

Grigory Kessel, a medievalist, has revealed that the tradition of Syriac Christianity has several translations of the Old and New Testaments. Only two manuscripts were previously known to contain the Old Syriac translation of the gospels, with one being held in the British Library in London and the other being discovered as a palimpsest in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. However, fragments from a third manuscript were recently identified during the “Sinai Palimpsests Project.”

Thanks to ultraviolet photography, Kessel was able to identify a small manuscript fragment as the third layer of text in the Vatican Library manuscript. This fragment is now considered the fourth textual witness and the only known remnant of the fourth manuscript that attests to the Old Syriac version, providing a unique gateway to the early phase in the history of the textual transmission of the Gospels.

For example, the Syriac translation of Matthew chapter 12, verse 1 differs from the original Greek. While the Greek version states that 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 version says that they began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them.

Claudia Rapp, director of the Institute for Medieval Research at the OeAW, has praised Kessel’s discovery, stating that it highlights the productivity and importance of the interplay between modern digital technologies and basic research when dealing with medieval manuscripts. The Syriac translation was written at least a century before the oldest surviving Greek manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus. The earliest surviving manuscripts with this Syriac translation date back to the 6th century and are preserved in erased layers, known as palimpsests, of newly written parchment leaves.

Source: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften

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