A SCIENTIST FOUND a lost portion of Biblical text about 1,500 years after it was initially written. All he needed was ultraviolet photography equipment and plenty of research know-how.
Announcing the discovery in a paper published in the journal New Testament Studies, medievalist Grigory Kessel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW or Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften) found the hidden chapter underneath three layers of text—dubbed a double palimpsest—thanks to ultraviolet photography.
The new find represents one of the earliest translations of the Gospels.
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The long-hidden chapter—an interpretation of Matthew chapter 12—was originally translated as part of what are known as the Old Syriac translations about 1,500 years ago. But thanks to the scarcity of parchment a couple of hundred years later in the region, that parchment was reused, mostly erasing the original translation of the Biblical New Testament. A document like this, where one layer of text hides the erased remains of another, is called a palimpsest. The Kessel find is a double palimpsest because the parchment was then used a third time.
“Until recently, only two manuscripts were known to contain the Old Syriac translation of the Gospels,” Kessel says in a news release. One resides in London’s British Library and the other was a palimpsest discovery at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. In what is known as the “Sinai Palimpsests Project,” a third manuscript was recently unearthed. Kessel’s find marks the fourth, a translation from the 3rd century text likely copied in the 6th century. The parchment was housed in the Vatican Library.
“Grigory Kessel has made a great discovery thanks to his profound knowledge of old Syriac texts and script characteristics,” Claudia Rapp, director of the Institute for Medieval Research at the OeAW, says in a news release.
While fragments of New Testament text date back to the original writings from the 3rd century, the oldest known surviving complete manuscript of the New Testament is the Greek Codex Sinaiticus, dated to the 6th century.
OeAW says Syriac translations can date from before the 6th century, but are mostly found in palimpsests, preserved in the erased layers of parchment. “This discovery proves,” Rapp says, “how productive and important the interplay between modern digital technologies and basic research can be when dealing with medieval manuscripts.”
Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. He covers stadiums, sneakers, gear, infrastructure, and more for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews have included sit-downs with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Tinker Hatfield in Portland.
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