Nearly 1,500 years after it was first written, a “hidden chapter” of a Christian Bible at the Vatican Library has been rediscovered by scientists. The never-before-seen translation was concealed under three layers of text and only became visible after using ultraviolet imaging.
Although scholars had been aware of the manuscript since 1953, it was not officially rediscovered until 2010. Multi-spectral images were taken in 2016 as part of the Sinai Palimpsests Project and in 2020 the photographs were digitized for the Digital Vatican Library. Last year, Dr Grigory Kessel from the Austrian Academy of Sciences began using the digitized images to see beneath the layers of writing and finally recovered the long-lost text.
According to Kessel’s report, the erased section was produced no later than the sixth century CE and therefore represents one of the earliest known translations of the Gospels. It is an interpretation of chapters 11 and 12 from the Gospel of Matthew that were originally part of the Old Syriac version of the Bible. The translation originally dated to the third century CE, before it was copied three centuries later by a scribe in Palestine for this manuscript.
“Until recently, only two manuscripts were known to contain the Old Syriac translation of the gospels,” explained Kessel. One of these manuscripts is now held in the British Library in London and another was discovered in the oldest monastery in the world, St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt.
Due to a scarcity of parchment in Palestine at the time, it was common for scholars to repurpose the pages of bibles by washing or scraping off earlier texts. This manuscript was gradually erased by scribes between the fourth and the twelfth centuries CE.
Researchers believe it can now offer a unique insight into the early history of the textual transmission of the Gospels. The manuscript gives slightly more detail than the Greek translation of Matthew chapter 12: in verse 1 of the Greek translation, a sentence 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,” while the Syriac translation discovered by Kessel ends “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 Austrian Academy of Sciences, remarked that “this discovery proves how productive and important the interplay between modern digital technologies and basic research can be when dealing with medieval manuscripts.”