Scientists find hidden Bible chapter written more than 1500 years ago

A “hidden chapter” of Bible text written more than 1500 years ago could provide key insights into how the religious text has changed over time, experts say.

The new text comprises parts of Matthew 11-12 in the New Testament written in the ancient Syriac language, giving more details than today’s standard Gospel text.

Scientists uncovered the scripture after applying UV light to a manuscript about ancient Christian stories and hymns housed at the Vatican Library.

The text had been scraped from the parchment, a common practice so new text could be written over it, but the text left traces detectable by UV light.

Garrick Allen, a senior lecturer in New Testament studies at the University of Glasgow, said the discovery gave an insight into the early translations of the Bible.

“This discovery is highly interesting but it isn’t ground-breaking in isolation, mostly because the newly identified text is only fragmentary parts of Matthew 11-12,” Dr Allen said.

“The Syriac translation of the Bible is important on its own as one of the earliest translations from Greek.

“It gives us insight into the earliest stages of the text of the Bible and the communities that produced these translations.”

Justin Brierley, a Christian author, broadcaster and radio host, called the discovery fascinating.

“The discovery of this new fragment of a Syriac copy of the Gospels is yet another example of how rich the manuscript tradition of the New Testament has been over many centuries,” he said.

“It’s also fascinating to note the variation in some of the wording of Matthew’s gospel compared to our received version of the text.

“I often encounter critics who question whether the Bible has been changed over time but the science of textual criticism, aided by discoveries like these, help historians to put together an extremely accurate picture of what the original gospels said.”

Camera IconThe ‘hidden chapter’ of the Bible was found in the Vatican. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

Professor Hugh Houghton at the University of Birmingham’s Department of Theology and Religion, called it a “genuine and important discovery”.

“Until a few years ago we only knew of two manuscript witnesses to the Old Syriac translation of the gospels and now we have four,” he said.

“The value of the early translations is that they were made from Greek manuscripts which no longer survive and may provide some of the first evidence for particular readings.”

Professor Houghton continued: “The find is important for Christians as the evidence from this document will be incorporated in editions of the Greek New Testament and used by editors to reconstruct the earliest form of the text.

“Given how few manuscripts survive from the first centuries, all pieces are welcome in reconstructing the jigsaw puzzle of the history of the text.’

Dr Peter Williams from Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity said: “It’s an exciting discovery. The team that did this are top of their game.”

The new text was discovered by Grigory Kessel, from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who has not yet revealed a complete translation written in ancient Syriac but shared some details.

Scientists have found a ‘hidden chapter’ of Bible text written more than 1500 years ago.
Camera IconScientists have found a ‘hidden chapter’ of Bible text written more than 1500 years ago. Credit: © Biblioteca Apostolica Vatican/supplied

In the Greek version of Matthew chapter 12, verse one 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.”

The more detailed Syriac translation reads: “… began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them.”

The initial text was written around the third century but was erased by a scribe — a person employed before printing was invented to make copies of documents — in Palestine.

This was a common practice because the paper made from animal skin was scarce and needed to be reused.

Writing over scraped-off text creates palimpsests — manuscripts with multiple layers of writing.

UV light has become popular among scientists who hope to uncover secret documents, as the hidden text absorbs the light and glows blue.

It can capture hidden text because parchment soaks in ink. And no matter how often it is reused, the original writings are still imprinted on the paper.

Nic Baker-Brian — of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion — called the new text a “remarkable discovery” and said its significance lied in the small number of variants.

“The example cited already of the disciples ‘rubbing the ears of corn in their hands’ is not attested in the Greek manuscripts for Matthew,” he said.

“The presence of variant readings in the manuscript highlights the diverse nature of early Christianity and reinforces an emerging consensus that ancient Christianity was not fixed and monolithic, rather different versions of stories about Jesus were circulating in the early Church.

“Its existence should remind modern Christians about the diverse history and nature of their religion.”

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