Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Late-antique Gospels in Ge'ez

LATE-ANTIQUE GOSPELS IN GE'EZ: Okay, this one isn't about Aramaic, although I do manage to bring it into the discussion.
Unearthed, the ancient texts that tell story of Christianity

A British bookbinder has restored ancient copies of the gospels dating back to the fourth century, writes Jerome Taylor

Tuesday, 6 July 2010 (The Independent)

for the handful of hardy travellers who make it to the Abuna Garima monastery in Ethiopia's Tigrai Highlands, there is a book that local monks believe holds magic properties.

Kept under lock and key in a bright-blue circular hut at the centre of the isolated monastery, the Garima Gospels are one of the Christian world's oldest and most exquisite treasures. Until recently, scholars had always assumed that the two 10-inch-thick volumes, which are written on goat skin and brightly illustrated, dated back to the early 11th century. But recent carbon-testing has proved what the monks believed all along: the books are among the oldest gospels in existence.

New dating techniques have put the creation of the two books to somewhere between 330 and 650, making them a close contender to being the most ancient complete Christian texts. The only major collection of scripture that is known to be older is the Codex Sinaiticus, a copy of the Bible hand-written in Greek which dates back to the third century. Unlike the Garima Gospels, the Codex includes large chunks of the Old Testament, but the entire work is divided between museums and monasteries in Egypt, Britain, Russia and the USA.

The Garima Gospels, meanwhile, have been in one piece in the same place for the best part of 1,600 years, guarded by generations of monks from Muslim invaders, colonial conquerors and a fire in the 1930s which destroyed their church.

The monks have their own legend about how the gospels came into their possession. They believe they were written by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who arrived in what was then the kingdom of Axum in 494 and went on to found the monastery. According to the monks, Abba Garima finished his exquisite work in a single day because God stopped the sun from setting while he worked.

The Ethiopian Heritage Fund, a British charity which specialises in preserving the myriad of stunning artefacts that fill Ethiopia's monasteries, has recently finished restoring the two books to bring them back to their former glory.


The books themselves are written in Ge'ez, an ancient Ethiopian Semitic language and consist of three manuscripts in two volumes. Both contain the four gospels and one of the volumes has added pages from a 15th century manuscript.

This is being reported as possibly the earliest surviving illustrated Christian text. But it must also be one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of a Ge'ez text. Some important Old Testament pseudepigrapha survive only in Ge'ez, alas only in medieval and early modern manuscripts. These include 1 Enoch (parts also survive in Greek and Qumran fragments of the original Aramaic) and Jubilees (quotes in Greek survive, as well as Qumran fragments of the original Hebrew). This is a very important discovery for Ethiopic studies and it makes me wonder if there might be comparably early pseudepigrapha manuscripts in Ge'ez lying unnoticed somewhere. I hope so.

UPDATE: Title reworded for accuracy (the possible date range seems to be the fourth to seventh centuries).