Friday, February 24, 2012

A Syriac apocryphal gospel manuscript in Turkey?

1,500-year-old handwritten Bible kept in Ankara, ministry confirms

23 February 2012, Thursday / FATMA DİŞLİ ZIBAK, İSTANBUL (Today's Zaman)

The minister of culture and tourism on Thursday confirmed media reports suggesting that a 1,500-year-old Bible that was discovered by Turkish police during an anti-smuggling operation in 2000 is being kept in Ankara today.

According to media reports on Thursday, the Bible was seized from a gang smuggling artifacts during a police operation in southern Turkey in 2010 and reportedly preserves its originality and many traces of the period in which it originated.
The manuscript in the picture (click on the image to enlarge) is too small to be anything like a complete Bible, so this is misleading terminology, although the article does clarify that it seems to be a single text, perhaps an apocryphal gospel. For an actual complete Syriac Bible from about the period indicated, see here.
The gang was reportedly convicted of smuggling various items seized during the operation, including the Bible, and all the artifacts were kept in a safe at an Ankara courthouse. The Bible, which was reportedly kept at the courthouse for years, was only recently handed over to the care of the Ankara Ethnography Museum.

Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay said on Thursday that the ministry has received a copy of Bible from the Ankara courthouse which dates back to 1,500 years ago and is thought to have been written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. He said the Bible needs restoration and it will be opened to public display after this.

The Turkish media reports also said on Thursday that the Vatican has requested that Turkey allow it to examine the 1,500-year-old Bible; however, the Vatican Embassy in Ankara denied the reports on Thursday suggesting that the Vatican had asked Turkey to examine the copy of Bible in Ankara.
This contradicts the report relayed in another Today's Zaman article: 1500-year-old gospel kept in Ankara excites Vatican, report claims. The report does sound fishy. I see no reason why the Vatican should have any special interest in a particular Syriac apocryphal gospel manuscript.
The leather-bound Bible, which is said to be worth TL 40 million, was written on leather sheets and is now under protection as it is regarded as a valuable cultural asset. Even a Xerox copy of pages from the book is reported to be worth as much as TL 3-4 million.
Yeah, right. Someone is getting a little carried away. At today's exchange rate, 40 million TL is about $22.7 million dollars, which is vastly more than any 1500-year-old Syriac manuscript of an obscure apocryphal gospel is going to be worth. And $1.7 to 2.3 million for a photocopy? They print this, with no questioning or hint of irony, with an actual photograph of a page at the top? By this calculation that photo has to be worth a few tens of thousands of dollars, right? Are journalists born without any sense, or do they have to study?

It appears to be a very old (centuries? more?) Syriac manuscript. I can't say any more without taking more time to look at it than I can afford, but at least some of the page looks readable. It appears to be the final page of the manuscript and the bottom paragraph looks like a colophon. I think I can see the word "world" on the third line of the page. If any Syriacologist readers would like to have a closer look and send me what they find, that would be interesting.

Back to the article:
Some media reports also said the copy of Bible in Ankara may be a copy of the much-debated Gospel of Barnabas, which Muslims claim is an original gospel that was later suppressed; the oldest copies of this gospel date back to the 16th century and are written in Italian and Spanish. However, the Gospel of Barnabas is not included in the four gospels that currently comprise the canonical New Testament -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The Gospel of Barnabas contradicts the canonical New Testament account of Jesus and his ministry but has strong parallels with the Islamic view of Jesus. Much of its content and themes parallel Islamic ideas, and it includes a prediction by Jesus of the Prophet Muhammad coming to earth.
The Arabic Gospel of Barnabas is an early modern apocryphal gospel (uniquely?) of Muslim origin. The Wikipedia article (insert usual Wikipedia caveats here) is here. You can read the whole thing (it's long) in translation here. I haven't read it and knew nothing much beyond the name before this report, but it sounds as though it can't be entirely excluded that it contains material from earlier apocryphal traditions, suitably worked over from a Muslim perspective.
Ömer Faruk Harman, a theology professor, said scientific examinations may reveal whether the Bible in Ankara is the Gospel of Barnabas, which he said complies with the messages in Muslim holy book of Quran and is believed by Muslims to be the most original copy of Bible.

He said in line with Islamic belief, the Gospel of Barnabas treats Jesus as a human being and prophet not a God, rejects trinity and crucifixion of Jesus and includes a prediction about Prophet Muhammad’s coming to Earth. About the prospects of whether the Bible could be the Gospel of Barnabas, İhsan Özbek, a Protestant pastor, said this is unlikely because St. Barnabas lived in the first century and was one of the Apostles of Jesus, but the Bible in Ankara is said to be from the fifth or the sixth century.

“The copy in Ankara might have been written by one of the followers of St. Barbanas and since there is around 500 years in between St. Barnabas and the writing of the Bible copy [in Ankara], Muslims may be disappointed to see that this copy does not include things they would like to see and it might have no relation with the content of the Gospel of Barnabas,” said Özbek.
If the date of the manuscript is correct, I would say that is likely.
Aydoğan Vatandaş, a Today’s Zaman journalist and author who has written two books on the Gospel of Barnabas, said there is no clue that the Bible mentioned in the Turkish press dates back to 1,500 years ago, but he said it is sure that the Gospel of Barnabas had been written in the Aramaic language and Syriac alphabet.
This manuscript is in Syriac at any rate. The Gospel of Baranabas was presumably composed in Arabic, although, as above, it is perhaps possible it drew on Syriac apocryphal traditions.
“There is only one Gospel that exactly matches this definition: the ‘Gospel of Barnabas’ that was found in a cave in Uludere in Hakkari [now of Şırnak] in the early 1980s by villagers, which I told the story of first as a screenplay in 2005 for a film project, then in my novel in 2007, ‘The Secret of Gospel of Barnabas’ and my investigative journalism book, ‘Apokrifal’ in 2008.”
Oh goody, another manuscript found in a cave.
As a result of his research, Vatandaş said he found that this Gospel was actually preserved by the Special Armed Forces intelligence unit in the 1990s and that some parts of this Gospel were translated by an Aramaic language expert Dr. Hamza Hocagil under the control of the intelligence unit. He said Dr. Hocagil was asked to stop translating it by the Special Armed Forces when it turned out that he had shared sensitive information with journalists at the time.

“Since then we did not know where this Gospel was. After my book about the entire story of this Gospel and the criminal incidents surrounding it, the public’s interest and curiosity has increased and the Turkish military has been the target of several questions about the case. Therefore, I believe that the emergence of this Gospel again is very timely,” he said. Vatandaş also claimed that three other copies of this Gospel written by St. Barnabas are hidden in different locations in the region, so the Gospel in Ankara might be one of these as well.
I am inclined to doubt that the the Turkish intelligence unit of the Special Armed Forces is taking such an interest in this other manuscript, if it exists at all.

This article is so full of nonsense that it is difficult to get much useful out of it. In order of likelihood: The Turish Government has seized an old Syriac manuscript from some smugglers (well done!). This much seems clear. The manuscript may be of late antique date. (Syriac paleographers should be able to comment on the basis of the available photo.) It may be of an apocryphal gospel. (Possible, but no evidence has been produced.) This apocryphal gospel may have some relationship with the much later Muslim Gospel of Barnabas. (Conceivable, but pretty unlikely.) Anything beyond this consists of wild rumors that can be ignored until some verification is produced.

The discovery of an old—perhaps very old—Syriac manuscript is exciting. It's a pity that the story has to presented with such meretricious trimmings.

UPDATE: Maybe it's not even that exciting. Timothy Michael Law reads the date in the colophon as "1500 of our Lord" and suggests that it may be a modern forgery.

UPDATE (25 February): More and related here.

UPDATE (27 February: The text is from the Gospel of Matthew. Peter Williams's analysis is noted here.