Fragment of Christian gospel discovered hidden in medieval manuscript

Using ultraviolet photography, a researcher in Austria has discovered a fragment of the Christian gospels written in Old Syriac. The original text was written in the 6th century, but then later erased and copied over hundreds of years later.

Grigory Kessel, a researcher from the Austrian Academy of Sciences made the discovery and has reported on it in the latest issue of New Testament Studies. It was found in the Vatican Library and is known as manuscript Vat. iber. 4. This palimpsest (a term for a manuscript was erased and reused) was written over twice since it was made – the second time by a Georgian scribe during the second half of the tenth century. It eventually made its way to the monastery of St. Catherine on Sinai.

Image courtesy Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) / Vatican Library

The fragment is one of just a handful of ancient texts that attests to the Old Syriac version of the Christian Gospels. “The tradition of Syriac Christianity knows several translations of the Old and New Testaments,” Grigory Kessel epxlains. “Until recently, only two manuscripts were known to contain the Old Syriac translation of the gospels.” While one of these is now kept in the British Library in London, another was discovered as a palimpsest in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. The fragments from the third manuscript were recently identified in the course of the “Sinai Palimpsests Project“.

The small manuscript fragment reveals a section of the Book of Matthew (Matt. 11.30–12.26) and offers some new insights into how the Gospels were written. For example, while the original Greek of Matthew chapter 12, verse 1 says: “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 Syriac version says: “[…] began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them.”


The fragment found in the Vatican represents about 0.6% of the complete text of the Four Gospels. This leads Kessel to conclude that the original Syriac manuscript was once 160 folios, or sixteen quires, in size.

Claudia Rapp, Director of the Institute for Medieval Research at the OeAW, praises the research. “Grigory Kessel has made a great discovery thanks to his profound knowledge of old Syriac texts and script characteristics,” she says. “This discovery proves how productive and important the interplay between modern digital technologies and basic research can be when dealing with medieval manuscripts.”

The article, “A New (Double Palimpsest) Witness to the Old Syriac Gospels (Vat. iber. 4, ff. 1 & 5),” is published in the journal New Testament Studies. You can read it through the journal’s website or on Grigory Kessel’s page.

You can also view Vat. iber. 4 online at the Vatican Library digital repository.