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Matthew 12:1 was in the news recently after the discovery of a hidden and over- written ancient manuscript in Syriac in the Vatican Library. The finding is important in the sense that the text differs from the currently used texts. For instance, Matt 12:1 depicts the disciples plucking the ears of corns on their way on the Sabbath day and rubbing the husk off on their palms. We rarely find the detail of dehusking in the present day versions. (I remember reading it in one Malayalam version translated directly from Syriac and used by Syrian Catholics of Southern India in the 1960s and 70s). Considering that the disciples were accused of doing forbidden things, i.e harvesting and cleaning the grains on Sabbath, the left-out part of Matt 12:1 is quite significant.

My question therefore is: What are the implications of the recent finding in the Vatican Library in relation to Matt 12:1. Inputs from any denomination are welcome.


The recently published article (Mar 2023) referenced by the news article is A New (Double Palimpsest) Witness to the Old Syriac Gospels (Vat. iber. 4, ff. 1 & 5), a journal article from New Testament Studies which has pictures of the manuscript and the transcriptions in Syriac (open access via Cambridge University Press). The other article from Phys.org referenced by the news article has an interview with the journal article author Grigory Kessel (a specialist in Syriac Studies) who provides the significance of the finding to the lay audience.

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    There's a saying for those writing fiction: "show, don't explain". The same applies here. It would be useful if the question showed explicit quotations of the two different versions of the verse instead of explaining what they say. (Otherwise, it sounds like a good question.) Commented May 24, 2023 at 3:16
  • Thanks, Ray Butterworth for the kind observations. In fact, I failed to find a version exactly conforming to the text as discovered in Vatican Library. Hence the narrative discription. Commented May 24, 2023 at 4:31
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    Help me understand how the described difference in versions adds to or changes the existing story. The point of the story is that the disciples were seen as working on the Sabbath by Jewish religious leaders. Whether picking corn or picking and removing the husk (which is implied even if not mentioned because corn is hard to eat with the husk on) the point of the passage remains the same.
    – David D
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 13:53
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    @T.E.D. Bart Ehrman is a notorious misleader and spreader of false information. I suggest Stanley Porter Fundamentals of textual criticism, and then for a fuller study "The Text of the NT by Metzger and Ehrman".
    – Michael16
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 8:37
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    I also respect him a lot, since he also testifies about the textual perfection of the NT, but in his popular books, he often misquotes and misrepresents facts. His book with Metzger is very old, and authentic, he wasn't a fraud back then and couldn't lie in that technical book. I am just saying never to suggest such highly biased, n advanced books to new readers. It would be harmful and wont make sense to readers.
    – Michael16
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 13:36

4 Answers 4

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Fake News

A scientist said he found a chapter of the Bible hidden for more than 1,500 years.

These misleading articles have been circulating for the last few months as clickbait sensational articles, by misrepresenting facts. They claim that the manuscript reveals a hidden chapter or never before seen text, which imply that some unique textual variant or a textual reading has been discovered. However, in reality the writing within this manuscript was hidden beneath an overwritten text, something which is not rare in ancient manuscripts, where due to scarcity of manuscripts, they had to recycle the existing books; the reading (content) itself is not unknown. The Syrian text is identical with the existing Syrian (Peshitta) Curetonian Gospels, as mentioned in the linked Cambridge article.

Collation of the Gospel text based on the UV images produced by the Vatican library, enables us to establish that the extant text is identical to the Curetonianus (British Library, Add. 14451). Although in a number of instances the Curetonianus and the Sinaiticus agree against the Peshitta (Matt 12.5, 12.6, 12.7a, 12.7b, 12.8, 12.10a, 12.11b, 12.12, 12.13, 12.19a, 12.24b), there is significant evidence to demonstrate the absolute agreement of the Vatican fragment with the Curetonianus as against the Sinaiticus (Matt 12.1b, 12.2, 12.3, 12.4, 12.9, 12.10b, 12.11a, 12.16, 12.17, 12.19b, 12.21, 12.22, 12.23, 12.24a, 12.25).

The variants are so minute to be useful only for the textual critics. The old Syrian translation (Peshitta) is known to be from the third century, and this copy in question dates to under the sixth century. Aina reports:

A medievalist from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) has now been able to make legible the lost words on this layered manuscript, a so-called palimpsest: Grigory Kessel discovered one of the earliest translations of the Gospels, made in the 3rd century and copied in the 6th century, on individual surviving pages of this manuscript. The findings are published in the journal New Testament Studies. One of the oldest fragments that testifies ancient Syrian version

"The tradition of Syriac Christianity knows several translations of the Old and New Testaments," says medievalist Grigory Kessel. "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, which can now be considered as the fourth textual witness, was identified by Grigory Kessel using ultraviolet photography as the third layer of text, i.e., double palimpsest, in the Vatican Library manuscript. The fragment is so far the only known remnant of the fourth manuscript that attests to the Old Syriac version--and offers a unique gateway to the very early phase in the history of the textual transmission of the Gospels

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 translation says, "[...] 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 OeAW, says, "Grigory Kessel has made a great discovery thanks to his profound knowledge of old Syriac texts and script characteristics." The Syriac translation was written at least a century before the oldest Greek manuscripts that have survived, including the Codex Sinaiticus. The earliest surviving manuscripts with this Syriac translation date from the 6th century and are preserved in the erased layers, so-called palimpsests, of newly written parchment leaves.

The additional gloss of "rubbing them in hands" in Matt 12:1 is simply harmonization with Luke 6:1. Maybe such variant exists in some Greek mss as well.

We can observe how misleadingly the source Claudia Rapp exaggerates the value of the Syrian translation by saying the original translation which began in the 3rd century is older than the oldest (full copies of original) Greek, like the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus. These oldest full copies are often misrepresented as the oldest surviving Greek text, as if there are no surviving mss before them.

The '1,500' Year Old 'Bible' and Muslim Propaganda

Since 2010, there have been a hoax being circulated about a secret new 1500 years old Vatican manuscript (Gospel of Barnabas) which predicts Muhammad. This hoax falsely claimed that the 15th century Gospel of Barnabas is 1500 years old. The Gospel of Barnabas was already known, and Muslims leaders like Deedat have circulated and printed it misleadingly to support Muhammad, but this news about the Vatican giving this copy of that medieval forgery to Turkey revived the hoax for the internet among muslims and naive unlearned people.

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    First of all, the question doesn't have anything to do with the Gospel of Barnabas. So that part seems unnecessary (and kind of a weird shot at Muslims out of nowhere). Commented May 26, 2023 at 10:35
  • Second of all: The only way to really judge the significance of the findings would be to look at all discrepancies to current versions, side by side. It is well known that the current versions differ with ancient manuscripts in various other places, such as the ending of the Gospel of Mark (last 13 verses) and the famous interpolation of the word "begotten" in John 3:16 to make it fit with later catholic theology, among others. Thus, it is absolutely conceivable that similar significant discrepancies will be discovered in this latest instance of ancient manuacript findings. Commented May 26, 2023 at 10:38
  • The muslim propaganda is a title from the article linked, and very relevant to the misleading fake news on such "new mss". This manuscript has no new reading, and it is identical with the already known Curetonian Syrian text. The variants are as insignificant that they are helpful only to the serious textual criticism students. I have posted many answers on textual criticism, and I recommend The Text of the New Testament" by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman as the serious level textbook, but you should start with intermediate level books by Stanley Porter etc.
    – Michael16
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 11:09
  • The variants are as insignificant that they are helpful only to the serious textual criticism students. – That I would like to confirm with my own eyes. Do you have a reference? As mentioned, there is clear precedent of additions to the scripture (John 3:16 "begotten") which would leave me anything but surprised if new ones were found. Commented May 26, 2023 at 12:25
  • search for textual or "begotten" user:16757 for various answers of mine on textual criticism. The begotten is a translation error in Latin and English not textual. Read books to learn about textual criticism. Don't rely on fake books and sensational fake articles.
    – Michael16
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 12:30
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The incident in Matt 12:1-7 is also recorded by Mark and Luke. The wording of the first verse is essentially the same in Mark.

However, in Luke 6:1 we have the following record:

One Sabbath Jesus was passing through the grainfields, and His disciples began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them.

Thus, the record discovered in the Vatican library is hardly startling - it had been in Luke all along. This kind of copying error is very common among the gospel accounts - the scribe, while writing one gospel account recalls similar wording in another and writes the text (unwittingly) from the parallel account.

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  • This mss rather strengthens the transmission of Curetonianus as its identical to that. Can you cite all the variants of Curetonianus as listed here: " there is significant evidence to demonstrate the absolute agreement of the Vatican fragment with the Curetonianus as against the Sinaiticus (Matt 12.1b, 12.2, 12.3, 12.4, 12.9, 12.10b, 12.11a, 12.16, 12.17, 12.19b, 12.21, 12.22, 12.23, 12.24a, 12.25)." cambridge.org/core/journals/new-testament-studies/article/…
    – Michael16
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 8:44
  • @Michael16 - have very little information about the Curetonian Gospels
    – Dottard
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 9:49
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    @Michael16 This Peshitta New Testament website enables us to compare the 2 Old Syriac manuscripts (Curetonian and Sinaitic) with the 3 main Greek text editions (Textus Receptus, Westcott-Hort, and official Greek Orthodox) as well as various English Peshitta translation, among others. I checked Matt 12:1, the Curetonian is longer than the Sinaiticus. You can check the other verses. I have yet to find an interlinear website showing both Curetonian and English, but we may be able to do it in Logos. Commented May 24, 2023 at 15:34
  • @Dottard I think this example is not an instance of copying error. Commented May 24, 2023 at 16:23
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    @GratefulDisciple links including one from web archive is given for the Curetonian and English by Francis Crawford Burkitt here syriaca.org/work/9513
    – Michael16
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 16:24
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What are the implications of the recent finding in the Vatican Library in relation to Matt 12:1?

As @Michael16's answer shows, there is no new text discovered. As @Dottard points out, the longer Curetonianus version of Matt 12:1 is already attested in Luke 6:1, so there is no theological significance.

The only significance is what Grigory Kessel says in the conclusion of his journal article that the Curetonianus witness is maybe more authoritative than the Sinaiticus from his study of the UV images of the Vatican fragment (resulting from multi-spectral imaging) uncovering the original Old Syriac gospel manuscript which was erased to reuse the papyrus for another purpose (Apophthegmata Patrum).

Sensationalism and misrepresentation

Therefore, the Business Insider article title "Scientists say they have found a chapter of the Bible hidden under a section of text for more than a thousand years" is sensationalism that can potentially mislead undiscerning reader. Another article not only is guilty of sensationalism (title = "Lost Chapter of the Bible Discovered After 1000 Years, Thanks to UV Light") but also guilty of misrepresentation saying that

An Austrian scientist, Grigory Kessel, has recently uncovered a “hidden chapter" of the Bible that is believed to be 1,750 years old.

BUT Grigory says nothing of the sort, if we read his article carefully. There is no mention of "chapter" or "hidden" there, nor in his interview response in the Phys.org article. These are not worthy of journalistic standard and I agree with @Michael16 that those articles are sensationalist, click-baits, and misrepresentations.

Compare with the more accurate title of the Phys.org article "Fragment of a 1,750-year-old New Testament translation discovered."

Conclusion

While using technology provides us with a better tool for an "archeology of manuscripts", so far the findings reported in that New Testament Studies journal article have not provided any new textual variant, only changing priority of textual witness.

Resources for further study

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Others have noted that the discovery has been sensationalized and it's importance exaggerated. The significance of the extra charge, as in the Luke passage, is to make a stronger accusation against Yeshua: He allows both harvesting and food preparation on Shabbat. The Prushim (Pharisees) interpreted Torah to prohibit both. Kindling a fire is prohibited, but does that mean cooking, by extension, or only the laborious effort of starting a fire where there is none? Does Ex. 16:23 apply to every Shabbat, or does Ex. 12:16 mean the prohibition was only during the period of manna? Is it considered harvesting when one is providing for the immediate need, or is it only harvesting when done for storing up or for commerce? These are not questions of whether to keep Torah, rather how to interpret it. (The issue of theft is not raised because this could reasonably be considered gleaning.) Yeshua's answer was so beautiful because He did not respond with different interpretation. Instead He gave (rare) examples where the letter and the Spirit collide, to demonstrate that the Spirit takes precedence.

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