A 1500-year old Aramaic bible in Ankara (Turkey)?

Last week, the Turkish press made much of a bible reportedly recovered from smugglers, supposedly 1500 years old, and now, fortunately, in the possession of the ethnographic museum of Ankara.

The language of the text is said to be Aramaic, the ‘language of Jesus’, and the text is tentatively identified as the Gospel of Barnabas — and these two together, according to the news agency, would make for a very early witness to the Gospel of Barnabas’ claim that Jesus himself predicted the coming of Mohammed, pointing to the latter as the true Messiah.

However, even with the few glimpses of the manuscript that are allowed so far, there is nothing that supports this hypothesis – even if one isn’t convinced by the sound scholarship that has dated the Gospel of Barnabas to the late medieaval period (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Barnabas).

The most important counter-evidence comes from the language and script that very obviously do not belong to the fifth or sixth century, but, as would be my guess, to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century at the earliest. That makes it all the more important to see what the text says, and at least one little piece is easily read by those of us who are used to reading modern Aramaic — see the article posted to the Assyrian newsagency AINA: http://www.aina.org/news/2012022916569.htm. The authors correctly read the one sentence that occurs in all photo’s and videos – probably because it containts the word "1500" .. The further text on the same page is difficult to read, except for the word "Amen" that concludes it. What is clearly readable is the following: 

b-shimmi-t maran payesh kthiwa aha kthawa `al idateh d-rabbane d-dayra `ellaya d-Ninwe, b-she(n)ta alpa w-hammesh ma d-maran

in English:

"in the name of the Lord this book was written by the hands of the monks of the Upper Monastery of Nineveh, in the year 1500 of our Lord."

While this at first sight would suggest that the book dates to the year 1500 (it certainly does NOT say 1500 years old), this is rather unlikely – not only because this type of modern Aramaic, though it did occur occassionally in older manuscripts, became popular only in the mid-nineteenth century, but also because it wasn’t until this period that the East Syriac or Assyrian Christians started to date according to ‘the year of our Lord’ – in the year 1500 they used the Seleucid dating system (and thus would have written this year as the year 1811 of the Greeks (or, of Alexander)).

The question therefore remains if this is indeed a forgery intended to support an Islamic understanding of the history of Christianity, and thus the text indeed contain (parts of) the Gospel of Barnabas (which was rediscovered in Islamic circles in the early 20th c.) and which thus was translated into Modern Aramaic, or is it merely a copy of an old Syriac text that was written for internal Christian use in this same period? Only a full study of the text can bear this out, but several other characteristics make one think of something different from the usual Modern Aramaic or Syriac text of the period.

For one, as said, the dating is strange for this period, as is the attribution to a group of monks in a monastery – in this period manuscripts were always written by one person, who is mentioned by his full name.   

Second, though a reference to the ‘Upper Monastery’ of Nineveh (rather Mosul) is very common in older manuscripts, it always is done in a different way – referring to this monastery’s liturgical and editorial contributions, rather than to its scribal activities.

Third, such a text (the ‘colophon’) would always be found at the end of manuscript, not at the beginning, as appears to be the case here. Again, an indication of an amateur scribe, to say the least.

Fourth, as was noted by the authors of the AINA article, the scribe’s orthography is inconsistent (though not necessarily incorrect) and casual – thus, again, not that of an experienced clerical scribe (who certainly were around in the early 20th c.) 

Fifth, professional scribes would prefer to use the high-level Classical Syriac for texts such as this – a language, however, that few literate men or women in the early 20th century would have been able to actively handle.

Sixth, finally, the text has a strange look (darkened with golden-yellow lettering) that is uncommon in manuscripts of the time. A somewhat similar look has been attested in a few medieaval (Mongol period) manuscripts, and one may venture that the producer(s) of this text (and there seem to more around like this one) may have been aware of these — copying the look to make this one look older. Or even more speculative: the darkening may function to cover an older text under this modern one …

Let us wait and see what comes out of further study (if indeed the text will be made available to scholars – from the Vatican or from elswhere). In the meantime I would advise people not to pay the suggested 20 million Euros. And if the text does indeed belong to the twentieth century, I would happily contribute in trying to understand when, by whom, and why it was produced.

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