Fragment From World’s Oldest Bible Found Hidden In Egyptian Monastery

September 5, 2009

By Jerome Taylor, Religious Affairs Correspondent

A British-based academic has uncovered a fragment of the world’s oldest Bible hiding underneath the binding of an 18th-century book.

Nikolas Sarris spotted a previously unseen section of the Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from about AD350, as he was trawling through photographs of manuscripts in the library of St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt.

The Codex, handwritten in Greek on animal skin, is the earliest known version of the Bible. Leaves from the priceless tome are divided between four institutions, including St Catherine’s Monastery and the British Library, which has held the largest section of the ancient Bible since the Soviet Union sold its collection to Britain in 1933.

Academics from Britain, America, Egypt and Russia collaborated to put the entire Codex online this year but new fragments of the book are occasionally rediscovered.

Mr Sarris, 30, chanced upon the fragment as he inspected photographs of a series of book bindings that had been compiled by two monks at the monastery during the 18th century.

Over the centuries, antique parchment was often re-used by St Catherine’s monks in book bindings because of its strength and the relative difficulty of finding fresh parchment in such a remote corner of the world.

A Greek student conservator who is studying for his PhD in Britain, Mr Sarris had been involved in the British Library’s project to digitise the Codex and quickly recognised the distinct Greek lettering when he saw it poking through a section of the book binding. Speaking from the Greek island of Patmos yesterday, Mr Sarris said: “It was a really exciting moment. Although it is not my area of expertise, I had helped with the online project so the Codex had been heavily imprinted in my memory. I began checking the height of the letters and the columns and quickly realised we were looking at an unseen part of the Codex.”

Mr Sarris later emailed Father Justin, the monastery’s librarian, to suggest he take a closer look at the book binding. “Even if there is a one-in-a-million possibility that it could be a Sinaiticus fragment that has escaped our attention, I thought it would be best to say it rather than dismiss it.”

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