Ultraviolet rays reveal an ancient translation of the Bible in the Vatican Library

Ultraviolet rays reveal an ancient translation of the Bible in the Vatican Library

An Austrian scientist made a unique discovery: a third-century translation of the Bible into Syriac-Aramaic. The translation, one of the oldest in the world, was discovered in ultraviolet light under a more recent manuscript.

Medieval expert Gregory Kessel made the discovery in the Vatican Library, reports the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). The Syriac-Aramaic text, which is about 1,750 years old, was hidden in a book under the ink of a sixth-century text. This is part of Matthew 12.


In the Middle Ages, manuscripts were very expensive and rare. It was therefore the norm to use papers more often: the old text was removed so that it could be written on again. This manuscript containing several layers of text is called a palimpsest.

Often the ancient text remained more or less visible in such a palimpsest. Today, with modern UV techniques, scientists can often retrieve keywords. This is how Kessel made his discovery.

Fourth manuscript

“Syriac Christianity has different translations of the Old and New Testaments,” Kessel explains on the ÖAW website. “Until recently, we know of only two manuscripts containing Syro-Aramaic translations of the Gospels.”

A third manuscript in this language was recently found in a monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt, making Kessel’s fourth discovery in the world to date. The fragment he discovered in the Vatican Library is also the only known fragment of that manuscript to have survived the test of time.

Great find

According to the ÖAW, this fourth manuscript provides a unique insight into the history of how the Bibles were placed on paper. For example, the original Greek says in Matthew 12:1: “At that time, Jesus was walking through the fields of wheat on the Sabbath. And His disciples became hungry, and began to pluck ears of grain and eat them.” The Syriac-Aramaic text also states that the disciples “wrapped ears of corn with their hands” before eating the grain.

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Claudia Raab, chair of the Institute for Medieval Research at the ÖAW, is delighted with the discovery: “Gregory Kessel made a remarkable discovery thanks to his extensive knowledge of Syriac-Aramaic scripts and the characteristics of the text,” she says. “This result shows the effectiveness of using modern digital technologies in the search for ancient manuscripts.”

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