More than 2 billion Christians worldwide base their faith on the New Testament. It is one of the most influential pieces of writing that has ever existed. So, every new discovery about the text has the potential to be a big deal.
That's what Grigory Kessel, a researcher from the Austrian Academy of Science, must have felt when he unearthed a 1,750-year-old translation of the New Testament — one of the oldest that we know about.
Kessel discovered the translation — a fragment of text — by applying ultraviolet light to digitalized images of manuscripts kept at the Vatican Library.
The ultraviolet light allowed Kessel to see layers of text that had been erased and were invisible to the naked eye. He found a text that had been translated from Greek into Syriac in the third century AD. Syriac was a language spoken in ancient Syria.
The fragment of text is one more piece in the complicated puzzle that is biblical history. Such translations allow us to understand how the Bible developed through the centuries, on its way to becoming the most read book in human history.
Where did the newly discovered fragment come from?
Syriac translations of the Bible are among the oldest that exist. "The oldest one of them that has the whole text dates from the fifth century AD,” said Kessel.
There are hundreds of manuscripts of this full translation, and that was the text that he used to compare with the fragment he found in the Vatican Library. "The differences were clear: you find different phrases and words that indicate this is an older translation."
He explains that the fragment was most likely written in what is today northern Iraq, but which was formerly part of Persia, an empire whose state religion was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic belief of the Indo-Iranian tradition.
Christianity was a minoritarian religion whose followers were partially tolerated and partially persecuted. Syriac Christianity was the main form of Christianity in the Middle East, Kessel says, and together with Greek, it was the most important language of the religion's first centuries.
How scientists date ancient manuscripts
Scientists use various methods to date ancient manuscripts. By doing this, they can better understand who wrote it, when it was written, and where.
The materials they are made of, for instance, can tell a lot about when they were written.
Papyrus — which is paper made out of the Egyptian papyrus plant — was mostly used before the third century AD. Afterwards, it was mostly replaced with parchment and vellum, materials made from animal skin. They were of better quality and more durable, which is also the reason why we have a lot more biblical documents from the fourth century AD on.
Another useful clue is the type of handwriting. It will often vary, even from one generation to the next, and paleographers — or experts in historic handwriting — have a very nuanced understanding of how people wrote in specific time periods. They will not be able to point to a specific date, but they can give accurate approximations.
By looking at such indicators, scientists have been able to determine when and where the oldest biblical manuscripts we know about were written. These were produced centuries before the translation found by Kessel, and are manuscripts of the Old Testament, one of the two parts of the Bible.
What do we know about the origins of the Old Testament?
The writings that make up the Old Testament, as it is called in the Christian canon, serve as the basis for world's three biggest monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
"The earliest Old Testament texts we have date from the first century BC. They were written in Hebrew and Aramaic," Christoph Markschies tells DW. He is a professor of ancient Christianity at the Humboldt University in Berlin, as well as president of the Brandenburg-Berlin Academy of Sciences. The texts, he adds, were found in Qumran, an archeological site at the Dead Sea near Jerusalem.
"The documents were written on papyrus by scribes who specialized in making manuscripts. This was done with extreme care, because they were convinced these were holy texts," Markschies said. In Qumran only those considered "pure" were allowed to work on the manuscripts, and impeccable hygiene had to be maintained by constantly washing one's hands. The documents were written by Jewish scribes in a scriptorium, a room used for the purpose of producing manuscripts.
It wasn't until Paul the Apostle, who is believed to have lived from 5 to 65 AD, that the text came to be seen as the first part of the Bible. A second part, including the teachings of Jesus, began to be compiled from the end of the first century AD, and eventually became known as the New Testament.
What about the origins of the New Testament?
According to Markschies, the New Testament gospels were composed around the year 70 AD.
"The earlier transcriptions we have are papyrus from the first half of the second century, which were found in modern day Egypt,” he said.
Compared to other ancient texts, this is a very early transmission. The oldest manuscripts of Plato's teachings, for example, were written centuries after his death.
"These biblical manuscripts were originally in Greek, because that was the main language of the eastern part of the Roman Empire,” Markschies said. Like the aforementioned Old Testament texts, these were most likely written in scriptoria. Such manuscripts were reproduced all throughout the empire.
The oldest complete version of the New Testament we have – the Codex Sinaiticus – dates from 400 AD, according to Markschies. It is one of the three oldest remaining codices which originally contained the entire Bible in Greek. The other two – Codex Vaticanus and Codex Alexandrinus – are from the same time period.
These codices are a significant part of the history of the Bible and its related disciplines. Grigory Kessel and Christoph Markschies are just two of the many academics around the world who dedicate part of their professional lives to learning more about the Bible and contributing to our scientific understanding of this hugely influential book.