News on the Dating of the First Gospel

Source: FSSPX News

The Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) has just announced the discovery of a fragment of the Gospel according to St. Matthew presented as the oldest version of a New Testament passage known to date. The traditional hypothesis of an early dating of the first of the Gospels is thus confirmed.

To understand this discovery, it is necessary to go back about 1,000 years. Copyist monks from the Holy Land erased a parchment by scraping it in order to reuse it. This so-called palimpsest technique is explained by the scarcity, and therefore the high price, of materials needed for writing.

Several centuries later, the palimpsest in question became the property of the Holy See, which kept it in the Vatican Apostolic Library. It was there that the researcher Grigory Kessel found it and began trying to recover the texts scraped off by the monks.

The techniquem, using ultraviolet photography, allows the OeAW researcher to unlock the secrets of the parchment which in fact contains two fragments of the Gospel of St. Matthew written in Old Syriac, and which the scientist dates from the 3rd and 6th centuries.

This is a major discovery, as it would be the oldest known version of a New Testament text, as reported by the OeAW on April 6, 2023. In this instance, the “version” in question is in Syriac. The original language of the Gospel of St. Matthew is thought to be Greek, although it is possible that the apostle wrote it first in the Hebrew language. St. Jerome reports having consulted a Hebrew text containing the Gospel of St. Matthew.

As for the Greek original, the Codex Sinaïticus, written on parchment and preserved in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai, is reputed to be the most complete early copy of the Gospels. It dates back to the 4th century. But there are fragments of the older gospels, preserved on papyrus.

One of the fragments brought to light by Grigory Kessel recounts the episode where Jesus’s disciples harvested ears of wheat on the Sabbath day. It thus corresponds to almost all of chapter 12 of the Gospel of Matthew. “Grigory Kessel has made a great discovery thanks to his profound knowledge of old Syriac texts and script characteristics,” rejoiced Claudia Rapp.

The director of the Austrian Academy's Institute for Medieval Research is delighted: “This discovery proves how productive and important the interplay between modern digital technologies and basic research can be when it dealing with medieval manuscripts.”

This Old Syriac version is only the third known fragment of the Gospel in that language. There are more complete Syriac versions but written in a more recent language, the best known being the Peshitta.

This new discovery is important, because it confirms the early dating of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. If the Syriac version discovered by Grigory Kessel dates from the 3rd century, this means that it was already widely distributed in the Middle East at that point, given the time it would have taken to copy a manuscript.

This makes it possible to go back even further in time to the original text in Greek which was used to establish the Syriac text.