Recovering a Bible Treasure

CENTURIES ago, writing materials were not as easily available as they are today. Sheets of parchment and other materials were recycled by scraping or washing off the ink of texts that were no longer needed. The result is known as a palimpsest, a word derived from the Greek, meaning “scraped again.” Even Bible texts were scraped off vellum pages so that these could be reused to record other information.

One important Bible palimpsest is the Codex Ephraemi Syri rescriptus, rescriptus meaning “written over.” This codex is extremely valuable because it is one of the oldest copies of portions of the Christian Greek Scriptures in existence. As such, it is among the best resources for establishing the accuracy of this part of God’s Word.

The Scriptural text that had originally appeared on this fifth-century codex had been removed in the 12th century C.E. and overwritten with a Greek translation of 38 sermons of the Syrian scholar Ephraem. At the end of the 17th century, experts first noted the underlying Bible text. Over the next few years, some progress was made in extracting the original writings from the manuscript. Deciphering all of it, however, proved exceedingly difficult because of the faint and indistinct condition of the erased ink, the tattered state of many of the leaves, and the overlapping of the two texts. Chemicals were applied to the manuscript in an effort to highlight and read the Bible text​—without much success. Most scholars thus concluded that the erased material as a whole was beyond recovery.

 In the early 1840’s, Konstantin von Tischendorf, a gifted German linguist, applied himself to studying the codex. Tischendorf spent two years deciphering the manuscript. What enabled him to succeed when others had failed?

Tischendorf possessed a thorough understanding of Greek uncial script​—consisting of large, separated capital letters. * Endowed with good eyesight, he found that by simply holding the parchment up to the light, he was able to make out the original text. For similar tasks today, scholars use optical aids, including infrared, ultraviolet, and polarized light.

Tischendorf published what he recovered or deciphered of the Codex Ephraemi in 1843 and 1845. This won him a reputation as a leader in Greek paleography.

The Codex Ephraemi is about 12 inches by 9 inches [31 cm by 23 cm], and it is the earliest example of manuscripts with just one column of writing per page. Of the surviving 209 leaves, 145 are of portions of all books of the Christian Greek Scriptures except 2 Thessalonians and 2 John. The remaining leaves bear a Greek translation of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Today, this codex is kept in the National Library at Paris, France. Where the manuscript originated is unknown, although Tischendorf thought that it came from Egypt. Scholars count the Codex Ephraemi as one of a group of four important uncial manuscripts of the Greek Bible, the others being the Sinaitic, the Alexandrine, and the Vatican 1209 manuscripts, all of which date back to the fourth and fifth centuries C.E.

The message of the Holy Scriptures has been remarkably preserved for us in many forms, including palimpsests. Although in this case an unappreciative hand attempted to erase the Bible text, its message survived. This makes more certain for us the apostle Peter’s words: “The saying of Jehovah endures forever.”​—1 Peter 1:25.


^ par. 6 Tischendorf was best known for the discovery, in St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures​—among the oldest ever found. That manuscript is known as the Codex Sinaiticus.

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Codex Ephraemi Syri rescriptus, an important palimpsest deciphered by Tischendorf (1815-1874)



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© Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Codex Sinaiticus, discovered in St. Catherine’s Monastery

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