Revisiting the Date of the Codex Sinaiticus Syrus (Sinai Syriac 30) – 779 AD, 708 AD, or 698 AD?

Together with the famous Codex Sinaiticus, the Sinaiticus Syrus palimpsest is one of the most important Biblical manuscripts ever discovered at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. This Syriac manuscript, now bearing the shelfmark Sinai Syriac 30, was first brought to the attention of scholars by Agnes Smith Lewis (1843-1926), who analyzed the manuscript in 1892-1893 and briefly described its contents in her Catalogue of Syriac Mss (Lewis 1894: 43-47). Lewis noticed that the manuscript contained several Late Antique Syriac and Greek undertexts. The most important and extensive of these was an old Syriac translation of the Gospels known today as the Vetus Syra (Syrs), which closely resembled the so-called Curetonian version, discovered at Dayr al-Suryān in the 1840s (Cureton 1858). The first edition of the Sinaitic Syriac Gospels was published by Robert Bensly (1831-1893), James Rendel Harris (1852-1941), and Francis Burkitt (1864-1935) in 1894, with an introduction by Lewis (Bensly et al. 1894, later edition in Lewis 1910; see also the facsimile edition by Hjelt 1930, and the synoptic edition by Kiraz 2002). The other undertexts that Lewis correctly identified are (a) the Syriac Acts of Thomas (ed. Lewis 1904), (b) the Six Books on the Dormition of Mary (ed. Brock/Kessel 2017), and (c) an uncial fragment of the Gospel of John in Greek (Jn 7:6-15, 9:17-23, ed. Lewis 1900: 45-46; now known as uncial 0323, on which see Guignard 2015). Lewis described the fourth undertext simply as “a Greek text in sloping uncials” (1894: 47), but Sever Voicu and Vincent Desprez later identified the corresponding folios as belonging to Pseudo-Ephrem’s Sermo asceticus (CPG 3909) and Pseudo-Macarius’/Symeon’s Great Letter (CPG 2415.2), respectively (Voicu 1984; Desprez 2015). Lewis also published the upper text of the manuscript, which consists of a unique collection of women saints’ Lives in Syriac translation (Lewis 1900).

Dating the lower layers of the manuscript is difficult, but the Syriac parts (the Vetus Syra, Acts of Thomas, the Six Books) were most likely produced during the fifth or early sixth centuries. The Greek Gospel fragment 0323 belongs to ca. the fourth-fifth century, while the ascetic treatises of Pseudo-Ephrem and Pseudo-Macarius are somewhat later, probably of the sixth or seventh century.

One other important feature of the Sinaiticus Syrus is the detailed information it offers about the context in which this heterogenous material was reused for a new manuscript. The scribe signed his name more than once in the manuscript, styling himself as “the sinner Yuḥannan the Recluse [ḥbīšā]” (fol. 2v) and “the unworthy sinner Yuḥannan the Stylite [esṭōnāyā]” from the monastery of Mar Conon, near Maʿarrat Meṣrīn, “in the chôra of Antioch” (fol. 181r). The manuscript was thus copied at a monastery in the region of Antioch and only reached Sinai at a later date, perhaps during the ninth or tenth century (an indication may be the Georgian note on fol. 181v: ლ(ო)ც(ვა) ყ(ავ)თ “Make a prayer!”, likely of Sinaitic origin) [see Image 1].

Image 1: Sinai Syriac 30, fol. 181v (high resolution image here)
© Library of Congress Collection of Manuscript Microfilms

Despite its detailed colophon at the end, there has been some debate regarding the exact date at which Yuḥannan the Stylite reused the palimpsest leaves to copy his collection of female hagiography. This uncertainty is caused by a small gap (ca. 3-4 mm wide) on the last parchment folio (fol. 181v), precisely at the point where the scribe mentions the year of the manuscript’s production (see Image 2).

Image 2: Detail of Sinai Syriac 30, fol. 181v, with the background digitally removed. The gap of ca. 3-4 mm in the parchment can be observed in the upper left corner.

The year, given according to the Seleucid Era (AG), is mentioned in the first line of fol. 181v (see the transcription below). The part of the year that is still visible has usually been interpreted as: ʾlp w-tšʿ […] “one thousand and nine[…]”, which allows for three possible dates, as outlined by Sebastian Brock (Brock 2003: 106n16):

  • [A] ʾlp w-tšʿ[yn] = one thousand and nine[ty] (1090 AG = 779 AD), as suggested by J. Rendel Harris, F. C. Burkitt, A. S. Lewis, and accepted by Brock, Paul Géhin, and others.
  • [B] ʾlp w-tšʿ [ ] = one thousand and nine [ ] (1009 AG = 698 AD). This date was first conjectured by A. S. Lewis but later rejected in favor of 1090 AG. Nevertheless, William Hatch accepts this early dating in his Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts (Hatch 1946: 97n1, Plate XLVI). See below.
  • [C] ʾlp w-tšʿ[srʾ] or ʾlp w-tšʿsr[ʾ] = one thousand and nine[teen] (1019 AG = 708 AD). The only scholar to propose this reading was Heinrich Husmann (Husmann 1975: 298). According to Brock (2003: 106n16), Husmann was misled by a letter rēš, which he considered “clearly visible” (absolut deutlich) after tšʿ, but which actually belonged – thus Brock – to the preceding folio (fol. 180v) and was visible through the hole on fol. 181v [see Image 3a, blue arrow].

Because of Husmann’s alleged error, Brock ruled out the third possible date altogether and opted for the year 779 AD as the most likely candidate. In his recent work on the Syriac manuscripts of Mt. Sinai, Paul Géhin accepts Brock’s assessment and argues that this later date is consistent with the palaeographic features of the codex, specifically with the “bastardized form” (forme abâtardie) of the Estrangela script (Géhin 2017: 77).

However, revisiting Husmann’s argument in his 1975 article, I am not fully convinced that he was misled by the rēš on the preceding folio, as argued by Brock. What Husmann interpreted as a rēš may also refer to the final letter before the gap (see Image 3b, red arrow). Thus, according to Husmann, the only letter lost due to physical damage was the final ālap in tšʿsr[ʾ] (Husmann writes tšʿrs[ʾ], but this is most likely a typo). This is not implausible, since the width of the gap is not larger than 3-4 millimeters, which would only leave space for one Syriac letter, in this case ālap. Husmann also claims that the semkat in tšʿsr[ʾ] is visibly squeezed above the ʿayn, but unless he had access to the original manuscript or to better photographs, I do not see any clear evidence for this claim. Unfortunately, even the new high-resolution images provided by the Sinai Palimpsest Project do not help much to resolve the issue. The final letters in the first row on fol. 181v are not clearly legible on the new digital images, partly because of what appears to be a crease or fold in the parchment, and partly because a glossy adhesive tape now covers this part of the folio. This leaves us with some uncertainty regarding the accuracy of Husmann’s reading.

Image 3a [left]: The letter rēš visible from the preceding folio (contour in indigo blue).
Image 3b [right]: The letter rēš on fol. 181v, as presumably read by Husmann (contour in dark red)

On the other hand, the sequence [-y-n] proposed by Lewis and other scholars is also problematic, since the two letters could hardly have fitted the narrow gap after tšʿ. Judging by the scribe’s way of executing the final nūn on the same folio (see Image 2), one would expect the almost horizontal tail of the nūn to be still visible at the end of tšʿyn, despite the damage, but this is not the case. In short, options [A] and [C] are both difficult to reconcile with the manuscript evidence.

What about the third possible date, i.e. 698 AD? After publishing a first version of this post yesterday (1 December 2021), David Taylor kindly drew my attention to one of his recent studies, in which he discusses a few chronological details in the colophon that most previous scholars (with the exception of Husmann and myself) had simply ignored (Taylor 2020: 11n31). As we will see, these details help settle the debate around the date of Sinai Syriac 30. First, let us return to the relevant part of the colophon:

ܐܫܬܠܡ ܕܝܢ ܟܬܒܐ (ܗܢܐ) ܒܫܢܬ ܐܠܦ ܘܬܫܥ[…] ܕܐܠܟܣܢܕܪܘܣ ܡܩܕܘܢܝܐ ܒܪ ܦܠܝܦܘܣ ܒܝܪܚܐ ܬܡܘܙ (ܟܓ ܒܗ) ܒܝܘܡ ܬܠܬܐ ܒܫܒܐ ܒܬܫܥ ܫ̈ܥܝܢ ܕܝܘܡܐ܀

Completed is this book in the year one thousand and nine[…] of Alexander the Macedonian, son of Philip, in the month of Tammūz, [on] the 23rd [day], on Tuesday, at the ninth hour of the day.

Sinai Syriac 30 – Part of the colophon on fol. 181v

Ignoring for a moment the question of the correct year, we learn that the manuscript was completed on a Tuesday, on the 23rd of July, at the ninth hour. Strangely enough, before Taylor, Husmann was the only scholar who tried to match this additional information regarding the date and weekday with the incomplete year mentioned just a line before. While examining the manuscript myself, I also noticed the potential relevance of this new piece of information for dating the manuscript. However, like Husmann and most scholars, I wrongly interpreted the number “23” (k-g) as “(on the) 3rd” (b-g), in which case the only year with 3 July on a Tuesday would have been 708 AD. As Taylor’s study has now demonstrated, the correct reading is undoubtedly the 23rd of July.

With this additional information, we can now verify in which of the three years – 1009 AG (698 AD), 1019 AG (708 AD), or 1090 AG (779 AD) – the 23rd of July actually fell on a Tuesday. With the help of a ‘perpetual calendar’, or any reliable historical time-and-date calculator (I recommend Millesimo, but see also here and here), we can easily check the required date for each of the three years and confirm Husmann’s conclusion. The results are as follows:

  • 23 July 1009 AG (= 698 AD) – Tuesday
  • 23 July 1019 AG (= 708 AD) – Monday
  • 23 July 1090 AG (= 779 AD) – Friday

Just to verify the reliability of these calculations, I cross-checked the dates of other complete colophons of Syriac manuscripts from the Sinai collection using Millesimo, overall with consistent results. In very few cases, the calculated date and the scribe’s given date differ by one or even two weekdays, which may be explained by errors in how the scribes calculated the year according to the Seleucid or Byzantine World eras. Therefore, unless the scribe made a major error of calculation (which I find quite unlikely), the correct year and date for the completion of Sinai Syriac 30 must have been Tuesday, the 23rd of July, 698 AD. This date also settles the question regarding the gap on fol. 181v. The small space after tšʿ was either empty or contained merely a flourish.

CONCLUSION

The new dating of Sinai Syriac 30 to July 698 AD, first proposed by A. S. Lewis and William Hatch, now confirmed by David Taylor, and briefly presented here, is significant for several reasons. It not only places Yuḥannan the Stylite’s reuse of the manuscript more than eighty years earlier than previously assumed, but it also raises questions about the reliability of dating Syriac manuscripts based on the alleged degradation (“bastardization”) of script forms and similar stylistic criteria. The fact that Hatch and Husmann considered the “archaic form of the script” (der altertümliche Charakter der Schrift [!]) to fit better to the late seventh/early eighth century, in a complete reversal of Géhin’s palaeographical assessment (see above), only helps to prove this point. Finally, the new date of 698 AD also provides additional insights about the availability of parchment, the modes and practices of its reuse, and the presence of ancient Greek and Syriac codices in the hinterland of Antioch at the very end of the seventh century.

NOTE: I sincerely thank David Taylor for drawing my attention to his recent study on the dating of Sinai Syriac 30.

CITED BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bensly et al. 1894. The Four Gospels in Syriac transcribed from the Sinaitic Palimpsest. Cambridge: University Press. [archive.org]
  • Brock, S. 2003. “Syriac on Sinai: The main Connections.” In: V. Ruggieri – L. Pieralli (eds), Studi miscellanei per il 75° di Vincenzo Poggi S.J. Catanzaro: Rubbettino.
  • Brock, S. – Kessel. G. 2017. “The ‘Departure of Mary’ in Two Palimpsests at the Monastery of St. Catherine (Sinai Syr. 30 & Sinai Arabic 514).” Christianskij Vostok 8 [14], pp. 115-152.
  • Cureton, W. 1858. Remains of a very antient recension of the four Gospels in Syriac, hitherto unknown in Europe. London: John Murray. [archive.org]
  • Desprez, V. 2015. “Un fragment palimpseste (antérieur à 708) de la Grande Lettre du Pseudo-Macaire.” In: A. Dunaev (ed.), Sancti Patris Nostri Macarii Aegyptii (Symeonis Mesopotamiae), Sermones ascetici et epistulae, Collectio I [Прп. Макарий Египетский (Симеон Месопотамский), Духовные слова и послания. Собрание I]. Mt. Athos – Moscow, pp. 769-782.
  • Géhin, P. 2017. Les manuscrits syriaques de parchemin du Sinai et leurs Membra disjecta (CSCO 665). Leuven: Peeters.
  • Guignard, C. 2015. “0323: A Forgotten 4th or 5th Century Greek Fragment of the Gospel of John in the Syrus Sinaiticus.” Novum Testamentum 57/3, pp. 311-319. [link]
  • Hatch, W. H. P. 1946. An Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts. Boston, MA: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [archive.org]
  • Hjelt, A. 1930. Syrus Sinaiticus. Helsingfors: Akad. Buchhandlung. [digitized copy]
  • Husmann, H. 1975. “Die syrischen Handschriften des Sinai-Klosters, Herkunft und Schreiber.” Ostkirchliche Studien 24/4, pp. 281-308.
  • Kiraz, G. 2002. Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels. Aligning the Sinaiticus, Curetonianus, Peshitta and Harklean Versions. 2nd edition. 4 vols. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
  • Lewis, A. S. 1894. Catalogue of the Syriac Mss. in the Convent of St. Catharine on Mount Sinai (Studia Sinaitica I). London: C. J. Clay & Sons. [archive.org]
  • Lewis, A. S. 1900. Select Narratives of Holy Women from the Syro-Antiochene or Sinai Palimpsest (Studia Sinaitica IX-X). 2 vols. London: C. J. Clay & Sons. [vol. 1; vol. 2]
  • Lewis, A. S. 1904. Acta Mythologica Apostolorum (Horae Semiticae 3). London: C. J. Clay & Sons. [archive.org]
  • Lewis, A. S. 1910. The Old Syriac Gospels or Evangelion da-mepharreshê. London: William & Norgate. [archive.org]
  • Taylor, D. 2020. “New Developments in the Textual Study of the Old Syriac Gospels.” In: H. A. G. Houghton – P. Montoro (eds), At One Remove: The Text of the New Testament in Early Translations and Quotations. Papers from the Eleventh Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, pp. 1-42.
  • Voicu, S. J. 1984. “Frammenti di un palinsesto greco di Efrem (Sinaiticus syr. 30, f. 171 e seguenti).” Scriptorium 38, pp. 77-78. [persee.fr]

How to cite: Pirtea, Adrian. “Revisiting the Date of the Codex Sinaiticus Syrus (Sinai Syriac 30) – 779 AD, 708 AD, or 698 AD?” e-Sketikon | blog. Published online: 1 December, 2021. Updated: 2 December, 2021. URL: https://esketikon.hypotheses.org/134.


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2 Responses

  1. Adrian C. Pirtea says:

    Hi Grigory,
    Thank you for your comment! Yes, David kindly informed me about his study after I posted the blog entry yesterday evening on Facebook. I absolutely agree with his argument, so I will make the necessary changes to the entry today.
    In any case, I think we can all agree now that the ‘traditional’ date of 779 AD can be ruled out.

  2. grigory kessel says:

    Hi Adrian,
    the manuscript reads kaph + gamal “23”, no beth + gamal, “3”.
    Out of three options, July 23 was Tuesday on AD 698.
    This was recently demonstrated in D.G.K. Taylor, ‘New Developments in the Textual Study of the Old Syriac Gospels’, At One Remove: The Text of the New Testament in Early Translations and Quotations. Papers from the Eleventh Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (ed. H.A.G. Houghton and P. Montoro; Texts and Studies 24; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2020) 1–42, here 11 n. 31.

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