The Syriac Bible: a media/PR/looting morality play

Warning: major teal deer. If you’re looking for my usual quick, fun read, :skull: this ain’t it. :skull:

It’s been all over the (history-related) news this past week: ancient Bible found in Cyprus could be from time of Jesus!!1 The news is big because the Syriac language is a dialect of Aramaic — Jesus’ lingua franca — and therefore a Bible written in it might be extra-specially connected the Man himself.

The manuscript carries excerpts of the Bible written in gold lettering on vellum and loosely strung together, photos provided to Reuters showed. One page carries a drawing of a tree, and another eight lines of Syriac script.

The problem is the only people who think the Bible is anything close to that old are the Turkish Cypriot police who found the Bible along with a bunch of other looted antiquities in Famagusta, Cyprus. I’m sure the Turkish Cypriot police are many great things, but archaeologists-at-a-glance isn’t one of them.

Actual experts think the Bible is likely to be medieval at the earliest, and probably far newer than that.

Experts said the use of gold lettering on the manuscript was likely to date it later than 2,000 years.

“I’d suspect that it is most likely to be less than 1,000 years old,” leading expert Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House, University of Cambridge told Reuters. […]

After further scrutiny of photographs of the book, manuscripts specialist at the University of Cambridge library and Fellow of Wolfson College JF Coakley suggested that the book could have been written a good deal later.

“The Syriac writing seems to be in the East Syriac script with vowel points, and you do not find such manuscripts before about the 15th century.

“On the basis of the one photo…if I’m not mistaken some words at least seem to be in modern Syriac, a language that was not written down until the mid-19th century,” he told Reuters.

Reuters calls that experts being divided over whether the Bible is “an original” or a “fake” but they don’t actually cite any experts who think the book is anything like 2000 years old. All the actual experts they quote are like “um, no”.

Good thinking on the part of the Turkish Cypriot police. You want global wire services to cover your relatively small looting bust? Invent a tenuous connection to Jesus and it’s on.

There’s no provenance on the looted Bible, so you can say it “might be” anything at all. (Another reason scholars of any sort should vocally support anti-looting measures instead of rationalizing their lust for ancient objects.)

Meanwhile, the part of the story I’m most interested in — the looting arrests — gets short shrift. There’s only one decent article on background from the Cyprus Sunday Mail, and I only found that after scouring Google News. The rest of the press and bloggers refer to the Reuters article, which cuts out the intricate Cypriot political aspect entirely.

For example, here’s a snip from the Sunday Mail article:

The bible may have come from the heartland of the Syrian Orthodox community in southeastern Turkey, where a small community remains, despite often being caught in the crossfire between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish military.

“It is very likely to come from the Tur-Abdin area of Turkey, where there is still a Syriac speaking community,” Dr Chalotte [sic] Roueche, professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King College, London told Reuters yesterday.

In 1994, the British historian William Dalrymple wrote that the community “could die out within one generation”. However, conditions are reported to have improved in recent years with the Turkish government making efforts to protect religious minorities in the country.

The first and third paragraphs contain rather glaringly pertinent facts. The Reuters quote of Dr. Roueche seems vacuous to me now without that context. They just didn’t want to get into it, preferring the groundless-but-sexy Jesus angle.

Now, look at the rest of what Dr. Roueche said which did not make it into the Reuters article:

“The problem about this description is that a Syriac gospel-book could be from the 4th century, but it could date from several centuries after that, well into the middle ages. Indeed, I think that gospel books may still have been being written in Syriac then. Obviously the smugglers will have wanted to date it as ancient as possible,” Dr Roueche added.

Oh snap! Obviously Reuters is glad to help them in that endeavor.

Other details on the bust courtesy of a tiny local Cypriot newspaper which the giant wire service didn’t care to include in their story: the police arrested 9 people at the Famagusta bus station on a tip that the stolen Bible was about to sold. Two men fled the scene and are still being sought. The nine have been charged with smuggling antiquities, carrying out illegal excavations and possession of explosives.

Well, here. I’ll let Cyprus Mail tell the story, since Simon Bahceli took the time to do some actual reporting.

Police in the north believe that those arrested may have been involved in a wider antiquities smuggling operation after a Christian prayer statue and a carving of Christ were found in the Karpas village home of one of the suspects. Five sticks of dynamite were also found, which police believe were to be used for later excavations by the suspects. […]

The smuggling of antiquities from churches and ancient sites in the north has been an ongoing problem since the division of the island in 1974, but questions are being asked why such a valuable item would have been smuggled into the north from Turkey. Some reports said the bible may have been destined for a buyer in the south of the island.

Three more people have been arrested since then for being in possession of a 145-year-old church bell.

It’s unclear from the article whether they are thought to be in cahoots with the 11 wrong-doers from the Bible raid or whether Cyprus is just bristling with stolen antiquities.

19 thoughts on “The Syriac Bible: a media/PR/looting morality play

  1. Yeah, I’m not sure why Reuters cut out the fun bit, especially the bit about a southern Cypriot buyer. The Church’s ‘no comment’ may have been telling…

      1. How can they not be interested in Cypriot politics? It’s so retarded Byzantine! 😀

        Cheers. Now I just have to learn to write like you. I’ve only been blogging for an age. There’s still time… :facepalm:

        1. You are way too kind, but thank you. My big challenge is making sure I post something daily. There have been more than a few lacunae over the years. :blush:

  2. “Experts said the use of gold lettering on the manuscript was likely to date it later than 2,000 years.”

    “I’d suspect that it is most likely to be less than 1,000 years old,” …(attribution followed quote in orginal.)

    “After further scrutiny… manuscripts specialist… suggested that the book could have been written a good deal later.”

    “The Syriac writing seems to be in the East Syriac script with vowel points, and you do not find such manuscripts before about the 15th century.”

    OK, perhaps I am thick, but just what did the Turkish Cypriot police do that was all that bad…ok, they were wrong in claims that this bible goes back to the time of Jesus. Perhaps only to the time of Gutenburg or John Wycliffe…but why the snobbery.

    The Tyrolian frozenite – Utzi- was originally thought modern, and only until DNA testing did ANYONE in cultural anthropoloby suggest a far older provenance for this cadaver.

    You really missed the boat on this one. (Contact me at, I am only an amateur historian, but well-versed and would love to have some feedback, even if critical!).

    1. I’m not sure where you read snobbery in anything I’ve written. Grandiose wishful thinking happens all the time in press releases, although it happens less frequently in court proceedings, which is where the Turkish Cypriot police made the exaggerated/fictitious statement.

      The bulk of my criticism is reserved for Reuters who presumably don’t have the political motivation the TCP might have, but may well have a profit motive inspiring their presenting the story as Jesus-linked.

      I don’t see the relevance of the Otzi comparison. Cops found loot in this case, not a body, and they claimed greater age rather than less. Nor was there any confusion whatsoever among the experts who examined the piece.

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