Ancient ‘Hidden Chapter’ of the Bible Uncovered with UV Photography


A researcher has used ultraviolet (UV) photography to locate a lost fragment of Biblical text nearly 1,500 years after it was originally written. UV photography equipment has looked beyond layers of text to find a “new” ancient translation of the Gospels.

As reported by Popular Mechanics, medievalist Grigory Kessel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences discovered the hidden text beneath layers of other text.

This is called a double palimpsest, meaning Kessel uncovered traces of original text beneath two layers of writing that had been effaced to create room for a later third layer of text.

Kessel’s findings have been published in the journal New Testament Studies. His discovery is one of the earliest translations of the Gospels.

Some publications report that Kessel has found a “hidden chapter,” but it’s more accurate to say that Kessel uncovered a new translation of an existing chapter. In this case, it’s an ancient translation of Matthew chapter 12.

The traces Kessel found are part of what’s known as the Old Syriac translations. The translation is believed to have been written in the third century and then copied hundreds of years later in the sixth century. Roughly 1,300 years ago, a scribe in modern-day Palestine erased the translation to reuse it, as parchment was an exceedingly rare commodity.

“The tradition of Syriac Christianity knows several translations of the Old and New Testaments. Until recently, only two manuscripts were known to contain the Old Syriac translation of the gospels,” says Kessel. One of the manuscripts is kept in the British Library in London, while he discovered the other in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai while working on his “Sinai Palimpsests Project.”

The fragment that Kessel uncovered is believed to be only the fourth manuscript that “attests to the Old Syriac version,” the press release states.

The newly-discovered text offers a different interpretation of the Gospels. The original Greek of Matthew chapter 12, verse 1, says, “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and his disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.” The Syriac translation Kessel located instead says, “[…] began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them.”

The translation Kessel located was written at least a century before the oldest surviving Greek manuscripts.

“Grigory Kessel has made a great discovery thanks to his profound knowledge of old Syriac texts and script characteristics,” says Claudia Rapp, director of the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Kessel’s use of ultraviolet photography to uncover erased texts is common in the process of digitally recovering palimpsests. A. Nemeth writes for The Vatican Library, “In the context of palimpsests, the use of ultraviolet light is the most widespread method.”

Nemeth continues, “Today, multispectral photography offers the best solution for enhancing the difference between faded inks and their surrounding areas. To do so, it utilizes multiple numbers of images taken from the same page and captured in the same position while being illuminated by a pre-set succession of fixed wavelengths of light. These images capture the different reactions of the parchment to different light waves, which can be compared fruitfully.”

Digital photography techniques uncover previously invisible bits of erased text and allow researchers like Kessel to investigate ancient documents safely.

“This discovery proves how productive and important the interplay between modern digital technologies and basic research can be when dealing with medieval manuscripts,” Rapp says.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.