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What is a palimpsest, and how are they important in manuscript studies?


A palimpsest is a scroll or a page of a book on which the original writing was erased but still retains traces of the original content. Palimpsests are thus recycled manuscripts. Recovering the erased text from a palimpsest is aided today by multispectral imaging and x-ray fluorescence, and it is of value in manuscript studies. Being able to read a palimpsest helps us trace the history of a text or translation.

Writing materials have for much of history been very expensive. One such material was vellum or parchment, the skin of an animal that has been prepared for use as a writing surface. Since it was so expensive, vellum was often reused. The original writings were rubbed or scraped off (palimpsest literally means “scrape again”), and the skin was reused. This was a common practice in the Middle Ages. Often, the original writing is still somewhat visible on the parchment, and, with enhanced imaging capabilities, we can read what was written first on the parchment. The original text can often be recovered almost completely.

Occasionally, a vellum or parchment that had originally contained a portion of the New Testament was later “rescraped” and used for some other text. In some cases, the rescraping was done out of ignorance: the scribe who needed more room for what he was copying did not know Greek and may not have known the significance of the text he was scraping off. In AD 692 the Trullan Synod forbade the selling of old manuscripts of Scripture or of Christian teaching for reuse.

When we recover the writing that was originally on the vellum, then we have another (and older) New Testament manuscript available for study and evaluation. The study and evaluation of a palimpsest proceeds as it would with any other manuscript. (Most modern New Testament scholars do not deal with the original documents directly but with electronic facsimiles of them.)

Saint Catherine’s Monastery of Sinai, Egypt, has a collection of ancient manuscripts that includes more than 180 palimpsests dating from the fifth to the twelfth century in eight different languages. Among the texts is the Codex Syriacus (Codex א), which contains the greater part of the four Gospels translated into Syrian.

Some other famous palimpsests include the following:

• the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (Codex C), fifth century. Contains the entire New Testament.
• the Codex Nitriensis (Codex R), sixth century. Contains the Gospel of Luke.
• the Codex Dublinensis (Codex Z), sixth century. Contains 295 verses from the Gospel of Matthew.
• the Codex Ambrosianus, ninth century. Contains about 150 verses from the Psalms.

Paul Wegner, citing Bruce Metzger, states that approximately 20 percent of ancient New Testament manuscripts are palimpsests (The Journey from Tests to Translations, Baker Academic, 1999, p. 213). Perhaps there are more early New Testament manuscripts yet to be discovered, preserved on an ancient parchment covered over by some other text.

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What is a palimpsest, and how are they important in manuscript studies?
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This page last updated: October 28, 2021