Ancient Bible Texts found in China

Sometime during the twilight years of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century a lone monk began to copy a text. From time to time he would look up and gaze out upon the Tarim Basin and it’s endless sands. Rivers flowed from the nearby Himalaya Mountains to this desert that would swallow up their contents. Not a drop would ever see an ocean. Perhaps the monk yearned for a homeland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Perhaps he thought of the exotic travelers who passed this way parched and thirsting for the sounds of praise that would come from this text.

In 1999 two folios were discovered at the Mogao caves in western China. No one could read them at first until they were sent to Peking University. They were identified generally as Psalms in Syriac, the language of Jesus and early Christians. This was a language used along the Silk Road by missionaries, merchants, and stonemasons. There has not been a careful and detailed analysis of the text, not even the pericopes have been identified, only that the texts are the Psalms. But questions remain! What kind of Psalms? How were they used? Who used them?

For the first time this document is revealed in detail and tested against it’s preliminary identification.

Recently I have acquired a high quality image of this discovery here in China. I have written to Peking University to get additional photos of the folios. At present I have only one side of each folio. Apparently the person who sent the images of the folios did not realize that there is writing on the other side. Nevertheless, what I have before me is quite revealing and gives us an insight to the presence of Syriac Christians in 7th- 8th century China.

I have identified four psalmic lections: Ps. 21:1-5, 23:1-4, 24:1-6, 25:1-3a.

The title headings  (incipits in red)  indicate that the texts are pairs of Psalmic readings for various days of the week. Two of the incipits indicate Psalm 23 is to be read on “Thursday” (‘rbashabo) and a Psalm 24:1-6 as a companion Psalm (brwgh). The second title is for “Friday” which starts with Psalm 25:1-3a. Psalm 22 is omitted from the Psalmic sequence which was used for Thursday evening prayers during Holy Week.  Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on he Cross when he cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” Therefore, these folios appear to be from an East Syriac Book of Common Prayer for the Holy Week Cycle. This was a treasured book used by the Assyrian Church of the East (formerly referred to as Nestorians).

The calligraphy is East Syriac as indicated by the both the vowel pointing and Estrangelo letter forms. Consulting Hatch’s Album of Dated Manuscripts the text falls into the 8th or 9th century period. Clearly this is a document of East Syriac Christians based out of Selucia-Cestiphon (Modern day Iraq).

Close analysis of the textual variants indicate that there is a Targumic source. The text may be a Syriac copy of a Peshitta remarkable free from influences of the Septuagint. In the 23rd Psalm, our text does not convert the 1st pronominal suffix to an object suffix. “The Lord, he shepherds me” rather than “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Martin Luther in the 16th century misread and mistranslated the Hebrew when writing the German Bible. He captured a profound meaning but not the technical form of the Hebrew. He probably did this because the Septuagint does the same thing. A verb (he shepherds) is converted to a noun (my Shepherd).

In verse three (3c)  our text follows the Targumic reading (because (mtl) of your name). The exact reading is found in the Aramaic Targum.

In the Psalmic lection for Psalm 25:2  there are two additions of conjunctions  (and let me not be ashamed and let not my enemy triumph over me.) Again this follows the Targumic pattern and makes for smoother reading.

There are three significant scribal errors. In Psalm 23 the last two Syriac words are omitted “nothing shall I want” and in Psalm 24:4  the “deceitfully” (nkl’) is omitted. Also in 25:1 the 1st person pronominal suffix is omitted. Normally in Syriac texts each line is stretched out to the end. In this document each line is of a variable length. We see this in Targumic and Hebrew texts. Again it suggests that the scribe was copying a Targumic document and following a literary form that would have been  unusual. It may account for the scribal errors.

What is interesting about the Targum for the Psalms is that they draw from the imagery of Israel in exile. It draws upon Midrashic and Aggadic material that looks to a God who feeds and protects the flock. The Targum makes references to manna and quail that were sent by God to stave off the hunger of his people in the desert wilderness. It is easy to see that the East Syriac Christian of Mogao and the Tarim desert must have strongly identified with these texts and stories. Like the children of Israel the East Syriac Christians found themselves in exile cast away as heretics my the Roman west and unwelcome brothers in a homeland dominated by an emerging Islamic culture and religion. While they found refuge in China they yearned for a true home. The Psalms of Holy Week provided a stability and hope that someday their exile would end too.

The Silk Road oasis in Mogao was a melting pot of religions and cultures.  Jewish traders and colonies were present along the Silk Road during the Tang period. It is highly likely that East Syriac Christians had access to Targums and Hebrew material.

While this kind of text would have been used in a monastery it was also used by ordinary believers who had day jobs.  As a stand alone document we cannot construct a more detailed understanding of the community in which it was used. Archeological material and other documents will need to be compiled to develop a broader understanding.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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