Sotheby’s is auctioning a palimpsest manuscript of the New Testament (and parts of the old). It’s written in 8th-c. Greek, 6th-c. Aramaic, and overwritten in a 9th-c. Syriac script.
Apparently the sixth-century scribes who wrote it were living in what was then Judea, somewhere in present-day Israel. The document was taken to the Sinai desert in Egypt and stowed away for 300 years at a monastery called St. Catherine’s, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments…. Then in the ninth century, a new set of scribes dug through St. Catherine’s looking for parchment, which was very expensive in those days. They pulled pages from eight different books–six in Aramaic and two in Greek–and did their best to erase the original writing. They then turned the pages upside down and wrote over the ancient text in jet-black ink. The newer text, in Syriac, is a copy of instructions on how to run a monastery, originally written by a sixth-century monk named John Climacus.
This happened all the time, and was one of the best advantages of writing on parchment. It was expensive – anything made from animals rather than vegetables always is — but you could scrape the top layer off and use it again and again.
There’s a whole aspect of monastic discipline and spirituality that’s tied up with manuscript and parchment culture. Preparing vellum for writing was hard, physical work – and the scraping of the parchment became a kind of allegory for spiritual renewal and an ascetic’s soul. You’re literally mortifying flesh, scraping it clean, in order to fill it with wisdom and the words of God.
But at the same time, it was prosaic and practical:
“It was like using yesterday’s newspaper to wrap up your fish and chips,” says Bolton.
I love the description of the appearance of multiple scripts in the document:
The resulting palimpsest looks like a pirate’s cipher for buried treasure, written in several mysterious scripts. The Aramaic writing, in a pale, faded brown, appears loose and fluid, with the odd curlicue swirling outside the margin. The black Syriac is careful, tight and slanting. It’s not exactly a key to a puzzle written in code, but it sure looks like one.
H/t to Gerry.