Timothy I and the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the 9th century AD

The letters in Syriac of the East Syriac patriarch Timothy I are of considerable interest, and it is a great pity that no translation of them exists.  They are, admittedly, of great length.

But few people realise that the caves around the Dead Sea have been producing manuscripts for rather longer than the last 50 years.  A discovery of apocryphal psalms by Bedouin in the 9th century is described in Timothy I, Letter 47.   A translation was made by Sebastian Brock but published only in India in Moran Etho 9, a brief outline of Syriac literature,.  My own copy was obtained with some difficulty from India, and it arrived in a little packet with the end open and tied up with cloth tape, so that customs could open and inspect it! It is, in short nearly inaccessible to everyone.  So I thought I would give it here.

Brock introduces the letter as follows:

Letter 47; this letter, written towards the end of Timothy’s life (he died in 828) is of particular interest; it deals with two main topics, the Syriac translation of Origen’s Hexapla (known today as the Syrohexapla), made by the Syrian Orthodox scholar Paul of Telia c. 615; and the discovery, ten years earlier, of ancient Hebrew manuscripts in the region of Jericho a discovery anticipating that of the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at Qumran by over a thousand years! Timothy’s Letter is the earliest evidence of knowledge of the Syrohexapla among scholars of the Church of the East, and it also provides many important insights into how manuscripts were copied and circulated. The information about the finds of Hebrew manuscripts explains (among other things) the appearance in Syriac of the so-called ‘Apocryphal Psalms’, 152-5 – some of which have now turned up in their Hebrew original in the Psalms Scroll from Qumran Cave 11. Right at the end of the letter Timothy turns to the matter of ecclesiastical appointments, giving a glimpse of the wide extent covered by the Church of the East in the early ninth century.

And then the translation:

To the revered bishop Mar Sergius, metropolitan of Elam, the sinner Timothy does obeisance to your reverence and asks for your prayer.

We have read the letters which your reverence sent to us on the subject of the Hexapla, and we have learnt from all that you wrote therein. We give thanks to God for your good health and the fair course of your episcopal governance, and we, who are sinners, ask God’s mercy that your affairs may have a successful and glorious outcome.

On the subject of the book of the Hexapla about which your reverence wrote, we have already written and informed you last year that a copy of the Hexapla, written on sheets using the Nisibene format, was sent to us through the diligence of our brother Gabriel, synkellos of the resplendent caliph (lit. king). We hired six scribes and two people to dictate, who dictated to the scribes from the text of the exemplar. We wrote out the entire Old Testament, with Chronicles, Ezra, Susanna, Esther and Judith, producing three manuscripts, one for us and two for the resplendent Gabriel; of those two, one was for Gabriel himself, and the other for Beth Lapat, for this is what Gabriel had instructed in writing. The manuscripts have now been written out with much diligence and care, at the expense of great trouble and much labour, over six months more or less; for no text is so difficult to copy out or to read as this, seeing that there are so many things in the margin, I mean readings of Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus and others, taking up almost as much space as the text of the Septuagint in the body of the manuscript. There are also a large number of different signs above them – how many, it is not possible for anyone to say. But we had bad and greedy scribes, eight men for just under six months. The copying was done as far as possible using correction, seeing that it had been made from dictation; the copies were gone over a second time and read out. As a result of the excessive labour and work of correction my eyes were harmed and I nearly lost my sight – you can get an idea of the weakness of our vision from these shapeless letters that we are writing now.

Even the exemplar from which we were copying, however, contained errors, and most of the Greek names were written in reverse: the person who wrote them must have had a knowledge of Greek as weak as our own, apart only from the fact that he was not aware of the reversal of the characters he was writing, whereas we were at least aware of that! For he had not noticed the replacement and interchange of the characters, sometimes writing the letter chi in place of kappa, and zeta in place of chi, as well as putting all sorts of other things. We, however, recognized the situation.

At the end of every biblical book the following was written: “This was written, collated and compared with the exemplar of Eusebius, Pamphilus and Origen”.

This, then, is the way the Hexapla had been copied. It has endless differences from the text which we employ [sc. the Peshitta]. I am of the opinion that the person who translated this exemplar in our possession was working from the versions of Theodotion, Aquila and Symmachus, since for the most part there is a greater resemblance to them than to the Septuagint. I had imagined that a copy of the Hexapla had already been sent to your reverence, so when you wrote we immediately wrote off to the noble Gabriel, telling him to fulfil his promise to you; but if he does not want to send it to you, let him write to us, for we will copy it out again and send it to you. So much for that topic.

We have learnt from certain Jews who are worthy of credence, who have recently been converted to Christianity, that ten years ago some books were discovered in the vicinity of Jericho, in a cave-dwelling in the mountain. They say that the dog of an Arab who was hunting game went into a cleft after an animal and did not come out; his owner then went in after him and found a chamber inside the mountain containing many books. The huntsman went to Jerusalem and reported this to some Jews. A lot of people set off and arrived there; they found books of the Old Testament, and, apart from that, other books in Hebrew script. Because the person who told me this knows the script and is skilled in reading it, I asked him about certain verses adduced in our New Testament as being from the Old Testament, but of which there is no mention at all in the Old Testament, neither among us Christians, nor among the Jews. He told me that they were to be found in the books that had been discovered there.

When I heard this from that catechumen, I asked other people as well, besides him, and I discovered the same story without any difference. I wrote about the matter to the resplendent Gabriel, and also to Shubhalmaran, metropolitan of Damascus, in order that they might make investigation into these books and see if there is to be found in the prophets that ‘seal’, ”He will be called Nazarene” [Matt. 2:23], or “That which eye has not seen and ear has not heard” [1 Cor. 2:9], or “Cursed is everyone who is hung on the wood” [Gal. 3:13], or “He turned back the boundary to Israel, in accordance with the word of the Lord which he spoke through Jonah the prophet from Gad Hfar”, and other passages like them which were adduced by the New Testament and the Old Testament but which are not to be found at all in the Bible we possess. I further asked him, if they found these phrases in those books, by all means to translate them. For it is written in the Psalm beginning “Have mercy, O God, according to your grace” [Ps.51], “Sprinkle upon me with the hyssop of the blood of your cross and cleanse me”. This phrase is not in the Septuagint, nor in the other versions, nor in the Hebrew. Now that Hebrew man told me, “We found a David [i.e. a Psalter] among those books, containing more than two hundred psalms”. I wrote concerning all this to them.

I suppose that these books may have been deposited either by Jeremiah the prophet, or by Baruch, or by someone else from those who heard the word and trembled at it; for when the prophets learnt through divine revelations of the captivity, plunder and burning that was going to come upon the people as a result of their sins, being men who were firmly assured that not one of God’s words would fall to the earth, they hid the books in the mountains and caves to prevent their being burnt by fire or taken as plunder by captors. Then those who had hidden them died after a period of seventy or fewer years, and when the people returned from Babylon there was no one surviving of those who had deposited the books. This was why Ezra and others had to make investigations, thus discovering what books the Hebrews possessed. The Bible among the Hebrews consists of three volumes, one [sc. the Pentateuch] being the volume which the Seventy Interpreters subsequently translated for king Ptolemy -who is worthy of a wreath of accolades; another was the volume from which others translated at a later time, while the third is preserved amongst them.

If any of these phrases are to be found in the aforementioned books it will be evident that they are more reliable than the texts in currency among the Hebrews and among us. Although I wrote, I have received no answer from them on this matter. I have not got anyone sufficiently capable with me whom I can send. The matter has been like a burning fire in my heart and it has set my bones alight.

Pray for me: my frame is very weak, my hands are not very good at writing, and my eyes are feeble. Such things are indications and messengers of death. Pray for me that I may not be condemned at our Lord’s judgement.

The Holy Spirit recently anointed a metropolitan for Turkestan, and we are making preparations to anoint another for Beth Tuptaye [Tibet]. We have sent another to Shiarzur and another for Radan, since Nestorius the metropolitan of Radan has died. We are also making preparations for another at Ray [Tehran region], since Theodorus has died; another for Gurgan, another for Balad-Cyriacus of Beth `Abe; another for Dasen since Jacob has sunk into the pit from which there is no resurrection; another for Beth Nuhadra, which has no bishop. So pray with us to the Lord of the harvest that he may send out labourers for his harvest.

Shubhalisho’ of Beth Daylamaye has plaited a crown of martyrdom. We have sent in his place ten monks from Beth ‘Abe. Pray for me, reverend father in God my Lord.

Send me the Apologia for Origen by Eusebius of Caesarea, so that I may read it and then send it back. Make a search for the Discourses on the Soul by the great patriarch Mar Aba: there are three of them, but only one is available here. And copy out and send the Homilies of Mar Narsai, since we have not got them; for Mar Ephrem, of holy memory, wrote to us to say that there is a great deal there with you which is not available here. Write to ‘the Tyrant of Fars’ and inform him that every metropolitan who is appointed by a bishop with his co-ordainers is subject to the canon of the Church of God, the Synod of the 318 Fathers [sc. the Council of Nicaea], and the canons of Mar Aba.


The destruction of the apocryphal Acts of John

Burning books with which one disagrees is such fun!  At least, we might infer this, from the universality of the practice in all ages, including our own.   A discussion on this subject elsewhere raised the question of the apocryphal Acts of John, and caused me to read the relevant sections in volume 2 of Schneemelcher’s “New Testament Apocrypha”  (2003).  Page 156 indicates:

At its fifth session the Nicene council of 787 pronounced on the Acts of John: “No-one is to copy (this book): not only so, but we consider that it deserves to be consigned to the fire.” 49

49. Conc. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi vol. 13, col. 176 A)

In the West Leo the Great had given a similar verdict to the entire compass of the apocryphal literature used by the Priscillianists: “The apocryphal writings, however, which under the names of the apostles contain a hotbed of manifold perversity, should not only be forbidden but altogether removed and burnt with fire.” 50

50. Leo the Great, Letter to Turribius of Astorga on 21 July 447, c. 15; PL 54, col. 688A.

These judgments sufficiently explain why the Acts of John have survived only in fragmentary form.

Leaving aside the somewhat doubtful logic of the latter, I thought it might be useful to examine these references.  Leo the Great, Letter 15 (to Turribius, against the Priscillianists) is online in English here:

And on this subject your remarks under the fifteenth head make a complaint, and express a well-deserved abhorrence of their devilish presumption, for we too have ascertained this from the accounts of trustworthy witnesses, and have found many of their copies most corrupt, though they are entitled canonical. For how could they deceive the simple-minded unless they sweetened their poisoned cups with a little honey, lest what was meant to be deadly should be detected by its over-nastiness?

Therefore care must be taken, and the priestly diligence exercised to the uttermost, to prevent falsified copies that are out of harmony with the pure Truth being used in reading. And the apocryphal scriptures, which, under the names of Apostles, form a nursery-ground for many falsehoods, are not only to be proscribed, but also taken away altogether and burnt to ashes in the fire. For although there are certain things in them which seem to have a show of piety, yet they are never free from poison, and through the allurements of their stories they have the secret effect of first beguiling men with miraculous narratives, and then catching them in the noose of some error.

Wherefore if any bishop has either not forbidden the possession of apocryphal writings in men’s houses, or under the name of being canonical has suffered those copies to be read in church which are vitiated with the spurious alterations of Priscillian, let him know that he is to be accounted heretic, since he who does not reclaim others from error shows that he himself has gone astray.

I can never read materials of this date, expressing themselves in these terms, without hearing an echo of modern political correctness and the exaggerations that this creates.  Every right-wing politician in the UK is labelled “fascist” more or less by reflex; yet in truth there are no politicians known to me who advocate the Fuhrerprincip or the policies of Il Duce!  The label is intended to demonise, not inform; and somehow I tend to wonder about some of the 5th century denunciations, as being examples of the same phenomenon.

Nothing in Leo’s letter leads us to suppose that any actual burnings took place, nor does it refer specifically to the Acts of John.

The other reference is to the 5th session of the acts of the Council of Nicaea II in 787, the council that condemned iconoclasm.  Mansi, vol. 13 is here.

As far as I can make out, the Fifth Session of the synod was spent listening to extracts from the Fathers on the question of icons. On p.90 (col. 167D) there seems to be the start of the discussion of this text. The Acts of John are quoted twice, although not named — the text refers to bogus itineraries of the apostles.  The first passage condemns icons; the second asserts various gnostic ideas about Christ.  Various members of the synod then point out the obviously heretical nature of the text.

Our bit is right at the bottom of p.93/top of p.94 of the PDF. I find the Greek almost unreadable in this PDF; the Latin translation reads:

Joannes reverendissimus monachus et vicarius orientalium pontificum dixit: Si placet sancta ac universali huic synodo, fiat sententia, ne ulterius scribant aliqui sordidum istum librum.  Sancta Synodus dixit: Nemo scribat: non solum hoc, sed igni eum dignum judicamus fore tradendum.

The most reverend John, monk and Pontifical Vicar of the East said, “If it pleases the Holy and Universal Synod, let this be the sentence, that nothing of this sleazy book be copied (lit. written) any more.”  The Holy Synod said: “Let no-one copy it; not only that, but we judge it deserving to be thrown into the fire.”

Yet again this does not seem to me to be a general decree; so much as a rejection of the book as evidence for the purposes of the council (which indeed it could not be).

Schneemelcher is an odd book, isn’t it?  In some ways it’s very good, but in others quite dreadful.  Something must be allowed for the awkwardness of translation from the German.  Indeed there are some horribly tangled sentences, which almost suggest that the English editor did not read it carefully enough!  But the introduction by Schneemelcher himself to the five surviving apocryphal acts is not very good at all.  It consists of a rambling survey of the opinions of various scholars, on subjects that the reader has yet to encounter.  It is, indeed, otherwise fact-free.  In the English version the prose is nearly unreadable, to make matters worse.  A survey of the scholarship is not a bad idea; but this is not well achieved.

I learn from the book that Photius is our source for gathering the five together, as all composed by one Leucius Charinus, and all used by the Manichaeans; the acts of John, Thomas, Paul, Peter and Andrew.  Yet it must be questioned whether the text today known as the Acts of Paul is the same text that Photius used.  It is, after all, a very different document from the others, all of which have gnostic leanings and would be amenable to Manichaean purposes.  It may be telling that the Acts of Paul is condemned separately in the Decretum Gelasianum from the “writings of Leucius”.  Was there, perhaps, another “Acts of Paul”, which has perished?