WASHINGTON (BP) – The Museum of the Bible has detailed the provenance and acquisition of the oldest known map of the constellations, a previously lost writing based on the notes from second century B.C. Greek astronomer Hipparchus’ “Star Catalogue.”
The notes had been written in the fifth century on vellum leaves that were recycled perhaps five or six centuries later to record the Christian manuscript “Codex Climaci Rescriptus” (Ladder of Divine Ascent) by John Climacus, the museum said in an Oct. 28 press release. An emerging process of multispectral imaging technology was used to reveal what was left of the older writings on the vellum, the museum said.
Bill Warren, a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary expert in New Testament textual criticism, said the technology can make visible the faintest remnants of text that has been scraped away.
“Increasingly we’re using it and we’re actually finding several manuscripts that had another one written underneath,” Warren told Baptist Press. “And it’s a pretty exciting time because every now and then, we’ll find one that’s a good biblical manuscript that was underneath. This time, it was on a Syriac manuscript.”
The older text was discovered by a team of scholars led by Peter Williams at Tyndale House at Cambridge University. Williams and Warren are among several scholars collaborating on the longstanding International Greek New Testament Project (IGNTP) to produce critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Williams is IGNTP president, and Warren is a member of the IGNTP committee of 26 scholars on the project that has the Museum of the Bible among its supporters.
In an ancient system of recycling vellum, a type of parchment made from calf skin, scribes would scrape away the existing ink, wash the vellum and use it for new writings. This is what occurred in the 10th or 11th century when a scribe at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai needed vellum to record Climacus’ work. The scribe recycled leaves from an older manuscript, which evidently was a star map drawn in the fifth or sixth century and based on Hipparchus’ star catalogue.
While the star catalogue itself has little biblical significance, it does give greater insight into the astronomy conducted by the biblical magi referenced at the birth of Jesus, Warren told Baptist Press.
“The map itself has no biblical input, other than showing that they were very involved in mapping out the stars and such,” Warren said. “Now where that has implications on exegesis, which is different from the actual text, is the magi were actually ones who were involved in mapping out the stars. … This shows they’re part of a long line of studies in this area. There’s nothing quirky about them,” Warren said, clarifying that Christians would not, of course, use the stars to determine future events as did the magi. “They are part of a long history of trying to map out the stars.”
The technique of spectral imaging is important in the discovery of biblical text, Warren said.
“Sometimes our manuscripts contain old texts that we thought were totally lost, that are not biblical,” Warren said. “On the other hand, sometimes we find biblical text that would have been lost if we had not found them.”
Brian Hyland, the Museum of the Bible’s associate curator of medieval manuscripts, explained the work’s historical provenance to Baptist Press.
“This translation was most likely produced at St. Catherine’s Monastery by Mt. Sinai, where John (Climacus) had been the abbot in the early seventh century,” Hyland told Baptist Press. “This manuscript was a palimpsest created by recycling at least 10 different manuscripts, six of which were in Christian Palestinian Aramaic and four of which were in Greek.