A treasure trove of ancient Biblical manuscripts dating from the third century has been discovered by the Greek Orthodox monks of St Catherine's, Sinai. The discovery which has hitherto been kept secret is being hailed by scholars all over the world as the most important development in biblical studies since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The monks found the manuscripts by accident two years ago when they were demolishing a I,000-year-old wall in their monastery. They were unwilling to share their secret with the outside world for fear of scholarly infringements on their strict laws of enclosure.
Fr Robert Murray Si who is a lecturer in Biblical studies at Heythrop College, London, said this week that there could well be some "very thrilling" items in the manuscript collection. He said the monks' reluctance to part with the texts was perfectly understandable.
"The monks at St Catherine's, in common with many monasteries in the Middle East, have. suffered great deprivations and now they have become canny. Mount Sinai comes under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Obviously they trust Constantinople and the Greeks and are very cautious about Israel and Egypt."
It is believed that the new collection of manuscripts includes the eight pages of the New Testament which are missing from the fourth century "Codex Sinaiticus" and many other important documents dating from between AD 300 and AD 700.
So far only Greeks have been
allowed to look at the manuscripts and 47 cartons of documents and icons have yet to be examined. Professor Sayvas Agourides, the head of manuscripts at the National Museum, Athens, said that some of the unexamined texts could be very old indeed. Headings on some of the cartons was writing in a style which was widely used before even AD 300.
Professor Agourides was allowed to have a brief look at the manuscripts only because one of his former students had joined the monastery. Other scholars are less fortunate.
It is possible that the hoard will provide valuable information on early Christian liturgical practice. Leading Biblical scholars in Germany have speculated that there could also be texts of the Gospel and the Apocrypha.
Observers in Athens said that the leak about the documents was a source of embarrassment to the religious branch of the Greek Foreign Ministry. A Greek spokesman in Jerusalem said that the monks had asked for help from Athens in collating and preserving the manuscripts. He added that this process was still going on but that nothing would be published until next year.
The flow of information about the texts is also hindered by the complex political situa‘ Lion in southern Sinai. The area has been under Israeli control since 1967. It is possible that it could change hands again under any future peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
It is also possible that these key Biblical documents could become vulnerable pawns if conflict over southern Sinai breaks out again and the monks of St Catherine's have to flee from their 1,300 year home.