New Developments in the Syriac Tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas II

Several months ago I posted an item here on the start of my investigation into the Syriac tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (available HERE). Since then I have made significant progress in obtaining manuscripts and have begun collating them against previously published editions. Inspired by Roger Pearse’s posts on Thoughts on Antiquity (the latest is available HERE) relating to his work on the Onomasticon by Eusebius (edit: the text he is studying is actually Quaestiones ad Stephanum et Marinum or “Gospel problems and solutions”), I thought I would offer this progress report on the project.

I began the project, as many do, with lists of unpublished manuscripts. These were provided long ago by Anton Baumstark (Geschichte der syrischen Literatur mit Ausschluss der christlich-palästinensischen Texte. Bonn: A. Marcus & E. Webers Verlag, 1922, p. 69 n. 12 and 99 n. 4) and more recently by S. C. Mimouni (“Les Vies de la Vierge; État de la question,” Apocrypha 5 [1994]: 239-243). The two lists were subsequently reproduced (and thus came to my attention) by Cornelia Horn in a paper she delivered at the Ottawa Apocrypha Conference in 2006 (“From Model Virgin to Maternal Intercessor: Mary, Children, and Family Problems in Late Antique Infancy Gospel Traditions”). Such lists are provisional; they are based on the bare information provided in catalogues, and some items come from word-of-mouth reports by colleagues. So, it is to be expected that the lists will contain some errors, which can lead to challenges obtaining the manuscripts.

But the first task was to get copies of those manuscripts already published: London, British Library, Add. 14484 of the sixth century published by W. Wright in 1865, and Göttingen, Universitätsbibliothek, Syr. 10 of the fifth or sixth century collated against the first by W. Baars and J. Heldermann in 1993/1994. These were obtained without incident. The British Library has an on-line order form on their web site, and I requested the Göttingen library by e-mail. The manuscripts arrived quickly.  My preference is to order microfilms; I then scan these so that I can print them out on a high-quality printer, and also can have them at hand electronically when I need them. Wright’s collation ended up being quite accurate, but I found a few minor collation errors in Baars’ and Heldermann’s work.

The next order of business was to obtain copies of the unpublished material. Orders were dispatched to the Vatican, Cambridge, the Königlichen Bibliothek in Berlin, the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Mingana Collection in Birmingham, and the Columbia University Library in New York. The Mingana manuscripts were the easiest to get; they came through Interlibrary Loan (and thus were free). The Berlin manuscript was listed incorrectly by Baumstark and Mimouni; so I now have a fiche of an Arabic manuscript that I do not need. The library was helpful in discovering the proper shelf number and dispatched me a copy without delay. The Vatican order took a very long time. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Vatican mailed it incorrectly (orders are faxed and the address was either garbled in transmission or just transcribed wrong). I still await one manuscript from them and fear that order may have been lost. A similar problem occurred with a second manuscript from the British Library. An e-mail was apparently send to inform me that the manuscript was not available on microfilm and I would have to settle for scans. I never got the e-mail so they canceled the order. Cambridge was slow but the order arrived without incident. The Harvard manuscripts involved some extra work on the library’s part because some of them had never been photographed; thus I had to pay for their own microfilms and then copies for myself. The order from Columbia University started off well; again, the wrong shelf number was reported by Mimouni, but the librarian helped to find the correct information and promised speedy delivery. But, almost a year later I still do not have the manuscript and the library is not answering my e-mails. One has to be very patient with the manuscript departments of libraries. They are often understaffed, and delays can occur perhaps simply because their one staff member allocated to filling orders is ill.

Despite these problems, the manuscripts held in European or North American libraries are easy to obtain. Those from the East (Turkey and Iran) are considerably more difficult. Some of these collections have been destroyed due to war, some were moved but their destination is not clear. In a few cases, personal copies of the manuscripts were made by the scholars who discovered them; these copies can be used in their stead.

Another part of the process is to consult the catalogues relating to the manuscripts. When doing so, it is wise to leaf through the entire catalogue. Often you can find additional manuscripts that have gone unnoticed by previous scholars. This was the case for the Vatican Library and for Harvard. In browsing through Syriac catalogues, I also found a listing for a manuscript held at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Our list of manuscripts of the text is now expanded from what was reported by Baumstark, Mimouni, and Horn.

And what are the results thus far? The Syriac tradition is of three types: IGT found in manuscripts along with the Protevangelium of James and the Assumption of the Virgin, IGT as the fourth book in a Jacobite Life of Mary compilation, and IGT incorporated into a Nestorian Life of Mary compilation.

1.The “Early” Version: this type is found in the earliest manuscripts from London and Göttingen. These are fragmentary—i.e., large sections believed to be original to the text are not contained in the manuscripts (London is missing sections of chs. 6, 7 and 15; Göttingen is missing sections of chs. 4, 5, 7, 19 and all of chs. 14 and 15). A third witness of this type is found in the unpublished Vatican, Syr. 159 (dated1622/1623) of which chs. 5-8 were published (but only in French) by P. Peeters (Évangiles apocryphes, vol. 2 [Textes et documents pour l’étude historique du Christianisme 18], Paris 1914, p. 304-308). IGT is here appended to (but not incorporated into) Nestorian Life of Mary material in Garshuni. This manuscript is more complete than the previous two and seems to be our best source for the gospel in Syriac. I plan to present a collation and discussion of this text at this year’s l’AELAC conference.

2.The Jacobite Life of Mary: this compilation features the Protevangelium of James, the Vision of Theophilus, IGT, and the Assumption of the Virgin. Only the Vision section of this text has been published to date. The manuscripts of this type include: Mingana Syr. 48 (1906, but copied in part from a manuscript of 1757); Mingana Syr. 5 (1790); Vatican, Borgia Syr. 128 (1720), Vatican, Syr. 537 (16th cent.); Vatican, Syr. 561 (1683; fragmentary); and Paris, Bib. nat. 377 (1854/1855). It is not always clear from the catalogue descriptions whether a given manuscript contains this text or the Nestorian text (and Baumstark and Mimouni may be wrong in their assessments). The following likely contain the Jacobite text (but have yet to be evaluated): Cambridge, Add. 2001 (1480-1481); London, Brit. Libr. Or 4526 (1726-1727); the Harvard manuscripts (Houghton Library, Syr. 168 [18th cent], Syr. 35 [16/17th cent.], Syr. 36 [16/17th cent.], Syr. 59 [19th cent.], Syr. 82 [17/18th cent.], Syr. 129 [17th cent.], and Syr. 39 [19th cent.]); and Columbia University, Butler Library X893.4 B47. The Jacobite text is also extant in two Garshuni manuscripts (Syr. 39 [from 1773] and the more recent Syr. 114) which I have yet to examine. I plan to present a collation and discussion of this text at this year’s SBL conference.

3. The Nestorian Life of Mary: this compilation includes the Protevangelium of James, material incorporated also in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, IGT, episodes from the canonical gospels, the Assumption of the Virgin, and other miracles. The entire text was published from two manuscripts by E. A. Wallis Budge in 1899, though the IGT material was extant in only one of the manuscripts (a personal copy commissioned by Budge but based on a 13/14th century original). The IGT material has been shuffled around in the text; it consists of chs. 4, 6, 7, 11-16. Several of the manuscripts of this type are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. The following are believed to contain the Nestorian text: Berlin, OrOct 1130 (1814/1815); Cambridge, Add. 2020 (1697); Union Theological Seminary, Syr. 32 (18th cent.); Vatican, Syr. 587 (1917); Vatican, Syr. 597 (17th cent.); Notre-Dame de Sémances 97 (1689/90); Mardin 80 (1728-1731); Diyarbakir 99 (undated); Séert 82 (16th cent.; a copy of this is available from the H. Hyvernat collection at the Catholic University of America); Teheran, Issayi 18 (1741/42 based on an original from 1243/44), and three manuscripts (probably now lost) from Urmia (43 [1813] perhaps identical to Cambridge, Or 1341 [1863] and a manuscript at Princeton’s Speer Library [Clemons 346]; 38 [1885]; and 47 [1885]. I am still in the process of obtaining many of these manuscripts.

So, that is the state of research on the Syriac tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Already some advances have been made: the published manuscripts have been re-examined, several unpublished manuscripts have been evaluated and their contents clarified, and the list of known sources has been expanded. There is much work yet to be done, but come June at least one very important witness will be available to those interested in the text.

This entry was posted in Infancy Gospels. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to New Developments in the Syriac Tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas II

  1. Roger Pearse says:

    Glad that you’re giving a progress report! (Actually I think this might have been split into several blog posts, you know)

    Your experiences ordering facsimiles must be of general interest and utility. Have you been able to get a response from the Vatican since they closed?

    You may wish to know that you can get colour digital photos from the Mingana at £1 ($2) per page, which makes getting a whole text really feasible! The microfiche tends to render red text as invisible, but the digital photos are wonderfully clear (if you want to see an example I can point you to a link).

    Incidentally I am working on the “Gospel problems and solutions” (Quaestiones ad Stephanum et Marinum), not the Onomasticon.

  2. This sounds quite exciting. Soon, you’ll be able to whoop Ehrman in Banned from the Bible II: The Other Side of the Cave.

    Any particular reason why the Infancy Gospel of Thomas resonates specifically with you?


  3. Julie Isip says:

    Wow, I never knew it could be that difficult to attain these works. Is it always this difficult? I’m excited to see what will be coming in June.

  4. bahram dehghan says:

    Wow, i never thought that obtaining material would be so hard. I know that you have tried to get all the papers, and that the libraries have not supplied you with all the papers you need. But is there any kind of scholarly group that is based around these libraries that could help you obtain these copies? For example, im sure there are some scholars in Berlin or London that would love to get these copies for you. I’m also very surprised to find that many previous scholars miss important manuscripts by not leafing through catalogues.

  5. Tony Burke says:

    Thanks for the comments and questions. Allow me to offer some responses:
    1. Why does this text resonate with me? I began an interest in the Christian Apocrypha because of an ideological position on censorship (in any form). I wrote a paper for an MA course on Magic and Miracle on Infancy Thomas and I discovered that this text was the most villified of all the apocrypha because of its apparently disturbing contents. Almost every scholar thought it was ridiculous. But I believed (and continue to believe) that whoever wrote it must have thought it to be a quite reasonable way to portray Jesus. We need to be careful not to read ancient texts through modern eyes.
    2. As for obtaining manuscripts, I think my exeriences are fairly typical. I ran into the same issues when gathering Greek manuscripts of the text for my Ph.D. thesis. But I have never had to get eastern manuscripts before–so that is a new wrinkle. This just shows you why so many manuscripts do not get published. It takes a lot of time and effort, as well as certain skills.
    3. There are associations of scholars who can be helpful in tracking down manuscripts. I am a member of l’AELAC, which is a French and Swiss group who work on the Christian Apocrypha. They can be very resourceful and one member in particular will be receiving an e-mail from me any day now about getting the eastern manuscripts.
    4. The Vatican may be closed but their manuscript library is still making copies. So I obtained the four manuscripts I mentioned abovem, but I need to get back to them about one other one that I have yet to receive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *