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Durham University News

News

Oldest known copies of Ethiopian Old Testament books identified by Durham University researcher

(2 March 2011)

The manuscript EMML 6977 (Copyright EMML/ Hill Museum & Manuscript Library)

A manuscript containing the oldest known copies of books from the Ethiopian Old Testament has been identified by a Durham University researcher.

Ted Erho, a postgraduate student in the Department of Theology and Religion and recipient of the University's highly competitive Doctoral Fellowship, made the find while examining microfilms of classical Ethiopic (Ge'ez) manuscripts.

He said the age of the manuscript was significant because it had survived "against rather considerable odds" when so many Ethiopian manuscripts had been lost or destroyed in the last millennium.

The microfilms are stored at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) in the USA. The original document is still stored in Ethiopia.

Working with uncatalogued manuscripts from HMML's Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Mr Erho identified the oldest known copies of books of the Ethiopic Old Testament in a manuscript whose antiquity is surpassed by only the famed Abba Garima Gospels.

The latter entered into the national spotlight last year after radiocarbon dating tests conducted at Oxford University placed the Gospels between the fourth and seventh centuries, making them possibly the earliest illuminated Christian manuscripts.

By studying the typography and script of the documents, Mr Erho was able to date the Old Testament books.

The identified manuscript, called EMML 6977, contains the books of Job and Daniel, as well as two homilies and a monastic inventory list, and dates back more than 750 years to before the Solomonic period in Ethiopia, which began in 1270 AD.

HMML's microfilm and digital collections are the richest resource for the study of Ethiopian manuscripts in the world. Mr Erho's work was supported by one of HMML's Heckman scholarships.

Mr Erho said: "Apart from the obvious scholastic interest, the discovery of such an old manuscript is highly significant culturally.

"It is truly a treasure for Ethiopia, which has lost so much knowledge of its pre-modern history due to the theft, destruction, and decay of its manuscripts throughout the last millennium. 

"In view of this background, it is in no way an exaggeration to say that this manuscript has survived against rather considerable odds.

"At the same time, Ethiopia is one of the few nations to retain a manuscript culture, in that even today religious texts are commonly written out by scribes for use throughout the church.  This manuscript is a reminder of the roots of this tradition, blending the past with the present."

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