Sinai Syriac ms. 30 is certainly the most famous of Syriac manuscripts belonging to the Monastery of St Catherine, often being referred to simply as the ‘Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus’ (thus accompanying the even more famous Greek ‘Codex Sinaiticus’). The reason for its fame lies in the fact that it is one of only two surviving manuscripts which preserve the very early Syriac translation of the Gospels, known as the ‘Old Syriac’ version to distinguish it from what became the standard Syriac translation of the New Testament (the Peshitta). The translation of the Old Syriac Gospels may go back as early as the early third century AD (whereas the Peshitta is a revision of c.AD 400), and the copy of the Old Syriac Gospels in the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus probably dates from the early fifth century.
The text of the Old Syriac Gospels is, however, not immediately visible when one looks at the manuscript, for its writing was subsequently sponged off, some time in the late eighth century when parchment was difficult to obtain, in order to make way for a new text. This process only left traces of the Old Syriac Gospels visible as the under-writing. Once its importance had been recognised, a great deal of time and effort was expended on deciphering this under-writing: a first edition, by three Cambridge scholars, was published in 1894, but by 1910, the date of what still remains the authoritative edition, considerably more had been read. The editor of this edition was Agnes Smith Lewis, one of the remarkable autodidact twin sisters who did so much by way of publishing and making known Syriac and Arabic texts preserved in manuscripts in the Monastery. No doubt one day, once digital imaging of palimpsests has been further developed, it will become possible to read even more of the under-writing.
Though biblical scholars may bitterly regret that a manuscript of the Old Syriac Gospels was recycled in this way, it so happens that the text which replaced them is also of considerable interest, for it is a unique collection of Lives of women saints. These were written down in AD 779, at Ma‘arret Mesrin in northern Syria, and their text was edited and translated by Agnes Lewis inSelect Narratives of Holy Women (1900).
The Old Syriac Gospels are not the only text which lies obscured beneath the Lives of the Holy Women, for parts of several other works have also been identified; these include the Acts of Thomas, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, and a Greek work attributed to St Ephrem.
It was Agnes Lewis who had first realised the potential importance of the under-writing, and the manuscript is often rightly associated with her name. The fascinating story of its discovery, and of the various expeditions to Sinai to decipher it, has now been well told by Janet Soskice in her Sisters of Sinai(2009).