Monday, 21 December 2015

Two forgotten sources to 4 Ezra

In the last few years, I have mentioned on two occasions manuscript witnesses to 4 Ezra that have apparently been left out of scholarly discussions focusing on this writing. In this post, I propose two possible reasons for this omission, and discuss why these manuscript sources to 4 Ezra deserve our attention. My interest here is not the decisions made by individual scholars, but rather the assessment schemes embedded in philological paradigms and the structuring effects of disciplinary borders to research practices.

My first example, Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) Supplément turc 983, f 113/126, containing Syriac 4 Ezra 8:33-41a/8:41c-47, was discussed in the post “Recycling 4 Ezra” (12 February 2014) (here). As noted in that post, this single parchment leaf was published in 1993 by Bernard Outtier in the article, “Un fragment syriaque inédit de IV Esdras”. The leaf has been dated paleographically to the sixth century (Outtier) and also to the eighth to ninth centuries, by Franҫoise Briquel Chatonnet (“Manuscrits syriaque de la Bibliothèque nationale de France” […], 185). As I mentioned in the 2014 post, the fragment has played no role in the scholarly discussion of 4 Ezra.

The second example, British Library (BL) Or. 6201 C (Fragments), containing Sahidic 4 Ezra 10:32-47, was mentioned in passing in the introduction to the post, “4 Ezra in Syriac Lectionary Manuscripts” (4 September 2015). This fragmented leaf was published by Hans-Gebhard Bethge in 2004 (“Neue Bibelfragmente: Ein Überblick”), and discussed most recently by Alin Suciu in the article, “On a Bilingual Copto-Arabic Manuscript of 4 Ezra and the Reception of this Pseudepigraphon in Coptic Literature”. It was Suciu who brought the existence of the fragment to my attention some years ago. I do not know Coptic but, out of pure curiosity and general interest in the transmission history of 4 Ezra, and in order to obtain an impression of its material features, I had a brief look at the fragment when I visited the British Library for other reasons in February 2014. BL Or. 6201 C (Fragments) is a glassed collection of small, unrelated fragments from Coptic manuscripts. The leaf containing 4 Ezra is by far the largest of them, measuring approximately 17 x 11 cm. Parts of two columns of text are visible, but the parchment is dark and some of the text has faded. Neither Suciu nor Bethge date the fragment but Bethge suggests that it was “geschrieben wohl nicht vor dem 6. Jahrhundert” (“Neue Bibelfragmente”, 198). For further information about the fragment and its text, please consult the experts. For the present discussion, a pink post it-note stuck to the glass of the collection of glassed fragments in the British Library is of particular interest. This note identifies the text of the fragment as a passage from 4 Ezra and the note is signed “H.-G. B. (i.e., Hans-G. Bethge) March 89”. In other words, this note suggests that the fragment has been known to specialists of Coptic manuscripts since 1989 but, to the best of my knowledge, it was not mentioned again in the scholarship on 4 Ezra until Suciu brought it up in September 2015.

These two fragments containing passages from 4 Ezra have two important things in common. They have both been published (in 1993 and 2004, respectively), and both have been known to scholars specialising in the manuscript traditions in question, the Coptic one long before its publication, and yet they have not made their way into scholarship regarding 4 Ezra.

It is conceivable that this omission may be due to a lack in the transfer of knowledge between academic fields. The communication between those whose primary interest is the manuscripts of a given linguistic tradition and those who are interested in the writings and the narrative contents of the texts preserved in the manuscripts may sometimes mean that information gets lost between the two. Scholars may be working on overlapping empirical materials but, due to disciplinary divides, they do not necessarily share the same academic discourses and literary canons. The result may be gaps, like the one suggested here.

Another possibility is that the two fragments mentioned above may have been categorised as “bad text witnesses” and then forgotten by scholars of 4 Ezra. Within a text-critical paradigm, manuscripts are first and foremost interesting as witnesses to earlier texts. Their value as good or bad witnesses is determined by their age, availability, condition and proximity to the assumed early text. One might say that textual criticism was designed precisely to enable editors to choose between witnesses and hence, logically, to put aside the less interesting ones. From this perspective, the lack of attention to the two manuscript sources discussed here makes sense, since BnF Supplément turc 983, f 113/126 and BL Or. 6201 C (Fragments) are both fragmented and hard to read. It is also possible that the preference given to the early, complete Latin witness to 4 Ezra has reduced interest in other witnesses even further. It should be noted, however, that both the Coptic and the Syriac fragments may be relatively early compared to other available sources. Admittedly, Bethge’s suggestion of a post sixth century dating for the Coptic fragment does not say much. Concerning the Syriac sheet, two different dates have been suggested. If Outtier’s suggestion is correct, this fragment may be one of the oldest witnesses we have to any passage of (Syriac) 4 Ezra, possibly as old as, or even older than, the version of 4 Ezra surviving in the Codex Ambrosianus. Even if Briquel Chatonnet’s suggested eighth century dating is correct, this Syriac source is still quite early, compared to the extant Latin, Georgian and Armenian witnesses to 4 Ezra.

The reason I find this situation interesting is that manuscripts that may be regarded as irrelevant within the context of one paradigm, may be highly relevant within another. Today, we see a general rise in the interest taken in reception history, in the history of engagement and use of manuscripts, in the materiality of textual artefacts and in manuscript practices, as well as a renewed focus on the cultural contexts of the Jewish and Christian East. This situation suggests that fragments, such as the ones discussed in this post, should be brought out of the shadows and put under scrutiny by those who work on 4 Ezra. The two fragments may well be “bad witnesses” from a text-critical point of view, but that assessment does not make them less important as sources to the further development and engagement with the text of 4 Ezra among Syriac and Coptic Christians. Rather, such “bad witnesses” may have interesting stories to tell, and attention to other and later cultural and linguistic contexts of use might change the disciplinary story about the life of a writing and the ways in which compositions such as 4 Ezra continued to matter in late antiquity and the early middle ages.

Importantly, such an exploration would demand increased communication between those who work primarily on the manuscripts and those whose interest is first and foremost in the writings contained in them. Otherwise, sources such as these may be lost in the transmission between academic fields.

Select literature

Bethge, Hans-G. “Neue Bibelfragmente: Ein Überblick.” Pages 195-207 in Coptic Studies on the Threshold of a New Millennium. Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Coptic Studies. Leiden, 27 August – 2 September 2000. Volume 1. Edited by M. Immerzeel and J. van der Vliet. 2 vols. OLA 133-134. Leuven: Peeters, 2004.

Briquel Chatonnet, Franҫoise. Manuscrits syriaque de la Bibliothèque nationale de France (nos356-435, entrés depuis 1911), de la bibliothèque Méjanes d’Aix-en-Provence, de la bibliothèque municipale de Lyon et de la Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. Catalogue. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1997.

Outtier, Bernard. “Un fragment syriaque inédit de IV Esdras” (Apocrypha 4 (1993):19-23).

Suciu, Alin. “On a Bilingual Copto-Arabic Manuscript of 4 Ezra and the Reception of this Pseudepigraphon in Coptic Literature.” JSP 25/1 (2015): 3-22.

Cf. also Adam McCollum’s post on Georgian 4 Ezra:

McCollum, Adam. “On 4 Ezra in Old Georgian, with a synoptic text example of 5:22-30” Posted on hmmlorientalia, 12 September 2015.


Thanks are due to Alin Suciu and Karina M. Hogan.

This blog post is based on my research and is part of the wider dissemination of my work. If you want to use the information in this post, please cite it!
Lied, Liv Ingeborg, “Two forgotten sources to 4 Ezra,” posted on Religion – Manuscripts – Media Culture, [21 December 2015] (URL, retrieved [date]).
If you want to discuss any of the findings or hypotheses, feel free to contact me in the commentary field below.

7 January 2016: This essay was re-published at the Women Biblical Scholars site. You find it here:

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