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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: Christian Arabic Canticles, with Nick Posegay

T-S NS 305.198 and T-S NS 305.210
T-S NS 305.198 and T-S NS 305.210: Pages from a Christian Arabic Psalter
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Nick Posegay
Wed 19 Jun 2024

Nick, you’ve recently published an article about a Bible fragment.

That’s right. Two fragments in fact: T-S NS 305.198 and T-S NS 305.210. They join together to make a single bifolium from an Arabic psalter manuscript. So, a book of Psalms and other liturgical songs that would’ve been sung in Arabic church services. This page is the beginning of the ‘canticles’, a selection of songs from other parts of the Bible that Orthodox churches included at the end of their psalters. The first canticle here is from Exodus 15:1–120. It’s known as the ‘Song of the Sea’, the song which the Israelites supposedly sang after escaping from Pharaoh’s army in Egypt.

There are around 25,000 Bible fragments in the Genizah – what makes this one special?

The vast majority of Genizah Bible fragments are in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Judaeo-Arabic – that is, Arabic written in Hebrew script. This one is Arabic in Arabic script. It’s also Christian, rather than Jewish. That’s a bit odd, as we expect that the average Genizah fragment was deposited into the Ben Ezra Synagogue’s genizah chamber by a member of the Egyptian Jewish community.

How did you find it?

It was actually catalogued (though not quite correctly) back in 2007 as a “theological text with allusions to qurʾanic verses.” I think this misidentification is what kept other scholars of Arabic Bible translations, like Prof. Ronny Vollandt, from noticing it before. It’s badly damaged and difficult to decipher, so if you’re interested in Arabic Bibles and a cataloguer has already concluded it’s not from the Bible, why bother looking closer?

I noticed that the two fragments join together back in 2018 when I was surveying the Arabic collection with a former GRU Research Associate, Dr. Magdalen Connolly. We were looking for fragments of the Qurʾan at the time (the resulting article is Open Access here: I deciphered enough of this manuscript to know that it wasn’t from the Qurʾan, but not enough to identify it. I shelved it back then but returned several times over the next few years. Every time, I failed to decipher enough to positively identify the text. I assumed it was from Exodus because of the red heading that mentions Aaron and Moses, but I couldn’t find a matching verse in the Hebrew Bible.

It turns out, the red heading is not part of the biblical text. It’s just a title for this canticle, which is also known as ‘The First Song of Moses’ or ‘The Song of Miriam’. The lightbulb moment was when I realised the word before ‘Aaron’ was ukht – the Arabic for ‘sister’ – so the badly damaged word before that must be ‘Miriam’. So, the manuscript refers to this canticle as ‘The Song of Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses’. A portion of the original Hebrew song was used in the song ‘When You Believe’ at the end of the Dreamworks film, The Prince of Egypt (1998). It’s one of my favourite films, and that song started running through my head as soon as I identified the first verse.

[Editor’s note: you can listen here: The Hebrew starts around 2:20].

There are links in red ink (‘rubrications’) – can you tell us what these signify?

Right, so the use of red ink for section headings is a practice known as ‘rubrication’, from the Latin for ‘making red’. It’s very common in Syriac scribal traditions to delineate textual units with rubricated headings. Arabic scribes adopted the same practice for Qurʾan manuscripts in the seventh and eighth centuries. Syriac scribes also started writing in Arabic around that time, and they continued the practice of rubricating headings. The visual contrast between the red and black ink allows a reader to easily locate new sections at a glance. The red circles in the manuscript serve a similar function, separating shorter text units, approximately half-verses.

Detail of rubrication

Detail of rubricated heading.

What do we know about Christian Arabic Bible traditions in the early Middle Ages, and how does this fragment fit in?

Broadly speaking, both Jews and Christians began translating the Bible into Arabic and writing it down sometime in the eighth or ninth century CE. Most surviving translations date to the tenth century or later. The most famous Jewish translation – and the one that became standard for Middle Eastern Jews for centuries – is the Tafsīr of Saʿadyah Gaon, translated in Iraq in the first few decades of the tenth century. Saʿadyah based his Arabic translation directly on the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch.

There are lots of different Christian traditions of Arabic Bible translation, and they often differ between churches. For example, the Coptic Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, Syriac Church of the East, and Melkite churches all made their own translations at various times. Coptic Christians translated the Bible into Arabic from Coptic source texts, Syriac Christians translated from Syriac source texts, and Melkite Christians translated from a mix of Syriac and Greek sources. This psalter is probably a Melkite translation produced in the ninth century.

Where do you think this book was copied, and who might have owned it?

I think this book was copied by a Melkite Christian at a monastery in Palestine in the late ninth or early tenth century. As I tried to prove in my article, the Arabic text in this psalter was translated from the Syriac Peshitta version of the Bible. But there are also hints that the translator knew a Greek version of the Bible, most likely the Septuagint, and incorporated Greek vocabulary into their work. For instance, the Hebrew and Peshitta versions of Exodus 15 refer to the sea that the Israelites crossed to escape Pharaoh as the ‘Sea of Reeds’. The Septuagint calls it the ‘Red Sea’. I was surprised to see this Arabic translation also call it the ‘Red Sea’, but it does. That suggests the translator had access to both Syriac and Greek versions of the Bible, which makes a Melkite provenance plausible. For anyone interested in reading more, the article is 'An Early Arabic Translation of Exodus 15 from a Palestinian Melkite Psalter in the Cairo Genizah'.

Are you looking for any other pieces of it?

Of course! I think any Genizah researcher will tell you, no matter what you’re working on, you’re always looking for fragments of manuscripts that you’ve seen before. But I have already spent a lot of time in sifting through Arabic manuscripts in the Friedberg database and I didn’t find anything. If there are more fragments of this psalter somewhere, they’re most likely in the vast, uncatalogued wilderness of the T-S Additional Series.

Does this manuscript tell us anything about why Christian materials are sometimes found in the Genizah?

Yes, though not in a very direct way. It’s more evidence that the Jews of medieval Cairo had regular access to manuscripts in Arabic script, including some written by Christian authors and scribes. What it doesn’t tell us is what Egyptian Jews were actually doing with this psalter. Almost all Jews in Cairo at this time spoke Arabic natively, so was a Jewish owner just interested in reading the Song of the Sea in Arabic? Were Jewish scholars reading Christian scripture because they were engaged in polemical arguments against Christianity? Perhaps – we do think that that is why certain Muslim texts survived in the Genizah.

But for this psalter, I think another explanation is more likely. Parchment was an expensive commodity in the Middle Ages, so many people sold old manuscripts once they no longer needed them, and new users recycled them for new writing or as bookbinding material. That is how so many Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Greek palimpsests found their way into the Genizah. Christian monks produced them – we think mainly at monasteries in Palestine, which is another reason I think this psalter came from there – and Jewish scribes recycled them to write Hebrew texts. The most likely explanation is that a Jewish bookbinder used the other leaves of this psalter (or at least this one quire) to reinforce the cover of a new book. This was a very common practice in Egypt at the time. The fragments that we have here may have been too damaged to make an effective binding, so they were discarded instead, and they survived in the Genizah until today.

T-S 16.98

T-S 16.98: a palimpsested Christian Palestinian Aramaic New Testament (John 14–15), reused by a Jewish scribe to copy a book of Yannai's liturgical poetry.

T-S 16.98 with multi-spectral imaging

Multi-spectral imaging techniques can allow the under text to be read more easily.

Is there anything else we should know about this manuscript?

You know as well as I do that there is! I recently co-authored a book with you to celebrate 50 years since the founding of the Genizah Research Unit. It’s called The Illustrated Cairo Genizah. This psalter manuscript appears in it alongside pictures of more than 300 of the most interesting Genizah fragments we could find. We have a whole chapter dedicated to ‘Arabic & Islam’ in the Genizah, which is where we you’ll find this manuscript. The book is available to pre-order now:!

The Illustrated Cairo Genizah

Thanks for your time, Nick!


Nick Posegay is a Leverhulme Early Career Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Points of Contact: The Shared Intellectual History of Vocalisation in Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew (2021), and The Illustrated Cairo Genizah (2024, Forthcoming).

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