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Syriac Gospels

This codex is one of the finest examples of the very few extant large, profusely illustrated Syriac Gospels, produced in what is now northern Iraq between c.1190 and 1240. Some believe that Syriac may have been the language in which some of the original Gospels were written.

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Syriac Gospels

Syriac Gospel Lectionary, Northern Iraq, 1216–20. Holy Women at the Tomb
BL Add. MS 7170, f. 160 (detail) 
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a codex?

'Codex' (plural 'codices') is a grand word for a book in the form that we know it today. In Latin 'codex', or 'caudex', once meant tree trunk. Thin wooden writing tablets were used in ancient Roman times as informal notebooks. When, during the second century, religious texts began to be written down in books rather than on rolls, the name 'codex' was transferred to them. The pages that formed the earliest books were made from the reeds of the papyrus plant. Others were on prepared animal skin called parchment.

What is a gospel?

A gospel recounts the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, which form the foundations of the Christian faith. He lived in Israel during the Roman occupation of the country. His mission to reform what he saw as corruption in the Jewish faith caused conflict with the religious hierarchy and led to his execution by the Roman authorities. After his death and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning 'the anointed one' - developed his teachings into a new faith, independent of Judaism but keeping much of its scriptures.

Several gospels had been written by disciples of Jesus during the centuries following his death, but only four were authorised by the Council of Nicaea in 325 for inclusion in the Christian Bible. These four were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, known as the four Evangelists.

What was Syriac and how was it written?

Syriac is the dialect of Eastern Aramaic that was spoken in the early Christian period in the principality of Edessa, which corresponds to present day northern Syria and Iraq, and southern Turkey. It is written in the same alphabet of 22 consonants as Hebrew, but with additional characters of its own.

The earliest Syriac books were biblical translations, and it has been debated whether one or more of the Four Gospels was originally composed in Syriac.

What does the picture show?

The image of the Holy Women visiting the tomb of Christ illustrates the text of St Matthew, in which he recounts that at dawn on the first day of the week St Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb and saw an angel, who said to them: "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said." (Matthew 28:5-6).

The manuscript shows a strong Byzantine influence in the choice of texts and style of illustrations. However, many of the details of the illustrations, such as trees, rocks, architecture, and much of the clothing, are Islamic in style.