The Four Gospels in Ge’ez.
The Ethiopian Bible, language and script
A language of the Semitic branch, Ethiopian employs a script that is unique in the family of Semitic languages: it is written from left to right, perhaps an indication that this script was introduced with Christianity, by Greeks.
Ge’ez, or classical Ethiopian, is a very ancient language that was spoken at Axum, the old kingdom in the northern Tigre province, from roughly the 4th to the 12th century, when it was replaced by Amharic, the current official language of Ethiopia. Ge’ez continues to be used as the main liturgical language of the Ethiopian Church.
The translation of the Bible into Ge’ez occurred between the 5th and 7th centuries. Unlike the King James authorised version of the Bible, which is made of sixty-six books, the Ethiopian Bible contains a total of eighty-four books, and includes some texts that were rejected or lost by other Churches.
This parchment codex of the Gospels was written in two columns by the scribe Mahanta Mikael in a good Ethiopian hand in the 17th century. The red ink in the text was often used in Ethiopian Gospels to highlight the names of angels, saints, Jesus, Mary, or that of the donor or owner of the book.
The manuscript includes portraits of the Evangelists and their disciples, an image of St George slaying the dragon, as well as embellished first pages in each Gospel. The style of these illustrations differs from most other Ethiopian painting of the period, and most likely represents the personal idiom of the unknown artist. The style is sternly linear and geometrical as can be seen for example, in the miniature showing St Mark with two acolytes, and on the beautifully executed frontispiece displaying plaited bands that frame the page (ff. 64v–65r). Known as harag this technique of interlacing bands is akin to Byzantine, Coptic and Syriac illumination.
The manuscript formed part of the Magdala Collection given to the British Museum Library in 1868 by the Secretary of State for India.
View images of the entire manuscripts via our Digitised Manuscripts website.