Is Codex Schoyen Really an 

Early Alternative 

to the Gospel of Matthew?


 

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Codex Schøyen 2650 is a very early (300-350 C.E.?), fragmentary yet substantial manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel.  It was written in a rare dialect of Coptic* (Middle Egyptian), which was the language spoken by many Egyptians in late antiquity.  H.-M. Schenke, who reconstructed its fragmentary text and published a transcription with photographs (Hermes Publishing, 2001), claimed that it is a translation of a “non-canonical” version of Matthew.  (For more background:  Schøyen Collection). 

Schenke stated that Codex Schøyen’s text was derived (through Greek translation) from an underlying Hebrew text, reopening the case for an original Hebrew Matthew, and illuminating the famous statement by Papias that Matthew was composed in the Hebrew dialect.*  The character of this Hebrew text might have prompted early church fathers to condemn it as incomplete, falsified, and mutilated, as Epiphanius said of the Gospel of the Ebionites.  The implications of this striking claim, as Schenke argued, undermine seriously the standard theory* of the origins of the first three Gospels, namely, that Mark’s Gospel was written first, and that Matthew and Luke incorporated much of Mark into their own Gospels.  

More significantly, Schenke’s hypothetical retranslation of the Coptic text back into Greek suggests a text wildly divergent from all known manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel.  If true, such divergence would be all the more significant since Codex Schøyen may possibly represent the earliest witness in any language to Matthew’s Gospel in at least 11 entire chapters.

Despite Schenke’s careful analysis of the dialect and technical aspects of the codex’s originally construction, his textual claims have received scarce attention from the academic community.  The exception has been senior text critic Tjitze Baarda, who wrote an article and a review criticising Schenke’s conclusions and calling for further examination of the freedom which an early Coptic translator might have deemed appropriate for himself.  

Thus, many of the striking differences found in Codex Schøyen may have been produced at the point of translation, rather than derived from its underlying Greek text.  In particular, the translator seemed uninterested in producing a syntactically equivalent translation.  This contrasts starkly with Schenke’s formal, “this is that” mechanistic retranslation which exaggerates the differences between Codex Schøyen and the rest of the Matthean manuscript tradition.  While Codex Schøyen does indeed have a text which often seems to diverge substantially with otherwise known manuscripts, careful attention to translation factors and typical scribal tendencies are likely to mitigate many of them. 

 

©2009 James M. Leonard

University of Cambridge