Scholars have determined a book bound in wood and leather and buried under a child's head more than 1,600 years ago is the earliest complete book of Psalms and probably the oldest book of any kind.
"We have for the first time a complete book of Psalms dating from the second half of the fourth century A.D., making it the oldest complete book of Psalms ever found," museum director Gawdat Gabra said Wednesday."Never before have we seen such an early book in Egypt, and I can find no evidence of an earlier true book anywhere. This volume is a book in every sense of the word," he said.
Gabra, director of Cairo's Coptic Museum, first saw the book within days of its discovery four years ago and has studied it for the past 21/2 years. He is an Egyptologist as well as one of the world's top experts in Coptic studies.
The book includes about 490 parchment pages, bound between wooden covers stitched with leather. The Psalms are handwritten in a dialect of Coptic, a now-dead language of Old Greek characters supplemented by seven hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt's late period.
Gabra said the text contains many Greek and some Coptic words never seen before. It is written in brown ink derived from iron except in a few passages, where words were written over in black carbon ink in apparent attempts to repair damage. Wear is obvious where fingertips turned the parchment pages.
The book's pages were stuck together when it was found in 1984. All but the last five, two of which are blank, have been separated.
A tiny key of life carved from bone was attached to the book by leather threads. The key, or ankh, is a symbol from ancient Egypt that was incorporated in the Christian cross.
"It is the earliest complete book of Psalms, at the same time written in a new dialect for scholars, and we have its whole history," said Martin Krause, Coptic studies professor of Munster University in West Germany.
"I must stress that this manuscript is important not only for Coptic study but for all Biblical traditions," said Krause, who has studied the text for four months.
The book was discovered by Egyptian antiquities inspectors in a cemetery for the poor about 85 miles south of Cairo and 25 miles north of a Greco-Roman city called Oxyrhynchus.