On the Loss and Discovery of Ancient Texts
The raw materials for the historian’s task are those remnants of past civilizations that have survived to the present day. This certainly includes archeological information, but for the church historian, it is often texts that are the most valuable evidence for reconstructing past events and places. Yet, the persistent reality faced by every historian of the early church is the paucity of texts from those who came under ecclesiastical censure. The reason that a large portion of Origen’s works (third century) are lost to us is that his theology came under fire centuries after his lifetime. The same is true of Apollinarius (fourth century), on down through Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia in the fifth century.
However, occasionally a long lost text is found. Such happened in the early 20th century with the discovery of a Syriac manuscript of Nestorius’ Book of Heraclides, his defence composed late in his life while in exile for his errant Christological views. The work was discovered in a Syriac translation and opened up a new window onto Nestorius’ teaching on the nature of Christ. Sadly, sometimes texts are found, only then to be lost again. A tragic example is the long lost work by Theodore of Mopsuestia called De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation). Since it was precisely for his Christological views that ‘Teddy the Mop’ was condemned, this book would have shed much valuable light onto the most crucial elements of his theology. Long regarded as lost forever, De Incarnatione was discovered in the library of Seert in a complete Syriac translation in 1905 by Addai Scher. Seert (Siirt) is a town in Kurdistan, in modern-day Turkey. Scher described the book in an article published in 1905, but before an edition of the manuscript could be published, the ravages of World War I led to the destruction of the library and, sadly, the death of Scher himself. The destruction of the manuscript has to be counted among the significant losses in patristics texts to occur in the 20th century. Nevertheless, discoveries still occasionally are made of fresh texts. Who knows what else might be sitting, long forgotten, on the shelf of a monastery somewhere?
The story of Scher is told in Marco Conti’s preface to his new translation of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Commentary on the Gospel of John (IVP, 2010), p.xxi. See also this blog post here, for more information.