100 A.D.The Lost Aramaic Bible of Syrian Christians of Kerala and how portugese destroyed old bibles in kerala


It may be unknown to many that Kerala is one of the very few places in the world, where, even today, Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) is still used in the rituals of the local Syrian-Malabar Church, reputedly established by St Thomas in AD 52.

In fact, universities in Kerala offer courses in Syriac-Aramaic! In this context, the history of the ‘Lost Aramaic Bible’ in 16th century Kerala and how it survived centuries of ‘hiding’ during the Portuguese era of Christianity in India, is quite interesting.
The original copies of the Bible, with the exception of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are the Codex Vaticanus at the Vatican Library and the Codex Siniaticus at the British Museum
. But the Anglican Church obtained in the 19th century, copies of the Aramaic Bible from Kerala, which are supposed to have been as old as the copies at the Vatican and in London. These Indian national treasures are now at the Cambridge University in the UK.

The Bible was originally in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, and early in the fifth century AD,
St Jerome translated it entirely into Latin. While this version of the Bible, known as the Vulgate Bib-le, is the main authoritative version used by the Roman Catholic (RC) Church, there is another version held by a branch of Christianity that had established itself at Antioch in Syria.
Its version of the Bible is supposed to have been brought to Malabar in India, as Christianity dates back to
first century AD here,
following the arrival of St Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Christ. The archbishops of the Malabar Church had been nominated by the Patriarch (Head of the Eastern Orthodox Church) from Antioch and the Syrian Christian sacrament of Malabar forms one of the most ancient liturgies in the world.
The Syrian version of the Bible differs from the RC version and is considered to be the
original Bible
, as it was brought to India before AD 325,
the year when the Christian Council at Nice, decided to codify the Bible according to the RC version.
The Indian Christian community in Malabar, however, continued to follow the Syrian version.
In 1498, the Portuguese came to India, bringing with them the tenets of the RC Church.
While they were happy to find an indigenous Christian community in Malabar, the Portuguese were determined to remove the influence of the Patriarch of Antioch from the Indian Church and wanted the Indian Christians to transfer their allegiance to the Pope in Rome.
This caused frequent strife between the Portuguese and the Indian Christian community in Malabar.
Finally, in 1599 AD, Archbishop Menezes of Goa, as the representative of the Pope in India, decided, that the main cause of the obstinacy of the Indian Christians was their interpretation of the Bible, with its differences from the RC version.
So he thought the ‘Syrian Aramaic Bible’ must be destroyed.

Employing methods of intimidation and cajolery, along with demonstrations of armed might, he compelled the Syrian Christian clergy of India to bring all their theological literature to Udayamperoor (known to the
Portuguese
as Diamper) in Malabar.
There he convened a Synod, the purpose of which was to remove ‘errors’ from the Syrian Bible. At this Synod, which lasted for a week, all Syrian Aramaic manuscripts, which did not agree with the Roman Catholic version of the
bible were burned together with other documents,
that would have sustained the Syrian Christians in their beliefs. At one stroke, the Portuguese obliterated all manuscripts and documents relating to Syrian Indian Christianity prior to 1599 AD.
Further, the complete library of the Syrian Archbishop at Angamale was destroyed.
These acts of literary ruination have been considered by historians as vandalism, comparable to the burning of the Great library of Alexandria by Caliph Omar in AD 643.

The Syrian clergy had not suspected such wicked intent by the Portuguese and it was too late for their shocked leaders to rescue any of the theological books.
But providentially, the Portuguese Archbishop’s message to bring the theological volumes to Uday-amperor, had not reached one of the remote mountain churches of central Malabar and one copy of the Syrian version of the Bible escaped destruction! Later, this copy became the most treasured volume of the Syrian Church in India and a veil of secrecy surrounded this Bible, which was ‘lost’, its whereabouts known only to very few at the topmost echelons of the Syrian Church.

Two centuries later, a British missionary called Dr Claude Buchanan came to Malabar and was interested in the history of the Syrian Christians which won him many friends here. He also managed to win the heart of Mar Dionysius, the head of the Syrian Christian Church. In 1807, Mar Dionysius showed him
the ‘Lost Bible’.
To quote Dr Buchanan, “The volume contained the Old and New Testaments embossed in strong vellum in large folios, having three columns to a page and was written with beautiful accuracy. The characters were of Estrangelo Syriac and the words of every book are numbered. But the volume has suffered injury from time and neglect. In certain pages, the ink has been totally obliterated from the page, leaving the paper in its natural whiteness, but the letters can in general be distinctly traced from the impress of the pen or from the partial corrosion of the ink.”
Dr Buchanan discussed with the Archbishop the brittle condition of the volume and told him that in case the book was entrusted to him, he would have it printed and thus preserved for posterity. Although it was a very difficult decision for the Archbishop as the volume had been preserved for over a thousand years, he knew that the British were fast becoming masters of India and that they, compared to the Portuguese, were more broadminded when it came to religious convictions. More importantly, the Archbishop was unsure as to how many more years the Syrian Church would be able to preserve the ‘Lost Bible’. Scarcely a decade earlier, the destruction of Indian Churches by Tipu Sultan had erased many landmarks and even the famous Mission at Verapoly had lost all its manuscripts, as the boat carrying the fleeing treasures sank in deep water. Hence the Archbishop felt that once printed, this ancient version would be safe forever.
So he gave the volume of the manuscripts to Dr Buchanan.
Dr Buchanan, in turn, gifted these 1000-year-old volumes and many other Syrian manuscripts to the Cambridge University,
where they are still preserved at the University Library. In 1815, this ancient Bible was printed by the British and Foreign Bible Society. Christian theologists found to their pleasant surprise that this Syrian version was free of many of the ‘later insertions’ that are prevalent in the modern Bible, and thus it proved to be a valuable reference volume.

For India, it is a matter of great pride that this country, whose major religions include Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and is the last refuge of Zoroastrianism and Jewish faith in Asia, was also the country where such rare copies of the Bible were successfully preserved for centuries,
even before Europe accepted Christianity”

Reference
[ “The lost Aramaic Bible of Syrian Christians of Kerala” is an as is re-production of the article of K R N Swamy, columnist on heritage, culture in the Deccan Herald dated April 11 2004.]