Syriac Bible: Malabar To Cambridge



In the vaults of the Cambridge University library in England lies one of the most important relics in the history of Christianity in India. Known as the ‘Buchanan Bible’, it is one of the oldest surviving copies of the Aramaic Bible of the Syrian Christian Church. It is also the first book ever to be translated and printed in the Malayalam language.

The history of the Bible itself is extremely complex as it was compiled by different authors and in different locations, over 1,600 years. The early versions of the Bible were in ancient Hebrew and Greek. The oldest surviving copies of the Bible are the Codex Vaticanus (300-325 CE) preserved in the Vatican Library, and the Codex Sinaiticus (300-360 CE) in the British Museum, both of which have been written in ancient Greek.

<i>Codex Vaticanus</i>
Codex Vaticanus

In 382 CE, St Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, and this came to be known as the ‘Vulgate’ Bible’ (‘Vulgate’ refers to the ‘common’ version of the Bible). It is this version of the Bible that is used by the Roman Catholic Church.

However, the Syriac Orthodox Church, which follows the Patriarchate of Antioch (in present-day Syria) follows its own version of the Bible known as the ‘Peshitta’ Bible (‘Peshitta’ means ‘straight’ or ‘simple version’ in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, an ancient Middle Eastern language), which was compiled at the end of the 3rd century CE.

Over centuries, a number of Councils were held to codify the Bible and many of the older versions were lost or destroyed. Invasions and political changes in the Middle East also played havoc with the followers of the Syriac Christian Church. Communities were simply wiped out or forced to emigrate. A number of valuable texts were destroyed.

Tur Abdin area of Turkey
Tur Abdin area of Turkey

Sometime between the 9th and the 12th centuries, in the remote region of Tur Abdin, on the border of present-day Turkey and Syria, someone prepared a copy of the Syriac Bible and dispatched it to India. We don’t know who wrote it, why it was written and who brought it to India. Perhaps it was done to protect the holy book, given the threat Christians faced in the region. This is how the Syriac Bible from Tur Abdin first came into the possession of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, which thrived in the coastal region of Malabar.

Syrian Church at Kottayam
Syrian Church at Kottayam

The members of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala trace their origin to the evangelical activities of St Thomas the Apostle, around the 1st century CE. For centuries, the community and their churches thrived on the coast of Malabar. In 1498, the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama arrived on the Malabar coast, and with them, they brought Roman Catholic missionaries.  The Portuguese were determined to convert the Syrian Christians to Roman Catholicism. This would take a more sinister turn under Aleixo de Menezes, who became the Archbishop of Goa in 1559 CE.

Aleixo de Menezes
Aleixo de Menezes

Aleixo de Menezes felt that the defiance of the Syrian Christians stemmed from their own interpretation of the Bible and that these ‘heretical’ texts needed to be destroyed. As part of a larger plan, in June 1599 CE, de Menezes convened a religious conference known at the ‘Synod of Diamper’ at the village of Udayamperoor in the Kingdom of Cochin.

Through the armed might of the Portuguese, all the priests and clerics of the Syrian Christian Churches in Kerala were summoned to attend this synod. They were also instructed to bring with them all their theological literature in order to remove the ‘errors’ in the Syrian Christian Bible. It was decreed that any church that did not follow these orders would be destroyed. At this synod, all the copies of the Syrian Bible along with other Syrian Aramaic manuscripts were declared ‘heretical’ and ordered to be burnt.

Syrian Church at Angamaly near Kochi
Syrian Church at Angamaly near Kochi

Before the horrified Syrian Christian clergy had time to react, the deed had been done. This was followed by the destruction of the great library of the Syrian Church at Angamaly near Kochi. Thus, almost all the historical literature of the Syrian Christians was obliterated by the Portuguese in 1599 CE.

Church of the Syrian Christians in India, 1855
Church of the Syrian Christians in India, 1855

It is believed that, by a quirk of fate, only a single manuscript of the Syriac Bible survived. Author and journalist K R N Swamy in his book, Mughals, Maharajas & Mahatma, writes how the invitation to the synod had not reached one of the remote mountain churches in Central Malabar, where this Bible was kept. This surviving copy would become a treasured possession of the Syrian Church in India and only a very few, in the top echelons of the Church, knew where it was hidden.

In 1806, a British missionary named Claudius Buchanan came to Malabar to study the history of the Syrian Christians. Here, he struck up a friendship with Mar Dionysius, the head of the Malankara Church at Angamaly. In 1807, Mar Dionysius showed him this rare Bible manuscript, which was in a very brittle condition due to the hot and humid climate of the Malabar. Reverend Buchanan managed to convince the Church leaders to translate this Bible into Malayalam and get it printed so that it could be preserved for posterity.

Claudius Buchanan
Claudius Buchanan

The Church leaders were in a dilemma. Just a decade earlier, Tipu Sultan's invasion of Malabar had led to a new wave of destruction of Churches and their libraries. They were not sure how long they would be able to protect this manuscript and were convinced that printing it was the only way to preserve it for posterity.

Hence, the Church gifted this rare Syriac Bible to Reverend Buchanan. The manuscript was translated into Malayalam by a Syriac scholar named Kayamkulam Philipose Ramban and was printed in Bombay in 1811. This was the first book ever printed in the Malayalam language and is known as the ‘Ramban Bible’.

Cambridge University library
Cambridge University library

Reverend Buchanan donated the original Syriac Bible along with 25 other Syriac manuscripts to the University of Cambridge in England in 1809. This Bible has proved to be very important for historians and scholars in understanding the evolution of the holy book over centuries. Considering that the Bible was first printed in India only in the 18th century, the 'Buchanan Bible' would have been the oldest known Bible in India, had it remained here.

Today, this manuscript is preserved in the vaults of the Cambridge University library. Despite its significance, only a few in India know of this very valuable relic of Indian Christianity.

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