Three awesome weeks of work on Old Nubian have come to an end. The final activity was the presentation of the results of our work on the Serra-East codex, containing the pseudo-Chrysostomian homily In verabilem crucem sermo, in the frame of the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions and in a panel titled “Caught in Translation: Versions of Late Antique Christian Literature” organized by Dan Batovici and Madalina Toca.
The pseudo-Chrysostomian homily is the longest text in Old Nubian known to date. The codex was found in a small pit in sand between the foundations of a house right outside the Middle-Kingdom enclosure wall within which the town of Serra East was built. Its secure archaeological contextualization and the preservation of a colophon stating that it was produced to be “deposited on the cross in the church of Jesus at Serra” has made the find an important element in the discussion of the production centers for manuscripts used in Christian Nubia, and of the role of the town of Serra in these literary exchanges. Gerald Browne, the first editor of this important text, has moreover dated the manuscript in the 11th-12th centuries, based on paleographic similarities with dated Nubian documents, as well as through comparison of its system of supralineation with the system used in Coptic manuscripts of this period. This made the find a fitting token of literacy for the town of Serra, the activity at which also seems to have taken place mainly in the Late Christian period of medieval Nubia, i.e. after the 10th-11th centuries. These observations were of course highly relevant when we began studying the text. Granted, the manuscript can be dated to these centuries. But what about the text itself? Is the Serra codex the autograph of the translation from Greek – the Vorlage assumed by Browne for the text preserved in our manuscript? A very thorough reading of the Old Nubian text revealed to us that this was not the case. We identified copying mistakes that show misunderstandings of a scribe who was copying a text he had in front of his eyes already written in Old Nubian. But then, a more crucial question appeared: irrespectively of how many times the original Old Nubian translation was copied, could we identify in the text elements that would point to a specific moment in time when that translation was produced? Undoubtedly, this question is impossible to ascertain; not yet, I would add. But, after having checked a dozen of manuscript witnesses in Greek, as well as the collations presented by Browne, based on a dozen more Greek, one Latin, and two Syriac manuscripts, we believe that we can point to a very early date for the working out of the translation. So early, that the Chrysostomian work was not only an important homiletical work for pastoral, spiritual, and perhaps also dogmatic purposes during the first phases of Christianity in Nubia, but also that the language of this work – often sinuous and “archaic” – may have preserved for us, the earliest attempts to create religious literacy in Nubian!
Our ideas were well received in the conference and we must now prepare our paper for the proceedings to be published hopefully very soon. Until then, allow us to refrain from disclosing further details, although so much has already been revealed in the tweets of @ontrakagoueke, which still aims at attracting attention to the exciting topics arising from studying Old Nubian based on the new understanding of the language that the grammar of Vincent van Gerven Oei offers to our community – both of scholars and students, as well as locals with pride for the linguistic and cultural past of Nubia.