The “Pillow Psalter” Returns

The Oldest Complete Book of Psalms is Back on Display

One of the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the so-called Pillow Psalter, is back on display. Dating to about 400 CE, this oldest complete Coptic manuscript of the Book of Psalms returned to public view in February, following almost five years of restoration work. As reported by several Egyptian outlets, including the State Information Service, the ancient codex has been fully restored and documented and is now presented in a newly designed permanent exhibit, ready to awe and inspire many more generations of visitors to the Coptic Museum.

The oldest complete Book of Psalms in Coptic after restoration. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The oldest complete Book of Psalms in Coptic after restoration. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The psalter owes its nickname to the unusual circumstances of its discovery. In 1984, the codex was excavated by antiquities inspectors from a humble Christian grave at al-Mudil, an Egyptian village some 25 miles northeast of al-Bahnasa (ancient Oxyrhynchus, known for its papyri). It was found open and placed as a pillow beneath the head of an adolescent girl. It was the only object buried with the girl and one of immense value. The purpose of such arrangement is unclear, but it brings to mind the ancient Egyptian practice of burying the Book of the Dead with the deceased to aid their passage into the afterlife. The girl’s family must have loved her exceedingly to send her off with such a precious object; they may have believed the holy book would aid her chances of resurrection. The psalter is more commonly known as the Mudil Codex, having been discovered at al-Mudil. It has since found its way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, where it was first displayed in 1992 and given catalogue number 6614.

Background image © Google Earth

Background image © Google Earth

Despite favorable environmental conditions, which preserved the parchment codex for more than one and a half millennia, the manuscript was in desperate need of professional treatment. Over the past five years, a team of Egyptian conservators from the Coptic Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art worked to address various forms of damage that had resulted from ancient usage, contact with the corpse, and dry climate. The whole book had to be dismantled to allow for thorough treatment of individual pages and the binding. Throughout this process, the Mudil Codex was documented using ultraviolet and infrared digital photography. Upon completion of the restoration work, it was finally sewed together and given a prominent place in the museum.

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The Mudil Codex measures about 6.5 by 5 inches and consists of 498 parchment pages bound between two wooden boards with leather binding. It is handwritten in a dark brown, iron-based ink, with additional notes and corrections in black carbon ink. As mentioned, this is a complete Book of Psalms, offering the most fulsome text of all the old Coptic manuscripts, even though not all of the text is now fully legible. Like its presumed source text, the Greek Septuagint, it contains 151 individual psalms (not 150 like the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible). The regional dialect of this Coptic translation corresponds well to its find spot near ancient Oxyrhynchus and is usually known as Oxyrhynchite or Mesokemic (i.e., from Middle Egypt). A small bone peg carved into the shape of an ankh (the ancient Egyptian key of life) was found attached to it by a string.

Coptic Museum in Cairo is home to the largest collection of Egyptian Christian art. Radosław Botev, CC BY 3.0 PL, via Wikimedia Commons.

Coptic Museum in Cairo is home to the largest collection of Egyptian Christian art. Radosław Botev, CC BY 3.0 PL, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Mudil Psalter is significant not only because it is the oldest surviving complete translation of the Book of Psalms in Coptic. Its text differs from other contemporary or later Coptic translations of the Septuagint psalms, thus adding to the history of text transmission. The two major questions are (1) what the model texts for this translation were (i.e., to which text family it might belong), and (2) in what ways it was revised. In fact, it contains some linguistically difficult passages and curious readings. It is also important to consider that, unlike so many manuscript finds (including much of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the “Gnostic library” from Nag Hammadi), this codex comes from a controlled excavation.

Unfortunately, the only book-length study of the manuscript appeared recently in German. Meticulous and highly technical, this monograph is written only for the selected few who read German and the relevant original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Coptic), which are quoted without accompanying translations. Luckily, an accessible summary is available in the form of an English book review.

Cleaned and restored, the Mudil Codex is now back on view, in a special permanent exhibit at the Coptic Museum—the Book of Psalms Hall. This museum space includes interactive screens for visitors to engage with the artifact. Also available are digital photographs of the entire manuscript, label text in seven languages, and an audio guide. For their accomplishment, the restoration team won the Dr. Zahi Hawass Award for the best restoration project in 2023.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Complete Book of the Dead Discovered at Saqqara

The “Original” Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls

What Is Coptic and Who Were the Copts in Ancient Egypt?

Scholars Seek Amateur Assistance

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