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Stolen 10th Century Gospel Returns to Greek Monastery from the US

Greek monastery gospel
The Monastery of the Virgin Eikossifinissa. Credit: AMNA

A rare, handwritten gospel stolen from a Greek monastery was recently returned by its latest owner, the Museum of the Bible in Washington.

The artifact is believed to be one of the oldest handwritten gospels, written in Greek sometime between the end of the tenth century and beginning of the eleventh century.

The museum said that it transferred the artifact, which its founders acquired at a Christie’s auction in 2011, to an Eastern Orthodox Church official in a private ceremony in New York.

Gospel was stolen from Greek monastery in 1917

The gospel was stolen in 1917 by the occupying Bulgarian army from the historic monastery of the Virgin Eikossifinissa (“The Luminous Red One”), built on Mt. Pangeon in northern Greece.

It will be the second manuscript aside from the ninth-century Codex 1424 to have been returned to the monastery.

The priceless codex was returned in 2016 by the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. The recently-identified manuscript, which includes miniatures and depictions of the Evangelists, is written in two columns with twenty-seven lines per column. The columns together measure 18.1 cm by 14 cm (7.13 inches by 5.5 inches).

gospel greek monastery
Credit: Museum of the Bible

Following a circuitous route, the tenth-century vellum gospel somehow ended up at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which recently notified the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that it had been one of the objects stolen during World War I.

Bartholomew, the Metropolis said, allowed the museum, which receives one million visitors a year, to exhibit the manuscript until very recently. Another three manuscripts from the patriarchate will also be lent to the museum as a gesture of goodwill.

According to Greek church officials, Bulgarian soldiers raided the monastery in March of 1917 and removed the entire monastic library holdings, including over 430 manuscripts and 470 objects.

Included in the war booty were many icons and Greek Orthodox liturgical objects. Many were sold in the 1920s and eventually found their way into collections in Europe and the United States.

The 10th-century gospel, which was sold in New York City in 1958, was bought by the Museum of the Bible at a Christie’s auction in 2011.

During research, curator Brian Hyland identified the manuscript, known as “Manuscript Eikosiphoinissa 220,” through the notations contained in it, a painstaking effort detailed to the Ecumenical Patriarch by Museum representative Dr. Jeff Kloha, who paid him a visit in Istanbul to inform him of the discovery.

The Greek Orthodox Church sued Princeton University four years ago to attempt to recover four manuscripts many scholars believe were looted from the same monastery. The case has not been resolved. Princeton did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but, in 2018, it reported that it did not believe the manuscripts had been looted.

In 2015, the church asked for the return of other manuscripts believed to have been looted from the same monastery that were held by Duke University, the Morgan Library, and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. The theology school returned the manuscripts it had in its possession in 2016.

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