How the World’s Earliest Astronomical Chart was Discovered under a Biblical Manuscript in Cambridge

West Cambridge – the edge between university city and river pasture – has been growing for many years with institutes armed with ever finer technology for understanding the world around us and above us. It may be a surprise to many that it is the research institute for biblical scholarship, Tyndale House, with its iconic red front door on Selwyn Gardens, which has provided the latest breakthrough in our knowledge of the night sky. But it is no surprise to me. Tyndale House has played a continuing role in observing young stars of Biblical languages from Cambridge and other universities, and mentoring and training them. The story of discovering the great collection of astronomical work in antiquity is the story of offering junior scholars the opportunity to collaborate with senior researchers, centred on Biblical languages.

In 2012, I was in my second year of theological study at Clare College, Cambridge. Ι was receiving Greek teaching through the Divinity Faculty from Peter Head, who was a research fellow at Tyndale House (and is presently tutor in New Testament at Wycliffe Hall, where I am now training for ordained ministry in the Church of England). Peter Head encouraged me to join Tyndale House’s first summer internship to examine the Greek underwriting of a digitised Syriac manuscript which had originally been kept at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Peter Williams, Principal of Tyndale House and scholar of Semitic languages, found a junior scholar of great promise, Suzanna Millar, now Fellow in Hebrew Bible at Edinburgh University, to work on the Aramaic underwriting. In July 2012, we began side by side in the upper hexagonal room above the library.

After a few weeks of staring at the sloping majuscule Greek letters of the parts of the text which had been already identified as Biblical texts, I began to tackle the unknown portion, some nine folios with a few visible passages of text. Having found a string of text on a two-column page – auton tethēnai hote eis naxon (he was buried when in Naxos …) – Peter Head and I searched through the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, before finding a match with a scholium on Aratus’ Phaenomena (line 73). This was later discovered to be the very text of Eratosthenes Catasterisms, rather than a scholium. This surprise that this palimpsest contained astronomical texts helped us match other pages of previously undeciphered text.

The following summer I returned with a growing team of young scholars, second- and third-year undergraduates who had Greek or Hebrew, and an interest in working within a community of Biblical scholars for a few months. I matched a beautiful single column with the middle portion of Aratus’ Phaenomena itself, the poem whose opening Paul quotes in the speech reported in Acts 17, “That one of your own poets says “tou gar kai genos esmen” (for we are his offspring).” Other eyes spotted other elements: that scrawls and dots were not doodles, but actually illustrations of remarkable beauty; that other pages were other portions of Eratosthenes’ Catasterisms.

It was the sustained interest by the Principal of Tyndale House, which yielded perhaps the best discovery of all last year. During lockdown two, Peter Williams returned to find that the section on Corona Borealis contained coordinates of the constellation’s edges in a geometric fashion: something Hipparchus had allegedly done, though until now no accurate measurements had been preserved in any surviving manuscript. Researchers at the French national scientific research centre in Paris were able to calculate that these observations were made in 129 BC, fitting with Hipparchus observing them towards his later life. Leaping from the Greek undertext was not only classical poetry, but astronomical precision.

As I reflect back on this most intriguing turn of events, now ten years since I discovered the first astronomical text, I consider this to be a story of the fruit of sustained observation. Tyndale House is a research institute which has sustained its interest in Biblical languages for nearly eighty years, and has for ten years been championing the next generation of scholars and teachers – from as near as Cambridge to as far away as Cuba. It is the story of the sustained observation of the heavens by great minds – who make their discoveries known to us by their writing in Greek, and of the observation of scribes diligently preserving these texts with their careful sloping handwriting some six hundred years later. And it is the story of our sustained observation of a single manuscript over a decade, bringing in everyone from young researchers to astronomical experts, to recover what had once been lost. May we ever continue our interest in stars and their observers.


Dr Jamie Klair is currently studying for the ordained ministry at Wycliffe College, Oxford. His Cambridge PhD was on the subject of Nigerian Pentecostalism in London.

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