CAIRO -- Scholars have determined that a book bound in wood and leather and buried under a child's head more than 1,600 years ago is the earliest complete book of Psalms and possibly the oldest book of any kind.
"We have for the first time a complete book of Psalms dating from the second half of the 4th century A.D., making it the oldest complete book of Psalms ever found," museum director Gawdat Gabra said.
"Never before have we seen such an early book in Egypt, and I can find no evidence of an earlier true book anywhere. This volume is a book in every sense of the word," he said.
Gabra, director of Cairo's Coptic Museum, first saw the book within days of its discovery four years ago and has studied it for the past 2 1/2 years. He is an Egyptologist as well as one of the world's top experts in Coptic studies.
The book includes about 490 parchment pages, bound between wooden covers stitched with leather.
The Psalms are handwritten in a dialect of Coptic, a now-dead language of Old Greek characters supplemented by seven hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt's late period.
Gabra said the text contains many Greek and some Coptic words never seen before. It is written in brown ink derived from iron except in a few passages, where words were written over in black carbon ink in apparent attempts to repair damage. Wear is obvious where fingertips turned the parchment pages.
The book's pages were stuck together when it was found in 1984. All but the last five, two of which are blank, have been separated.
A tiny key of life carved from bone was attached to the book by leather threads.
The key, or ankh, is a symbol from ancient Egypt that was incorporated in the Christian cross.
"It is the earliest complete book of Psalms, at the same time written in a new dialect for scholars, and we have its whole history," said Martin Krause, Coptic studies professor of Muenster University in West Germany.
"I must stress that this manuscript is important not only for Coptic study but for all Biblical traditions," said Krause, who has studied the text for four months.
The book was discovered by Egyptian antiquities inspectors in a cemetery for the poor about 85 miles south of Cairo and 25 miles north of a Greco-Roman city called Oxyrhynchus.
"Nothing indicated much of historical interest in the cemetery," Gabra said. "Some bodies were buried with textiles, but there was little else to be found.
"Then workers found the grave of a little girl, about 12 years old, and under her head was this book with the tiny key of life."
He said it is not known why the child was buried there, because the value of the book indicates her family must have been rich. "They must have loved her very much. Perhaps she was an only child," Gabra said. "To put something of such an immense value indicates how they felt about her. This book would have taken a long time to copy and would have cost a lot."
Gabra said the book has immense historical value, epecially because it was found in a grave and did not arrive via antiquities smugglers. He said everything about the book can be documented.
"Until now, what we had were fragments of Psalms, such as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls," and later versions of the Old Testament book, some of questionable origin, Gabra said. Most original texts have disappeared.
"The Coptic Church traces its Book of Psalms to two Greek versions, one of which is incomplete," Gabra said. "The new book will add much to what has been missing, because it's the version nearer the missing manuscript."
The Coptic Church is among the world's oldest Christian faiths, traditionally dating from St. Mark's arrival in Egypt between A.D. 48 and 75. There are 5 million to 6 million Coptic Christians, about 10 percent of Egypt's population.
Only two other manuscripts have been found written in the same Oxyrhynchus dialect. One, the Gospel of St. Matthew, is in a private collection in Princeton, N.J. The other, called the Glazier Codex, contains the first 15 chapters of the Acts of the Apostles and is in New York City's Pierpont Morgan Library.
Gabra said Psalms was the biblical book most often buried with early Egyptian Copts. The book-burying tradition evolved from ancient Egypt, when the "Book of the Dead" surrounded mummies on tomb walls to help the deceased enter the afterworld, he said.
"Psalms was the favorite work throughout early Christianity in Egypt. No other book was so quoted," Gabra said. "Monks had to memorize the book, and even until modern times Psalms was used for magical purposes."
Museum director Gabra said the first scholastic publication about the book's archaeology, conservation and historical importance is expected next year. Years of study lie ahead.
Eventually, he said, "we plan to display the book in a special room of its own in the Coptic Museum, giving it the importance it deserves."