Sunday, September 10, 2006

AN EXHIBITION ON BIBLES BEFORE THE YEAR 1000 is coming to Washington D.C. next month:
Papyrus, Parchment & Posterity
At the Sackler, 'Bibles Before the Year 1000' to Trace Books' Evolution

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006; Page N11

Most of us take the form of the book for granted: A collection of sheets with writing on both sides bound along one side.

The story of how that form -- the codex -- became synonymous with the idea of a book is one of the threads that runs through one of the most unusual exhibitions coming to Washington this fall.

The show, which opens in October at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, brings together scrolls, scraps of papyrus, bits of parchment and other curiosities, including a copy of the Gospels written in silver ink on purple parchment.

The various manuscripts -- including some of the rarest in the world -- are being displayed in an effort to trace the evolution of the Bible from a loose collection of texts into a codified volume.

"In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000" argues that when early Christian communities adopted the papyrus codex as the form of their Scriptures, it was "the most dramatic development in the history of the book."

The exhibit will also show how the various writings circulating in the first thousand years of the Christian era became encased in the form we know today as the Bible.

The show starts with a 1st-century scroll containing a text of Isaiah 2. There are many other papyrus and parchment fragments that are part of the evolution of the Bible.

The Sackler borrowed items from two dozen institutions around the world. Most of the manuscripts have never been seen outside the countries where they are stored. Even six manuscripts purchased in 1906 by Charles Lang Freer and given to the Smithsonian Institution are usually kept in storage vaults because of their fragile state. Two have never been exhibited and two have not been shown since 1978.

This is an extraordinary exhibit. It includes contributions from the Bodleian Library, the British Library, St. Catherine's Monastery, the Israel Museum, and other major institutions. The manuscripts on display will include material from the Dead Sea Scrolls, from the Aleppo Codex, from the Cairo Geniza, and from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. And both the Greek and the Coptic manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas will be included. Marvelous.

The exhibition website is here.

As usual, I have a couple corrections to point out. The Chester Beatty manuscript of Numbers and Deuteronomy (P963 -- displayed here) is of the second century C.E. and is thus a very early Greek manuscript of the books, but not the earliest copy per se: three fragmentary Greek manuscripts, Papyrus Fouad 266 (Deuteronomy, first century B.C.E.), John Rylands Library Papyrus Greek 458 (Deuteronomy, second or first century B.C.E.), and 4QLXXNum (first century B.C.E. or C.E), are earlier. And manuscripts of Numbers and Deuteronomy from the Dead Sea Scrolls are of a comparable early date. (I would have to look up the exact dates and I don't have the reference works handy at home. For the dates of the Greek manuscripts, see this article by Robert Kraft.)

To be fair, the WaPo article got the incorrect info from the exhbition website.

Second, as Tim Finney pointed out on the Textual Criticism list, "... I wouldn't have called Tischendorf and the monks of St Catherine's 'a group of excavators.'"

(Via Stephen Goranson on the Textual Criticism list.)

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