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

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.

Freer's "Codex Washingtonensis" are Greek versions of portions of the Old Testament dating to the 4th or 5th centuries. Freer also gave the museum what is known as the Washington Manuscript of the Gospels, a 4th- or early 5th-century codex -- the third oldest parchment manuscripts of the Gospels -- which is enclosed in painted wooden covers made in the 7th century. All that will be on display.

"They are almost never seen," said Julian Raby, director of the Sackler.

The Sackler's principal partner in arranging the exhibition is the Bodleian Library, the main research library at Oxford University, which lent 11 artifacts. Among them is a 3rd-century fragment of an unbound papyrus folio of the Gospel of St. Thomas, a disputed early Christian text. Raby, an expert on Islamic art and former member of the Oxford faculty, knew the Bodleian's holdings could be the foundation for a survey of how the Bible evolved. One piece contains the notes the Venerable Bede, a 7th-century monk who lived in Britain, made as he was reading the Proverbs.

The British Library is also lending 11 works, including two leaves from the 7th- or 8th-century Ceolfrith Bible, believed to be the oldest complete Latin Bible in one volume. The library is sending the Harley Gospels, one of the earliest known manuscripts of the Gospels written in Latin, believed to be from the late 6th century.

Another important source is the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai in Egypt, whose holdings of ancient documents are second only to the Vatican's. The monastery lent seven works, including a Greek and Arabic side-by-side translation of the Psalms and Odes.

The Israel Museum has restored the Isaiah 2 portion of Dead Sea Scrolls especially for this exhibition. Though the Hebrew material is small, the exhibition will include a leaf of 2 Chronicles known as the Aleppo Codex, written by Rabbi Aaron Ben Asher and found about 930. It is one of the six oldest surviving Hebrew codices. New York's Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum is sending the Zir Ganela Gospels, a bound manuscript from Ethiopia, believed to be from the 10th or 11th century. It is the newest object in the exhibition.

"We have the parchment scraps from the desert" and other early texts unearthed by archaeologists, Raby says. "And then we show how the format became iconic."

One item is the Epistles Tablet, two wooden fragments with excerpts from Paul's letters to Timothy and James in Greek, lent by the Austrian National Library. Another is the oldest known manuscript of the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy; it was written in Greek in about 150. It comes from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

The narrative will follow the organization of the religious writings into the Bible as it is known today. It will trace how the Gospels and other writings were used and distributed.

Raby said three important discoveries have expanded the knowledge of Biblical writing of ancient times, and some samples are part of the exhibition.

In 1848 a group of excavators found a 4th-century manuscript at St. Catherine's. The Codex Sinaiticus made its way to Russia, and in 1930 Stalin sold it to the British Library.

In the late 19th century, a treasure-trove of material, nearly 200,000 items, was found at the Genizah, or storehouse, at the synagogue of Fostat in Cairo. Freer later bought several of them in 1906, and others from that find are the backbone of the British collections. The Cambridge University Library is lending a crate of parchment fragments given to the library by original excavators.

A third discovery was at el-Bahnasa or Oxyrhynchus, an important archaeological site in Egypt where a team of British excavators in the late 1890s was shocked by what it found in the rubbish of an ancient library. Eventually it uncovered 5,000 items, including papyrus texts. Several of them will be at the Sackler, including an early Christian book roll from the British Library.

On display will be two manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas. In addition to the one on loan from Oxford's Bodleian Library, another lent by the Bodleian Library was found at the Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt during an excavation in 1945.

The Sackler is the only venue for the show in the United States, which is scheduled to run from Oct. 21 to Jan. 7.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company