An Oct. 21 Style review of a Bible exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery incorrectly said that the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus is one of a few documents that form the basis for the most authoritative modern versions of the Old Testament in Greek. The reference should have been to the New Testament. The article also referred to the National Museum of Natural History as the American Museum of Natural History.
A Testament To Change: Early Scraps Of the Bible
Saturday, October 21, 2006
If 40 percent of Americans refuse to believe that humans evolved from earlier hominids, how many will accept that the book we know as the Bible evolved from earlier texts and was not handed down, in toto, by God in its present form?
The fossil evidence for human evolution is permanently on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Hard evidence that the Bible took its present shape over centuries will be on display for the next 11 weeks, from today through Jan. 7, across the Mall at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
They are rarer than dinosaur bones, these fragments of papyrus and animal skin that tell the Bible's story. With names such as Codex Sinaiticus, the Macregol Gospels and the Valenciennes Apocalypse, they evoke lost empires and ancient monasteries as surely as archaeopteryx and ceratosaurus conjure up primeval swamps and forests.
The Sackler's exhibition, "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000," is one of the broadest assemblages of this material ever brought together in one place. "It has not happened before, and we will not see its like again in our lives," said guest curator Michelle P. Brown, professor of medieval manuscript studies at the University of London.
These are documents with the proven power to shake faith. That's what happened to Bart D. Ehrman, author of the 2005 bestseller "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why."
Ehrman was a born-again Christian from Kansas when he entered Chicago's Moody Bible Institute at age 18. After three decades of comparing ancient manuscripts in their original languages to try to determine the earliest, most authentic text of the New Testament, he is now an agnostic.
"I thought God had inspired the words inerrantly. But when I examined the historical texts, I realized the words had not been preserved inerrantly, and it would have been no greater miracle to preserve them than to inspire them in the first place," said Ehrman, now chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But if these fading papyrus leaves and purple parchments inscribed with silver ink can shake faith, that does not mean they must .
Brown, who pulled the Sackler's exhibition together in association with Oxford University's Bodleian Library, sits on the governing board of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. "That's a pretty good tip-off," she said, that she is a member in good standing of the Church of England.
"There's nothing here that's going to shape or challenge people's beliefs, except on one point," she said. "It will challenge the belief that the Bible originated in the form we have today, rather than being the result of the very complex process of a lot of people of faith using scriptures to help them live God-focused lives."
Her eyes flashing, pink cheeks turning pinker, Brown warmed to her point.
"If people come looking to find something new about Jesus, they won't find it in this exhibit. That's not what it's saying. But it is saying that we didn't start out with this," she said, producing a red Gideon's Bible from her Washington hotel room and giving it a resounding thwack with the palm of her hand.