A U.S. scholar has cut through some of the secrecy surrounding early Christian manuscripts found four years ago inside St. Catherine's Monastery near Mount Sinai. But he thinks they may remain largely hidden from outside study for many years.
Apocryphal literature expert James H. Charlesworth of Duke University was not permitted to see any of the 3,000 items during a short stay at the monastery last February.
However, he later received 30 photographs of pages, including some from Genesis, the Gospel of Mark, Byzantine prayer books and bilingual liturgical documents.
"If the other thousands of documents are as significant as the ones I have seen," Charlesworth wrote in the quarterly journal, Biblical Archeologist, "then the discovery is of sensational . . . importance."
Charlesworth said the Genesis portion is from a fourth century Greek manuscript and the Mark segment from a sixth century rendition.
Of 47 "cartoons" containing these writings, 37 are said to be in languages other than Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Latin, Slavic and Syriac. If any of those pages or documents are as old as the Greek ones -- or even older -- there is potential that some long-lost treatises might resurface he said.
Charlesworth, director of Duke's International Center on Christian Origins, is one of the leading American authorities on extra-bibical documents.
Doubleday is expected to publish late next year a Charlesworth-edited collection of 53 pseudepigraphal texts, Jewish or Jewish-influenced writings claiming to be divinely inspired works by bibical figures. He translated many into English for the first time, including some obscure Syriac texts.
At the urging of academic colleagues, Charlesworth visited the Sinai Peninsula monastery to try to learn more about the find of May 26, 1975, when monks cleaning out an old cell found the materials under trash and debris accumulated years before.
The scholar acknowledged the fear of monastery leaders that "those newly found precious items will be stolen from the monastery in the same way that the monks believe other items were taken by [Russian Count] Tischendorf in the last century."
Charlesworth said he learned last month that a scholarly team to study and photograph the items had been organized recently in Athens. The Greek Orthodox Church claims links to the monastery, but officials of the letter say they are independent.
"It looks like the monastery is intent on doing all the work itself," Charlesworth said.