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In the Beginning Was the Word . . .

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 27, 2006

This week I visited an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution called “In the Beginning: Bibles before the Year 1000”. This exhibition displays fine specimens of early Biblical texts from the first thousand years of Christian history. It includes papyrus fragments, pieces of scrolls and early bound sheets; single pages from the world’s most famous Scriptural codices; and even complete early Bibles.

Historical Confirmation

This carefully-documented collection provides ample evidence of the early drafting of the Gospels and epistles as well as the role of Church fathers and key bishops in preserving and passing on both Old Testament and New Testament texts. The diverse origins of the various codices along with the later artistic embellishment of the texts also shows the importance of Scripture to those who propagated and received the Faith throughout the world from the dawn of the Christian era.

In our age, so rife with stories about secret texts, conspiracies, suppressed gospels and other fantasies, this Smithsonian exhibition is an effective demonstration of the untiring efforts of Christians to preserve and protect the collection of books known as the Bible from the earliest times. The widespread corroboration of these texts through archeological finds as far apart as Egypt and England provides the strongest possible evidence for early agreement on the essential texts, and early elimination of the apocrypha. The widespread initial acceptance of what later became known as the “canon” is clear.

Until January 7 Only

The exhibition began on October 21, 2006 and will run until January 7, 2007 in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. I regret not calling it to the attention of our readers earlier, a proof that ignorance is not bliss. Included are over 70 of the earliest biblical artifacts in existence, including textual witnesses written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic and other little-known languages. According to the Smithsonian, many of these items are on display for the first time in the United States. To steal a few highlights from the web site devoted to the exhibition (http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/IntheBeginning.htm), visitors have the unparalleled chance to see the following:

  • Leaves from three of the six oldest surviving Hebrew codices.
  • The oldest known manuscripts of the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.
  • One of the earliest known manuscripts of the Gospels written in Latin.
  • The oldest dated parchment biblical codex in the world.
  • A page from the earliest Bible with full-page illustration.

Admission (as always for the Smithsonian) is free. For a fee, visitors can rent a PDA-style device with headphones which enables them to click through screens and listen to explanations while looking at the actual artifacts, but I found that the very intelligent placards accompanying each artifact provided sufficient information. Access is controlled to avoid overcrowding and to enable each visitor to examine each artifact in detail.

For those who cannot attend, the Smithsonian has published a book on the exhibition entitled In the Beginning Catalogue: Bibles Before the Year 1000, which may be ordered from the web site (cloth $45.00; paper $24.95). Both the exhibition and the book are produced in association with the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, which is also the chief lending source of the exhibits.

Personal Reflections

In touring the exhibition, which takes about 90 minutes to do carefully, I felt privileged to have access to so many early texts. The smallest fragments competed with the largest and most ornate full Bibles to inspire awe on at least three levels: First, awe in response to these real physical testaments to the faith of Christians separated across as much as 1800 years and 15,000 miles; second, awe in response to the reverence in which early Christians held these texts and their unceasing efforts both to protect their textual integrity and to present them in a manner befitting their Divine origin; third, awe in response to the tremendous efforts of collectors to unearth and acquire these artifacts, and of professionals to identify, analyze and preserve them.

The entire exhibit, including all its explanatory text, was very respectful of both Sacred Scripture itself and its role in shaping the cultures of the many peoples who embraced it. Becoming more aware of these texts deepened my own connection with the unbroken tradition which has preserved all the texts inspired by the Holy Spirit for our instruction and salvation. On a somewhat more worldly note, I was able to imagine the collector’s thrill at finding and owning one of these texts, as well as the even deeper spiritual joy of having one of these artifacts in one’s own possession.

True Possession

At the same time, of course, I found myself reflecting on the nature of ownership when it comes to Scripture. Physical ownership of the text is surely a wonderful thing. More wonderful still is the willingness to make the ancient copies available to others. But by far the best thing is to write the text upon one’s soul. For there is only one way to take full ownership of the Word of God, and that is to live it in the heart of His Church.

My thanks to the Bodleian Library and the Smithsonian Institution—with a little help from the Holy Spirit—for making this clearer than it was before.

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