Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive In the Beginning-Bibles Before the Year 1000

Sandra Scham

(Editors note: The images in this article have been removed as permission to use was limited)

Realizing that the one-hundreth anniversary of the Freer Art Gallery (now the Freer-Sackler) was fast approaching, the Gallery's curators decided that something special was in order — and what has transpired, as a result, is special indeed. With documents ranging from the oldest of Hebrew texts to the first of the single-volume Bibles, In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000 is on display until January 7, 2007, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. This is an exhibit of incredible richness, inspired by a small collection of biblical manuscripts that were among the many treasures bequeathed to the people of the United States in 1907 by Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer-Sackler Galleries. The Sackler curators arranged with over twenty institutions all over the world, for the loan of famous manuscripts to display alongside of their own; many of them have never been seen in the United States.

Right cover of the Freer Gospels (Codex Washingtonensis), painted with the figures of St. Mark and St. Luke. Egypt, seventh century. Encaustic painting on wooden panel. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Ethiopic Gospelbook (Zir Ganela Gospels). Ethiopia, 1400-1401, with eleventh-century canon tables. Ethiopic; ink and pigments on parchment. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

The "Codex Washingtonensis," an Old Testament in Greek from the fourth and fifth centuries, and the cover of the "Washington Manuscript III — The Four Gospels" were the Freer Gallery's most significant contributions. Chief among those who lent their priceless documents was the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, which is a cosponsor of the exhibit. St. Catherine's Monastery provided a surprising number of manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus, the first-known complete biblical text in Greek. The curator of the St. Catherine texts, Father Justin Sinaites, was on hand for the opening ceremonies, which were particularly enlivened by the remarks of Guest Curator Michelle Brown, Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the University of London.

As seems to be the trend with museum catalogues these days, the Sackler production, edited by Professor Brown and featuring contributions from a number of well-known scholars, is a stand-alone volume. The first part of the text explores both the background of the Freer-Sackler's interest, as a museum, in the Bible and the history of the Bible. The catalogue forms the major portion of the text, but this in itself provides a great deal of information that is not found in the exhibit. It is a fine example of what an exhibit catalogue should be. Skillfully illustrated with photographs of the manuscripts on display and other famous texts not seen in the exhibit, it is an elegant compendium of biblical scholarship written for the layperson.

The real achievement of the museum, however, is assembling so many world famous manuscripts together in one place. Thus, the exhibit, although it explains much to the casual visitor about how the present-day version of the Bible developed, is a particularly gratifying experience for the biblical scholar. Here are to be found texts attributed to the Venerable Bede (673-735 CE), Nag Hammadi codices, parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 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, and a page from the earliest Bible with an accompanying full-page illustration.

In The Beginning is not a typical chronological exploration of the text. Rather, it is arranged thematically based upon the language, form, and use of the manuscripts throughout the periods before the year 1000. A wooden box filled with unconserved fragments from the Cairo Genizah is the first display encountered by the visitor. Discovered in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Egypt in 1896, the box shows the scrolls in the state in which they were found. Not only does this serve as an important reminder of the arduous tasks confronting the conservators and translators of the texts that follow, it also demonstrates the problem with keeping such texts intact and in one place. Parts of the Genizah collection, indeed, have cropped up in many collections around the world, with the largest number held by the Cambridge University Library. Beginning the exhibit with this display effectively sets the stage for a greater appreciation of what is to come.

An early Greek codex of the Epistles of Paul. Egypt, ca. 200 CE. Ink on papyrus. Papyrology Collection, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor.

Arabic Gospelbook. Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt, ca. 859 CE. Arabic, inks on parchment. Holy Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai.

"Scroll and Codex," featuring the earliest Hebrew and Christian documents, is the first thematic part of the exhibit and includes displays ranging from the first century CE to the late Byzantine and Early Medieval periods. Standouts in this section are fragments of Second Isaiah from Dead Sea Scrolls collection, a page from a sixth-century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible overwritten with poems by Yannai, and the Aleppo Codex. Used as a source by Jewish communities for generations, the Aleppo Codex originally contained all of the books of the Hebrew Bible. It was lost in a riot in 1947, only to resurface again (with some portions of the text missing) in 1958 when it was smuggled out of Syria into Israel.

The early Christian Scriptures displayed in "Scroll and Codex" are no less impressive. Most of these texts date to the period before the third century CE and offer an extraordinary perspective on early Christian communities. Here are to be found parts of the earliest texts of the New Testament known today, including three small fragments of the Gospel of St. Matthew and pages from an early codex containing the Epistles of Paul, both dating to around 200 CE. These documents reflect the years before the first Council at Nicaea, when many of the major theological tenets of Christianity were fiercely debated. Thus, we can see such anomalies as a fragile piece of papyrus with parts of the "Unknown Gospel" from the second century CE, presenting stories from the life of Jesus not found in the canonical gospels, and a page from the third-century Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

The section on "Formation and Codification" displays evidence of the earliest years of the biblical text we have come to know. From the fifth to the seventh centuries, with the full force of the Roman Empire behind it, both the Christian religion and Christian texts were subjected to a process of standardization. The late stages of Gnostic thought are represented here by remains of the Codex Brucianus, while some of the earliest canonical works, written in Syriac, are represented by pages from the oldest-known biblical codex and parts of an Exodus codex. By far the most important text in this section of the exhibit is the Codex Sinaiticus, which is displayed along with most of the Freer manuscripts and the Harley Gospels, the latter an early step in the development of the Latin text. We also encounter the first illustrations of the Bible in this section, with the Freer's lively painted Gospel covers from the seventh century, depicting Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

While St. Jerome and Pope Gregory the Great began producing a Latin "Vulgate" version of the biblical text starting in the fourth century, in various parts of the Christian world Latin was rejected in favor of vernacular languages. "From Babel to Pentecost" displays some examples of Old and New Testament documents written in Arabic, Georgian, Armenian, Ethiopic, and early Slavic (Glagolitic) languages. For the most part, these date from the eighth to the tenth centuries and represent not so much a stage in the evolution of the Bible as a side branch. Nevertheless, these early portents of a Bible translated into local languages demonstrate the spread of Christianity during these centuries. An anomaly in this section is the Karaite Book of the Exodus, which is a Hebrew text written in Arabic characters. Offering unique insight into this small Jewish community, the Karaite text is also one of the earliest illuminated manuscripts, with its gold ornamentation similar to that found in early versions of the Koran.

The Stockholm Codex Aureus. Greater Mercia, Kent, southern England, mid-eighth century. Latin; ink and pigments on parchment. Royal Library, Stockholm.

Pauline Epistles, from the Syriac Peshitta. 622 CE. Ink and pigments on parchment. The British Library, London.

The Codex Sinaiticus is the first-known version of a combined Old and New Testament, but it was not until several hundred years later, in Europe and throughout the Mediterranean world, that this form of the biblical text became commonplace. The exhibit section "Spreading the Word" has broad geographical coverage, with single volume texts from Britain, France, Ireland, Syria, Georgia, Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Germany. To the English-speaking public, the most fascinating of these are likely to be the Ceolfrith Bible Leaves, which are considered to be partly the work of Bede; pages from Bede's Commentary on Proverbs; parts of the Stockholm Codex, which contains a handwritten note that the eighth-century text was ransomed from the Vikings by a devout English alderman; and the Codex Oxoniensis, sometimes referred to as the "St. Augustine Gospel" because this manuscript, written in Italian, seems to have been transported to Britain at the time of St. Augustine's arrival and early ministry there.

For the average visitor and even the biblical scholar, there is a point in the exhibit when interest in the display of all of these words on various scrolls, codices, papyri, and bound volumes begins to pall. In recognition of this fact, the curators intersperse examples of ornamentation and illustration of the text throughout the exhibit. Fine examples appear early in the exhibit, such as the painting of the enthroned Christ from the Stockholm Codex and the "author portrait" of St. Matthew from a tenth-century Greek gospel. This sub-text of creative inspiration culminates in the last section, which showcases "The Book as Icon."

In this part of the exhibit, the most striking exemplars of the attention and resources devoted to producing the Bibles of the early Medieval Period are to be found. Among these are a beautiful painting of Jesus from the tenth-century Niketas Bible produced in Constantinople, lavish ornamented texts from France and Italy, and illuminated manuscript pages from one of the earliest known biblical texts written in Georgian. The Douce Ivory, a magnificent carved gospel lectionary cover depicting scenes from the life of Christ produced in the Court School of Charlemagne, the silver and gold Sion Treasure book covers from sixth-century Constantinople, and the famous Mondsee Gospel cover in silver, ivory, and rock crystal from eleventh-century Germany leave the visitor with a singular impression of the veneration of the text as a holy object.

As evidenced by the Freer's own wooden Gospel covers, texts with illustrations were known from as early as the seventh century, but it was not until the tenth century that such paintings and illuminations began to reach the point of true artistry. The idea that the word itself, as well as its message, should embody the image of a resplendent and incarnate deity no doubt began in the sumptuous courts of Constantinople. The fact that so many covers, paintings and texts rendered in silver, gold, ivory, gems, and vibrant colors were produced in the Spartan abbeys and monasteries of Medieval Europe, however, clearly suggests a belief that the book itself had a power that could be communicated even to an illiterate populace.

Sandra Scham, Washington, DC

Comments on this article? email:
Let us know if you would like your comments sent to the author or considered for publication as a letter to the editor. Please include your full name and, if you would like, your affiliation.

Citation: Sandra Scham, " In the Beginning-Bibles Before the Year 1000," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2006]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.