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L. W. Hurtado

Among the many thousands of precious objects housed in the Freer Gallery of Art are six biblical manuscripts that comprise the most significant collection of such items in the Americas, rivalled in age and significance only by the well-known holdings in major centers in Europe, and now also in Israel. This year marks the centenary of the acquisition of four of these manuscripts by the Detroit magnate, Charles L. Freer, from an Egyptian antiquities dealer, in one of Freer's trips to the region to acquire ancient objects for his growing collection. To mark this centenary, the Freer and Sackler Galleries (part of the Smithsonian Institution) have opened an impressive exhibition that includes a number of biblical manuscripts from various major collections internationally, as well as the Freer codices.[1] Also, on the afternoon of Friday, November 17, there will be a special SBL session focused on the Freer biblical manuscripts and held in the Freer Gallery of Art. This session will feature presentations from a number of the contributors to a new volume published by the SBL: The Freer Biblical Manuscripts: Fresh Studies of an American Treasure Trove (ed. L. W. Hurtado).

The Freer biblical codices certainly comprise an impressive ensemble, both in age and the spread of biblical writings that they contain, making them important for scholars of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) and the New Testament. The four Greek (parchment) manuscripts in Freer's initial purchase include a sixth century codex of Pauline epistles (heavily damaged), a fifth-century copy of Deuteronomy and Joshua (which likely once contained all of Genesis through Joshua), a fifth-century Psalms codex, and a fifth-century Gospels codex. Subsequently, Freer also acquired a sixth-century Coptic Psalter and a third-century Greek (papyrus) codex of the Minor Prophets but, sadly, died before the transfer of this last item could be completed.

When news of these manuscripts broke in late 1907, there was immediately a popular sensation and enormous scholarly interest. This was well before the now-famous Chester Beatty biblical papyri and subsequent discoveries. The Freer Gospels codex at that time was dated as the third oldest copy of the Gospels known, rivalled in age only by Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. In addition, the Gospels codex has a number of striking readings, especially in the text of the Gospel of Mark, most famously the so-called "Freer Logion," unique to this codex. Until the discoveries at Qumran and other Judean sites, the Freer Minor Prophets codex was the oldest extant copy of these biblical texts. Even now, both the Gospels codex and the Minor Prophets codex remain particularly important witnesses to the transmission of the writings that they contain.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the Freer manuscripts have not really received the scholarly attention that they deserve.[2] It is also unfortunate that, in this time of great popular interest in early manuscripts of the biblical writings, the Freer codices are not well known among the general populace.[3] The current exhibit at the Freer/Sackler Galleries is the first time that these manuscripts have been put on general public view, and the administration of these facilities are to be congratulated for their hard work in preparing an exhibition that will add a further special reason for a trip to the nation's capital.

The new volume of studies mentioned earlier includes a fascinating account by Kent Clarke of Freer's acquisition of the manuscripts, his diligent efforts to trace their exact provenance (only partly successful), his strong interest in their significance, and his impressive generosity in providing for their publication. Clarke also traces the amazing dedication of Henry Sanders, who poured all his energies into the Freer manuscripts; his several volumes are still the essential resources on these codices. In addition to Clarke's richly documented account, the other contributions include a study of the text of the Minor Prophets codex by Kristen DeTroyer, a new reconstruction and analysis of the unidentified text appended to the end of the Minor Prophets codex by Malcolm Choat, several studies on various features of the Gospels codex (by Jean-Fran├žois Racine, Bruce Prior, Dennis Haugh, and James Royse), a discussion of readings in the Pauline codex that might suggest that it was copied in a scriptorium (Thomas Wayment), a controversial proposal to redate the Gospels codex (Ulrich Schmid), and an explanation of manuscript "mark-up" for computerized transcription (Timothy J. Finney).

The impetus for the Freer exhibition, the volume of studies, and this year's location of the Annual Meeting lies in a conversation with Bruce Prior, who visited Edinburgh in the summer of 1999 and reminded me that 2006 would be the centenary year of Freer's purchase of the initial four manuscripts. Taking up his suggestion that I consider approaching the Freer Gallery about the matter, shortly after our meeting I wrote to the Associate Director proposing an exhibit and offering to recruit scholars to prepare new studies of the manuscripts. At about that same time, I also contacted Kent Richards and inquired whether it might be feasible to hold the Annual Meeting in Washington in 2006; I was pleased to hear several months later that it was arranged. In July 2000, I visited the Freer Gallery and held discussions with the administration and key staff, urging them to hold an exhibit featuring the biblical manuscripts; this proposal also was readily accepted. Not long thereafter, as a collateral project, the SBL also obtained consent from the Freer Gallery to arrange for high-resolution digital photographs of all the Freer biblical manuscripts, work that involved staff of the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (Brigham Young University).

From 2000 onward, I began recruiting scholars to contribute to a volume of new studies of the manuscripts. My original aim had been to include at least one study of each of the six biblical manuscripts. Unfortunately, however, due to various unforeseen circumstances a few of the studies originally offered were not completed. It is a particular disappointment that the volume does not include the planned contributions on the Deuteronomy-Joshua codex, the Greek Psalms codex, and the Coptic Psalms codex. But the ten studies that make up the volume comprise a noteworthy collection of scholarship and a fitting way of marking this anniversary of Charles Freer's great contribution to biblical studies in purchasing these manuscripts, and generously facilitating their publication and preservation in the splendid edifice that bears his name.

L. W. Hurtado, University of Edinburgh

[1] For information on the exhibition, see the following URL: For a review of the exhibition, see as well as the article by Sandra Scham in this issue of The SBL Forum.

[2] E.g., my own monograph on the text of Mark in the Gospels codex remains the only scholarly book on this manuscript: L. W. Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark (SD 43; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).

[3] E.g., during my visit to the Freer Gallery in the summer of 2000, when acquaintances in Washington asked why I was in town, they were usually surprised to learn that the Freer Gallery held important biblical manuscripts.

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Citation: L. W. Hurtado, " Manuscripts and Munificence: The Centenary of the Freer Biblical Codices," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2006]. Online:


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