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Getting the Word Out

In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000

Edited by Michelle P. Brown

(Smithsonian, 360 pp., $45)

The numinous objects displayed in "In the Beginning," the exhibition of Bibles from before the year 1000 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., are beautiful, and their arrangement helps the visitor to the show (and the student of its extraordinary catalogue) see important things in a new light. Beauty first: the archipelago of dimly lit vitrines that stretches through several dark rooms reveals hand written Bibles as genuine works of art. These illuminated manuscripts really glow. The varied and elegant scripts, the wild decorations and superbly drawn figures that populate their pages, have all been set free for a time, after hundreds of years of incarceration between closed covers. They create a silent riot of gorgeous colors, elegant lines, and stunning, unexpected patterns—as when, in a Hebrew manuscript now in Saint Petersburg, tiny lines of text and rich repeating patterns combine to make a golden image of the Ark of the Covenant.

The figures dominate. In an eighth-century British manuscript, a handsome Matthew stares gravely from a niche, flanked by neat curtains, holding a scroll, while an angel hovers above him with a book. All is quiet, weight, authority. Meanwhile, in a fifteenth-century Ethiopian codex of the Gospels, slim bearded figures stare out at the viewer as they stab upward at a cross between two others, on which men hang. But their spears strike only air. The cross is empty, for Jesus is already risen. Here, all is movement, pattern, lightness. In a tenth- or eleventh-century Slavic manuscript, two figures so abstract they look like sketches by Giacometti represent the inspiration of Saint Mark. In the Old English Genesis, written in the same period at the other end of the Christian world, fluent lines in bright red and green mark out thelong, stylized hands and expressive, lifelike faces of divine and human figures with startling lucidity and grace.

All these images leave a deep impression, but some of them aregenuinely haunting. In a Byzantine manuscript, the prophet Jeremiah stands against a field of gold, his eyes shadowed by the terrible knowledge that he must carry God's message until it consumes him along with the unbelievers who deny it. The blessing and the burden of divine knowledge are visible in other faces as well: for example, those of the four evangelists, depicted in encaustic, with heavy outlines and bright colors that look forward to Rouault, on the seventh-century binding of the Washington Codex of the Four Gospels. The binding is even more beautiful than the manuscript, itself written with miraculous clarity, in Greek, in the late fourth or early fifth century. To look into these painted eyes isto appreciate in a new way the greatness and the power of Jewish and Christian art.

Many curators content themselves with displaying images. The organizers of "In the Beginning" have done something much harder: they have arranged the materials, and explicated them, to educate the public about a lost world. The exhibition, which was executed in partnership with the Bodleian Library in Oxford, begins, magnificently, with a heap of scraps: unidentified bits of papyrus and parchment from the immense haul discovered in the Cairo Genizah in the late nineteenth century, much of which Solomon Schechter brought back to Cambridge. Even better, the vitrine that holds them stands before an enlarged photograph of Schechter himself, formallydressed in coat and tie. Bearded and saturnine, the great scholar clutches his forehead as he contemplates one of the thousands oftexts that had to be catalogued and identified and reassembled like so many lost mosaics before the Genizah could release its secrets about the history of Judaism and Christianity.

Taken together, photograph and heap embody the scholar's lot—a curse of Tantalus, which condemns its victims to an endless desire for and an impossible pursuit of the whole past, the whole book, the whole truth. Beauty and truth are fragile. Often they survive only as fragments. At the core of this show is a hymn of praise tothe slow, grinding work of those forgotten Bartleby-like creatures, the scribes and the scholars, those who first made and those who reassembled the fragments over the millennia, and by doing so preserved and illuminated the textual traditions of the human race.

"IN THE BEGINNING" tells two complex stories, and does so with a wonderful clarity, detail, and lack of condescension. The shorter one is that of the modern scholars and collectors who first assembled these materials and then worked out what they are and what they tell us about the Bible. From Charles Lang Freer, the railroad-car manufacturer who bought the Freer Gospels and other ancient manuscripts in Cairo and displayed them, in his house in Detroit, in James McNeill Whistler's Peacock room, to Constantine von Tischendorf, the German professor who persuaded the monks of Sinai to let him take away much of their magnificent fourth-century codex of the Bible, they make an extraordinary set of scholar-adventurers, cultural pirates whose careers seem inconceivable now—though the archaeological authorities in Italy and Greece might have a word or two to say about that.

Like the Renaissance humanists who saw monastic libraries not asongoing institutions but as mines of forgotten treasure, these men worried little about provenance and less about the feelings of those who guarded the treasures they coveted. Like the Renaissance humanists, too, they created a revolution in scholarship. "Discovery" is sometimes a misnomer for what they managed to accomplish with money, guile, and ruthlessness—as well as a sharp eye for important and beautiful documents. Yet if they had not intervened, theft and violence would have removed some of these vital, unique monuments from the public record. Their discoveries transformed our understanding of the Bible's history, revealing for the first time the complex historical process that created and preserved it.

THE SECOND—AND CENTRAL—story is that of the Bible itself. In slow steps, laid out with exquisite care and documented with exquisite objects, we are shown that the Bible in all its forms—from the Torah, which Moses, Jews traditionally hold, wrote with his ownhand, to the New Testament corpus—is the work of men. Human beings composed these books, long after the events that they described; and copied them; and translated them into language after language. Later generations selected and redacted what their predecessors had written. In the third and fourth centuries, for example, Christian scribes and scholars such as the church historian Eusebius defined the canon of the Christian Bible. They rejected as spurious books that others thought holy, some just as ancient as those they kept, or set them to the side as apocrypha. A few centuries later, the Jewish grammarians of Tiberias, the Masoretes, edited the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and equipped it with vowels and punctuation. The process of collection and correction and excision never ended. Every new Bible, every new version, eventually called for editing and commentary, and every new form of scholarship changed the object that it restored.

For a scholar visiting the Sackler, breath becomes shortest and the spine tingles most sharply not at the cases that hold manuscripts of many colors, but at those that preserve the actual handiwork ofthe ancient scholars. The Codex Sinaiticus was probably written in Caesarea, in the scriptorium developed by Eusebius himself. Some specialists (though not the curators of "In the Beginning") identify it as one of the fifty Bibles that Eusebius produced, in high style and at high speed, for the new churches of Constantinople, at the direct request of the emperor Constantine. Certainly it came into being in the same general period as Eusebius worked out, with incredible ingenuity, his Canon Tables—synoptic tables of passages in the four Gospels, which he divided intosections. These soon became a basic feature of the graphic presentation of the Christian Bible in every language from Armenian to Latin. "In the Beginning" brings us, in other words, back to the Creation—not of the world, but of the Christian and Jewish book.

The range of scholars one meets here is extraordinary: they come from everywhere, from the Latin West to far in the East, and they include women as well as men. The Selden Acts of the Apostles bears what seems to be the scratched signature of Abbess Eadburh of Minster-in-Thanet, a correspondent of Saint Boniface and one of many holy women who copied manuscripts. Most electrifying of all is a fragment of the Aleppo codex of the Hebrew Bible. Known as HaKeter, or "the crown," this manuscript was copied in the tenth century in Tiberias, the citadel of Hebrew grammar, by Solomon ben Buya'a. Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher, the last member of a distinguished family, added the commentary, vowel points, and accent marks. The oldest Hebrew Bible in one volume, this may also have been the first one ever made as a single, coherent book, by a scribe and a scholar working together from start to finish.

So the oldest Tanakh we have was written and corrected by two menwhose names we know. And this, in our land of ferocious biblical literalists, matters a great deal. Not long ago, as Peter Thuesen showed in his important book In Discordance With the Scriptures, the Protestant scholars who created the Revised Standard Version ofthe Bible were accused by politicians of being communists out to subvert America because they dared to translate almah, in Isaiah 7:14, as "young woman" rather than "virgin," the King James rendering—as if that magnificent translation somehow represented the Word of God in its perfect form, rather than a late translation of a Bible in which Christian senses were superimposed on Jewish texts.

The Bible, in some general sense, may well be the Word of God.That is not a scholarly question. But the materials collected in this show and in its book make clear, beyond any possibility of mistake or confusion, that no single Bible in any language represents that Word without error or impurity. Every Bible we have—in Armenian or Latin, Greek or Hebrew—is the flawed work of human hands. Every one of them derives from beautiful but imperfect handwritten books like those displayed here, many of which, perhaps most, omit verses and texts that a modern American would normally expect to find. Only by reading each version—sometimes, each ofthe many versions of a version—in context can we see what they meant to their creators.

For the Bible has gone through many revolutions. Ancient books were written on rolls, bits of which are on view here. But gradually, in the first centuries of the common era, Christians adopted a new form called the codex—essentially, that of the modern bound book, with hard covers. Jews and others emulated them. Most of the ancient books we have, including the books of the Bible, began life as a roll or rolls. And rolls were hard to preserve. Many fragments of rolls are on display here: mute evidence of their fragility. A majority of the texts have come down to us in later form, as codices, after the original rolls were copied and discarded. Scribes made mistakes, of course; and the thousands of surviving fragments of rolls do not allow us to reconstitute the texts exactly as they were before this media revolution—the most radical change in the way books were made in the Christian and Jewish worlds before printing took off in the fifteenth century.

To err, as always, was human; to make changes of many kinds was easy. Ancient texts were written continuously, without separation between words or punctuation. In the course of the first millennium of the Common Era, scribes learned to divide Hebrew and Greek and Latin words, as printers do now. But doing this required the scribe to make many hard decisions. The problem is easy to illustrate. How would you divide GODISNOWHERE? As GOD IS NOW HERE, or as GOD IS NOWHERE? Much depends on your presuppositions. And much depended onthe presuppositions of those who wrote and rewrote and correctedthe biblical manuscripts.

Interpretation also took place at thousands of points in every version. Every translation embodied silent decisions aboutmeaning. It wasn't just Christian and Jewish Bibles that differed from one another. The Greek Old Testament used by Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking, Jews took a number of forms, and the most popular of these, the Septuagint, departed at many points from the Hebrew Bible as redacted by the Masoretes. Christian versions, in their many languages, also disagreed on many points, as those who made them struggled—like the modern translators and publishers whose work Daniel Radosh recently discussed in The New Yorker--totransport "the Bible into the world of the reader."

Scholars have known that the texts varied radically for a longtime—at least since the Christian scholar Origen, in the third century of the Common Era, arranged six texts of the Old Testament, Hebrew and Greek, in parallel columns. And there was no end to this glacial movement, this astounding capacity of the text to slip and change. In late antiquity, great libraries, such as the one at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai, held many different versions of the Bible, Greek and Latin, Arabic and Georgian and Slavonic, each with its own textual tendencies and patterns of decoration; and these sometimes flowed together in unexpected ways as scribes and illuminators developed their crafts in dialogue with colleagues hundreds of miles away. And of course the commentaries that filled margins and crept into the spaces between lines, the prefatory letters by Fathers of the Church, and the illustrations suggested,and sometimes imposed, distinctive new senses on the biblical text at the center of the page. For all the efforts to fix a canon, both the words and their meanings remained amazingly labile.

The only reason to believe that a particular Christian (or Hebrew) Bible represents the Truth is that it supports beliefs drawn from other sources of conviction. To say this is not to attack religion or to say anything against the power and the glory of the Bible. On the contrary, it is to appreciate more fully how much the Bible meant to the men and women—Jewish and Christian, Eastern andWestern—who first wrote its books, and their successors through the centuries, who read them and reproduced them with a care and an artistry that are foreign to our own civilization.

Manuscripts were expensive: to make a single codex of the Bible, a scribe might have to use the skins of a hundred sheep—a vast blood sacrifice to give us all that beauty, to say nothing of expensive pigments and skilled labor. Conquest and robbery, pirates and invaders, always threatened. And yet the monks and the nuns who perched on rocky Irish cliffs and rose at midnight in Syrian caves, and the Masoretes in Palestine, and many others, had the discipline and the love to give the Bible material forms of endless beauty, works of art in everything from the parchment on which they were written to the carved ivory and rock crystal of their sumptuous bindings. The sons and daughters of men have given us the Word ofGod, and kept it for us, in many forms, always believing that theywere capturing the highest of truths as they did so. That is all the inspiration that history can reveal. But in its way it is divine.

This article appeared in the January 22, 2007 issue of the magazine.