You are listening to Michelle P. Brown, curator of the “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000” and professor of medieval manuscript studies at the University of London.
Introduction: Discovering the Bible
For me books are portals into past lives. And books of all things give you that in to the way people thought about things, sometimes even the way in which they felt about things, how they made things, the relationships of who actually starts the ball rolling on a commission, who are the people who actually pick up the quill pen and write or who pick up the brush and paint. And who are the people who are then actually receiving their work and how might it have impacted on their lives. So for me the book opens up the whole vast range of human activity and achievement.
The Bible, of course, is the best selling book of all time. And I think to actually have the excitement as a curator of bringing together materials from all around the world that actually show how something that to us now seems straightforward and iconic—”The Bible”—as if it’s always been there, just as one thing, to actually see that is the result of many, many different societies that have worked together, collaborated together, sometimes even conflicted with one another over the ages, and that gradually it’s our perception that changes and that helps to bring the idea of an iconic thing, like the Bible, into creation.
So really a show like this just allows you to mount the most incredible archeological dig of your own, to actually get down to those levels of, how did this come about, and what does it tell us, not only about the past, but also about how we see ourselves and how we ask questions about our memory and identity now.
The 19th century was an age of great intellectual ferment and new possibilities and new ways of thinking. And, for example, Darwin’s publication of “The Origin of Species” caused an awful lot of people to become very afraid that it was challenging the basis of their belief and how they perceived things to tick and how creation had come into being, etc. And so you find that increasingly there is an attempt to verify the narrative of the Bible.
And many expeditions were dispatched from, for example, London and Berlin, off to the Middle East in order to dig up the proof of the bible. There were also many collectors who enjoyed the thrill of the chase. And we owe some of the most important finds and collections of early biblical material to some of those almost Indiana Jones type quests to find these early materials.
And so we find people like the American mining engineer, Alfred Chester Beatty, using his small self-made fortune in order to buy up some of the earliest papyrus fragments and fragments of codices that are now housed in Dublin castle as part of his collection in the Chester Beatty Library. We find others, such as the Detroit industrialist, Charles Lang Freer, going out to Egypt himself. And he had a particularly good time in 1906 with an antiquities dealer in Giza round by the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo. And he managed to make a number of purchases that, I mean his collection is the most important of its type outside of the Middle East and Europe. And he not only purchased one of the earliest and most important witnesses to the gospels, the Freer gospels, which dates to the late 4th, early 5th century, and which has the most beautiful covers from 7th century Egypt still surviving, with images of the 4 evangelists painted in wax, in caustic wax, glowing luminous colours; an incredible fragile and remarkable survival. He even bought the Coptic book stand that these books would have been read from in the early churches of the period, as well.
Another remarkable find was the Cairo Geniza. A Geniza is a room in which flawed, imperfect or used copies of Hebrew scripture are stored before they can be ritually disposed of. You couldn’t just throw away a damaged or badly worn copy of Hebrew scripture because it was sacred. The one in the outskirts of Cairo was founded in 882 and its doors were not opened until the 19th century when the dealers finally got in. And imagine the wealth of material that that brought out. And so we can share the excitement of these people as they traveled to these exotic parts and were suddenly face-to-face with materials nearly 1000 years old. That excitement is still palpable as you look at those tiny little fragments today.
And the thing that we have to bear in mind is that, you know, the centuries and centuries of scholarship that has gone into biblical studies, much of it was conducted without recourse to any of this evidence. Because things are still being discovered today. But things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, which may have been concealed in a little cave in the Judean desert at Qumran around the time that Masada was being defended, the last heroic stand of Israel against the Roman destruction in 73 AD, we find that that material wasn’t known until the 1940s. Likewise, the Nag Hammadi Codices, which were found by a Bedouin peasant again in Egypt. And none of these things were available for those people to study. The Codex Sinaiticus wasn’t known until Tischendorf pulled part of it out of St. Catherine’s Sinai in the mid-19th century.
And so in a way, people are having to revise their views all the time. And again, that can still make people uneasy. Are they going to find something that’s going to challenge my belief and make me think about it in a different way? Well, they might. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls are showing that a lot of material is actually corroborating in different ways as well. But you have to be prepared to carry on being open to be pleasantly surprised and challenged by the material, because it undoubtedly has new things to tell us and always will.
The Earliest Scriptures
When early Christian communities started to form in the 50, 60 years or so after Christ’s crucifixion, they didn’t actually feel the need to create a bible of their own. They had scripture already. They had Hebrew scripture, what we think of as the Old Testament. But what they did need were examples, instructions, things that actually told them how they might live the Gospel message. How would they function as communities, what impact were they going to make on the lives of others and on their world to the good.
And so you find that the earliest things to be written were epistles, were letters, as you would, you’d send a letter to a new community encouraging them, giving them a few ground rules perhaps, picking out a few individuals who might be able to help lead that community, etc. And so that’s exactly what we find. The earliest Christian writings to be produced are letters from figures like St. Paul actually encouraging new churches in just living a basic life. And some of the earliest materials that we find from the desert sands of Egypt, Palestine are simple little pamphlets, just the sort of thing that you might stick in your pocket or your satchel and carry around with you if you needed to whip them out to actually speak to a group of people that you were going to spend the night with, to have dinner with, to share Agape, the love feast recalling the Last Supper, and to actually share that inspiration with them.
Then about the year 70 to 80 in the first century after the birth of Christ, gospels are written. Now that’s an English word. It comes from the old English “godspel,” good news. You want to share the good news. But basically gospels were simply accounts mostly from oral tradition, the things people had heard and that they passed on to each other over the dinner table, on the street corners, walking together on journeys, about things that Christ had been reported to have said and to have done. Many, many different writings in circulation, and all of them with a purpose, a practical purpose for people wondering about once they’d received that good news what were they to do with it. How could they share it in the best possible way with others and how could they actually transform society.
Because of course it was radical. It could lead seasoned warriors to embrace pacifism and walk out onto the field only with a wooden stick against those coming down with them with great sharp weaponry. And it could lead kings to free slaves, potentially overthrowing the whole of the society that they were supposed to be maintaining. And so these early witnesses are very, very dynamic, simple, humble writings, but with a very, very immediate and practical purpose.
When we see some of the earliest papyrus scrolls and fragments of books that have come from Judea and from the deserts of Egypt, we have to think about the communities that used them and the way in which their need for gospels, for epistles, for practical working manuals of faith and the way in which they spoke about them to others, they way in which they spread the Greek message of the gospels in the Syriac, Aramaic tongues and others, we’ve got to think about them actually forming the Bible.
Really the big test is did people keep on using them, reading them, did they find these things sustaining for the way in which they lived their lives. And that I think more than almost anything is the bedrock of how the bible evolves; how it takes shape. It’s the fact that people spoke about it and lived it. And so that’s what we need to think of alongside all of that marvelous Biblical scholarship from the 4th century right up to the present. They work together to give us the sense of what the Bible is.
Formation and Codification
Once Christianity had come out of the closet and was the state religion of Rome, you find that you start having lots of church councils convened. Because many local churches have grown up all the way around the Mediterranean. And they’ve got to find a common way of doing things and they don’t always actually agree on those things. And so you find a whole process of “what’s in, what’s out; what’s heretical, what’s orthodox.” And that applies to the texts as well.
And we know that at the time, that a list that’s in one of our prime exhibits, the Codex Caramontanis, which is a little bit later, but the list itself was probably written in the 4th century, that there’s still a great deal of controversy about what is canonical, what is divinely inspired and which can all of those churches subscribe to collectively, and which are apocryphal, which ones are out. And we find that in Codex Caramoutanis there’s a list by Athenaeias of Alexandria we think that actually refers to a whole range of books that were accepted as canonical. There are other lists that survive that differ. Some say 21 books were acceptable; others say 27. One that’s particularly contentious, for example, is the Book of Revelations, or Apocalypse. Some say it’s in, some say it’s out, some sit on the fence. Other texts, which at that time were considered perfectly acceptable and should be in, such as the Sheppard of Hermes, were later thought not to be reliable and were taken out of the equation.
And so it’s very, very fluid. As people try to get back to the idea of, where has this come from, who’s worked on it, what is the authenticity, what is the authentic voice that we’ve got here.” And if you can imagine that was a very long and painstaking process and not everybody agreed. Scholars today still don’t necessarily agree on it.
Spreading the Word
Throughout the Middle Ages most people would actually hear things rather than read them. They would hear songs, they would see plays even if it was only in the street or the tavern. They would see images. So, not everybody who saw a book would actually be able to read it.
However, if you’re looking at an incredibly beautiful illuminated gospel book, for example, the Lindesfon Gospels, the Book of Kells, the Rabbula Gospels, which is in the show from Syria, 6th century, and you saw something like that on the high altar at a church perhaps where there was a major cult where a saint was buried and you would go on pilgrimage for a miracle of healing. And if you’ve dragged your granny three hundred miles to be healed you expect it to change all of your lives.
Now, if, around 800, you were to come to a shrine of St. Colombo, or somebody of that sort, and you saw a book like this, you would see some things that would immediately made you feel at home. For example, you might see the swirling spiral work that was the sort of thing that was on your great-grandmother’s brooch. And you knew that she had come from the southern parts of Ireland and that this was something that spoke of her culture. You might find that there were animal ornament, interlaced birds, beasts, hounds, all forming the words and the letters themselves, the whole of creation supported by “the Word.” And you’d recognize that as a sort of decoration that your grandfather had on his belt buckle when he was an auxillary in the Roman army.
And so even if you weren’t able to read the impact of the image, of coming from a wild environment into a church that suddenly was ablaze with candles, which had images all over the walls, heavily embroidered curtains, glittering chalices, and most importantly, a gospel book of this sort on its high altar, would totally blow your mind.
Book as Icon
In a way the picture that emerges in the early middle ages is that the Bible is The Book. It comes to assume an iconic significance. It looks incredible. It might have a treasure binding with jewels and gold on the outside and it might have resplendent images and beautifully written words when you open it up.
One of our exhibits is a little commentary on the Apocalypse, which belonged to a missionary called St. Boniface, who was born in the south-west of England, at Crediton, and who in the early 8th century set out to become the apostle to the Germans. And he writes back letters to one of his greatest friends at home, Abbess Eadburh, who ran a nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet in Kent near the place where Augustine had first set foot to try and convert the pagan Germanic settlers after the Romans had pulled out. And he writes back, “Please can you send me more books, Eadburh? Can you send ones that are in larger, more formal writing because my eyesight’s going a bit now and I can’t read the joined up writing in the way in which I used to. And please can you send me copies of Scripture that are illuminated with gold, that I’m sending you for the purpose, because we need to wow the natives. We need to impress them.”
Another way in which books of these sorts were sometimes used was that they would be available on the high altar for swearing the most solemn of oaths, transacting the most formal of legal transactions, if you were making a big alliance or treaty, if you were conveying some property changing hands, you would actually go to the shrine with a book of this sort and you would swear your oath upon the Bible, in the same way as we often still do today as part of our legal process, as swearing upon something that’s sacred to you.