Monday, October 30, 2006
A wound on Satan's body
So, taking advantage of this spell of simply gorgeous days in the capital city, I took the Metro down to the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery, to view a special exhibit. In the beginning: Bibles before the year 1000. Oh boy, what a treat! Two leaves from the Codex Sinaiticus! (Apparently, taken by a visiting Russian Orthodox bishop from the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine's in the 19th century. The complete Codex was discovered walled up in 1975) The earliest fragments of the Gospel of Matthew (the so-called Magdalene Fragment), a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas, a page of the so-called Egerton Gospel, a section of the end of Mark from the Codex Washintoniensis, showing the Freer logion, the Claromontan gospel, works from the Lindisfarne abbey, all kinds of Syriac peshitta, Armenian and Georgian manuscripts, some early Latin texts, patristic texts (Gregory's commentary on the Gospels, Bede's commentary on the psalms), some interesting manuscripts on purple parchment, old Hebrew texts, Old Testament fragments, palimpsets, and so on.
As you can imagine, I was in hog heaven.
Of course, photography is not permitted, and of course, the rooms are dimly lit with controlled lighting, the precious fragments and codices sealed behind glass.
There was a section devoted to the Cairo geniza, including a jumble of fragments, preserved as they were received by American collectors from Egypt. The whole concept of the geniza, the ritual burning of manuscripts that had errors in them, demonstartes a signficant difference between the Christian and Jewish approaches to the text of the Bible. Christian scribes just scratched the errors out and wrote over. Jewish scribes discared the pieces of paper with evidence of human frailty. The Torah is the Incarnate Word in a sense, and has to be perfect.
The exhibit also drove home the point that for centuries, written Bibles were rare. And the New Testament as such didn't really exist in its final form till the fourth century (even as different texts were being preserved, copied, transmitted and circulated in those "early years").
Here's an article on the exhibition in the Washington Post. And this one (also in the Post) apart from its attempt to go down the This Will Shake The Faith Of The Weak path, (Bart Ehrman is trotted out. There's a rather stretched analogy to the evolution-creation debate. Yawn.) is really neat.
The title, by the way, is taken from a quote by St. Cassiodorus: "Each word written is a wound on Satan's body."
You know, I think I might go back.