16 May 2015

Church History (2014-2015, part-time)
8.2: visit to the Chester Beatty Library

All glass and mirrors? ... in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Saturday 16 May 2015, 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

visit to the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin.

8.2: The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle.

P47 contain portions of the Book of Revelation, Chapters 9-17

8.2: The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle.


Our second visit on this morning’s field trip is to the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin Castle. This library has been described by the Lonely Planet Guide as “not just the best museum in Ireland, but one of the best in Europe.” It is the only museum in Ireland to win “European Museum of the Year” and is rated at No 2 in TripAdvisor’s list of recommended cultural attractions in Dublin.

The library’s rich collections from countries across Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe open a window on the artistic treasures of the great cultures and religions of the world.

Manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and decorative arts complete this amazing collection – all the result of the curiosity and efforts of one collector, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968). Beatty moved to Ireland in 1950. When he died, his entire collection was bequeathed to a trust for the benefit of the public. He was Ireland’s first honorary citizen and was given a state funeral when he died in 1968.

In its diversity, the collection captures much of the richness of human creative expression from about 2700 BC to the present. The highlights on display include Egyptian papyrus texts, beautifully illuminated copies of the Bible and the Qur’an, and European mediaeval and renaissance manuscripts.

The Western treasures of the Library include some of the earliest sources on papyrus for the Bible and a great library of Manichean texts.

The Biblical papyri, dating from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD, include the earliest known copies of the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of Saint Paul, the Book of Revelation and various early Old Testament fragments.

These texts were discovered in Egypt in 1929. Beatty had seen the codices and from Cairo he sent a coded telegram (to disguise his interest) to Eric Millar of the British Museum for his opinion. Millar replied (also in code), strongly encouraging Beatty to acquire as much as he could.

The discovery and acquisition of the Biblical papyri was first made public in The Times on 19 November 1931. Before this find, the earliest and most important manuscripts of the Greek New Testament were parchment codices from the fourth and fifth centuries.

Only a few small fragments of papyrus with portions of the New Testament from an earlier date were known at the time, and most of these were too small to be of much significance. The discovery of the Chester Beatty New Testament papyri caused a sensation because they were at least 100 years older than the most important parchment codices at that time.

These papyrus manuscripts include the earliest surviving codex containing all four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in one codex, the earliest copy of the collection of Saint Paul’s Letters (dated ca 200), and the earliest copy of the Book of Revelation, as well as many other early or unique versions of homilies, epistles or pseudo-canonical texts. By acquiring these manuscripts, the Chester Beatty Library became one of the major centres in the world for the study of the Bible and early Christian texts.

The library has started to digitise these manuscripts with the first phase of the project completed. The work involved a partnership with the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts in Texas (csntm.org), which involved the digitisation of more than 5,000 images from the manuscripts. The process revealed some text that had not been seen before.

A Visitor’s Guide to the Chester Beatty Library

Some highlights of the Biblical collections:

The Gospel of Saint John (ca 150-200):

This fragment is among the oldest-known Gospel texts. It contains part of Saint John’s account of the Crucifixion, including the verse where Christ asks Saint John to take care of his mother.

The Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (ca 200-250):

Mark 7: 25-37 and 8: 1 in Saint Mark’s Gospel, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

One of the most striking items in the collection is CBL BP I (P45). This codex contains the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and the Acts of the Apostles. The fragmentary condition of this codex means that some folios preserve more of their text than others. They would have originally measured about 25 x 20 cm.

Until its discovery, only small fragments of the single Gospels on papyrus were known, and it was believed that this grouping of texts did not begin until a much later date. The codex shows that the Gospels and the Acts were being read together in one volume much earlier than many expected. The folios containing Saint Mark’s Gospel and most of Saint Luke’s Gospel are the oldest known copies of these texts.

The Letters of Saint Paul (ca 200-250):

The Library holds one the earliest known copies of the Pauline Epistles

This is the earliest known copy of the Pauline Epistles and the early date of this codex and the content make it extremely important for the study of the text of Saint Paul’s letters.

This folio contains perhaps one of the most famous of Saint Paul’s sayings, “Love is patient; love is kind; …” (I Corinthians 13: 4-7).

The Book of Revelation (ca 250-300):

This contains chapters 9 to 17 of the Book of Revelation. It is likely that the codex originally contained the entire book, but the beginning and end of the manuscript have been lost. Nevertheless, the portion of text that survives is the largest single portion of the text of the Book of Revelation preserved on papyrus.

The Book of Genesis (ca 300-350):

The codex consists of 51 leaves, along with additional fragments, which contain a significant portion of the Book of Genesis. The original manuscript was comprised of 66 leaves, or 132 pages which would have measured approximately 28 x 18 cm. The folios are in varying states of disrepair, with considerable portions of the lower leaves now lost.

The Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy (late 2nd century):

This codex would have originally contained 108 leaves, or 216 pages, of which fragments of 55 pages survive. This is not only the earliest manuscript in the Chester Beatty Biblical papyri collection, but until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid 20th century it was the oldest known manuscript containing a portion of the Old Testament.

The Book of Jeremiah:

This manuscript consists of two fragmentary leaves that preserve text from the Book of Jeremiah. The clear but irregular hand indicates that this was written at the end of the 2nd century or beginning of the 3rd century.

The Hebrew collection:

The Hebrew Collection contains a small number of volumes. The Hebrew manuscripts were mainly acquired in the 1930s and 1940s from the dealer and collector Dr Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951).

The majority of the Hebrew texts date from the 18th and 19th centuries and consist primarily of Torah and Esther scrolls. Most of these would appear to have originated in Italy, as many are written in an Italian quadrate script.

The collection has a number of illuminated manuscripts including a 16th century Italian Hebrew Bible (CBL Heb 772), a 13th century Hebrew Yemenite Pentateuch bound together with a copy of Tijan’s Grammatical Introduction to the Bible (CBL Heb 761) and a Hebrew cabalistic and astronomical codex from Spain (CBL Heb 762) dating to ca 1762.

The collection also includes a number of Samaritan texts, including two important Pentateuchs (CBL Heb 751 and Heb 752), the only books Samaritans share with Jews. The Samaritan text is written in a variant of the Old Hebrew alphabet, related to but distinct from the Hebrew alphabet used in Judaic texts.

Greek papyri

Some of the papyrus manuscripts in the Library retain their original bindings, composed of boards of papyrus covered with leather on the outside. The majority of documentary texts are single documents or fragments of documents relating to business affairs, taxes, wills and other matters of daily life.

Among the Greek documentary papyri acquired by Beatty is a roughly made codex, largely blank but containing several tax receipts dated to AD 339-345. On closer inspection it was discovered that the codex was made of a number of sheets glued back to back and doubled over to form a single quire. In places were the adhesive had loosened, an earlier text was revealed on the inner surface.

Conservation was undertaken at the British Museum to separate the sheets of the codex, where it was discovered that the re-used papyri came from two long rolls containing the official correspondence of the Strategus of the Panopolite nome (AD 298-300), primarily relating to the impending visit of the Emperor Diocletian to Panopolis (CBL PapPan I & II).

This unique record has provided historians with a wealth of information on Roman administrative practices – and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies).

The Coptic collection:

Coptic texts form one of the largest groups within the Chester Beatty Papyri Collection.

Coptic is the latest stage of the written form of the Egyptian language. It borrows most of its letters from the Greek alphabet but with the addition of several Coptic letters for sounds not found in Greek.

The majority of the Coptic texts are Christian in subject matter and include biblical manuscripts, homilies and accounts of martyrdoms from the period ca AD 300-800, although there are also some fragments of literary and business documents.

The most important and largest collection of non-Christian texts on papyrus acquired by Chester Beatty is the remarkable Manichaean codices, written in Coptic and dated to around AD 400.

The now separated folios are housed in over 1,000 frames and include many unique sacred texts of a lost religion that once rivalled Christianity and Islam and that spread from North Africa to the Near East.

The Iranian prophet Mani, who was put to death in AD 276, believed that he was the successor of Christ. He absorbed the teachings of Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and preached a new religion based on the dual forces of light and dark.

The Byzantine Collection:

The Byzantine manuscripts in the library include Gospels, Biblical commentaries, homilies, liturgical works and devotional books that range in date from the 10th to the 15th century. Many are illuminated with miniatures and decorated initials.

Beatty acquired most of these manuscripts from dealers in Paris in the 1920s. His correspondence contains letters from dealers in Istanbul offering Byzantine objects or textiles for sale, but in general he declined.

Among the earliest manuscripts are three dating from the 10th and 11th centuries (CBL W 131, W 132 and W 133) that were originally in the Russian monastery of Panteleïmon on Mount Athos.

The Syriac Collection:

The present plight of Christians in the Middle East is a reminder that south-east Turkey, Syria and parts of Iraq were once predominantly Christian. The language spoken was Syriac until it was replaced by Arabic in the 13th century. The area had many important centres for book production and fine illuminated manuscripts were created by and for churches in the region.

Early Syriac book design and illumination influenced other mediaeval Christian decorated manuscripts.

The Syriac collection includes several early Gospel books and choir books, as well as an illuminated copy of the Harclean version of the Gospels, written in Syriac and dating from the 12th century (CBL Syc 703).

The most important text is Ephraem’s Commentary on the Diatessaron of Tatian (CBL Syc 709), ca 490-510. Although parts of the Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels, is preserved in later translations, the Chester Beatty manuscript is the earliest copy known of this text and the only one in the language in which it was originally written. It is a unique document in the history of Christianity for which Chester Beatty received a special papal blessing from Pope Pius XII in 1959.

The Trustees of the Library have since made two additional acquisitions of leaves relating to this codex.

The Armenian Collection:

The Armenian and Western European manuscripts from medieval, Renaissance and modern times, prints, early and fine books and bindings complete a remarkable conspectus of the arts of manuscript production and printing from many cultures and periods.

The Armenian Collection includes manuscripts, primarily the texts of the Four Gospels, painted miniatures and detached metal covers. These were acquired by Chester Beatty over a 30-year period in the 1920s and the 1930s. Some of most impressive material, however, was not acquired until just after World War II (1946-48).

The highlight of this collection is a 13th century Gospel book (CBL Arm 558), acquired from the Phillipps Collection in 1947.

Beatty employed several Armenian scholars to write the descriptive entries for his manuscripts, but a published catalogue did not appear until 1958.

The Qur’an Collection:

Over 6,000 individual items, mainly manuscripts and single-page paintings and calligraphies, make up the Islamic Collections.

This includes the Qur’an Collection with more than 260 Qur’ans and Qur’an fragments and is one of the most important collections of Qur'ans outside the Middle East. Some date from the late 8th and 9th centuries and they include the work of the leading calligraphers of the Islamic world.

The gem of the collection and one of the most treasured objects in the library is the splendid Qur’an copied in Baghdad in the year 1001 by Ibn al-Bawwab, one of the three greatest mediaeval Islamic calligraphers.

Other collections:

The East Asian Collections include a fine series of albums and scrolls from China, the largest collection of jade books from the Imperial Court outside China and a large collection of textiles and decorative objects.

The Japanese holdings contain many superb painted scrolls from the 17th and 18th centuries, woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai and many others as well as decorative art objects.

The opening of II Corinthians

Module completed.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological. These briefing notes were prepared for a field trip on 16 March 2015 as part of the Church History Elective (TH 7864) on the MTh course (part-time).

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