CPART raises voices from the dust

05.24.2013 | Kristian Heal

In the almost complete absence of written records, one must be permitted to guess, because there is nothing else to do.” –Hugh W. Nibley

This epigraph from Nibley may seem to go too far in describing what we can or cannot know of an ancient society that is survived only by its ruins. But it is not unreasonable to say that an ancient people only come to life when we hear their voices crying from the dust in their texts. Imagine Qumran without the Dead Sea Scrolls, Nineveh without the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, fourth century Hippo without the works of Augustine, or Cumorah without the Book of Mormon.

While there are many ancient texts available for study, the specific focus of the Maxwell Institute’s Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) includes biblical and other religious texts from the Middle Eastern world written in Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic. Rather than trying to describe everything the Center does, the on-going work of the Center can best be explained by talking in more specific terms. This is the goal of the present blog post, in which we will introduce one particular ancient text, describe what the Center is doing with it, and identify who benefits from our work. 

Meeting the Text

Despite the ravages of time and the environment, a dizzying number of manuscripts have survived from the regions and time period that we focus on. Thousands still remain in monastery and church libraries in the Middle East. Though many of these have been digitally preserved as a result of farsighted monks, bishops, and librarians, many have not, and hundreds of these will certainly not survive into another century. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the great European libraries purchased vast numbers of manuscripts, and today those libraries house some of the most important manuscripts in the world, including the oldest dated codex. Many of these manuscripts would surely not have survived in less salutary conditions.

Manuscript collections must first be catalogued before they enter as meaningful objects into the world of knowledge. Most ancient manuscripts in European collections have been catalogued via a long and painstaking process. To properly catalogue a manuscript demands substantial and diverse knowledge. The results, however, are monuments of scholarship that long outlast the author. For example, scholars still use the catalogue of Vatican Syriac manuscripts written in Latin in 1758-59. All this is to say that before one can meet the text one wishes to study, it first needs to be located. The manuscript catalogue is the key to this process—indeed, it is the first step for many scholarly research projects.

The manuscript which interests us in this post is found on the shelves of the Vatican Library. A photo of the manuscript has been serving as the Institute’s blog masthead. It arrived at the Vatican library from a monastery in Egypt, along with more than thirty other manuscripts purchased in 1707 by a young Lebanese Maronite priest named Elias Assemani. Actually, we don’t know exactly how many manuscripts were purchased from this monastery; only that thirty-three Syriac manuscripts and one Arabic manuscript eventually arrived in Rome. On the journey from the Egyptian desert to the Vatican City, the barge carrying the manuscripts capsized in a storm. All of the manuscripts went into the Nile and one monk was drowned. The enterprising Elias hired divers to retrieve the manuscripts. We do not know how many manuscripts were lost, but we can see the effect of the water damage on the pages of those manuscripts that were rescued.

In fact, the water damage is one of the first things one notices when opening Vatican Syriac 110, making the story of Elias, of the drowned monk, and the divers an integral part of this book’s history. What is more striking about the manuscript, however, is the clarity of the undamaged portions of the page. The ink is dark and contrasts so well with the vellum (a writing material made from animal skin) that it almost seems to have been freshly applied to the carefully ruled lines. In fact, these vellum leaves were prepared and the ink mixed and applied almost a millennium and half ago.

Many manuscripts benefit from a colophon, a short note usually found at the end of the manuscript written by the scribe, in which he tells a little about himself and the manuscript, and also often tells us the date of composition. Vatican Syriac 110 has no colophon—at least it no longer has one. Such ancient manuscripts often lost their outer leaves, where the colophon is most often found, though occasionally we find the colophon rewritten on an internal leaf to help preserve it. Manuscripts without a colophon are dated palaeographically, which means that the handwriting is analyzed and compared to other dated samples. Since the scribal hand varied over time and space this can be a useful means of dating a manuscript, particularly when done by the well-trained eye. By this means scholars date Vatican Syriac 110 to the early sixth century (500-550 A.D.).

The manuscript contains the only known copy of a commentary on Genesis and most of Exodus (1:1-32:26) composed at least a century and a half earlier in Edessa (modern Urfa in SE Turkey) by a deacon named Ephrem. This Ephrem was born very early in the fourth century about a hundred miles or so east of Edessa in Nisibis (modern Nusaybin in NE Syria). However, he was forced to leave his native city in 363 A.D. when it was ceded to the Persians by the Roman Empire as part of a peace treaty made shortly after the Roman Emperor Julian died near there in battle.

Making Tools

Much as they would like it, scholars are not able to spend all of their time studying manuscripts in the great libraries of the world. Thus, for a serious study of Vatican Syriac 110, a scholar wants a good reproduction. For many years this meant ordering a black and white microfilm from the library in question. These were awkward to use and not always a faithful reproduction of the original. Nowadays, however, scholars want color digital facsimiles. With this end in mind, between 2000 and 2005 BYU undertook a joint project with the Vatican library to photograph and prepare digital editions of thirty-three of their precious Syriac manuscripts, including Vatican Syriac 110. Under the direction of the Vatican library, we imaged the manuscripts, cropped and color corrected them preparatory to publication, and prepared new catalogue descriptions to give more accurate and up-to-date information about the contents. The positive reaction from scholars and members of the Syriac churches has convinced us of the value of this work. We’re preparing to continue this project on a larger scale now that the Vatican has reopened after a three year period of refurbishment (2007-2010).

With images in hand, and the occasional visit to the manuscript itself, scholars are able to prepare an edition of an ancient text. These editions, usually accompanied by a translation, are the next stage in the scholarly acquisition of ancient knowledge. Problems raised by the text will be treated, errors corrected (yes, even well trained scribes made all kinds of errors), and notes made. An edition (and Latin translation) of Vatican Syriac 110 was first made in 1737, and this edition was used until a better one was published in 1955. Much fine research has been based on these two editions. However, what scholars have been missing is a concordance of Ephrem’s Genesis and Exodus commentaries, so that they can analyze the language, search for key terms and ideas and assess the vocabulary of this fourth-century author. Better still, scholars want a concordance of all of the works of Ephrem, so that they can search out inter-relationships between texts, see where themes are treated in various places, and try more scientifically to weed out spurious texts that are transmitted under Ephrem’s name.

One step better than a concordance is a searchable database. Such a research tool allows scholars to search for multiple terms and ideas, facilitating a more penetrating analysis of an ancient text, an ancient author, or a key term as it appears in numerous ancient authors and texts. Such databases facilitate subtle textual analysis. The more data scholars have in hand the better they are able to bring out interesting and important features of a text. The best text databases thus include annotated texts. This means that there is information attached to each word in a given text. This information may be limited to identifying the part of speech, or indicating that a word is a proper name, or a place name, or a date, and so on.

The Maxwell Institute is preparing a searchable corpus of Syriac texts. For this research tool we’ve created an electronic text of all of the works of Ephrem, including the commentaries contained in Vatican Syriac 110, together with many other texts written in Syriac between the second and seventeenth centuries A.D. The draft transcriptions of these texts have been prepared by monks and priests of the Syriac churches, as well as scholars and students. These electronic texts are carefully proofed by the editors of the corpus and other trained scholars and checked against other editions and manuscripts. They are then annotated on a text level with information about the author, the date of composition, genre, the ecclesiastical affiliation of the author, and any relevant geographical information, such as the location of the monastery or school in which the author wrote the text.

Further to this, we are working with computational linguists in BYU’s Linguistics and Computer Science departments to develop clever ways to annotate each word in the corpus. This is no small task. Imagine going through five million words of text (or even fifty million, which is the eventual goal) and identifying the part of speech and grammatical analysis for each individual word. Fortunately, there are computational ways to automate this process, thereby limiting the amount of hand annotating that needs to be done. With these computational tools, we can conceive of a research tool for the study of Syriac literature that will revolutionize this field of study.

Advancing Scholarship

What we have described to this point is the process by which the Maxwell Institute provides scholars, including our own scholars at BYU, with all of the research tools necessary to make a thorough analysis of the texts contained in a particular Vatican manuscript. But this manuscript is just a symbol of the broad range of ancient texts the Maxwell Institute works with in order to provide scholars with the necessary research tools to increase our understanding of the religious writings of pre-modern Christian and Jewish communities in eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The research tools that we create support the work of scholars throughout the world. However, the Maxwell Institute is committed to bringing the best and most relevant parts of this scholarship to the attention of the BYU and broader LDS communities.

Building Bridges with Living Traditions

Our work with ancient religious texts maintains its integrity because our first aim is to provide all scholars with reliable textual resources and tools. Because our work deals with texts important to a variety of faiths, the publication and study of this material naturally builds bridges of understanding and respect between Latter-day Saints and people of other faiths. These bridges are strengthened as scholars from other faiths not only recognize our commitment to high academic standards, but also see the respect and reverence with which we approach texts that they hold sacred and important. As Latter-day Saint scholars we are committed to the textual patrimony that has come into being as a result of God’s interactions with his children. As sincere seekers after truth we claim a part of all of God’s dealings with his children and all of their efforts to understand and act upon his will. Such principles stand at the heart of our work.


Kristian Heal received a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history and Hebrew from University College, London, and a Master of Studies in Syriac studies from Oxford University. He received a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Birmingham. He joined the staff of the Maxwell Institute as a research scholar in 2000. Since 2004 he’s served as the Director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts