Scholars begin using Vatican Syriac manuscripts online

08.20.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

As recently reported, CPART’s Kristian Heal and colleagues have started the work of producing new catalog descriptions for eighty Syriac manuscripts from the collection of the Vatican Apostolic Library. As part of this project, the Vatican Library has just made new digital images of these manuscripts available online in June. These online facsimiles still lack their full metadata and descriptions, but they are already being hailed by scholars as a vital new tool for research.

Dr. George Kiraz, director of the Syriac studies institute Beth Mardutho, recently posted on an academic email list (Hugoye-L) about how these digital editions are revolutionizing his own research:

I just want to express my thanks to BYU (and Kristian of course) for the marvelous work of digitizing the Vatican library collection and making it so easily available online. It is making working with BL MSS [i.e., British Library manuscripts] much more frustrating of course! The field may see a shift where citations to Vatican library MSS will increase and citations to [British Library] MSS may begin to decrease. I need to examine all 5th and 6th century dated MSS for a writing systems project. Almost 1/2 of what I need is from the Vatican Library.

Thanks Kristian….

The British Library contains the largest collection of early Syriac manuscripts in the world, but unfortunately, to date, only a single complete manuscript is available online. Obtaining high-quality digital images of these manuscripts for research purposes is impossibly expensive. As Dr. Kiraz later added:

… and just to put a number on it, I just contacted the BL to ask if I can get 15 random images of dated 5th and 6th century MSS and was told that I need to go through the image service office. The cost would be ca. $23,000 to get those while I can see the entire MSS from the Vatican online!!!

Scholars can only study materials they can access and few of us have the time and resources to work extensively in foreign libraries. Online access to manuscript facsimiles such as those provided by CPART will continue to be a top priority for archivists and scholars worldwide, and it will continue to have a dramatic impact on textual research.


Carl W. Griffin received a BA in Near Eastern studies and classics from Brigham Young University and an MA and PhD in early Christian studies from the Catholic University of America. Carl has worked at the Maxwell Institute since 2001 and now serves as director of its Christianity and the Bible Research Initiative. He is editor of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity.

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