Two weeks, eighty manuscripts, and a lot of gelato

06.03.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

Nibley Fellows Luke Drake and Daniel Becerra

I’m thrilled to be in the Vatican Library with Daniel Becerra and Luke Drake, two of the Maxwell Institute’s Nibley Fellows who are PhD students of ancient Christian and Mediterranean religion. We’re currently working to preserve some of the oldest Syriac manuscripts in existence as part of a joint BYU-Vatican Library project.

We have two weeks and we’re racing against the clock to prepare scientific descriptions of eighty Syriac codices in total. Each codex has recently been scanned and turned into a digital object. Now we’re describing the books themselves and preparing the digital versions for the Vatican Library’s online collection. Once online, these manuscripts can be studied by scholars around the world and enjoyed by millions of Syriac Christians. Of course, we still must catalog them all when we get back home!

Of the ten thousand Syriac manuscripts that are thought to survive, just fifty-one are dated before 600 A.D., and we’re currently working with ten of them! (Here’s the complete list.) Ten beautiful vellum manuscripts written in a script that’s as clear today as when it was written nearly 1500 years ago.

Of course, age isn’t everything in the world of manuscripts. Each manuscript is unique. Even if it contains a text that exists in multiple copies, it is written in a particular hand. Manuscripts also often bear a particular colophon or other unique notes. We’re also working with some completely unique manuscripts from the Vatican collections, such as Vatican Syriac 110, which contains the only copy of a fourth century commentary on Genesis and Exodus, and Vatican Syriac 162, the only copy of an important history of the world from the creation until 776 (yes, exactly 1,000 years before America’s declaration of Independence).

I’ll be writing more about these and other manuscripts over the coming months as the project moves into the cataloging phase.


Kristian Heal is director of the Maxwell Institute’s Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts. He 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 PhD in Theology from the University of Birmingham. He joined the staff of the Maxwell Institute as a research scholar in 2000 and has served as CPART director since 2004.