Ancient Bibles, artifacts displayed at NOBTS

Photo by Boyd Guy
NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's new Bible and archaeology museum occupies a small space, but heralds the powerful, timeless message of the Bible being handed down and preserved through the centuries.

"From Papyrus to Print: A Journey through the History of the Bible" explores how the Bible was written on papyrus and parchment, copied, preserved and ultimately printed in the language of common people. Ancient archaeological artifacts supplement the experience by offering a glimpse into daily life in biblical times.

"Part of the wonder of our Bible is that we have a long-term history over which it was written as well as when it was copied and printed," said Bill Warren, director of the Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies at NOBTS. "When we pick up a Bible, we ought to have a sense of appreciation for the history behind it."

"It's not just another book. It is a God-inspired book. It is a book that many have struggled for with their very lives just so we can have copies," Warren said. "It may seem low priced to us, but the real price is in the story."

The museum, which opened in September, is the partial fulfillment of a decade-long dream. Before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, seminary trustees approved the construction on a new campus library. The proposed library included plans for two state-of-the-art museum and research areas -- one for the Haggard Center and one for the seminary's Center for Archaeological Research.

Following Katrina, campus restoration efforts and new housing took priority over the proposed library. Warren, along with Dennis Cole and Jim Parker, co-directors of CAR, kept the museum idea alive by merging the two concepts into one.

For last spring's NOBTS Foundation Board meeting, Warren and Cole developed a temporary display in the John T. Christian Library. The display was a success, and when space adjacent to Haggard Center's office in the Hardin Student Center became available, locating the Bible and archaeology museum there seemed perfect.

"From Papyrus to Print," the central museum exhibit, tracks the transmission of the Bible, beginning with papyrus and ending with press-printed Bibles. The first display shows how papyrus was made and how ancient papyrus fragments look when they are discovered.

Old Testament Display

The second section of the museum focuses on the Old Testament. Four Hebrew scrolls illustrate the use of real parchment, animal skin, as an early medium for manuscripts. The focal point of this section is the 400-year-old complete Esther scroll. Three other scroll portions date to the 1800s.

In addition to the original manuscripts, the museum uses professional-quality facsimile editions of important manuscripts. Facsimile copies utilize high-resolution, full color photographs of each page of the original document, preserving details and characteristics of the ancient manuscript. The Hebrew section features facsimiles of the two leading Hebrew manuscripts that serve as the basis for the Old Testament text in modern Bible translations.

Greek Display

The third section, which focuses on the Greek Old and New Testament manuscripts, includes facsimiles of five major codices. The focal point of the Greek section is the Codex Vaticanus facsimile donated by Mary Wheeler Messer and her late husband, Thomas Messer Sr. This codex, dating to the early fourth century and kept at the Vatican, is one of the oldest and most complete manuscripts of the Old and New Testament Greek Bible.

Rather than using photographs, the Codex Vaticanus facsimile recreates the color, texture and imperfections of the original parchment with stunning detail, including the irregular shape and the imperfections of the original pages. Even the holes, stains and wrinkles are replicated.

The Greek section also includes a facsimile of the oldest complete Greek New Testament, Codex Siniaticus, which dates to the mid-300s, and a facsimile of Codex Bezae, a fifth century Greek-Latin codex of the Gospels and Acts.

The archaeology section is located in the center of the museum space adjacent to the Greek section, and includes a wide range of objects such as Chalcolithic period cups dating to 3500 B.C., and Byzantine period jugs and storage jars dating to 500 A.D. Holdings include zoomorphic vessels, clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing, Roman glass and numerous clay vessels for cooking and storage.

According to Cole, the museum captures the "everyday stuff of life from any given period. It gives you an idea of the types of things that were used, from your soup or stew bowl to your drinking cup to storage pottery. It gives you that visual representation of what it was like in biblical times."

Two highlights among the artifacts are a clay household idol, reminiscent of the Genesis 31 story of Rachel stealing her father's household idols, and an exceptional Late Bronze Age (1450-1250 B.C.) Cypriot "milk ware" bowl, illustrating the nature of early Mediterranean commerce. The bowls were crafted on the island of Cyprus and exported to places throughout the region, including Canaan. The NOBTS archaeology team excavating the ancient water system in Gezer, Israel, uncovered numerous "milk ware" shards.

Latin Section

The Latin section of the museum focuses on the emergence of Latin as the church's most common language. The section also marks the development of the printing press which revolutionized the distribution of Scripture.

Handwritten manuscripts from this time period often featured "illuminations," colored drawings and ornaments along with the text. Warren calls the illuminated manuscript "the multi-media of its day." The museum features two illuminated pages from 12th and 14th century Latin Psalters. The highlight in the Latin section is an original page from the Gutenberg Bible, the first Bible printed for mass distribution.

Early English Bibles

The last section of the museum focuses on early English Bibles, highlighted by the Geneva Bible (1562) and the 1617 edition of the King James Bible, its third printing.

According to Warren, part of the wonder of the Bible is the great price so many have paid to ensure that people have access to God's Word in their own language.

"It wasn't simply a heavy financial price, although Codex Siniaticus for example, probably would have been 15-to-20 years worth of wages for the average person," Warren said. "The heavy price was paid by the loss of eyesight on the part of scribes. It was paid by some who literally gave their lives to defend the copies during times of persecution."

"Others were killed simply for translating the Bible into the language of the common people. William Tyndale died for his role in translating the Bible into English," Warren said.

The museum will be open during regular NOBTS office hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with trained guides available.


Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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