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BYU digitizes ancient Christian texts from Vatican Library

A collection of rare Christian manuscripts—some dating to the fifth and sixth centuries—will soon be accessible to scholars worldwide, thanks to a first-time collaboration between Brigham Young University, the Vatican Library and the Assyrian Church of the East.

Working alongside their Vatican colleagues for three years, BYU scholars imaged more than 14,000 pages of text to produce a digital library of 33 important Syriac Christian manuscripts, which will be available on DVD. For Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East, access to these texts—which for centuries were out of reach—will help his church members to reconnect with their heritage.

"It was rather an emotional moment when I first viewed the content of the DVD in Rome," says Bishop Soro, a San Jose-based leader of one of the world's oldest Christian churches. "These manuscripts really tell our 'lost' story."

"Our church is so small and insignificant today, but these manuscripts tell of the forgotten glory that our forefathers and foremothers had. In addition, they contain what we believe and hold valuable as teachings and traditions, as doctrine and dogma," he says.

In 1997, Bishop Soro approached the BYU Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts about creating a digital library of Syriac Christian texts.

"He had heard about our Dead Sea Scrolls database project and wondered if we might be able to do something similar with the textual tradition of his church," says Noel Reynolds, executive director of the institute. "These texts present important Eastern Christian traditions that have not been preserved in the Greek manuscripts. Our perception of Christian history often ignores the Eastern component, which was at least as important historically," says Reynolds.

"There's a renewed realization of the importance of the early stages of the growth of Christianity," says Kristian Heal, a research associate for the institute and a specialist in Syriac studies. "Many of these texts come from that earlier period. They're not just academic. These texts have something to say to us."

The newly digitized collection includes unpublished works by early Eastern Christian writers such as Jacob of Serugh, Ephrem the poet and Isaac the Syrian. The Chronicle of Edessa, for example, describes life in the city of Edessa beginning in the second century. One oversized 1,000-page manuscript contained 230 separate homilies by different authors.

Most of the manuscripts are from a collection that the Vatican purchased in the 18th century from an Egyptian monastery. For centuries, Syriac Christians themselves were denied access to the manuscripts, even though the texts relate to their early history.

"In the last century, the Vatican Library has moved toward open access. Before that point, the library was only accessible to ecclesiastics working in the Catholic Church," says Heal.

"The Vatican now is very willing to re-offer those manuscripts back to Syriac Christianity," through the imaging project, says Bishop Soro. "It is a project that has fulfilled a great need in the Syriac-speaking communities all over the world. The manuscripts that were scanned . . . contained the essence of our liturgies, worship manuals and our theologies."

Heal says Syriac Christian culture grew outside of the influence of western Christianity, so it maintained its own traditions and language. The language of the church is Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language that Christ spoke.

"These are Christians writing in a Semitic language. Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, and taught in Aramaic. He would have preached all of his sermons and would have taught the Lord's prayer in Aramaic. And so Syriac Christians will often say that their liturgy, that their Lord's prayer, is the same as Jesus would have taught it," says Heal.

For the BYU institute, the project presented a rare opportunity to work on important Christian manuscripts in one of the world's great libraries.

"The Vatican Library is often known as the library of the Pope; it is his own texts. It has a collection of 150,000 manuscripts; it's the largest manuscript collection in the world," Heal says. "The library sees itself now as a repository of human history and memory."

The Vatican Library project is part of a larger effort by the BYU Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts to digitize and make accessible important and endangered manuscripts from libraries and monasteries around the world.

"We're interested in preserving the past, in preserving ancient texts. The Vatican Library exists for that very reason . . . and so there was a nice coincidence of interests and desires," says Heal. "The work of the institute has been bringing together technology and scholarship, putting technology in service of scholarship, and then making materials accessible."

The new images, which are being positively received by scholars, are expected to generate interest in studies of Eastern Christianity.

"My first reaction when I saw some of the images was that the quality is much better than the original manuscript," says noted Syriac Christian scholar and Duke University professor Lucas Van Rompay. "What I see here at Brigham Young University is really a large scale effort to preserve these manuscript collections. I haven't seen anything of the same level, of the same expertise and of the same breadth," he says.

For Syriac Christian churches, who trace their origins back to first-century Mesopotamia (modern-day Baghdad), the imaging project will help preserve a culture that has historically endured political upheaval and persecution.

""These manuscripts have endured tremendous hardship," says Bishop Soro. "More than 80 percent of our written tradition is lost, destroyed or burned by the various superpowers that successively invaded the Middle East region. The people in these churches are now busy surviving; they are not able to preserve their heritage."

"The Syriac-speaking Christians are fleeing the Middle East in record numbers and don't have any other way of taking their ancient manuscript traditions with them," says Reynolds.

Bishop Soro says he hopes that his church members will use the new DVD to further explore their history.

"The actual benefit is that our people will see this patrimony, this heritage, put in the best medium, so that their kids, their teenagers, can look at their tradition with pride and joy and be able to learn themselves and share with the world," says Soro. "Surely this is another cause for being joyous and feeling that we have done something good."

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