A Fragile Biblical Text Gets a Virtual Read

A Fragile Biblical Text Gets a Virtual Read

Dr. Seales had not tackled a codex, which unlike a scroll has writing on both sides. Tests with a parchment mock-up constructed by Dr. Dilley suggested that the technique would work.

But Maria L. Fredericks, the Morgan Library’s head book conservator, had determined that the little codex was unfit to travel. She displayed a loose page and a dish of small fragments that have dropped off the charred edges since its purchase. So Dr. Seales borrowed a small CT scanner that was brought to the library.

Dr. Tilley, a scholar of Coptic, hopes to discover what work the Book of Acts is paired with in the codex, which may help shed light on the formation of the New Testament canon. There was a profusion of gospels and other writings in the early Christian era, and it wasn’t until 367 A.D. that the approved canon, the familiar list of books in the Old and New Testament, was specified by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria.

Egypt was a major center of Christianity in the pre-Islamic world, and the bishops of Alexandria held great sway, second only to the bishop of Rome, in matters of church doctrine and practice.

Even so, it took many years for the familiar New Testament canon to edge out rival Gnostic and Manichaean writings. Because of the expense of producing books, complete versions of the New Testament, such as in the Codex Sinaiticus, were rare, and Christian Coptic manuscripts often feature only selections, such as the four gospels or the epistles of Paul.

Though earlier texts of Acts exist, M.910 will be of interest if it has its own set of variants. These, together with variants in other texts, could help scholars reconstruct the text of the original Greek source.

The scans were completed in December, and the team hopes to start producing readable pages later this month. If successful, Dr. Tilley said, there are damaged codices all over the world that one day may yield their secrets.


The Morgan Library and Museum, which purchased the little codex in 1962 but never opened it for fear of damaging it further.

Nicole Craine for The New York Times

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