A great new exhibition has just opened at the Chester Beatty Library (or, as the institution now calls itself “The Chester Beatty“) in Dublin. It’s called “First Fragments: Biblical Papyrus from Roman Egypt.” It opened on 28 October and runs through 3 September 2023. It features the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, a group of manuscripts close to my heart.
There are many early Christian papyri in the Beatty collection, but the designation “Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri” generally refers to a group of eleven Greek papyrus codices in varying states of preservation that Beatty purchased mostly between 1930 and 1934:
- I. Gospels and Acts (LDAB 2980)
- II. Pauline letters (LDAB 3011)
- III. Revelation (LDAB 2778)
- IV. Genesis (LDAB 3160)
- V. Genesis (LDAB 3109)
- VI. Numbers and Deuteronomy (LDAB 3091)
- VII. Isaiah (LDAB 3108)
- VIII. Jeremiah (LDAB 3084)
- IX + X. Ezekiel, Daniel, Susanna, and Esther (LDAB 3090)
- XI. Ecclesiasticus (LDAB 3161)
- XII. Letter of Enoch, Melito’s On Passover, and the Apocryphon of Ezekiel (LDAB 2608)
It’s a fascinating collection for a number of reasons, many of which are explored in this exhibition. The displays use examples from each of the books to highlight such topics as book construction and repair, scribal practices (corrections, textual divisions, nomina sacra), and stichometry. The exhibit also uses the texts preserved on the papyri to discuss different aspects of early Christianity (the role of women, the practice of translation, and textual fluidity, among many other topics). And there is more than we usually see in such exhibitions about issues of provenance. While the exhibition focuses on the Beatty Biblical Papyri, other pieces in the collection are also featured.
A real highlight for me were the superb models of some of the codices produced by Kristine Rose-Beers, Head of Conservation at the Beatty. I’ve been experimenting with making models for a few years now, and I’m always amazed to see real professionals bring these artifacts to life. I’m desperately curious to see how her model of Codex I (the Gospels-Acts manuscript, P45) holds up with use. We’re quite certain that this codex was made up of single-sheet quires. I’ve always wondered how such a large papyrus codex could function with this kind of binding, but Kristine’s model looks sturdy:
The exhibition was put together by Jill Unkel, Curator of Western Collections at the Beatty. She also authored the catalog, which is very nicely done and has some really excellent illustrations (and it’s affordably priced at just €15). The text is clear and accessible enough for non-specialists but also with some interesting details for those more familiar with the manuscripts. It especially fun to see the Beatty’s materials put use in explaining book production:
This is the sort of topic that is much easier to understand when you have ample illustration, and the Beatty collection is such a good resource for that.
It’s an ideal time for an exhibition like this. In recent years, there have been a couple of top-notch dissertations on the New Testament codices (Peter Malik on the Revelation codex and Edgar Ebojo on the Pauline epistles codex). The original editions and facsimiles edited by Frederic Kenyon are now online, and there was a new facsimile of the New Testament books produced a couple years ago (and I’ve written a bit myself about the acquisition of the collection and the construction of the Pauline epistles codex). Sometime in 2023, a volume should be published that will contain essays based on the conference that took place in Dublin last year, The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri at Ninety. This volume will feature some incisive work on Beatty as a collector.
This is a fantastic exhibition. And it looks like there are also a lot of associated lectures and activities coming up in the next couple months. If you’re interested in early Christianity or the history of the book, it’s a must see. And if you’re not able to travel to Dublin, do check out the online 3D tour with links to the various artifacts on display (click here and scroll down).