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In the Beginning: Bibles before the Year 1000 (review)
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Reviewed by
Michelle P. Brown, editor In the Beginning: Bibles before the Year 1000Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2006 Pp. vi + 360. $45.

This superb volume was published in connection with the historic exhibition of the same title organized and held in the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler Gallery (Washington, DC, October 21, 2006–January 7, 2007). Brown was the chief curator for that exhibition, and in this volume she brings together main essays by several main collaborators with further contributions from other consultants. Having first proposed in 1999 an exhibit to mark the centenary of the acquisition of the Freer biblical manuscripts, I congratulate the administration and staff of the Freer-Sackler Galleries and Prof. Brown for bringing off what was probably the most impressive exhibition of biblical manuscripts ever held in North America. This handsome and information-packed volume is an enduring legacy of the exhibition and should be regarded as a "must" purchase by libraries and scholars in biblical, historical, and art studies. [End Page 125]

After forewords from spokesmen for the Freer-Sackler Galleries and the Bodleian Library (which was particularly associated with the exhibition), a brief introduction by Brown, a flow-chart showing "the journey of the text" from Hebrew and Greek into various other languages, and a double-page color map of "Europe and the Near East, ca. 800 C.E." showing key monasteries and sites of finds of biblical papyri, there are several main essays: Ann Gunter on Freer's acquisition of his biblical manuscripts; Harry Gamble's wide-ranging discussion of the physical production of early Christian Scriptures; Monica Blanchard on the lands of "the Christian Orient"; Brown's impressively learned study of how the Christian Scriptures spread by translation and the formation of collections and canons; and Herbert Kessler's fascinating treatment of "the Book as Icon," focusing on the decoration and illustration of copies of scriptural texts.

The second main section ("Catalogue") comprises short discussions on "Discovering the Bible," "Scroll and Codex," "Formation and Codification," "From Babel to Pentecost," "Spreading the Word," and "The Book as Icon," followed by splendid color photos of selected manuscripts from the exhibit for illustration. The size of the volume and the quality of paper and reproduction allow for photos that can convey more effectively the fascinating and sometimes breathtaking visual properties of these items, which range from scraps of papyri from ca. 200 C.E. (e.g., the Chester Beatty manuscripts) through the grand New Testament codices of the fourth-sixth centuries (e.g., Codex Sinaiticus and the Freer biblical manuscripts) and on to the richly decorated manuscripts of the medieval period (e.g., the Macregol Gospels, Rabbula Gospels, and the Stockholm Codex Aureus). The featured manuscripts include examples in Greek, Latin, Ethiopic, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, and Glagolitic, visibly demonstrating the linguistic spread of Christian Scriptures. As well, there are photos of decorated book covers of manuscripts, including the Freer Gospel Codex (featuring the four Evangelists) and the ornate metal-ivory-crystal covers of the Mondsee Gospels.

There follows a reference catalogue of all the items in the exhibition with detailed information on each item and smaller black and white photos. The final pages of the book include a chronology of selected key events/developments ca. 600 B.C.E.–1000 C.E., a glossary of technical terms and a "Who's Who" of selected major historical figures, notes to the main essays, a nineteen-page bibliography, a list of contributors, and an index.

Given the vast period and developments covered and the remarkable richness of information included in this volume, one can only be grateful, and the surprisingly (and commendably) low price for a book of this size and quality also makes it a particularly good value for the money. At the risk of seeming petty, I will express some surprise at a few statements in the book, e.g., Brown's description of the Gnostics as conflating "aspects of various religions with cabbalistic magic" (just a bit anachronistic and over-simplified!) or Gamble's statement that Christians began to use some of their own writings as Scriptures "gradually, over a period of several centuries" (whereas...