Exhibit highlights scope of biblical texts

Later this month, pilgrims from across the world will travel to Philadelphia to celebrate the visit of Pope Francis. The array of travelers will speak different languages and bring a variety of life experiences—but will share the common thread of faith.

In honor of the Pope’s visit, the Penn Museum has opened an exhibition of rare artifacts from its collection and the Penn Libraries that is equally as diverse, and just as united by a common theme.

The show, “Sacred Writings: Extraordinary Texts of the Biblical World,” contains 10 manuscripts and bibles that span more than 3,600 years in time, and are all highly relevant to gospel topics. The exhibit runs through Nov. 8 at the Penn Museum.

“One of the things I particularly like about the exhibit is both the chronological scope and the linguistic scope,” says Steve Tinney, associate curator-in-charge of the Babylonian  Section at the Penn Museum. “The individual items go from 1650 BCE to 1999. That’s 3,650 years—and there are 15 languages in that gallery.”

At the center of the show, an item from the Museum’s collection is one of the world’s oldest fragments of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, written on papyrus and dating to the 3rd century CE. This fragment, written in ancient Greek, was once part of a codex, or book, and contains the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew.

“Everyone who is exposed to it is moved by it,” says Tinney of the Matthew fragment.

The exhibit also features an ancient clay tablet in Sumerian cuneiform from the site of Nippur in Mesopotamia, which is in modern-day Iraq, circa 1650 BCE. This tablet contains the earliest version of the Mesopotamian flood story, which parallels the story of Noah.

All of the items are opened in the display cases to either the flood or the birth of Jesus stories in the Gospel of Matthew, explains Mitch Fraas, curator of special collections at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the Penn Libraries.

And while the stories can take on a kind of uniformity, Fraas notes the exhibit showcases the extraordinary variety of ways, places, and times in which these tales were told.

“I wanted to show how this continuity of serious production of the texts and the care and time that was taken with them is a tradition that carries on to today,” Fraas says. “I wanted to have a mix of things; everything had to be visually appealing.”

One item that speaks to the worldwide appeal of these biblical stories is a polyglot New Testament Bible compiled by German scholar Elias Hutter and printed in Nuremberg in 1599. That volume contains 12 languages printed side-by-side: Syriac, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, Czech, Italian, Spanish, French, English, Danish, and Polish.

The exhibit also contains a contemporary Bible from 1999, designed and illustrated by Barry Moser and printed by the Pennyroyal Caxton Press.

“I hope pilgrims ... get a sense of this rich textual tradition,” Fraas says, “and how these stories that they are all familiar with get transmitted over time.”

This is the first curatorial collaboration between the Museum and the Libraries—and it was a pairing that was a natural fit.

“The Museum and the Library both have amazing collections of material things,” Fraas says. “We’re excited to work together.”

Tinney encourages all visitors—not just those on hand for the pope’s visit—to peruse the exhibit.

“[One thing] we hope people will do when they stand next to some of these pieces is feel some of the awe and excitement that those of us who work with them every day feel,” says Tinney.

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