The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s astounding “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000” is full of surprises. It also celebrates the 100th anniversary of collector Charles Lang Freer’s gift of Asian and American art, now housed in the Sackler’s adjoining Freer Gallery of Art.
The landmark exhibit includes some of the earliest writings known. It shows that early Bibles were complex interweavings of texts, beliefs and scripts on papyrus and parchment and were not just collections of attached sections of pages in books.
Moreover, these examples come from as far afield as Skellig, Ireland, and Mount Sinai, Egypt.
The show repeatedly disproves the modern belief that the Bible originated in book form rather than in scrolls and handwritten codices written in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian and Coptic. Codices, or “leaf-books,” were a series of pages bound together at one edge and protected by covers.
Moreover, although it’s not an art exhibit, the almost symphonic rhythms of the scripts on differently stained and torn papers lend calligraphic artistic interest.
When visitors look carefully, they’ll see the rectilinear character of an early Greek script such as the Codex Claromontanus and a bilingual manuscript of the Epistles of St. Paul in Greek and Latin. They’ll also note that the Hebrew script of the early fragment of a Genesis Scroll in the first gallery is square and thicker.
The 80 works show the Holy Book’s development from scrolls into the earliest Christian Scriptures of parchment, into book formats and book rolls, through formation and codification, to the Codex Sinaiticus (the earliest Bible), to the famed Byzantine, ornately decorated Niketas Bible of the 10th century.
It’s a lot to swallow, and visitors begin their exhibit journey with a bang. Early in the search for Middle Eastern biblical texts in the late 19th century, Cambridge University scholars Solomon Schechter and Charles Taylor came across the Cairo Genizah (a Hebrew genizah was a sealed storage room for damaged Scriptures).
The opening photomural of Mr. Schechter examining this priceless treasure trove of Hebrew manuscripts conveys an excitement similar to that of the later King Tutankhamen excavations.
Other sleuths were there, too. American collectors Charles Lang Freer and Charles Beatty added to the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. The audio tour comments: “We find that Freer and Beatty played their part in the process of discovery, making hard deals in the back streets of Giza.”
These “deals” bore fruit for Mr. Freer, especially with the Freer Gospels or Codex Washingtonensis (fourth to fifth centuries). Written in a rectilinear Greek script, it’s one of the show’s most elegant works.
The wax-painted covers of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John also impress. The wall text tells visitors the books were held up in processions to high altars during services.
Another coup for Mr. Freer was the seventh-century Egyptian wooden bookstand in the first gallery, originally used to display early Christian manuscripts.
Also in the first gallery is the show’s hottest item: the Second Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written on dark parchment — a heavy, paperlike material made from animal skins — that resembles leather more than paper.
Possibly the scrolls were placed in pottery jars in the Judean desert at the time of the sack of Jerusalem in the first century.
It’s a long way from those first years of the Christian era in Jerusalem to the sumptuous 11th-century Mondsee Gospels from Regensburg, Germany, modeled on earlier Christian books. Made of silver, ivory, rock crystal, gilt copper and silk that covers a parchment codex, it developed the earlier tradition of a cross highlighted in gold, surrounded by the evangelists writing the Scriptures.
From the early scrolls and codices to the Mondsee Gospels, the exhibit — though repetitious in parts — is an encyclopedic survey of Bibles that we’re not likely to see again.