CPART Assesses Manuscript Archives in Beirut, Vatican

In February, Daniel C. Peterson and E. Jan Wilson of the FARMS Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) visited with officials in Beirut, Lebanon, and at the Vatican Apostolic Library in Rome to determine the feasibility of digitally imaging ancient religious manuscripts for inclusion in a CD-ROM database. If undertaken, the project stands to benefit not only the many communities whose religious heritages will be preserved, but also Westerners who know very little about Syriac, Christian Arabic, and Armenian theology, liturgy, philosophy, and history—much of it relevant to the study of early Christianity.


In Beirut, Peterson and Wilson met with Father Samir Khalil of St. Joseph’ s University, who conducted them to manuscript archives in a monastery and two universities and introduced them to key people, all of them supportive of the project. The tour allayed the CPART team’ s initial concerns about the nature and quantity of ancient writings in Beirut and possible political sensitivities regarding access to them.

” For Western scholars wanting to delve into the long-neglected field of Eastern Christianity, Lebanon is an ideal point of entry,” says Peterson, director of CPART and BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic. ” Preserved there in the ancient heartland of Christianity is a treasure trove of early Christian materials.” Much of the material is written in Syriac, the Christian form of Aramaic, and many monastic libraries in Beirut also contain Christian Arabic and Armenian texts, many of which date to the earliest beginnings of Christianity.

Those who value these irreplaceable manuscripts are anxious to see them preserved through publication. According to Father Samir, this literature is in jeopardy because it is so vulnerable to damage and loss. He points out that much of it has already been lost forever as a result of civil war and the collateral damage to manuscript repositories.

Another reason to create a database of the archives and make it available to scholars and others, Samir says, is to foster Western appreciation for Christian Arabic literature. Peterson agrees, adding that this literature has been neglected because Arabic-speaking students focus their attention on Islamic studies, while students interested in Christian religious studies do not study Arabic, seeing it as an Islamic language and not realizing just how much early Christian literature was written in Arabic.

Because few Western scholars read Arabic (Peterson notes that a university chair or professorship devoted to Christian Arabic studies does not exist anywhere in the world), vast libraries of early Christian manuscripts remain unplumbed.

Jan Wilson, associate director of CPART, is one scholar who can appreciate the insights into Judeo-Christian theology that the Syriac material affords. For example, in working extensively with these ancient texts, he found that the word usually translated as ” eunuchs” in Matthew 19:12 actually means ” believers” in Aramaic—the language in which, according to many scholars, the Gospel of Matthew was originally composed. Wilson is hopeful that there are early Syriac texts in Lebanon that shed further light on other perplexing New Testament passages.

Although the Syriac project is worthwhile, questions remain about funding, logistics, and scope. Because the volume of material is so enormous, initial efforts would probably focus on selecting only enough material to fit on a single compact disc. Later work might entail digitally imaging more selections or producing an ongoing translation series in book form.

The Vatican

From Beirut, Peterson and Wilson traveled to Rome, Italy, to explore the possibility of imaging the excellent collection of ancient Syriac documents preserved in the Vatican Apostolic Library.

Father Bawai Soro, bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, helped open a dialogue between the CPART team and ecclesiastical authorities overseeing the Vatican archives. Although Peterson’ s and Wilson” s request received preliminary approval from the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity, the library must resolve pending legal issues before beginning a joint project with CPART.

” We were heartened by what we saw and excited about the possibility of working with them,” says Peterson, who describes the Vatican Library” s vast collections as ” an astonishing treasure of Christian and pagan documents, some of which go back many hundreds of years.”

The exploratory trip was an overall success in several respects. For one thing, the team learned that there is a vast amount of significant ancient Christian documents that merit preservation and scholarly attention through publication. The trip also established important personal and institutional ties that were possible only because of the favorable reputation BYU and FARMS enjoy as a result of their groundbreaking work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and related projects. In addition, the trip reconfirmed that the CPART team’ s expertise with modern imaging technology is in high demand and can continue to build bridges of understanding on unexpected fronts.

Peterson points out that the Syriac project in Beirut alone has so much potential that it will tax CPART” s limited resources and require fund-raising if the decision is made to pursue it.