By: Mark W. Gaither
Our first expedition for 2023 took a small team to the Museum of the Bible storage facility in Oklahoma City, where we imaged several manuscripts and fragments. This included GA 2813, a 13th century manuscript containing the Gospels of Luke and John, once owned by Dr. Charles Ryrie. It also happens to be one of the first manuscripts digitally preserved by CSNTM twenty years ago.
Dr. Ryrie purchased the manuscript from a dealer in New York sometime prior to 1985 and took a year to identify the text and reassemble the pages in their proper order. The binding had long since disintegrated so that the document could best be described as a stack of loose pages and quires (groups of sheets, usually eight, folded and sewn together to make 16 pages). After acquiring the manuscript, the Museum of the Bible team detected mold on it. As part of their conservation and preservation, they treated the document to halt the spread and kill any spores. Even so, they recommended we wear masks and nitrile gloves as a precaution. The poor condition of the book made imaging a challenge in 2003; despite the Museum’s great care, the extra 20 years of deterioration made it even more difficult in 2023.
We were impressed by how well the Museum of the Bible stewards these ancient treasures of biblical heritage. They invest generously in temperature- and humidity-controlled facilities and recruit staff who take a personal interest in conservation and preservation. Despite their valiant efforts, time is not kind to organic materials. Our experience with GA 2813 reminded us again that this is why we must digitally preserve New Testament manuscripts! And the Museum of the Bibles shares our perspective.
The commitment to digital preservation comes at some cost of wear on the artifacts, but they recognize this as an investment in the future of the manuscript. Once a document has been digitized, and the images posted online, no one need touch the manuscript again for years. It can be examined up-close digitally by unlimited people without damaging to the artifact.
We were especially excited to preserve GA 2813 with our updated system. When Dr. Wallace started CSNTM, he used state-of-the-art equipment: a 4-megapixel digital camera mounted on a tripod. Just for perspective, the iPhone 14 released in 2022 includes a 12-megapixel camera! Today, we use a 150-megapixel camera to digitize manuscripts.
In the twenty years since we first imaged GA 2813, we have learned that excellent digital preservation requires more than a good camera. Proper lighting is crucial to preserving the true color of the artifact, which is very important information to conservators. Most ambient room lighting uses “soft white” bulbs, which emit a warm yellow light that’s less harsh and more pleasant. But this kind of light also affects how eyes—and cameras—perceive color. To see an object with “true” color, we need direct sunlight, or something that mimics sunlight. Today, we choose a dark room illuminated only with 5000K Correlated Color Temperature lighting.
We also ensure that the entire shooting space is evenly lit to avoid shadows, which can affect the perception of color.
Then, to make sure our lighting conditions are just right, we include a color target for reference.
A color target includes patches of color samples that have been measured in a lab under strict lighting conditions with their precise color values inscribed on the instrument. When the target is included with an object, it provides a stable reference against which the object’s colors can be measured. So, if the same manuscript is photographed 20 years later, a conservator can see how much the ink has faded or if the parchment has discolored over time.
Another crucial factor is staging, how the object is positioned, held in place, and framed by the camera. Proper staging allows the camera to view the object in its most natural state without causing extra damage. Ideally, the images will show the manuscript exactly as one would see it in person. However, many bound manuscripts don’t remain open on their own; they have to be propped open. In the old days, we used gloved or bare hands or weighted “snakes.” Later, we used clear acrylic rods because they are less intrusive. Today, if permitted, we use a clear pane of specially treated, non-glare, static-resistant glass. When holding institutions forbid the use of glass, we use a strip of clear plastic to hold the pages open.
We also image the document one page at a time instead of fully opening the document and imaging left and right pages together as we did in the early days. This creates less stress on the binding, especially for tightly bound books, and allows us to bring the camera closer to the object. A closer camera creates higher-resolution images. We then create a composite image using the individual shots of the right and left pages.
In the case of GA 2813, the conservators approved our use of glass, which greatly improves the quality of the images and requires much less handling of the object. However, comparisons show that the manuscript binding has continued to disintegrate. Many quires (groupings of sheets) have become loose pages. So, in some cases, the newer images are less attractive than those taken in 2003. To the trained eye, however, the new images are vastly superior. The uncompressed, full-size images (unlike those displayed here in the blog) allow for incredible zooming.
For example, the image on the left (below) is a 5/8” inch square section of the upper left side of page 73A. Because the ink lacks sharpness, one might think the image is out of focus, but notice the fibers of the binding thread. The image shows that the ink appears to lack sharpness because parchment resists the absorption of ink.
The image on the right shows an extreme closeup of the beginning of John’s Gospel. The embellished epsilon is the first letter of the Greek word, “en,” which begins his declaration, En arche, “In the beginning…”
Having the ability to zoom in gives scholars the ability to examine manuscripts in far greater detail than if they viewed the books in person. And with high-resolution images, they can view them for hours without causing further damage to these priceless treasures.
We’ve come a very long way in just 20 years. As the technology of digital preservation has advanced, CSNTM has remained on the cutting edge to provide the best resources for New Testament scholars. And we have you to thank!
Thank you for helping to preserve the words of the New Testament. This work ensures that scholars have the best information, which in turn ensures that modern versions of the New Testament remain faithful to the words written two thousand years ago.
Following a fifteen-year career as an engineer, Mark W. Gaither earned a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, where he discovered his love for teaching and writing. After graduation, Mark served as a collaborative writer and editor for several notable Christian authors. Today, he is the Chief Operating Officer at CSNTM. Mark and his wife, Charissa, reside in Frisco, Texas and have four adult children—Lauren, Parker, Robert, and Heather.