The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery

The Egypt Independent has a fascinating account of the process underway now to digitize the first-millennium manuscripts housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. Writer James Purtill interviewed the librarian, a native Texan named Father Justin, about the task of preserving thousands of priceless books and the new library under construction, which he hopes to write about on the monastery blog when it opens.

Every morning [Fr. Justin] attends the 4:30 am service — which has not changed its liturgy since AD 550 — and then climbs six flights of stairs to his office in the east wing of the three-story administrative building forming the back wall of St. Catherine’s Monastery. He powers up the G5 and passes the morning making digital photographs of scripture written on papyrus, written on animal hide and written with ink made from oak tree galls. “It’s amazing, the juxtaposition,” is how he puts it.

A page that may have taken a bent-backed monk weeks to illuminate is clamped under the bellows of the 48MP CCD camera. Snap. Next page. It takes three or four days to do a whole book. There are about 3,300 manuscripts.

Although there are various standard versions of the Bible, these are based on a quicksilver, volatile mass of ancient transcribed scripts that never entirely agree. The scholars trace the genealogies of texts to find the points where the texts diverge and converge. In theory, they should converge on the oldest known text: in the case of the Epistles of St. Paul, that’s about AD 100. But even this original text is only a copy; in effect, the scholars are sifting the scriptural waters for the breath of a saint.

“Paul didn’t even write his epistles. He dictated them and sent them to the Ephesians. And he said, ‘When you finish with this, exchange it for the letter I sent to the other church.’ In AD 100 all these letters were gathered together,” says Father Justin. “There are always differences — you never see the same script twice. The differences are always very important,” he says.

Read “In St. Catherine, monastery seeks permanence through technology” by James Purtill in the Egypt Independent. (HT: A Reluctant Sinner)