A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Fighting over Manuscripts in the Digital Age: The Blockbuster

It’s a common plot of novels and movies:  while the superstitious public clings to outdated religious beliefs, people in power compete for access to ancient manuscripts which reveal the powerful, if shocking, truth about the past. Think The DaVinci CodeIndiana Jones movies. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Irving Wallace’s The Word.

In these examples, the fight is over old, dusty manuscripts found in monasteries, under floors, or in the desert.  In the future, however, the battle over ancient texts may be fought with PhotoShop instead.

Monks at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, are attempting to digitize biblical manuscripts owned by monasteries around the world.


An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s, directed by Father Columba Stewart:

Since Father Stewart became director, in 2003, he has overseen the imaging of some 17,500 manuscripts. Over the decades, the museum has made a photographic record of more than 110,000 manuscripts—an estimated 35 million pages’ worth—shifting from microfilm to digital imaging as the technology has evolved. Lately it has run 15 to 20 projects a year. “The coming years may find us involved in fewer, more complex projects,” Father Stewart says. “It’s hard to say which doors will open.”

Each on-site digitizing studio is staffed by local people whom the museum trains and pays to do the work. It also buys equipment locally whenever it can; once a project has been completed, that equipment remains with the community. Copies of the hard drives containing the images are sent to the museum and their contents added to its archive for anyone to see and study. The manuscripts stay with their owners.

The goal is to make sure that the manuscripts survive.

The museum keeps copies not just on the hard drives from each project but on its server, on tape backups, and in remote storage—including “a tunnel dug into a mountain in Utah next to where the Mormons have their stuff,” Stewart says. “That’s kind of our ‘Mad Max’ scenario, which may be a little silly.”

I can see the movie now.  The earth has been devastated (by global warming, nuclear bombs, aliens, or the advancement of the Mayan calendar–your pick).  Every print Bible in the world has been turned to dust.  All that remains of Scripture is contained on the hard drives buried in Utah.  Scholars and religious leaders fight to gain access to these archives, publicly promising to reconstruct the Bible but secretly intending to alter it in ways that serve their interests. The feminist professor wants beef up the roles that Miriam and Mary Magdalene play in the story.  Warmongers want to show the warmer side of Joshua. Vegetarians, pacificists, ascetics, yogists–all plot to get their photo-editing hands on these files.  A subplot of PCs vs. macs will develop, maybe even a few unlikely romantic entanglements.

As in most movies, the team with the nerdiest computer geek will probably win.

2 Responses to Fighting over Manuscripts in the Digital Age: The Blockbuster

  • With all the stress of this time of year in the seminary, I appreciated that dose of humor. And I agree: the team with the nerdiest computer geek will probably win… ;D

    What I’d like to see done with these manuscripts is not just “come and study with us,” but a full digital archive released to the Internet, making them accessible to the whole world. I’m sure with a bit of ingenuity (for example, a digital signature based based on several metrics of a file), it would be possible to protect them from any easy alterations…

    Working in the seminary library, I’m conscious of the way in which media/digital standards continue to change. Microfilm may last hundreds of years if it’s created properly, but who can open a WordPerfect 4.2 file anymore? (Who remembers WordPerfect 4.2 under DOS?) Hard drives depend on magnetic media… something easily corrupted by a strong enough magnetic field. No one has lived long enough to test the claims made by the makers of archival CD media regarding the longevity of their products…

    I applaud the efforts of the monks at St. John’s. And I hope that someone has an eye on the evolving nature of digitization so that there work doesn’t get stuck in its own dust bin of history.

  • what if we started telling the stories of the bible to each other so much that we remembered them? or maybe we could all take turns memorizing sections of it in our congregations so that the entire congregation knew the whole thing together?:-*

    i guess the hard-drive thing saves time and all that talking and thinking together . . . god forbid!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.