Ancient Bible Manuscript Meets Space-Age Technology
COMPUTER enhancement, the technology used in producing clear pictures of the surface of the Moon or Mars, has been used to bring back to life the obscure writings on an ancient Bible manuscript.
The manuscript in question was discovered in 1892 at the St. Catherine monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is a late second- or early third-century copy of a translation of the four Gospels into Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, which was a language commonly spoken in Jesus’ day. Some scholars believe the translation was made possibly as early as the end of the first century.
For a long time, efforts to decipher it had been unsuccessful. The problem was that it is an erased manuscript, or a palimpsest. The parchment had been cleaned off by later scribes and a new document written on it. With the passage of time, however, the residual chemicals from the ink had left behind a faint trace of what was there originally.
This is where computer-enhancement technology came in. First, each page of the manuscript was photographed. Then the images were digitized. A computer analyzed a tiny bit of the image at a time and assigned to it a number corresponding to its density. A white spot—zero density—was assigned the number zero, for example, and progressively darker spots were assigned higher numbers. Once this was done, any portion of the image could be made to look darker or lighter simply by assigning a new number to it. Thus it was possible to fade out the writing on top and intensify the writing underneath. Through such a selective process, what had been hidden for centuries finally came to light.
What Is There to See?
What do the researchers hope to gain by this elaborate project? Of course, any manuscript of the Gospels this old is always of immense interest to Bible scholars. Perhaps it would shed some new light on the Bible text as we have it today.
One point of interest is the ending of Mark. Does it end with Mark 16:8, or are there additional verses as in a number of other ancient manuscripts? If Mark 16:8 appeared at the end of a page, then it would be conceivable that there were more verses on a missing page. The computer-enhanced page shows Mark 16:8 at the middle of the left-hand column. Then there is a row of little circles followed by a little space and below that the beginning of Luke. This shows clearly where the book ended. No page or verses were missing.
There were some differences in the text that might contribute to Scriptural study. But, by and large, there were no surprises. This, however, is not a loss. It merely demonstrates that the Bible text as we have it today is essentially the same as what the original writers put down. The space-age technology bridged the gap of some 19 centuries to show us that Jehovah God is not only the Great Inspirer of the Holy Scriptures but also its Preserver.