Out of Egypt

by   |  03.14.11  |  Church History, Sabbatical, St. Catherine's, Translation

Dr. Jeff W. Childers, Carmichael-Walling Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, offers some reflections on his recent trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai:

Out of Egypt

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For a book nerd like me, it was a dream come true. In my hands I held a volume whose well-thumbed margins had grown dark from generations of reverent use. Scattered across the table-top in front of me were numerous fragments from books that had fared less well, bearing the scars of centuries—tears, stains, and the accretion of desert soil. Some had only recently come to light; some were even awaiting identification.

After years of expectation, months of planning, and weeks of uncertainty due to the precarious political situation in Egypt, in late February 2011 I had journeyed at last to Mount Sinai, as the latest in a long stream of pilgrims searching for wisdom in ancient texts from the holy mountain.

Jeff at the summit of Jebel Musa (Mount Sinai), 2500 ft. above the monastery.

St. Catharine’s is the oldest Christian monastery in the world still in use for its initial purpose. Its library is nearly unparalleled—only the Vatican has more ancient Christian manuscripts. This remote outpost of Christian learning and desert spirituality, set in the arid climate of the Sinai wilderness, turned out to be well suited for the preservation of books written there and from other places. Bible students everywhere have heard the story of Tischendorf’s 19th-century “discovery” at St. Catharine’s of the celebrated Codex Sinaiticus, containing the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Yet the monks of St. Catharine’s are the guardians of many other extraordinary texts as well, and it was to gain a look at some of these that my research brought me to Mount Sinai.

Father Justin recounts tales of the monastery’s extraordinary library.

Along with manuscripts in many other languages the Library holds a remarkable collection of Syriac texts. A dialect of Aramaic, Syriac is a language used by a number of early Christian communities throughout the middle-east. Today Syriac-speaking Christians are still proud to have Jesus’ native language as their own mother tongue and language of worship. Among the many original texts and translations that survive in Syriac, the versions of John Chrysostom’s 5th-century commentary on the New Testament have caught my attention—especially his homiletic commentary on the Gospel of John. Despite their early date and rich content, the Syriac manuscripts of this patristic commentary have never been edited, translated, and published, much less thoroughly studied. But in order to make them available to a wider readership, it is necessary first to gather the data from their ancient resting places in various places around the world—including the archives of St. Catharine’s monastery. The Sinai collection includes several manuscripts containing portions of the commentary, some of which have only recently come to light as part of the monastery’s “New Finds,” that are still in the process of being catalogued.

Jeff and daughter Rebekah in front of St. Catharine’s Monastery.

Upon learning of my interest in the collection, the Archbishop and the Holy Council of Fathers invited me to visit Sinai and use the Library. With the gracious and capable assistance of the librarian, Father Justin, I spent many hours poring over parchment books and fragments copied centuries ago, drinking in their biblical meditations, transcribing the texts, comparing them to each other and to texts found elsewhere. As a bonus, my daughter Rebekah accompanied me to St. Catharine’s, where she conducted interviews of the monks, gathering living data for her senior Honors capstone project at ACU on “Thin Places and Holy Sites.” Each day we worked side by side in the venerable monastery, taking advantage of prescribed breaks to join the monks for worship, to enjoy the art and gardens of the monastery, to become better acquainted with the local Bedouins, and to climb the rugged Mount Sinai (7498 ft.) together. It was an unforgettable and enriching experience.

Jeff attempts to decipher tattered Syriac fragments of the ancient commentary text.

As for the Syriac Chrysostom, it will be some time before I can assess and prepare all the data for eventual publication, yet it is already apparent that the evidence from Sinai is even richer than I had supposed. I am grateful to the monks, and for the financial support of ACU and the Loeb Classical Foundation that helped make the trip possible. But I am especially grateful for the faith of Christians of long ago, whose diligent labors in copying and preserving these ancient books has ensured that the testimony of past believers may still edify us today.

Dr. Jeff Childers
Carmichael-Walling Chair of NT and Early Christianity
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699