Archive for ‘Translation’

August in England

by   |  09.01.11  |  Church History, Sabbatical, 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 research trip to England:

August in England


I can think of several good reasons to go to England in August:  For one thing, it is cooler. Whereas the high temperatures in Abilene, Texas during the first week of August were consistently around 106º, the same week in Oxford, England saw highs between about 70º–82º. The hills are green and there are trees. The culture is delightfully diverse, and the food equally so. Also, there is no better place to have a Will-and-Kate sighting than England.

But none of these things drew me to England this time. Instead, I was lured there by two of my favorite things: old libraries and ancient manuscripts. Surprising as it may seem, the U.K. is home to some of the world’s great collections of ancient Syriac manuscripts.

As you may recall, Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, still in use today but flourishing especially in Christian communities in the Middle East during the 3rd–13th centuries. Many old Syriac texts survive and remain to be studied, but these days I am especially interested in the 5th-century Syriac translation of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on the Gospel of John. With the help of ACU and the Loeb Classical Foundation, I am preparing this lengthy text for publication and translating it into English in order to make it available to a wider readership. But that requires getting my hands on the manuscripts themselves—thereby explaining this year’s travels to St Catharine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, the Vatican Library, and now several libraries in the U.K.

Jeff at the British Library, London

First on the list is the British Library in London (BL), home to 10 of the surviving manuscripts, whose dates span the 6th–13th centuries. In fact, the BL has hundreds of very old Syriac manuscripts. This is thanks to Moses of Nisibis, a 10th-century monk who collected Syriac books when he was traveling to Baghdad in order to ask the caliph for tax breaks. He acquired many old manuscripts along the way, bringing them back to his monastery at Wadi al-Natrun (Scetis) in the Egyptian desert, where they stayed until most of them were relocated to European libraries in the 18th and 19th centuries. The BL ended up with the largest portion, by far. The oldest dated biblical manuscript in existence —in any language—is a Syriac manuscript of the Pentateuch from this collection, now residing in the BL.

I spent many hours poring over the Syriac Chrysostom in the Asian & African Studies reading room, taking breaks only to grab a quick lunch in the Library café with my friend and colleague, Bill Rankin. Bill was also conducting research in the BL, working on—appropriately enough—the history of the book. Alongside several long and fairly complete manuscripts that I needed at the BL, I was also able to look at a recently identified fragment that had originally been part of a larger manuscript at St. Catharine’s Monastery.

Jeff at the University of Birmingham, England

The other known piece of that same manuscript brought me to the second library on my list, that of the University of Birmingham. Though my time there was brief, it came with an extra treat: staying at a hotel adjacent to the Cadbury Chocolate factory in suburban Bournville. The aroma was caloric.

Naturally, I also spent time in Oxford. But although I was briefly in Oxford’s Bodleian Library—and in the world’s oldest continuously functioning Library at my own Merton College—my time at Oxford was dominated by the International Conference on Patristic Studies, where I read a paper about my recent work and sought feedback from other Syriacists and Chrysostom-specialists. Their input was very helpful.

Merton College Library, Mob Quad, Oxford

Since my alma mater had none of the manuscripts I needed, I left Oxford and went to The Other Place and the third library on my list, the resting place of two fairly late Syriac manuscripts awaiting my inspection. Although the manuscripts turned out not to be as useful as I hoped, the library staff were very helpful and quite nice.

Cambridge University Library

After several airplane flights and train journeys, I now have all the manuscript data I need to finish work on my project! Now I need only the time, the energy, and the focus. Somehow Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton College and Queen Elizabeth’s Greek tutor, was able to find time while translating the King James Version of the Bible to publish in 1610 a massive 8-volume folio edition of Chrysostom’s works in Greek, “the first major work of patristic scholarship to be published in England”[1] and “the one great work of Renaissance scholarship carried out in England.”[2] While I don’t expect the modest Chrysostom project of this Mertonian to have quite the same impact as Savile’s opus, his work inspires me to get it done!

As Chrysostom himself exhorts near the beginning of his Commentary on John, “Let us give diligent attention to the book that is laid open before us…” (Memra 2.11). His ancient meditations on John lay open before me, and as I read and translate them line-by-line, I am learning the truth of his insistence that the hard work of constant digging in the study of sacred things pays off in the discovery of pure gold for the soul (Memra 40.1).

Jeff in the British Library—relaxing, or happily shackled to the books?


[1] Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity. The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford: University Press, 2009), 405.

[2] Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries. The Making of the King James Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 167.

Sojourn in the Eternal City

by   |  04.19.11  |  Church History, Sabbatical, 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 the Vatican Library in Rome:

Sojourn in the Eternal City


Romipetae they called them—‘Rome-seekers:’ determined pilgrims crossing land and sea to reach the Eternal City, in hopes of receiving some benefit by visiting its holy places and communing with its sacred relics. Such a traveler was I.

Jeff in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City

In April 2011 I went to Rome, seeking the relics of John Chrysostom—but not the great preacher’s old bones, entombed in the Chapel of the Choir in St. Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill. Instead, I sought a different sort of relic, yards away from the Basilica. I wanted to get closer to the Golden Voice itself, by reading the words of Chrysostom preserved in ancient manuscripts housed in the Pope’s own library.

Exterior of the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana

Boasting the world’s greatest collection of ancient Christian texts, the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) reopened in September 2010 after a three-year closure for restoration work. The reopening cleared the way for me to request access to the Syriac manuscripts of Chrysostom’s works archived among the Library’s many treasures. Following on the heels of my sojourn at St. Catharine’s Monastery in February, my journey to Rome in April was the second leg of a quest to gather the surviving textual data of Chrysostom’s 5th-century Commentary on the Gospel of John in Syriac and prepare them for publication.

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, still in use today but flourishing especially in Christian communities in the Middle East during the 3rd–13th centuries. Among the many Syriac texts that survive, manuscripts with the Syriac version of Chrysostom’s Commentary on John are very old but have never been edited, translated, or published. The goal of my project is to make these texts available to a wider readership, but first I must visit the various libraries where these literary relics now reside, study the manuscripts, and collect the texts. The support of ACU and the Loeb Classical Foundation has provided me the time and financial resources I need to make these pilgrimages.

Reading Room, BAV

The restored BAV is a lovely place to work, providing a marvelous environment in which to meditate on the eloquent words of the Golden Mouth as he explicates scripture. ‘Great is the profit from the divine scriptures and unending help comes from them,’ opens one of his homilies partly preserved in the manuscript Vatican Syriac 253, ‘for the divine sayings are a treasury of all sorts of medicines.’ As Chrysostom goes on to examine the account of the paralytic’s healing in John 5, he celebrates the beauty of the passage and administers its pastoral benefits to his audience—including one late-comer, a 21st-century researcher from the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University.

Leaf from 6th-7th century Syriac manuscript of Chrysostom

Chrysostom’s exegeses and preaching are marked by his devotion to Christ’s example, by passionate indictment against those who abuse authority, whether political or ecclesiastical, and by a relentless insistence that wealth pleases God only to the extent that it is used to relieve suffering and restore peace. At his affluent church in Constantinople, the capital of the emerging Byzantine Empire, these themes caused trouble for John among the rich and powerful. Largely due to his fiery preaching, he was banished from the pulpit, dying in exile as he journeyed to far-off Georgia in 407. He certainly never traveled to Rome—at least, not until manuscripts bearing his words made their way to the city, words destined to long outlive the deeds of his persecutors.

More than the remains of his mortal body, carried to Rome after Crusaders pinched them from Constantinople in 1204, I find the manuscript relics of Chrysostom’s teaching better preserve the force of his passion. He deserves the widest possible audience. Soon I hope to be able to expand his hearing by making available these remarkable texts in their Syriac version.

Jeff and his wife Linda tour Ancient Rome

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


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