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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C
# let's get biblical
One of the oldest surviving copies of all four Gospels is in Dublin
The manuscripts are believed to have been discovered in Egypt in 1929.

IT’S NOT EXACTLY where you’d expect to find the oldest surviving copy of all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

CBL BP II, ff.15r (left) & 90r (right) The Chester Beatty Library Part of St Paul's letters to the Romans, Philippians and Colossians. The Chester Beatty Library

One of Dublin’s gems of a museum, the Chester Beatty Library, has got one of the oldest and most unusual collections of Biblical manuscripts in the world – which, given the weekend that’s in it, could be something to go see if you’re looking for an alternative to overdosing on Easter eggs.

As well as the gospels, there are also large portions of St Paul’s letters, parts of the Book of Revelation, and an account of Jesus’ crucifixation by John the evangelist.

All four gospels and the Acts of Apostle are in a codex (which mean in book form), something that is unique to early Christian writers – many other classical texts from the same time would have been written on a scroll.

The manuscripts are believed to have been discovered in Egypt in 1929, and are all written on papyrus.

BP_19_001b Chester Beatty Library The Gospel of St John Chester Beatty Library

The texts all date back to the 2nd century: St Paul’s letters have been dated to around 200 AD, while part of the Gospel texts come from between 150-200 AD, showing how early the Christian Bible was put together by followers of Jesus.

One of the things that makes the library’s collections unusual is that they were all acquired by one person.

“In large museums, the texts would often have been acquired over a long period of time by different collectors, or after being donated by different people,” explains Jill Unkle, the curator of Western collections.

It is unusual, but you have to think about the time that Chester Beatty was building up his collection. Back in the early 20th century, museums didn’t really have the funds that they do now. They’d often have been competing with millionaires in auctions.

Beatty, who made his fortune by building a huge mining company, was cautious once he set his sights on the texts, which had ended up in a dealer’s shop in Cairo. Beatty, who had good relations with dealers in the city, got wind of the find quite early, had a look, and send some coded telegrams to researchers in the British Museum who acted as his advisors.

“The researchers sent a coded telegram back saying that it was an excellent find and that he should definitely acquire them,” explains Unkle.

The people who come to see the manuscripts – which are on view for free – come for a mixture of historical and religious reasons. “You get both,” says Unkle.

The documents have been photographed and put online – “it’s a huge project” – by a team in Texas, in order to make them viewable to a wider audience – and to those who may want to see how a little library in Dublin ended up with one of the strongest collection of biblical manuscripts in the world.

The man behind the collection 

Chester Beatty was born in New York in 1875 before moving to Ireland in 1950 and building a library for his art collection.

Not a lot of people came to see the collection at first – it was on Shrewsbury Road, slightly outside the city centre and surrounded by residential areas – but after his death, the board appointed to look after the collection decided to move to a more central location.

“He’d spent so much time and effort on the collection and building up his knowledge about these things, he didn’t just want to donate it to a museum and have it dispersed among the various collections, or wind up just sitting in a store room, he wanted it to be together,” explains Unkle.

In the 1990s, the board appointed to look after the collection found a spot in Dublin  Castle, sold the plot on Shrewsbury Road, and moved. The purpose-built gallery opened in 2000.

The Chester Beatty Library is open every day over Easter. Admission is free. 

Read: Demand for tickets to ‘blasphemous’ Bible play breaks website > 

Read: US retailer says sorry for labelling the Bible ‘fiction’ > 

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