January 12, 2018

A computer scientist, a Coptic scholar, and a librarian walk into the basement of the Morgan Library…


Manuscript of the New Testament in Coptic, containing the text of Acts 1:1-15:3, and, at the end, an illuminated cross

Nicholas Wade at the New York Times wrote earlier this week about a groudbreaking archival project currently underway at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. If all goes according to plan, a 1,500-year-old codex, known as the M.910 Codex, previously unreadable due to fire damage, will be made legible to scholars for the first time in centuries.

The project is a collaboration between Paul C. Dilley, a scholar of early Christianity; W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist; and Maria L. Fredericks, the Morgan’s chief book conservator.

For over a decade, Seales has been developing a technique using x-ray computed tomography, or CT scanning, to peer inside the pages of written materials (primarily scrolls) that are so old or damaged they cannot be opened or read. In much the same way that a CT scan can reveal the interior structure of the human body, Seales’s technique reveals the interior of a scroll or codex. By analyzing these CT images, Seales can model the unrolled surface and estimate the position of the inked markings on the page.

The technique was responsible for the 2016 decoding of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the so called Ein-Gedi scroll, a 2,000-year old lump of carbon many scholars had assumed would never be read.

Inspired by Seales’s success, Dilley approached him with a new challenge: to use this same technique on the M.910 Codex, which, since its arrival at the Morgan in 1962, its pages charred and fused by fire damage, had been condemned to obscurity, unlikely ever to be decoded.

Like some other codices, M.910 presents a unique challenge for Seales’s technique, for a deceptively simple reason: there’s writing on both sides of the parchment. Most scrolls will typically  have writing only on a single side, greatly simplifying the modelling process.

Contemporary example of Coptic-style codex

M.910 is of unique interest because it dates to a period in which the structure and composition of the New Testament gospels was still taking shaping, with various Gnostic, Coptic, Manichaean, and other writings competing with one another for canonical status. The codex itself is known to contain the Acts of the Apostles, which eventually became the fifth book of the New Testament, narrating the founding of the early Christian church. It likely also contains another text, and it is this text that has Dilley and other scholars of early Christianity curious, as it could provide another piece in the puzzle of the formation of the New Testament.

Of course, because we’re talking about a badly damaged, 1,500-year-old piece of goatskin, things are complicated. For one thing, the codex is in such bad shape that it can’t be transported from the Morgan. Fredericks, the conservator, showed Wade a whole dish of bits and pieces of the codex that had fallen off since it arrived. Seales would have to come to them.

And indeed he did! A small, borrowed CT scanner was brought to the Morgan, where it was promptly put to use. Scans were completed earlier in the year, and now it falls to Dilley and colleagues to cobble together readable pages from the muddle of tomographic objects.

Should be a good read, when it’s all finally ready.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.