In April 1999 Insights reported on negotiations between representatives of the Center for the Pre-servation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) at Brigham Young University and officials in Beirut, Lebanon, and at the Vatican Apostolic Library in Rome about digitally imaging ancient Syriac manuscripts for inclusion in CD-ROM databases. Since then agreements have been forged and work is under way.
Archives in Beirut, Lebanon
In March, FARMS executive director Daniel Oswald, traveling in Lebanon and acting on behalf of Brigham Young University and CPART, signed an agreement with Beirut's Notre Dame University that permits CPART to digitally image 350 religious manuscripts written in Syriac, the Christian form of Aramaic.
"This project grew out of a desire to preserve valuable manuscripts, since many of them have been lost or destroyed, even during this century," said Oswald. Another aim in digitizing the archive is to facilitate access to rare documents that are important to those whose cultural and religious heri-tages they represent and to scholars who are interested in early Christianity.
The Syriac archive contains scriptural texts, lectionaries (books of passages selected for daily scripture reading), histories, commentaries, and grammatical works, among other documents.
Several universities and some 50 monasteries in the Beirut area contain additional archives of rare religious texts written in Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, and Greek. CPART is negotiating agreements with Saint Joseph's University (whose Oriental library contains 1,600 Christian Arabic manuscripts) and the Armenian Catholic Monastery at Bzommar (which has 1,800 manuscripts, mostly in Armenian) to digitize their archives. CPART is also exploring the possibility of cooperating with institutions in other Middle Eastern countries to preserve important manuscript collections electronically.
According to E. Jan Wilson, associate director of CPART, the archives that CPART is initially focusing on are but a "drop in the bucket," so vast are the manuscript treasures preserved in Lebanon. And even his team's admirable rate (about 1,000 pages a day) of imaging the small portion of manuscripts allotted to them is a slow pace considering the months of work lying ahead. As a result, CPART director Daniel C. Peterson and Wilson hope to add another imaging team to their crew in order to expedite the project. In addition, they are willing to train people from universities and other institutions in digital imaging techniques so that the load can be shared.
Unlike FARMS's fully searchable and cross-linked Dead Sea Scrolls database, the Syriac database has been designed to simply store and display the digitized texts. Users will be able to view the pages onscreen and move through the material much as they would turn the pages of a book.
"There are tantalizing rumors of documents dating to the first century A.D.," Wilson said, "and we would like to be involved in helping bring them to the public." Christian-related texts of such early date are extremely rare because so very few biblical texts have survived to this day that date before A.D. 300, when Christian books were burned during the reign of Diocletian.
Archives in the Vatican Apostolic Library
Following negotiations begun in 1998, officials of the Vatican Apostolic Library met at the Vatican City with Oswald and Wilson, who had traveled to Rome to finalize and sign a contract on 20 March 2000. The agreement, signed by Oswald on behalf of BYU, authorizes CPART to digitize 28 ancient Syriac documents from the library's excellent collections. The digitized material will be included in a CD-ROM database that will be of particular interest to Syriac-speaking Christians and scholars studying the history of Christianity.
Because the Vatican previously had no formal relations with CPART, FARMS, or Brigham Young University, it had no protocol for dealing with Latter-day Saint scholars. However, scholars from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Pontifical Oriental Institute were familiar with Latter-day Saint contributions to Dead Sea Scrolls research, and the proposed project was further endorsed by the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity. In addition, His Grace Bawai Soro, Bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, helped open a dialogue between the CPART team and ecclesiastical authorities overseeing the Vatican archives.
Wilson made several trips to the Vatican to discuss the project with Father Don Rafaele Farina, prefect of the library, and with Bishop Soro and in order to select texts that will appeal to Syriac-speaking Christians from both Eastern and Western traditions, whose language and heritage are being lost because their communities are scattered.
Because different Syriac Christian communities already share a standard Bible (the Peshitta), the material selected for imaging does not include Bible texts. Rather, the texts consist of homilies, scriptural commentaries, and historical documents dealing with religious figures.
"This will be the first time that LDS scholars have participated in publishing manuscripts from the Vatican," said Oswald. "I am hopeful that our work on this project we will lead to further opportunities to do projects with the Vatican."
The CD-ROM will be copublished by CPART and the Vatican Apostolic Library and will be similar to the powerful electronic Dead Sea Scrolls database produced by CPART and FARMS.