Henry Miller, in his 1941 travelogue of Greece said, “The greatest single impression which Greece made upon me is that it is a man-sized world.”* After a second summer spent at the National Library of Greece with CSNTM, I think I understand what Miller meant. Each day as I sat in front of my computer, ensuring that we faithfully and clearly preserved the smallest details of the manuscripts my partner held, each page, each leaf, each line of text, each marginal note or scribble, the human-sized nature of the work we do became inscribed in my mind.Manuscript digitization, like manuscript creation, is slow, detailed work. No leaf, no jot of text, no scribble gets left out of a manuscript shoot.”
Manuscript digitization, like manuscript creation, is slow, detailed work. No leaf, no jot of text, no scribble gets left out of a manuscript shoot. Sometimes this feels tedious: Yet another page of text like all the other hundreds of pages in a day! However, from this very tedium sometimes the most arresting details emerge.
In one Revelation manuscript—a relatively late manuscript, at that!—after pages upon pages of gentle modern script, we arrived upon Revelation 13. There in the margins, we noticed a panoply of numbers, seemingly in the same hand that had copied the manuscript. Each of the numbers were set in a vertical line underneath headings, and totaled like a math problem at the bottom. The total of each of the numbers was 666, corresponding to Revelation 13:18, “let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666” (ESV). The scribe seemed to have taken leave of copying the manuscript to “calculate the number of the beast,” figuring from the corresponding number values of different Greek words and names the identity of this beast. It seems that 16th century Greek scribes were not so different from those in our own day seeking keys to the future in the pages of the Apocalypse!
What struck me most was the insight this offered into the life of this scribe, and the scribe’s world. This scribe likely had anxieties, hopes, and fears, and went to the text of the scriptures for hope. There in these speculative math problems that would never make it into a critical text or commentary was a clue to the interpretive environment of the scribe, and the role this scribe played in handing on the scriptures to another generation of anxious, fearful, and at times hopeful readers of Revelation.
This is why the work of CSNTM matters to me, why I take most of my vacation time to sit in front of a computer in the windowless basement of a foreign library: each manuscript is a human-sized world. Each one is unique, each one represents the work of a scribe that spent time and care to preserve the text of scripture for another reader. It’s human-sized work that in its small way connects me and those who read the texts of scripture to the great tradition of scripture, that doesn’t drop out of the sky to us, but comes to us because some scribe copied John’s Revelation from Patmos, and a long chain of scribes did their same human-sized work through the ages. The scriptures are human-sized, but contain an entire world. The images of CSNTM deliver these human-sized worlds to the whole world.
*Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (New York: New Directions, 1941), 205.