A few years ago when I was in college, one of my professors organized a small group of interested students and took us up to the Cleveland art museum. The purpose of our visit, a touring exhibit of religious artifacts from medieval Europe, was interesting, but that wasn’t what lured me there. It was the museum’s permanent collection of illuminated manuscripts.
These manuscripts date from the Middle Ages. Every page was carefully copied by hand, and they didn’t just stop there. Illuminating a manuscript with (real) gold, silver, and bright colors in illustrations and elaborate first letters turned them into works of art. The sort of books you took the time to create like this were held in high value (many are religious texts).
It’s no secret I love books. But most of the books on my shelves are, in the strictest sense, disposable and replaceable. They were impersonally mass-printed in a factory. Any meaning that particular copy has is unique to me. But for the handwritten manuscripts each copy is unique. They’re irreplaceable. And they were created with love.
That’s also true of the ancient writings I saw yesterday. The Ancient Hebrew Scroll Project is one of only 2 or 3 complete sets of the Tanakh (Old Testament), and it’s the only one you’ll ever have a chance to see. It tours in public and there’s never any admission fee. The oldest scroll is a 600 year old Torah. Others are around 250 years old, with the exception of some scrolls too rare to obtain old copies (those are newly commissioned). Several survived the Holocaust, including a Haftorah that was bayoneted six times by Nazis.
Every single Bible scroll, the new and the old, was created the same way. Two Levites stand holding a completed scroll open before a scribe. The scribe reads one word aloud, then writes it using a pen made from a turkey feather dipped in ink made from gall nuts, gum-Arabic, and ash. He does this for every single word with the exception of the YHWH name of God. For this word, he will not speak it aloud and before writing it he washes his hands and takes up a pen only used to write the Name.
Once the scroll is finished, the scribe counts every letter to make sure it adds up to the correct number for that scroll. If it passes that test, he gives it to another scribe for re-counting, spell-checking, and format inspection. If that scribe gives it the go-ahead, it’s given to another scribe. Only after two scribes double-check the first scribe’s work is the scroll kosher.
“So what?” some people ask. Who cares about hand-writing things like this in the age of computers? And yet this is how the Bible was preserved intact and unchanged for thousands of years. It’s the only way any writing from pre-1440 got passed down to us. There’s something about the process itself that lends meaning to the books and scrolls created with such careful attention.
New, fast, and disposable isn’t always better. There’s value in taking time to pour love and great care into something that will last. That’s one of the lessons the old writings teach us. They give us a chance to stop and ponder what we value. Something preserved in this way has to matter or it’s not worth taking the time.
If there were no computers or printing presses any more, which writings would you value highly enough to copy by hand letter by letter so nothing was lost?