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Patmos 2007 Expedition

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (a.k.a. the Center for the Research of Early Christian Documents) exists for the purpose of digitally preserving ancient copies of the New Testament, patristic writings, and the Old Testament. Such preservation efforts serve multiple purposes: First and foremost, it allows monasteries and other institutes that possess these sacred treasures to direct visitors to the digital images rather than to the actual manuscripts, thereby preserving the manuscripts by minimal handling. Second, it enables scholars to examine the manuscripts and work toward determining the wording of the original text. Up until recently, scholars needed to examine the manuscripts either directly or, far more often, by microfilm. The first avenue of access is quite expensive, and the second involves poor quality representation, often illegible. With digital photography, now these images are significantly better. (The images in this report, however, were reduced in size, lessening their quality significantly.) Third, it preserves a very important aspect of our ancient heritage, and makes accessible to a broad audience these early artifacts. By so doing, we all can have stronger links to the past, which should give us a much deeper appreciation for those dedicated scribes who have gone before us. When we begin to see how patiently they copied out the scriptures we get a sense of the importance of the Word of God—an importance that transcends time. This link to the past should remind us all how vital a knowledge of scripture is for the Christian faith.

Although the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) has only been in existence five years, it already some significant accomplishments, including the high-resolution digital photography of more than 60,000 images and the discovery of more than three dozen manuscripts.

Our work of digitally preserving ancient New Testament manuscripts continued in the summer of 2007. The first team for the summer went to Patmos; the second team went to an eastern European country. (We will bring the full report of that second expedition later.) The Patmos team consisted of four people including Dr. Daniel B. Wallace (founder and executive director of CSNTM), Emmanuel Guegain, Billy Todd, and Andrew Wallace. We went to the Mediterranean with several goals in mind. Our group included not only students of the Greek Bible, but a videographer (Andrew) as well. The cast left Dallas at a very early hour one June day and flew to Athens by way of Philadelphia.

Packing for the Trip

In a previous expedition to Patmos we experienced a number of difficulties when we were in Athens. All were related to the taxi service. Athens taxi drivers like to bungee cord everything in an open trunk in the back of a Corolla. With the expensive equipment that we bring, this is unacceptable. Last year, we argued extensively with the taxi drivers about this, finally having our way but only after some heated squabbling. Even with this victory in place, the taxi drivers would go up to 100 miles an hour, risking life and limb through heavy traffic. This year we determined that the best solution was to get a shuttle service, providing better security for the equipment and a lot fewer worries. Once we deplaned, however, we couldn’t find the shuttle van. We were looking for a 10-seat van. In the end the confusion resulted from the fact that the shuttle van was actually a 51-passenger bus! We traveled in style since it was only the four of us on the large bus (complete with plush seats, real air conditioning, and a bathroom). No extra charge, either. Needless to say, we did not have to worry about getting all of the equipment across town safely and in a single trip.

Our ‘little’ shuttle van!

Once in Athens we were able to spend a couple of days between the flight and the first available ferry ride to Patmos. The time was used to decompress and prepare for the work ahead. This ended up providing an opportunity to see some of the many historical sites in Athens. A Dallas Seminary alumnus, Jeff Baldwin, now heads up a Bible Institute in Athens. He graciously provided the school’s van and met the team at one of the train stations on the outskirts of Athens. We then spent the day at Corinth. Also joining us on the excursion to Corinth was noted scholar Daniel Block and his wife.

Emmanuel Guegain in front of the Bema in Corinth (Acts 18:12-16)

Getting to Patmos

The only way to get to Patmos is by boat, ferry in our case. The ferries to Patmos depart from Athens only on certain days of the week. We’re sure that the view would have been breathtaking, but we didn’t get to see it. We left at midnight on Saturday for the eight-hour trip. Once on board, we looked out at the murky waters and saw some lights in the distance every once in a while. But all was too dark to really get a good view of the beauties of the Aegean. We went into our cabins for some shuteye. We faced the difficult task of hauling 15 pieces of luggage on board. Even with this large burden, it was very important to get on the ferry quickly or be left behind. On a previous trip one of the team members (Billy Todd) had to run up the ramp, with luggage in tow, just as the ferry was leaving the dock!

One might picture different things when thinking about a ferry. This ship was large enough to house several 18-wheelers traveling across the Aegean. At seven or eight stories tall, it looked a bit like a small cruise ship.

After dawn, we saw Patmos coming into view. As the ship came up the east side of the island, we could see the monastery on the hill towering over the town of Chora. The ferry finally lumbered into the harbor at Skala, turning rather deftly to position itself just right at the dock. Not much room for error, but the captain was a superb navigator!

Blue Star Ferry docked in Skala Harbor

On Patmos

Saturday silently passed into Sunday while we slept on the ferry. The Center’s last trip to Patmos resulted in many friends and contacts. One of these was Theo, the owner of the hotel. Theo graciously came to the port and drove his vehicle to help bring the equipment and luggage to the hotel. There was not enough room for all of the equipment and the whole team in Theo’s micro-van. So Dan went with Theo to get everything checked in while the others decided to enjoy the short walk to the hotel. Along the way, the team saw several friends from last year’s trip. Something felt very right about the ongoing relationships that were developing through our work.

Theo strikes us something of a practical joker. Twice in two years he virtually forced down our throats what we would call ‘sea urchin surprise.’ We ate them because to not do so seemed rude on an international scale, but now we are wondering if Theo simply has a sadistic side to him J. In the least, this is not the sort of cuisine that Americans see every day.

Sea Urchin Surprise—you can’t eat just one!

Once everyone was at the hotel, the luggage was distributed among the rooms and checked to make sure that everything was working. The last logistical detail was to pick up the ultra-micro compact rental car. It was so small that some of us could not drive it because our feet were too big for the pedals! Andrew became the designated driver. All that remained was a little time to continue preparing for the intense work ahead.

The Preservation Work

Monday was the first day that we were able to begin our digital preservation efforts. It took two trips to get all of the equipment and people up to the monastery in the ‘Patmos SUV’—a one-liter, four-door (!) sedan.

A fleet of Patmos SUVs!

We were grateful that we did not have to haul the camera equipment up the hill every day, but could leave it behind in the library for the duration of our work there. The car had to be left at the parking lot of Chora, as we hiked four hundred yards up the hill, lugging the equipment.

Near the end of the hike up the hill to the monastery

The Abbot greeted us warmly as we began our work. We were so grateful for his support!

The Monastery of St. John the Theologian includes two different libraries. Both libraries are immaculate. One is used primarily for study. It includes many modern and resource materials in general circulation, used by the priests. The other library is dedicated to the collection of ancient books. Visually, it is breathtaking. It contains three or four reading tables in the middle of the room, surrounded by a cloud of silent witnesses, the bookshelves filled with the ancient volumes. One end of this library is roped off for a special collection of ancient manuscripts. This small library is one of the most important in the world for ancient Greek manuscripts. It also is a model of how these documents should be stored and cared for. What a wonderful environment for housing their collection of 80 New Testament manuscripts! It is clear that the monks of Patmos take their responsibility of these important artifacts very seriously.

The assistant librarian, Ioannis Melianos, was waiting to assist us when we arrived. He truly exemplified a servant’s heart. Ioannis, always with a smile on his face, let everyone into the library. We were brought to a special room, used for photographing the documents. Every morning began with the team in prayer as an important part of the process. About the time that the computers were set up Ioannis would come in, announcing that coffee was served. Nothing quite like fresh-brewed Greek coffee to wake you up in the morning!

The team usually began work by 9:30 and continued shooting until about 1:00 PM. The process used is designed to be efficient but never at the cost of damaging a manuscript. Each team member has an important responsibility such as squaring up the text, noting details about the leaves, taking the shot, turning the page, verifying the images on the computer.

Billy Todd at work in the library

This year CSNTM was able to photograph thirteen manuscripts on Patmos that range from the 9th to the 14th centuries. Before photographing the manuscripts we prepare them by counting the leaves, confirming the content (Gospels, Paul, etc…), determining if the dating found in other sources is accurate, noting the material the manuscript is made of, and measuring the manuscript. This results in a detailed description of each manuscript, almost a unique fingerprint if you will. Included in those being preserved were Gregory-Aland 1175 and Gregory-Aland 1164.

Gregory-Aland 1175, with a child’s doodlings in the margin

Manuscript 1164 had to be removed from a museum case in order to be photographed. It had probably been a very long time since this manuscript was last handled. The first paragraph or two of 1164 in each Gospel is written in gold ink. What a magnificent treasure this is!

By about 1:00 PM Ioannis would come in to say that lunch was ready. Operations stopped so that we could enjoy eating the meal in the monastery dining hall, an ancient room with two long stone tables running the length of it. The priests sat at one table, and the guests (usually just the CSNTM team and one or two others) at the other. The Abbot, who is the spiritual leader of the monastery, is also present for lunch. Throughout the meal one of the priests would conduct prayers and liturgical readings while we ate quietly, only whispering when necessary. We tried to take our lead from the priests, not only in conversation (or lack thereof), but also by standing when the Abbot entered the room. The meal typically lasted about 30 minutes and was concluded when the priests and the Abbot were finished. A benediction would be offered, then the priests and monks would file out, with the Abbot greeting all the guests as they left.

After lunch, we returned to the library and continued our work. This would last until 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM, depending on the librarian’s duties and schedule. We always strove to finish on time, packing up whatever needed to be taken back to the hotel for the evening.

Gregory-Aland 0150, one of only a dozen majuscule manuscripts with commentary

This year’s trip included several very special occasions. On the first day, the Abbot invited the entire team to his office for coffee. There was another priest in his office who had served at one of the monasteries on Mt. Athos. He was able to speak English, a great benefit for us, since our modern Greek is still in its infancy!

Over the weekend the team stayed on Patmos. The Abbot invited us to attend a museum opening at the convent on the island. The festivities began with a special service in the sanctuary. The Abbot invited us to stand in the main part of the sanctuary with other guests. We were told that this was a very special privilege indeed. The next morning, Sunday, everyone was invited to another service in the same sanctuary. After the service, we were invited to a fellowship area for coffee and pastries.

In nearly two weeks of work on Patmos, we took over 7000 pictures (each weighing in at between 32 and 48 megabytes). On our last day, we presented the Abbot with a gift of the DVDs of the images. We expressed our gratitude to him and to Ioannis for the extreme hospitality and genuine love that they showed us.

looking down at Skala harbor from the town of Chora

Back to Athens

Thursday night the team took the ferry back to Athens, another late night trip. We arrived on the mainland early the next morning. The next couple of days were spent examining manuscripts in the Athens National Library. This provided us an opportunity to observe the manuscripts and conditions at this library.

Unfortunately, the environment in the National Library is not nearly as good as Patmos. The temperature was very hot in the manuscript room. The team spent as much time there as possible, but the manuscript room is only open five hours a day. We were able to spend two days in preparation work. Hopefully this will be useful in future efforts to complete preservation work at the National Library.

Then, with fond memories, excellent digital images, and tired bodies, we hopped on a plane for the States. The day we left, it was 114 degrees in Athens, but only 74 degrees in Dallas—a forty degree difference! Yet we missed Greece already, and were longing to be back on the island made famous by St. John’s Apocalypse.

Billy Todd observed, “The work that is being done is not just for scholarship. It seemed that the monastery really appreciated receiving the DVDs. Every manuscript that is photographed does not necessarily need to be handled anymore. Manuscripts that are part of the museum can stay behind glass but still be studied without danger of further damage that naturally occurs by handling.”

As exhausting as the work was, it was equally thrilling. We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to assist the Monastery of St. John the Theologian in the work of preserving these treasures of the church for future generations.

For more information about the work of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, visit its website:

Related Topics: History, Archaeology, Text & Translation