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Update on Preserving the Word of God: The Hazards of Shooting an Oversized Majuscule

On June 17, 2009, a two-person team from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (J. D. Lemming and Dan Wallace) began shooting a large majuscule at the world-renown Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library; a.k.a. the BSB) in Munich. To do this job we used the Graz Traveller’s Conservation Copy Stand™, on loan to CSNTM from the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster. (Thanks are especially due to Martin Fassnacht and Ulrich Schmid for working out the collaboration between INTF and CSNTM, and for Martin joining us for the first two days in Munich to help us do the work.) We drove to Munich from Münster, screaming down the Autobahn in a packed-to-the-brim Mercedes Benz ‘Combi’—that is, uh, um… a station wagon. Over 200 kph, whizzing by the police without any feelings of guilt whatsoever. I love Germany.

We worked at the BSB for a week, after spending three weeks in Münster and four days in England. We were able to take over 2700 pictures of manuscripts at the BSB in five days. The digitization staff is top drawer, with state-of-the-art equipment. Profound thanks go to Mr. James Potalsky and his staff for their hospitality, kindness, assistance, and professionalism.

The Traveller’s Conservation Copy Stand™ is a marvel. It’s designed to photograph manuscripts, folds up into its own suitcase, and the complete ensemble weighs less than 50 lbs. It comes with laser lights, two light panels, a fixed cradle, Plexiglas and mylar for shooting pages with deep valleys, a pedal for taking the shot which also frees up the hands, etc.

The Copy Stand with a Normal-sized Manuscript

But there are a few problems with the Copy Stand, among them a short travel between the lens and the manuscript page. That is to say, with larger manuscripts a 50mm lens will not have enough of a wide angle to take in the whole page of text to be photographed. With Gregory-Aland 0142, we found this to be the case.

A word about Gregory-Aland 0142 is in order. This manuscript was written on parchment, produced in the tenth century. It contains 381 leaves (or 762 pages) of text, with extra leaves at the front and back of the book. The contents are Acts, the general letters, Paul’s letters, and Hebrews. The reason it is 762 pages long is because it includes commentary—and the commentators did not have the gift of brevity! It is one of only about 320 known majuscule NT manuscripts (i.e., manuscripts written with capital letters; these were produced during the first millennium CE), and belongs to an even rarer class of majuscule manuscripts that contain Acts, the general letters, Paul, or Hebrews (only 100 such manuscripts). Of these Acts/Catholic letters/Paul (including Hebrews in the manuscripts) majuscule manuscripts, only 19 others have at least portions of both Acts–Catholic letters, and Paul. Most are incomplete, but Gregory-Aland 0142 is largely complete, with all or most of the text from Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews, and the Catholic letters.

CSNTM has used its own tripod system for photographing manuscripts, which requires extensive training in order to reach maximum efficiency. But for the Munich trip, we collaborated with INTF and used their Copy Stand. With the tripod system, we have no problem shooting large manuscripts. The camera can go back several feet from the manuscript page, allowing us to photograph even the largest of manuscripts. But the tripod system is significantly slower than the Copy Stand approach, and we didn’t have the time to shoot this manuscript by our traditional means.

The Copy Stand with an Over-sized Manuscript

As I mentioned, the Copy Stand did not have enough travel to allow a 50mm macro lens to capture the whole page of this large manuscript. We had to think quickly about how to solve the problem. We decided to go to the best photography store in Munich and purchased a 30mm lens. This is a wide-angle lens that can capture the whole page of a very large manuscript with plenty of room to spare. The only problem is that it doesn’t come with a macro feature, which enables the camera to focus when closer than 40 cm. (I understand that no 30mm lenses have macro capability.) So, we had to keep the camera a good distance from the manuscript. The only problem with this was that now the manuscript looked rather tiny in the picture, taking up less than half of the space on the screen. This would mean that we would have to crop each picture for it to look normal. But it also means that we would get half the resolution that our cameras can give us because half of the picture was simply the black background.

We proceeded with the knowledge that every one of the nearly 800 pictures would have to be manually cropped. But as we started to shoot this massive manuscript—which measures about 32 cm by 24 cm, and is thus just a bit smaller than Codex Alexandrinus---we found another challenge. The manuscript was so heavy (it’s nearly 10 cm thick---without the covers) that the natural counter-balance of the Copy Stand was not enough. Like a see-saw, the manuscript was the fat kid on one end and he was using his weight! One of the BSB staff found what felt and looked like a large block of lead. We placed it on the other end of the Copy Stand to give the equipment some stability. It did the trick.

Then there was the problem of the light panels. They are cocked so as to fill shadows on normal-sized manuscripts. But with an oversized manuscript, the corners of each page can end up being outside the range of the lights and thus in the dark. An oval ring of light was cast on the text, but the corners were left out. If we moved the camera closer, we would lose focus; farther away, we would cast the corners into outer darkness. Shooting the manuscript posed a constant battle between the Skylla of black and the Charybda of blurriness.

As we worked through the manuscript, the inevitable hills and valleys that mar the landscape of parchment manuscripts began to take shape. And, of course, there is the bowing of the leaves into the spine as the book was flipped through its pages. Shooting codex manuscripts poses three special challenges: the beginning of the manuscript, the end of the manuscript, and the middle of the manuscript. Usually the easiest part to shoot is the first third of the recto (right-side) pages and the last third of the verso (left-side) pages. But shooting the end of the recto or beginning of the verso can often be tricky, in no small measure due to the all-too-tight rebinding of the manuscript, usually done centuries after it was written. The middle as well creates the problem of a sudden drop-off toward the spine if the manuscript is opened too widely. But if it is not opened enough, material on the inner margin cannot be captured. Another Skylla and Charybdis!

As always, CSNTM’s first order of business is to protect the manuscript at all costs. But in situations like this, the quality of the images may be impaired by this first principle. The pictures may not be great, but the manuscript is protected. Yet we still try to achieve good quality pictures that are easy to read and aesthetically pleasing. If the page is rather bulbous because of a tight binding, we have to increase the f-stop in order to capture everything in focus. Our EOS 1Ds Mark III Canon cameras have an f-stop as high as f-32. That gives us significant flexibility in shooting bowed pages and enables us to capture text in inner margins. But with the 30mm non-Canon lens that we needed to use to shoot 0142, the f-stop only went up to f-16. And with the page at a greater distance than we like it to be, the problem of getting in-focus shots of the whole page each time became quadrupled.

These problems are just the tip of the iceberg of what we had to deal with. The further the manuscript was from the camera, the more difficult it became to make sure that it was straight and that all four corners were the same (or close to the same) distance from the camera lens plane. Usually, the hazards of trapezoidal images (i.e., when a rectangular page looks like a trapezoid because the page is not completely parallel to the focal plane) are problems especially for tripod photography, but even the Copy Stand has issues with this with larger manuscripts. In the end, even though we were able to photograph every page with clarity and sufficient focus for readability, the distance of the page from the lens was so great that keeping the trapezoidal hazard in check was not always an issue in my mind. The result was poor quality images that are not up to CSNTM’s standards. We will be returning to Munich to shoot the manuscript again though, this time either with a better wide-angle lens or with our tried and true tripod system. Either way, the job will get done and will get done right.

To learn more about the work of CSNTM, please visit www.csntm.org. Tens of thousands of images of New Testament manuscripts are posted here, with much more to come.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism, History