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May 20, 2018: Parchment, Vellum, & Paper: Encountering the Bible Museeum

by Ryan Burwinkel

I must admit, my politics don’t exactly align with the views of those whose names appear on the founders’ wall at the recently-opened Museum of the Bible near the National Mall. So, you might understand — if not share — the mix of curiosity and trepidation I felt as I joined Father Jadon and a group of parishioners to visit the museum recently. What we found surprised me — especially the “History of the Bible” collection. For all the controversy and skepticism around this new museum, this incredible collection also tells an even more incredible story.

As eternal as God’s Word is, this collection reminds us how that story has been shared through the ages by far less everlasting means: parchment, vellum, and (often gilded) paper. It is somewhat remarkable that the story has survived at all. Through the centuries, the fragile texts that tell that eternal truth have survived countless fires, floods, wars, and all manner of destruction to find their way to this place and time. What moved me more than the beautifully-illustrated psalters, the first-edition King James Bible, or even the page from a Gutenberg Bible were the small scraps and charred fragments. A torn piece of parchment, recovered from a literal trash heap of history, is our earliest-surviving witness to the Gospel of John. Burned fragments from Jewish temples razed centuries ago both tell the earliest stories in the Hebrew Bible and are a stark reminder of the persecution that too often follows God’s Chosen People. Finally, I found it impossible not to be moved by reading even a few scant words from the book of Genesis in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There before me lay what could be the oldest record of our oldest story.

Taken together, these disparate scraps and gilded volumes tell one timeless and evolving story of God’s love and salvation. Joined into one full collection, they stitch together the history of our history; the story of our story. That’s a history worth learning, and a story well-told on this new museum’s fourth floor. Before we began, Father Jadon reminded us that because the Word of God is in this place then God must be there too — we just have to find Him. I’m not sure I’ve found Him there yet, but I think I’ll keep looking. And even if, like me, you’re not sure about this particular museum, I invite you to join me.

Last Published: May 18, 2018 1:55 PM
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