In the beginning was the Word
by Sean Patterson
Middle Eastern journey uncovers ancient mysteries and uncommon devotion
An Ethiopian sun beats down on Steve Delamarter as his vehicle rumbles along a dirt road on a quest.
Ahead is Debre Libanos, a monastery 185 miles north of the capital city of Addis Ababa. Sweat dripping from his brow, Delamarter arrives at his destination — a building of splendor, perched on a 2,300-foot plateau overlooking Africa’s Great Rift Valley and glistening like a jewel in the wilderness.
He has come to one of the most remote places on earth to interview scribes and examine texts. For while Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, it is easily the richest in the venerable world of scribal research.
Digging into the past
Delamarter isn’t Indiana Jones, the movie hero with the uncanny ability to uncover priceless biblical relics. But his recent sabbatical followed a similar vein — the business of digging into the past to better understand our perceptions of God, or, in this case, his Word.
The 52-year-old Delamarter, professor of Old Testament at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, traveled throughout Israel and Ethiopia in the spring of 2004 researching communities of faith and the forms their Bibles have taken across the centuries and continents. His search took him from the Israeli caves of Qumran, where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, to the central highlands of Ethiopia and the city of Jerusalem.
The Dead Sea Scrolls intrigued him. Upon categorizing the 200 biblical manuscripts from the site, scholars discovered that only 25 percent of them were consistent with scribal practices of the Qumran community. That begged the question: Why so much differentiation between the texts?
“That’s where the work of previous scholars gave out — their [research] didn’t have legs to answer many of the further questions,” Delamarter says. “How do we explain the other 75 percent? I became convinced that what we needed were more robust models — sociological models — of how scribes work and serve the needs of religious communities.”
It’s clear a number of biblical scrolls at Qumran were produced elsewhere by other groups. But who? At least three different groups may have centered out of Jerusalem, two of them traditional Hebrew-speaking Jews, the Sadducees and Pharisees. The third group was nontraditional Jews who read and spoke in Greek. To the north were additional centers of scribal activity — centers serving the needs of the Samaritan community and others in the service of rural traditional Jews. Delamarter is still sorting the data. He has only theories on the origins of the texts. What he did discover, however, was a new appreciation for the Bible and scribal art.
From the Holy Land...
Delamarter, aided by a $10,000 Lilly grant from the Association of Theological Schools, studied for two months in Israel at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a Catholic center on the border of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. There, he pored through books and articles; met with leading scholars; attended seminars on religion and archeology; conducted interviews with sociologists, scribes, and priests; and visited historic locations, including Mt. Sinai, Masada, and Qumran.
Delamarter was struck by the reverence of Syrian Orthodox believers, the ornate houses of worship, and the sheer wealth of history around him.
Equally rewarding was his discovery that Bibles contain not only the words of God but the values and character of ancient communities, serving as mirrors into the past. Each was concerned that the text be presented just so — in a certain language, with a particular script, using red ink for specific purposes, and with a certain number of lines and columns.
“Communities never produce Bibles lightly — these are not the idiosyncratic whims of loose-cannon scribes,” Delamarter says. “And you never see Bibles with strictly biblical text. You still see that today — our Bibles have marginal notes, a concordance, and commentaries. For a Bible of 2,500 pages, only about 1,500 pages of it is biblical text. That’s the norm.”
...to the ends of the Earth
Ultimately, Delamarter’s thirst to understand how scribes worked led him to Ethiopia.
“It’s one of the last places on Earth with living scribal communities,” he says. “There are still Jewish scribes, naturally, and scribes in the Syrian Orthodox Church and in the Samaritan community. But this is the only place where large quantities of Christian texts are still handwritten and passed on.”
Ethiopia holds another distinction: It was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity. “The first three nations to adopt Christianity weren’t the United States, England, and France,” Delamarter says, chuckling. “They were Armenia, Syria, and Ethiopia — places with Christian communities that have been in existence for centuries.”
Delamarter studied at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa and took field trips all over the country, conducting interviews with scribes, hermits, priests, and monks. Among his stops was the monastery in Debre Libanos, where he purchased a pair of manuscripts, one of which dated to the 17th century. He donated the older of the two to the institute in Addis Ababa; the other he gave to his translator, Daniel Alemu, a 22-year-old from Jerusalem with an Ethiopian heritage.
Delamarter marveled that, across time and across cultures, scribes go to painstaking lengths to make these sacred books. Among the texts he examined, some were adorned with gold and encrusted with jewels. Others featured pages dyed in purple and written in letters of gold and silver.
“You get a sense of humility seeing their devotion to living by the words of God and producing and spreading the Word to members of their community and their descendents,” Delamarter says.
He also learned the importance of looking beyond the text itself. “When someone pulls out some piece of old leather with writing on it, what’s the first thing your eye goes toward? The text. You read it and move on, never realizing you’ve just dismissed twothirds of the available data that manuscript had to offer you.
“This is completely characteristic of biblical scholars. We have a myopic fixation on the text and overlook the rest of the information — how it was laid out on the page and how other study aids were included with the biblical text.”
The various codices — from the Catholic Vulgate to the Jewish Torah and the extensive canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — attest to the differences. Catholic Bibles, for example, include the Apocrypha — seven books not found in Protestant Bibles.
In many cases, the text must be on authorized materials — on kosher scrolls for Jewish works or a codex book form for Christians, for instance. The earliest forms of Christian icons show Jesus holding a codex — the technological equivalent of a laptop computer in that day. The new technology adopted by early Christians was a forerunner of modern Christian Bibles.
In the Samaritan community, the sacred text must be in Hebrew and written with paleo-Hebrew letters — akin to writing an English Bible in Gothic characters. Samaritans also insist that identical letters on subsequent lines be arranged so they are directly above and below one another, thus forming a visible column of identical letters.
In Ethiopia, classical copies of the Bible generally are written in one column, while non-biblical texts are arranged in two or more columns. Sacred texts of the Oriental Orthodox churches use red ink every time the names of Jesus, God, or any of the saints appear.
Delamarter admits there is a dark side to texts’ differences. “People are passionate about the Word, and through the ages we’ve seen fights develop between groups over the content of their Bibles,” he says.
But he also sees there is a beautiful side to this expression of individuality: “When you see the devotion, energy, and wealth that communities poured into their Bibles as physical objects, you can clearly see these were the most treasured, valuable objects they owned.”
Challenging one’s faith
Delamarter says his research and travels challenged him in his own faith journey.
“You realize we are one of multiple communities that claim to worship God,” he says. “You find that they are every bit as committed, and it challenges your piety. The Ethiopian Orthodox believers go on a 55-day fast before Easter, eating just one meal in the evening. Jews devoutly memorize the Torah. It’s humbling and inspiring to see the rigorous devotion of others.”
For that reason, Delamarter refuses to pass judgment.
“In doing this research, I wasn’t out to prove something and I wasn’t on a search for truth,” he says. “I gave up some time ago trying to come up with the answers to prove that all the other religions and denominations in the world are wrong. When you go into it trying to prove something, you find what you want to find and prove what you want to prove, and that’s not fair.”
Delamarter is discovering that the more he learns, the more he appreciates the complexity of God’s Word.
“To borrow an expression of Paul’s, ‘We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,’” he says of the Word of God. “When people talk about ‘the Bible’ they are usually talking about an abstract notion — the timeless, eternal, pure Word of God. Don’t get me wrong — I talk about this, too. But we don’t have ‘the Bible’ in that sense. What we actually have are our Bibles, books produced by people. And those Bibles reveal a lot more than just the words of God. They reveal a lot about ourselves.” GFJ