The Vatican library provides invaluable resources for Department of Classics professor Joseph Amar, but in the course of his study, he has worked to correct discrepancies in one of the library’s manuscript catalogs, he said.
Using manuscripts from the first centuries of Christianity, Amar said he studies the writings of early Christian thinkers. Many of the manuscripts he studies reside in the Vatican Library, collected over many centuries and cataloged in the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana, an 18th-century tome that lists the authors of documents, their publication dates and descriptions of their contents, Amar said.
He also studies the Aramaic language and its dialects, which linked Christianity and Judaism and, at times, made them almost indistinguishable.
“In general, it’s about documenting Christianity at a crucial stage in its history, where it’s still very Jewish-looking but hasn’t become entirely the kind of Christianity we recognize today,” Amar said. “It sort of still has one foot in Judaism and one foot in Christianity. This is preserved in these ancient manuscripts because Jews and Christians were using the same language.”
Amar said as he delved into the texts over the course of his career, documenting the ideas of early Christian thinkers and studying everything from the content of manuscripts to handwriting styles, he noticed that the Vatican Library had a record-keeping problem. Until recently, he would find the documents he needed ⎯ often the only copies in existence ⎯ stacked on shelves, unorganized and unprotected.
Amar also found serious discrepancies between the manuscripts themselves and the catalog that was supposed to guide the scholars researching them, he said. Some descriptions misidentify the author of a text or the date of its publication, Amar said. Others misrepresent the manuscript’s argument, in what Amar called a “Catholicizing tendency.”
“It gives the impression that the manuscripts are in agreement with contemporary Catholic teaching, when of course many of the manuscripts are very ancient and pre-date anything that was going on in any church,” he said. “But you only know that when you look at the manuscript itself and compare it to what’s in the catalog, and you say, ‘Someone has been fudging the information here.’”
Part of Amar’s job is to correct these errors, he said. In addition to his research on the time period itself, Amar works as a consultant for the Vatican Library, pointing out where the manuscripts and the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana differ.
“I look at [the manuscript], I look at the way it’s described in the catalog, and I say we have to change A, B and C,” Amar said. “Sometimes we have to change the century in which it was written and the author that we thought wrote it.”
Because the manuscripts often have pages missing, finding the right information, especially the document’s author, involves some sleuthing, Amar said.
“It’s really hard,” he said. “[You find the author] by the language itself. You look at the words the author used, and you say to yourself, ‘If this is written by X, did X use this kind of writing? Did he use these words? Does this fit what we know about him?’ Then either you say either the manuscript attribution is correct, that the guy they say wrote it actually wrote it, or you make an educated speculation that, ‘I’m pretty sure that this isn’t who they say it is, but it could be Y or Z. But it sure isn’t X.’”
Amar’s work has taken on new significance in the digital age. In addition to improving its organization, in recent years, the Vatican Library has begun to digitize its oldest and rarest documents. Whereas the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana was once the only source of information on a text, the library can now update the description on the Web, incorporating Amar’s research, he said. The project involves many scholars who are largely in charge of the digitization in their own fields.
“They sort of let me take the lead,” Amar said. “They say, ‘When we draw up a list of priority, of manuscripts to digitize, which ones do we own in The Vatican that no one else has copies of?’ Those are number one. And which of those do we need to correct as far as the catalog goes to give people a clearer understanding of exactly what’s in them?”
Amar said the process often leads to new discoveries. For example, scholars believed for centuries that Jacob of Edessa, an influential Biblical scholar, had written a commentary on the Book of Genesis ⎯ but no one could find it. Meanwhile, a catalog contained a misidentified Genesis commentary, Amar said. By comparing that manuscript’s writing and handwriting style with Jacob’s known works, Amar said he was able to correctly attribute the commentary to him.
“It’s like reinventing the wheel,” Amar said. “This is something altogether new, from way in the beginning of Christianity, in a part of the world that we don’t even think about in Christian terms.”