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Chester Beatty exhibition has Easter significance

By Sarah Mac Donald - 24 April, 2019

‘Gift of a Lifetime’ features text from the Gospel of Matthew on the Last Supper and a fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from circa AD 150 to 200, which makes it among the oldest surviving gospel texts in the world, on the Crucifixion.

Some of the oldest surviving gospel texts in the world, which recount the Easter story, are on display at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin this week.

The ancient papyri, written in Greek, were discovered in Egypt in 1929 and are displayed as part of the ‘Gift of a Lifetime’ exhibition at the library.

The exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of American mining magnate Sir Alfred Chester Beatty’s bequest of his collection of illuminated manuscripts, paintings and decorative artworks from the world’s religions to Ireland.

The exhibition ends on 28 April.

According to Dr Jill Unkel, Curator of Western Collections at the Chester Beatty Library, the folio pages containing the early accounts of the Christian gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are “among the most visited objects of our collection online and the most frequently requested tours”.

The antiquity and importance of the material relating to early Christianity has made the library one of the major centres for the study of the gospels in the world.

The library’s Biblical Papyrus Collection holds a fragment of the Gospel of John dating from circa AD 150 to 200. It is among the oldest surviving gospel texts in the world. It recounts the Crucifixion of Jesus and his request to the apostle John to take care of his mother, Mary.

The folios containing Mark’s and Luke’s gospels are the oldest known copies of these sacred Christian texts.

The ‘Gift of a Lifetime’ exhibition also features text from the Gospel of Matthew (26 v19–33) on the Last Supper and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.

According to Dr Unkel, scholars and Christians from around the world have gained a deeper understanding of when the gospels and other early Christian writings first came together under the canon we now know as the New Testament.

Until the discovery of Chester Beatty’s ancient codex containing the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles only small fragments of the single gospels on papyrus were known, and it was believed that the grouping of texts together did not begin until a much later date.

However, the Chester Beatty codex shows that the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were being read together a century earlier than previously thought.

In Dr Unkel’s opinion, “The discovery changed the understanding of when they came together as a canon – it moved it back by 100 years.”

She said that overall the gospel texts as read in these ancient papyri are the same as those read today, with only slight variations in places where the scribe left out a word or added something in to explain it better.

The Chester Beatty Library also holds the oldest manuscript of St Paul’s letters (dated circa AD 200) and portions of the Book of Revelation dating from the 3rd century as well as a significant portion of the Book of Genesis dating from AD 300 to 350.

“The texts are very legible, so they were obviously made to be read,” Dr Unkel said. “I think a lot of people who come in to specifically see these texts are doing so because of their faith.”

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