WASHINGTON, D.C. The Freer Gallery of Art is showing off two rare Bibles from its archives.
The Bibles, written in Greek and bought by art collector Charles Freer in the early 1900s, date from the third and fourth centuries. They are seldom shown because of their fragility and sensitivity to light.
The Bibles will be on display, though, through Feb. 16, 2014, in the Freer’s Peacock Room. Normally on the third Thursday of each month, the museum opens the shutters for visitors to enjoy the ornate room, designed by James Whistler, in natural light. But the shutters won’t be opened again until Feb. 20, after the Bibles have been removed.
One Bible, now known as the “Codex Washingtonensis,” contains additional material, a logion, attached to the Gospel of Mark.
The “Freer logion” is attributed to Jesus and, according to a museum translation, says while “‘other terrible things draw near,’ Satan’s power on earth is ended.” This logion has not been found in any other version.
The discovery of this phrase caused much excitement and controversy among historians and ministers in 1912 when a scholar, professor Henry Sanders, published a piece about it. Clippings from the period showed a split between a popular enthusiasm regarding an undiscovered biblical fragment and skepticism from religious experts.
The Bibles were purchased from Al Arabi, an antiquities dealer in Giza who was probably working with an “opportunistic digger” that he paid for his findings, says Lee Glazer, associate curator of American Art at Freer Gallery.
Freer himself was suspicious of Al Arabi and his sources of antiques, according to his letters.
But he decided, Glazer says, he “would not benefit by probing into that too deeply. It’s better for that to remain a secret.”
She added, “These were totally unauthorized excavations, by the way. But it’s not a problem for us because it happened a long time ago,” prior the 1970s.
Glazer says the theory of the Bibles’ origins “is that these manuscripts originated in a Greek monastery near Cairo, then were either removed from their site of production … either lost, buried, hidden, put somewhere else, and so the site of the find was probably different from the site of production.”
The Bibles came into Freer’s hands with sand amid their pages, discovered when they were unpacked from a shoebox at Freer’s mansion in Detroit.
Freer had his experts restore them from their desiccated state and examine them for authenticity. When in Cairo, he had promised Al Arabi a gold watch if they were proven to be authentic; the next year, he returned to Egypt with the watch.