Witness the Word this Easter at the Chester Beatty

Exhibition displays some of world’s oldest Biblical papyri


The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle has some of the finest treasures of the great cultures and religions of the world, given to the Irish people by the American mining magnate, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. The collection includes thousands of rare printed books, illuminated manuscripts, paintings and decorative arts. Among those priceless treasures, the library’s Biblical Papyrus Collection ranks highly. These incredible texts dating to as early as the 2nd century were discovered in Egypt in 1929. Beatty had seen the codices and from Cairo sent a coded telegram (to disguise his interest) to Eric Millar of the British Museum for his opinion; Millar replied (also in code), strongly encouraging Beatty to acquire as much as he could.

In 1950, Beatty decided to move to Ireland. On his death, his entire collection was bequeathed to a trust for the benefit of the public. He was Ireland’s first honorary citizen and was given a state funeral when he died in 1968.

The Papyrus collection includes some of the oldest and most important biblical manuscripts in the world. The oldest manuscript of Paul’s letters (dated c. AD200), the oldest surviving copy of all four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in one codex, and portions of the Book of Revelation dating to the 3rd century are among the important manuscripts from that find. With this wealth of material it is small wonder that the library has become one of the major centres in the world for the study of the Bible.

Now, the library has started to digitise these manuscripts with the first phase of the project completed. The work involved a partnership with the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts in Texas (csntm.org), which involved the digitisation of more than 5,000 images from the manuscripts. The process revealed some text that had not been seen before.

Commenting on the digitisation, the director of the library, Fionnuala Croke, said the project was fostering new and exciting research on the papyrus collection. “Scholars will benefit from the work as too will the general public who will be able to examine the manuscripts in depth and benefit from the scholarly research which can be seen in the online exhibition Witness to the Word. Chester Beatty left these treasures for the Irish people. We want to make them freely available online and we are very glad that digitisation has started to bring that about.”

Highlights of the Papyrus collection

Gospel of Saint John c. AD150-200

This fragment is among the oldest Gospel texts in the world. It contains part of John’s account of the Crucifixion wherein Jesus asks John to take care of his mother.

Four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles c. AD200-250

One of the most striking objects within the entire Chester Beatty Library collection is CBL BP I (P45). This codex contains the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John alongside the Acts of the Apostles. The fragmentary condition of this codex means that some folios preserve more of their text than others. They would have originally measured about 25 x 20 cm (10 x 8 inches). Until its discovery, only small fragments of the single Gospels on papyrus were known, and it was believed that this grouping of texts did not begin until a much later date. The codex shows that the Gospels and Acts were being read together in one volume much earlier than many expected. The folios containing Mark and most of Luke’s Gospel are the oldest known copies of these texts.

The Letters of Paul c. AD200-250

The manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the Pauline Epistles and the early date of this codex and the content make it extremely important for the study of the text of Paul’s letters.

This folio contains perhaps one of the most famous of Paul’s readings, Corinthians 13: 4-7. It is the oldest copy of this famous verse frequently used in Christian wedding ceremonies. Love is patient, love is kind ……..

The Book of Revelation c. AD250-300

This contains chapters 9 through 17 of the Apocalypse, or Revelation of John. It is likely that the codex originally contained the entire book, but the beginning and end of the manuscript have been lost. Nevertheless, the portion of text that survives is the largest single portion of the text of Revelation preserved on papyrus.

The Book of Genesis c. AD300-350

The codex consists of 51 leaves, along with additional fragments, which contain a significant portion of the Book of Genesis. The original manuscript was comprised of 66 leaves, or 132 pages which would have measured approximately 28 x 18 cm (11 x 7 inches). The folios are in varying states of disrepair, with considerable portions of the lower leaves now lost.

The Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy Late 2nd Century AD

This codex would have originally contained 108 leaves, or 216 pages, of which fragments of 55 pages survive. This is not only the earliest manuscript within the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri collection, but until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th century, it was the oldest known manuscript containing a portion of the Old Testament.

The Book of Jeremiah

This manuscript consists of two fragmentary leaves that preserve text from the Book of Jeremiah. The clear but irregular hand indicates that this was written at the end of the 2nd century or beginning of the 3rd century.

Described by the Lonely Planet as “not just the best museum in Ireland, but one of the best in Europe” the library welcomes over 250,000 visitors every year. Admission is free.

It is also a research centre for scholars from all over the world holding as it does unique and very rare material. Exhibitions and events are designed to deliver a provocative debate about global culture. One of the library’s goals is to promote intercultural learning and promote wider understanding of the cultures represented in the collection. The library engages with immigrant communities in Ireland through its public programme and tours are offered in Arabic, Mandarin and Japanese.


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