Media only: James Gordon, 202.633.0520; Rebecca Fahy, 202.633.0521
Public only: 202.633.1000
Exhibition dates: October 21, 2006–January 7, 2007

October 21, 2006

The Christian Bible is the best-selling book of all time. It has been produced in numerous media—from the book form popularized more than 1600 years ago, to tape recordings, CDs and, now, in electronic form on the Internet. Still, few people know the fascinating history of the Bible: What were some of the first Bibles like? What materials were used to make them? In what languages have they been written?

The landmark exhibition “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000,” on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Oct. 21 through Jan. 7, 2007, presents some of the earliest biblical artifacts in existence, including pages and fragments written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian and Coptic—many on display for the first time in the United States.

The exhibition coincides with the 100th anniversary of Charles Lang Freer’s gift of Asian and American art to the people of the United States, now housed in the Freer Gallery of Art, and includes several pages and fragments from Freer’s “Codex Washingtonensis,” fourth and fifth-century Old Testament Greek manuscripts. Also on view is a colorful painted cover of the “Washington Manuscript III: The Four Gospels,” depicting figures of St. Matthew and St. John.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • Leaves from three of the six oldest surviving Hebrew codices
  • The oldest known manuscripts of the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy
  • One of the earliest known manuscripts of the Gospels written in Latin
  • The oldest dated parchment biblical codex in the world
  • A page from the earliest Bible with full-page illustration

The roots of the Bible lie in the Middle East, but by the year 1000 it had reached Europe, transforming societies as it went and being shaped itself in turn. The story of that journey is told through this exhibition, which contains fragile fragments of papyrus, early parchment books, gorgeous illuminated manuscripts and sumptuous jewelled bindings—all precious survivors of the holocausts of history. Each one has a tale to tell and opens up a landscape populated with colorful human stories.

“In the Beginning” presents the physical evidence of the Bible’s evolution, assembled for the first time. It shows how the Bible mirrors successive ages and shapes societies by charting its initial fluidity and attempts to define its contents and its dissemination through the use of local languages, scripts and ornament.

Visitors to the exhibition will begin to understand what motivated those who lovingly made such books, how Bibles were used in public worship and how the book was transformed from the simple manual of early Christian communities to a symbol of enduring faith.

“In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000” is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, in association with the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which is the principal lending institution for the exhibition and one of the greatest repositories for early manuscripts in the world. The Bodleian’s curatorial staff also has contributed to the design of the exhibition and the exhibition catalog. Ann C. Gunter, the curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is the coordinating curator. Michelle P. Brown, an authority on the earliest Gospels, is guest curator. Additional consultants are Harry Y. Gamble, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of Virginia, and Herbert Kessler, a specialist in medieval art at Johns Hopkins University. The Sackler Gallery will be the only venue for the exhibition.

A 250-page, full-color catalog with essays by the exhibition’s guest curator and a host of scholars complements “In the Beginning.”

The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Ave. S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Freer houses a major collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the exhibitions section of the galleries’ website: