Religious leaders are fond of saying that God works in strange and mysterious ways. Those mysterious ways can sometimes create strange bedfellows.

How else do you explain Brigham Young University officials working in full cooperation with the Vatican on a project conceived by the Assyrian Church of the East -- a religion that originated in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Baghdad)fi

It's almost enough to make one quote John Lennon: "Strange days indeed, most peculiar, Mama."

"I think it was God's hand that brought us together," Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East said during a news conference at BYU last month.

"In my opinion, the Vatican Library and BYU had a common vision to help Eastern Christianity."

Soro and BYU officials touted the fruits of their project -- a DVD featuring images of 33 rare Christian manuscripts, dating back as far as the fifth century. The DVD is expected to be available to scholars worldwide by the end of May.

"My dream is that a Syrian scholar teaching at Duke or Oxford, and one working at a small college in Oregon will be able to go to the library and pull out (this) DVD and be able to teach from the material," said Kristian Heal, a research associate for the BYU Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts. "The most I can hope for is that people become more interested and that they might learn about something they never would have known about before."

The collection features the work of Eastern Christian writers such as Jacob of Serugh, Ephrem the poet, and Isaac the Syrian. The majority of the collection was purchased by the Vatican from an Egyptian monastery in the 18th century. For centuries, Syriac Christians were denied access to the manuscripts, even though the texts relate to their early history.

Enter Soro, who read about BYU's work with the Dead Sea Scrolls database project -- which resulted in a computerized reference library of Dead Sea Scrolls materials -- and rightly wondered if something could be done with his own church's historical manuscripts.

"It hardly seems possible that it's been seven years since Bishop Soro contacted us and we got together," said Noel Reynolds, executive director of the BYU texts institute. "They came to us with a question: 'Could you do something here like you've done with the Dead Sea Scrollsfi' "

The writings were housed at the Vatican Library in Rome, which boasts a collection of some 150,000 manuscripts -- the largest of its kind in the world. The Vatican expressed some skepticism at first, but soon warmed to the idea.

"There was an initial reticence to work with us," Heal said of the Vatican's response. "But I think that's been overcome."

For three years, BYU scholars worked alongside their Vatican colleagues to image more than 14,000 pages of text to produce a digital library of 33 manuscripts. The texts are written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ. The text pages on the DVD appear in color, accompanied by their original illustrations, and can be viewed as a full page or enlarged for closer inspection.

"That list of manuscripts, to any person who knows anything about early Syriac Christianity, immediately makes that person like a child in a toy store," Soro said.

According to Soro, more than 80 percent of his people's written history was lost or destroyed by the various superpowers that invaded the Middle East region. The people in those churches were worried with survival and have been unable to preserve their heritage.

Most of the manuscripts that were saved ended up in possession of the Vatican.

"We felt for a long period of time that we were robbed of that heritage," Soro said. "Eventually, providentially, these manuscripts are going to be kept for us."

Soro said actual ownership of these manuscripts was not important, but access to them paramount.

"It's not ownership of that paper, that physical manuscript, but the accessibility to those ideas," Soro said. "That is why we are really pleased to see such progress."

The DVD not only allows that access, but also does so in unprecedented fashion. The work has been well-received by scholars and is expected to generate interest in the study of Eastern Christianity.

"My first reaction when I saw some of the images was that the quality is much better than the original manuscript," said Lucas Van Rompay, a professor at Duke University and a noted Syriac Christian scholar. "What I see here at Brigham Young University is really a large-scale effort to preserve these manuscript collections. I haven't seen anything of the same level, of the same expertise and of the same breadth."

Heal said the reasons behind BYU's involvement in the project were threefold.

"It's an important academic endeavor for our faculty," he said. "It's important for us to contribute to the entire academic community and Syriac Christians. And, finally, it's helped us improve our relationship with the Vatican. It's helped to build friendships and establish relationships."

So much so, that there is already talk of continuing the project.

"They've now raised the possibility that we will find a way to complete the manuscripts," Reynolds said, noting that 100-150 documents remain.

"The application of this is endless," Soro said. "Instead of the faithful going to these sources, we are bringing these sources to them. That is a revolution."

Doug Fox can be reached at 344-2546 or dfox@heraldextra.com.

-

About the Vatican Library project

One of the main benefits of the Vatican Library project is that the BYU-produced DVD will preserve the basic beliefs of Eastern Christianity.

"It is a project that has fulfilled a great need in the Syriac-speaking communities all over the world," said Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East. "The manuscripts that were scanned ... contained the essence of our liturgies, worship manuals and our theologies."

One interesting aspect of the texts is some additional insight into biblical stories that appear in the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus. For example, Potipher's wife -- whose false charges against Joseph landed him in prison in the familiar Bible account -- reappears in some of the Syriac Christian writings.

According to Kristian Heal, a research associate for the BYU Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, the Syriac texts show Potipher and his wife eventually seeking Joseph's forgiveness, which he grants, after he is made a ruler in Egypt.

Another benefit to the DVD is the ability to retain all the original colors of the manuscript text. While the regular text was written in black ink, other sections were written in red. According to Heal, those sections are typically narrator-like instructions to the clergy or congregation.

"The liturgy is essentially a religious performance, a sacred rite -- poetic and dramatic," Heal said. We're dealing with a tradition where the entire Book of Psalms was memorized by monks, and in some cases the entire New Testament."

-- Doug Fox

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page D1.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!