Museum follows LSTC’s lead in returning rare manuscript to Greek Orthodox Church

December 3, 2020

Four years ago, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) returned a rare 9th century Greek manuscript of the complete New Testament to the Greek Orthodox Church. Now a second rare manuscript will be returned to the monastery from which it was stolen in 1917, Greek media reports. The story was also covered by The Art Newspaper, with an image of the manuscript. Leaders in the Greek Orthodox Church have urged the state to take legal action to regain hundreds of stolen relics, Voice of America reports. 

The 10th-century vellum gospel is being returned by the American Bible Museum in Washington, D.C., which notified the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in January that it was one of the objects stolen during World War I. The Patriarch is allowing the museum to exhibit the manuscript until October 2021 and is lending three manuscripts from the patriarchate as a gesture of good will.

When LSTC returned the 9th century manuscript, James Nieman, president, hoped the seminary’s action would inspire other institutions to return stolen artifacts in their collections. During the matins service four years ago at Augustana Chapel when the codex was returned, Nieman referred to the seminary’s action as a true gift: “We give it not expecting a return, but in freedom, knowing the joy it brings to you, our friends in Christ…. Even more, we hope that returning this codex may show to those beyond our communions a new course for living with others quite different from this world’s typical, jaded ways of stinginess, hoarding, and control.”

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the United States, who traveled to LSTC to receive the manuscript, said, “Nearly a century ago, our faithful lost an integral part of the treasures of our Orthodox faith and tradition when the library of the Kosinitza Monastery was ransacked and many manuscripts, Codex 1424 included, were taken. We hope that other collections in the United States which also possess manuscripts originating from the Kosinitza Monastery will follow the fine example set by LSTC and voluntarily return the manuscripts to their rightful home. Our gratitude to LSTC is enormous indeed for adhering to the original spiritual intent and moral mandate of the manuscript itself.”

The manuscript, known among biblical scholars as Codex 1424, was one of many manuscripts taken in 1917 from the Kosinitza Monastery near the city of Drama, in Greece, following the Balkan Wars of five years earlier. It found its way to a European book dealer and was purchased in 1920 by Levi Franklin Gruber, who later became president of Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary, one of LSTC’s predecessor schools. Gruber bequeathed the codex to his widow, and the seminary later received his entire rare book collection from her. In early 2016, representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church contacted President Nieman seeking voluntary return of the manuscript, to which the seminary readily agreed.

Greek manuscripts that contain the entire New Testament are rare. According to biblical scholar Kurt Aland, there are only 60 such manuscripts in world collections. Codex 1424, written in the ninth century A.D., is the oldest complete minuscule manuscript (written in cursive script) of the Greek New Testament in the world. Moreover, the order of the books of the New Testament is unusual. For example, the book of Revelation, today located at the end of the New Testament, precedes the Pauline letters. The manuscript was copied by a monk named Sabas, and other monks three centuries later added excerpts from John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and others as commentaries in the margins of the pages.

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has photographed the manuscript. It may be viewed on the Center’s website.

Ralph W. Klein, curator of the LSTC rare book collection, said, “Manuscripts like Codex 1424 enable New Testament scholars to construct a definitive text of the Greek New Testament since none of the original texts has survived and ancient manuscripts contain thousands of variant readings. We are indebted to our ancestors in the faith who took such care that the Sacred Scriptures were preserved for posterity. Codex 1424 represents the Byzantine family of manuscripts that became the backbone for the Textus Receptus in the 16th century and was the Greek edition used by the translators of the King James Version. A rare book collection like the Gruber Rare Book Collection at LSTC makes ancient texts available to scholars and also allows interested non-specialists to learn of the joy of discovery and the legacy left us by mothers and fathers of the faith.”

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