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Photographing the Wee Beastie

Three days after I came home from our first expedition of the season (to Albania and Greece), I took off again—this time, on a road trip. With two other guys, we drove north to Ann Arbor to photograph the Greek New Testament manuscripts at the University of Michigan. UM boasts the largest collection of Greek NT MSS in America: 1 out 6 MSS are in their collection! We will be photographing all of them except for the papyri which have already been digitized.

Two teams went to Ann Arbor this week. Four people flew in and four drove. We are a little slow in setting up, but the library has cooperated marvelously with us. We are occupying four tables in the manuscript room—about one third of the whole room! Altogether, there are over 20,000 images to shoot. But to date, far and away the most challenging manuscript has been codex 2364, or shelf number MS 182. For starters, this is an ultra-tiny manuscript. It measures 3.5 inches by 2.75 inches—barely larger than the fragmentary leaf known as P52. Think of a 3 x 5 card and cut it in half. That’s pretty close to the size of this document. But it’s also just as thick as it is tall!

The text is 12th–13th century, and it includes the four Gospels. Yes, all of them. The handwriting is so small that it’s hard to believe that such delicate work could have been achieved eight hundred years ago. I am not sure how it would have been done; if anyone has a clue, I’d appreciate the information. The font size is about 3 points. It looks like this. So, not only is it difficult to imagine someone producing this text, it is also difficult to imagine the kind of person who could read it.

I prepared the manuscript for photography. It barely opens wide enough to photograph, which presents its own challenges. But in order to prep the manuscript, I had to measure dimensions, document content, check on the date, confirm shelf number, note how many columns and lines per column it has, record its material (parchment or paper), and list any other important material. Most manuscripts’ leaves are numbered, although there are almost always mistakes with these numbers. Usually a page is skipped or two others in sequence have the same number. The ‘wee beastie’ as we are affectionately calling this tiny text is unnumbered. This creates a significant problem for photography: we must have the same amount of recto (right) side images as verso (left) side images. If we don’t, then we have to go back through the manuscript and find the error. If we accidentally duplicate a page, it might take us 10–15 minutes to find out where. If we skip a page, it might take us double that time. The wee beastie needed to be numbered very, very accurately—yet we are not allowed to write the number in pencil in the text (which most manuscripts have). So, I took slips of paper, marked with the leaf numbers, and placed them after every ten leaves. After triple and quadruple checking every section, I was satisfied that I had probably gotten the leaf count right. (I ended up being wrong twice!) It came to an astounding 492 leaves. That computes to 984 pages! That was a challenge just to prepare for shooting.

We learned that Wee Beastie had never been microfilmed before. One of the librarians tried to take a few pictures of it recently, but gave up quickly. When I told her our nickname for the manuscript, she said that she had a much more vulgar term!

Finally, the photographers took their turn. The first 61 leaves are on paper—the text was written out in a much later hand to replace the leaves that had disappeared over the centuries. These leaves are made of paper. But starting on leaf 62, the manuscript is parchment. This continues on until leaf 326, when it reverts to paper. Just over half the manuscript is thus on the original parchment, while the rest is replacement leaves.

The binding is tight, which means that the photographers can’t open it very far. And with a tiny manuscript, even the slightest jostling of the table, even a gust coming across the manuscript as someone walks by, can cause the letters to blur. Further, the f-stop needs to be set very high so as to maximize depth of field focus. The higher the f-stop, the greater depth of focus can be achieved. But it comes at a price: the higher the f-stop, the longer the shutter is open. The reason this is necessary is because we’re dealing with proportions: a relatively flat page on a large manuscript that varies, say, ¼” across its face can be shot at a lower f-stop because proportionately it doesn’t vary very much. But on a tiny manuscript, the same variation is proportionately equal to a 1-2” dip in the page! We had to use f-16 for Wee Beastie; it requires a good five seconds of exposure for each page.

Three people were needed to shoot the manuscript: one computer operator and two ‘page turners.’ One person holds the manuscript in place by using one hand as a block to keep the manuscript from moving. She puts her hand under the black cloth, and with her other hand holds the verso side at a right angle to the page being shot. Another person holds the recto side in place, making sure to keep the fingers from getting in the way of the text. Small hands are needed for this work! And because the vellum leaves are so thin, a white sheet of paper needs to be placed behind the vellum on every shot. The text in many places has etched through the vellum so that only a silhouette of each letter can be discerned. The whole thing looks like a miniature stencil.

Tomorrow, we should be done shooting the Wee Beastie—a manuscript that has heretofore never been photographed and hardly ever read. And when the photography is done, the work of transcription begins. But instead of having to read tiny text through a magnifying glass, we will be able to blow up each image to about 30 square feet without any pixilation! Our goal of making the photographs more readable than the original in this case will become an uncontested claim. And another copy of the Word of God will be accessible for research and study.

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