Home Christian News Early Christian Scripture and Ancient Codices Draw Collectors’ Eyes to Paris

Early Christian Scripture and Ancient Codices Draw Collectors’ Eyes to Paris

Christie's Auction
The Crosby-Schoyen Codex is thought to be the world’s oldest book in private hands. (CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2024)

LONDON (RNS) — Amid all the preparations to turn Paris into a venue for the Olympic Games that begin in less than 100 days, one small corner of the French capital is preparing for another modern form of competition based in antiquity: Christie’s auction of early Christian texts from North Africa.

Some of the most important religious artifacts to come up for sale in recent years, the manuscripts from the privately owned Schoyen Collection, including the oldest complete version of the First Epistle of Peter and the Book of Jonah, were displayed in New York earlier this month and have arrived in Paris for inspection by prospective bidders. The auction sale of the works, written on papyrus in the Coptic language, will take place at Christie’s in London in June.

The viewings of the Schoyen Collection have drawn representatives from museums around the world as well as private collectors. To some they represent beauty, to others links to the past, and to others a connection with faith.

“This is one of the most important sales Christie’s has ever held in this field,” said Eugenio Donadoni, senior specialist in medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at Christie’s. “They are touchstones, helping us understand the history of Christianity.”

The Schoyen Collection is the work of Martin Schoyen, building on the collections of his father, and now comprises 20,000 manuscripts, including 400 linked to the Bible. Now in his 80s, Schoyen has decided to sell part of it, including the most important artifacts.

According to Donadoni, the Crosby-Schoyen Codex — valued at £3 million or about $3.7 million — is thought to be the world’s oldest book in private hands, comprising, besides Peter’s epistle and the story of Jonah, part of the Book of Maccabees and an Easter homily.

It is highly significant in the history of writing, said Donadoni, because it “marks a pivotal moment — it is the transition from scrolls to codicils as Christianity spreads across the Mediterranean.”

But the codex also shows the religious pivot going on at the time. It is thought that the codex was used by a monastery in upper Egypt around the middle of the third century CE, before the Council of Nicaea in 325, which tried to secure consensus on issues of Christian belief, such as the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, and the latter’s divine nature.

“You can see from the codex that they are finding their feet as Christians,” said Donadoni. “They are still steeped in Jewish tradition and are shaping the new religion.”

The book is so old that it calls the text now known as the First Epistle of Peter the letter of Peter, as if they are not aware that a further letter exists.

Another major manuscript going up for sale on June 11 is the Codex Sinaiticus Rescriptus, which is in effect an ancient effort at recycling. In the 10th century, John Zosimos, a monk at a monastery near Jerusalem, acquired a document written on expensive vellum, which he packed up and took to St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert to reuse for his own writing. The original writing, itself the earliest surviving piece of the Gospels to be written in Aramaic, dating from the fifth or sixth century, is still visible.

“The underlying text was not scrubbed out very well, so under fluorescent lighting you can still see it, written in the language that Jesus himself would have spoken,” said Donadoni.