Minnesota Monk Saves Ancient Manuscripts for a Digital Age

Columba Stewart

The shooting started right away. Columba Stewart had just touched down in Timbuktu when Islamist militants launched another attack.

The fighters were trying to retake control of Mali, after United Nations forces had pushed them back. As Stewart made his way through the ancient city in 2017, the rebels fired on security guards and the guards shot back.

Stewart was whisked to a safe room at the hotel. Waiting in the windowless interior room, he prayed. He sipped a little scotch. And he waited for hours. He knew what he had to do. Stewart is a monk—a Benedictine brother at St. John’s College, in Minnesota, part of the order that built libraries in the Middle Ages, preserving and reproducing Bibles by hand, along with psalters, books of martyrs, and Greek and Arabic philosophy.

So Stewart knew his responsibility in Timbuktu. He had to save the ancient manuscripts.

When the shooting stopped, Stewart spent the next two days training Malians to run a mobile digitization studio to preserve the more than 300,000 Islamic manuscripts that al-Qaeda might have destroyed.

“We don’t always know trouble is coming, but we have a history of being there just in time,” Stewart said. “People can say it’s serendipity, but I believe in providence.”

Stewart joined the Benedictines in 1981 and now serves at executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s. He has rescued documents in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, as well as Egypt, Ethiopia, and India—saving biblical texts and some of the most significant documents for the church in the Middle East, as well as Muslim texts.

Unlike manuscript hunters of the past, he leaves the treasure behind. He trains local leaders to preserve their heritage, and in exchange they allow him to make the documents available online. His status as a Catholic priest has opened doors where others would fail.

“Our team has worked with them to ensure that their deposits of wisdom, their libraries of handwritten texts, the voices of their past, can join the global conversations of the digital era,” Stewart said in a recent speech. “And we do it side-by-side, as equals.”

The St. John’s library now hosts the largest digital collection of old manuscripts in the world, including 250,000 full books and 75 million individual handwritten pages.

The library won the National Medal of Honor from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2011. This October, Stewart received a $10,000 honorarium from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—the highest honor bestowed by the US government for intellectual achievement.

Daniel Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) in Texas, thinks the awards are well deserved. He sought Stewart’s advice, early on, as the CSNTM began efforts to digitize 5,500 ancient copies of the Greek New Testament manuscripts, and along the way discovered 75 previously unknown to scholars.

“Only a fraction of the works written before Gutenberg’s invention still exist, and they all are deteriorating,” Wallace said. “We are losing contact with our past.”

The CSNTM focuses on preserving scripture. The HMML started with a focus on European texts, fearing what would be lost in a nuclear war, but has expanded its mission to include the preservation of non-Western manuscripts. The two projects compliment each other, according to Wallace.

“The Christian faith has always been a ‘bookish’ religion,” he said, “but sola scriptura does not mean that the Bible is our only book.”

Preserving a variety of texts gives scholars a more robust understanding of history, too. “To ignore the milieu in which the Bible was written and later received is to ignore the work of God in the world,” Wallace said.

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Source: Christianity Today