Greek Orthodox hieromonk Father Justin, librarian of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, has a homecoming of sorts whenever he visits Baylor University, where his parents attended in the 1940s, but his visit this week enables an even more special homecoming: the return of a 17th-century Greek psalter from a former St. Catherine’s monk.
Several Baylor connections are making the homecoming possible. Associate professor of classics Jeff Fish, whose parents were friends with Justin’s parents, has both a friendship with Justin and, as a scholar of biblical papyri, a shared interest in ancient biblical documents. It is the latter that brought Fish in contact with Baylor alumnus and Florida anesthesiologist Adrian Herren, a collector of rare and ancient Bibles, who had acquired the psalter from an English rare book dealer some 20 years ago.
When informed of the St. Catherine’s link between the psalter and the monastery’s present librarian, the 71-year-old Herren willingly agreed to give it to Justin, and he and his wife Barbara, a Baylor grad as well, traveled from Pensacola, Florida, to do so on Thursday.
“I felt it was a good time to send it back,” Herren said with a chuckle.
The book, bound in leather and with worm holes around its margins, was created by 17th-century Monk Paisios as a devotional used in individual and monastery prayers. Written in a tight, well-measured hand in a still strong black ink, the psalter has occasional graphic flourishes in the margins — small doodles — and red notation of headings for psalms important for monastery devotions.
Paisios took the psalter with him when sent to a sister monastery in Rhodes, Greece, where he was later named metropolitan, or bishop. Some time after his death, the book became separated from the Rhodes monastery and, centuries later, ended up in a group of ancient books and Bibles sold and resold by rare book dealers.
Herren, who studied Greek and Hebrew while at Baylor, has collected Bibles and rare biblical manuscripts over the years. The book dealer that passed on the psalter told him its handwritten nature meant a firm date could not be fixed and it was hard to sell to other dealers.
“I really didn’t want it, but I bought it,” Herren said.
After Herren bought it, he had a British antiquities expert examine a crescent moon watermark on one of its pages and was informed the watermark was one used under the Ottoman Empire. More surprises were found behind a rear flyleaf, where pages of Biblical text and sermons written in Syriac had been compacted.
It is an important addition to the monastery library, Justin said. St. Catherine’s, located at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, holds a trove of ancient Christian manuscripts second only to the Vatican’s in size, age and breadth, he said.
A much shorter journey of only a few decades brought Justin, 69, to the library that he has helped bring into the digital age and, as a result, connected it to scholars and holdings around the world.
Born in Fort Worth to Baylor alumni, Justin grew up in Chile where his parents served as missionaries. They returned to the United States in 1958 to work with a Baptist Spanish-language publishing house in El Paso.
“I grew up with machines and letter presses,” said the monk who is conversant in digitization and internet connectivity as well as centuries-old handwritten texts written on parchment and paper.
Justin graduated from the University of Texas in 1971 and found his religious reading pulling him forward.
“I became fascinated with the Byzantine world and church history, and then I read ‘The Desert Fathers.’ That was the beginning of my journey to the Orthodox Church,” he said. “In my life, they’re all connected.”
He joined the desert monastery, the oldest continually inhabited Christian monastery, in 1996. A hieromonk, a monk also ordained as a priest, he progressed from handling its publications to maintaining its library and its 3,300 manuscripts.
Justin played a part in the Codex Sinaiticus Digitization Project, in which digitized copies of the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest existing Biblical manuscripts, were collected from several museums holding parts of it and assembled into a single copy. Eight years ago, Justin gave Baylor two reproductions of the assembled work for students to study.
He is now involved in the Sinai Palimpsests Project, in which multi-spectral imaging is used to find once-erased texts lying under readable texts, which not only expands the ancient writings available for scholars, but extends them further back in history.
It is that intersection of ancient Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Latin writings with computer technology that brings Justin to Baylor for lectures such as those he is giving this week, he said.
Baylor, with its Christian component in its education, attracts the type of students who can carry current research and study of the Bible and its history into the future.
“I don’t want this to be seen as something beyond their reach,” Justin said.
This time, however, he will return to the monastery with an object of study that he hopes leads to more books returning to the fold.
“We want this to be a precedent,” he said of the psalter’s return. “It’s an important key.”