January 27, 2023
The Special Collections and Archives at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Wright Library boasts more than 100,000 printed works and one-of-a-kind items including rare books, pamphlets, personal papers, research collections, and non-textual materials related to the history of Christianity. It’s part of what makes Wright Library one of the largest theological resource centers available, drawing academic scholars from around the world to research in its extensive collections. This academic year, the Special Collections and Archives gained two notable donations: a Lunar Bible and four Ethiopic texts.
Unlike a conventional Bible, a Lunar Bible is a small piece of microfilm plastic with every page of the King James Bible printed on it — all 1,245 of them. As such, the pages can only be read through a microfilm reader. The Lunar Bible donated to Princeton Seminary is one of only 100 that landed on the surface of the moon in 1971 (300 additional Lunar Bibles circled the moon in a capsule but didn’t land).
“The Lunar Bible arrived in mid-August, in a beautiful, elaborate case with lovely decorations,” says Brian Shetler, head of special collections and archives. “This is a significant addition to our collection as it’s an incredibly unique item—there are only 100 in existence, and not all of those are publicly available.” Plus, this particular copy is uniquely connected to Princeton Seminary in that it was dedicated to Carl McIntire, a popular 1950s-era religious radio host and founder of the Bible Presbyterian Church. A former Princeton Seminary student, McIntire’s entire archival collection is housed at the Seminary, including 700 boxes of his personal texts, much of which discuss his role in helping to launch the Lunar Bible project. “This completes that picture,” says Shetler.
The Special Collections and Archives is already home to an assortment of Coptic and Ethiopian liturgical books, which offer a unique perspective on Christianity featuring different saints, hymns, prayers, and songs. But the collection is enhanced by the acquisition of four new Ethiopic manuscripts: a psalter (Book of the Psalms); a liturgical text called “Miracles of Mary,” filled with hundreds of stories concerning miracles that Mary performed for those who invoked her name; a book adapted from scrolls hung in the home or church to ward off evil spirits; and a richly illustrated collection of stories, including those about a serpent king called Arwe. All four texts are in the Ge’ez language and likely from the 19th or early 20th century.
“These new texts are completely different from anything we have in our current collection,” says Shetler, noting that these are illustrated in a totally different style. “It’s incredibly valuable to be able to see the transition of artistry in person from one period to another. We previously were only able to discuss this in theory.”
If you ask Mary Farag, assistant professor of early Christian studies, these manuscripts offer students a view into a distinct Christian culture — even if they cannot read the language themselves. “The texts, though unreadable for most of our students, help us to appreciate the fine skills and long labor necessary for producing Christian literature and passing it along from generation to generation,” she says. “I hope that students’ theological imagination will be broadened by their experience of Ethiopic devotion to Christ and the Church through these manuscripts.”
Some students, like Ryan MacLean, MDiv student and special collections student assistant at the Wright Library, will work more closely with the texts. MacLean has been challenged with deciphering the texts’ liturgical function within Ethiopian religious life, uncovering the historical setting in which they were composed, interpreting their many beautiful illustrations, and translating the ancient Ethiopian Semitic language of Ge’ez in which they are composed. This is not only providing a real-world opportunity to apply his research skills, but it enhances his understanding of Christian traditions across the globe. “I have discovered that it is my duty to tell the story of these texts to the best of my ability,” he says. “In this way, we honor those forerunners of the faith who have done their best to preserve the story of their lives and its place in the grand narrative of our shared faith.”
In addition to the value these manuscripts bring to students and faculty, they’re also a coup for the Seminary itself. “Since we now have this growing collection of Ethiopic texts,” says Shetler, “this might become an area of study that Princeton Seminary becomes known for.”
“The rooting of justice in our spiritual formation in Christ requires careful thought and teaching. I was equipped to lead in this way through my time at PTS.”