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The case of the hidden colophon

Starting with a mysterious text, Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, ushers in a new way to analyze old documents.

The 21 people seated in the Special Collections Research Center’s new seminar room stare at two plasma-screen displays on the front wall, each projecting the same ancient images from an open book—amid Greek calligraphy are gold, red, blue, and black illuminations of men with page-boy hairstyles, wearing tunics, one piercing Christ on the cross with a spear, four others kneeling. The yellowed but sharply delineated pages fill the 50-inch screens. “What you see in front of you are two images of a real thing,” says Divinity School and Humanities professor Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, “a hand codex of the Gospel according to Mark, which is this big.” As she picks up a 3x5-inch, brown, cracked leather–bound manuscript and the right-screen image disappears, the audience collectively gasps.

IMAGE:  Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, shows off Archaic Mark on one of Special Collections’ 50-inch plasma screens.
Photo by Dan Dry

Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, shows off Archaic Mark on Special Collections’ 50-inch plasma screens.

The Humanities Open House group may be surprised to realize they’d been viewing a real book, or perhaps it’s that the volume Mitchell holds is so much smaller than it appeared on the screen. Either way, both the older enthusiasts up front and the younger graduate students in back are impressed. “Who held this?” Mitchell asks, flipping through the codex, Manuscript 972 in Special Collections’s Goodspeed New Testament collection. “Who commissioned it? Who created it? Whose pocket, whose knapsack? Where was the artifact placed?”

Manuscript 972, known as Archaic Mark, was brought to the University in 1937 by Edgar J. Goodspeed, DB’1897, PhD’1898, who taught at Chicago for more than 35 years. Each summer, Mitchell says, Goodspeed traveled to Europe hoping to bring back realia to build the University’s early-Christian collection. Sometimes he’d receive an overseas package and open it in his classroom, where his students oohed and ahhed.

Similarly awed by Archaic Mark seven decades later, Mitchell, manuscript in hand, summarizes Mark’s story—the earliest gospel written, according to most scholars—reading aloud the Greek and then translating: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Mark opens with Jesus’s ministry in Galilee (not his birth or young adulthood) and ends with his post-resurrection appearance there.

The first to write Jesus of Nazareth’s story, Mitchell says, “Mark was the progenitor of a Christian literary culture.” His “media revolution,” she argues, was to give readers a “privileged point of view on the action.” No longer “is authority only in that little band [of disciples] that followed Jesus,” she says, “but the reader is sitting in the front seat.” The codex, or book format, rather than the common scrolls, allowed readers to carry texts with them and, later, to compare the four gospels in one volume.

But Manuscript 972 isn’t interesting only for its narrative or its format. It is a “codicological enigma,” Mitchell says, that has puzzled scholars for years as they’ve tried to date it. Some argue, based on the manuscript’s hand, that it’s a 14th-century text. Other experts say it’s more likely from the 19th century. A chemical analysis, for example, showed that the blue pigment used in Archaic Mark is iron-based. Such Prussian blue ink, examined by art-history professor Robert S. Nelson in 1989, was first made in Berlin around 1704.

The manuscript’s text follows the important 4th-century Codex Vaticanus so closely that some scholars suggest it must be based on a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, published in 1889–90. Others, such as Ernest Cadman Colwell, PhD’30, who taught at the Divinity School, believed Archaic Mark’s closeness to the 4th-century text may mean it’s a representation of one of the gospel’s earliest text-types. Scholars also have analyzed the manuscript’s image iconography and textual curiosities, such as abbreviations and markings.

Most such texts, Mitchell notes, include multiple gospels, often all four, for comparison. Manuscript 972 includes only Mark, which may reflect that gospel’s 18th-century repopularization “as a key source for the historical Jesus.” Moreover, no one can trace Archaic Mark’s history before 1917, when an Athens Byzantine collector died and his private collection was publicized.

One of the codex’s mysteries thoroughly interested Goodspeed. Although it ends on a verso, with the last word, “Amen,” tapering downward for dramatic effect, the facing blank recto is scored for writing. Goodspeed and his colleagues, Mitchell says, believed there was a colophon, an inscription bearing the scribe’s “sign-off,” obscured beneath the scoring. Goodspeed even wrote a novel—The Curse of the Colophon (Willett, Clark & Company, 1935)—about a manuscript ending with an inscribed curse. In a 1973 Special Collections report Robert W. Allison, PhD’75, wrote that a “long since erased,” indecipherable colophon is on that last page, “now visible only under ultra-violet light.”

It’s unclear from the report if Goodspeed or Allison actually viewed the page under ultraviolet light. Today no letters are visible, even under magnification, but the scores for writing are clear. If there is a colophon, it may include details suggesting the codex’s date. And now that the University has better technology than ultraviolet light, an answer may be near.

Mitchell is collaborating with other faculty, Special Collections, the Digital Library Development Center, and the Digital Media Lab to digitize the Goodspeed manuscripts, beginning with Archaic Mark. Scanned at high resolutions, each page can be viewed closer than ever before, using Zoomify software that Mitchell demonstrates for the Humanities Open House audience. Placing the codex back on the console so the document camera again displays it on the screen, she zooms in two, four, six, eight times, until a decorative initial “A” (likely added after the original penmanship) fills the screen, and lines and dots that would escape a human eye appear clearly.

Through the digitizing project, funded by the Women’s Board and the provost’s Academic Technology Innovation program, Chad Kainz, senior director of academic technologies for NSIT, may be able to highlight the layers of Archaic Mark’s last page with different colors, and, using 3-D glasses and other technology, perhaps finally solve the colophon conundrum.

The thought makes Mitchell almost giddy. After all, when she joined the University (and her husband, Richard Rosengarten, AM’88, PhD’94, dean of the Divinity School) in 1998, she looked forward to teaching with the Goodspeed collection. “I believe in the ethos of the greats” such as Goodspeed and his colleagues, she says. She’s captivated by the tales of Goodspeed traveling in search of manuscripts and sharing his spoils in class. “The medium is so crucial to how people understand these texts,” she says. “I want my students to have that experience.”

And now they will. Her spring quarter Gospel of Mark students will complete parts of the digitizing project, designing annotations for one leaf or writing papers on Archaic Mark’s illuminations. Viewing the text online, the students won’t have to wait to pass around the tiny book when Mitchell brings them to Special Collections, as previous classes did. And the Zoomify technology lets them study the text up close while preserving the actual artifact. Mitchell realizes that digitizing a manuscript doesn’t replace it—“you can’t hold a digital item”—but in fact “creates a new learning tool.” She calls it a modern media revolution, akin to Mark’s sweeping textual advances so long ago.—A.M.B.



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