A Book of Life

“In principio erat verbum . . .” Beautiful, majestic words that open John’s Gospel. And, beautifully written in an insular hand in the late seventh century.

The British Library announced that it had raised 9 millions pounds ($13.2 million) to purchase the oldest intact book in the western world: A copy of the Gospel According to John written around AD 698 and in a state of near-perfect preservation. Here is a description from the library’s website:

The St Cuthbert Gospel (formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel) is the oldest intact European book. Made in the late-7th century, the manuscript contains a copy of the Gospel of St John, and was apparently placed in the coffin of St Cuthbert (c. 635–687) when he was re-interred at Lindisfarne in 698. Cuthbert’s coffin was subsequently removed to Durham, where it was opened in September 1104 on the occasion of the translation of his remains, and the book discovered inside:”Ewangelium Iohannis quod inuentum fuerat ad capud beati patris nostri Cuthberti in sepulcro iacens anno translacionis ipsius” (13th century note added on f. ii verso: “The Gospel of John which was found at the head of our blessed father Cuthbert lying in his tomb in the year of his translation”). . . An account of the miracles performed by St Cuthbert, composed at Durham in the 1120s or 1130s, records that when the outer lid of the coffin was raised in 1104, the monks saw “a book of the Gospels lying at the head of the board.” During a sermon preached on the day of the translation, Ranulf Flambard, bishop of Durham (1099–1128), showed the people a Gospel of St John in miraculously perfect condition, which had a satchel-like container of red leather with a badly-frayed sling made of silken threads. According to Reginald of Durham, writing in the 1160s or 1170s, William FitzHerbert, archbishop of York (1141–1147, 1153–1154), was shown a manuscript, apparently the St Cuthbert Gospel, when visiting Cuthbert’s tomb at Durham in 1153 or 1154.

St. Cuthbert was likely not covered in any of your church history classes. He was a monastic in the Irish tradition, perhaps of noble birth but living the life of itinerant evangelist, and later bishop, abbot, and finally hermit. He is associated with many of the ecclesial sites of northern England, including Ripon, York, Hexham, Lindisfarne (Holy Island), and finally his place of burial, Durham. I had a chance to visit all these places, many of which still have a rugged, medieval feel and architecture that, in some cases, goes back nearly to Cuthbert himself. A couple hundred years later, faithful monks carried his body from place to place for seven (of course) years, keeping it from marauding Vikings, until they built a shrine at Durham. This shrine became a major place of pilgrimage, resulting in enough people tossing in coins in hopes of a miracle that they could build a cathedral cool enough to be featured throughout the Harry Potter movies. The gorgeous Lindisfarne Gospels were probably created in his honour, and about 100 years after his death Lindisfarne Abbey itself became the first monastery raided by the cruel Norsemen.  And now, a little Gospel book written to honour him was just purchased by the British Library for about $13.2 million. Quite a trail of monuments for someone that you’ve never heard of.

But back to the manuscript (the entire ms is online in full color). If you know anything about biblical manuscripts, you probably know about the Dead Sea Scrolls, maybe Codex Sinaiticus. But we don’t actually know a whole lot about those manuscripts, like who made them or why they made them. We know exactly when and, it seems, why this copy of John was made: It was produced to be buried with a saint. In Cuthbert’s shrine was also found, mostly intact, his wooden coffin with carvings of the apostles adorning it, a silk stole, and, if I remember right, a bishop’s crozier (though that may not go back to the original burial). They are on display at Durham Cathedral (I couldn’t find images online). Why produce a copy of the gospel only to bury it? Did the saint make the word holy, or did the word make the saint holy?

There are four, and only four, brief marginal notations in the ms.:

At John 5:21 “pro defunctis” (“For the dead”): “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.”

At John 6:37  “pro defunctis” (“For the dead”):”All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

At John 6:51 “de mortuorum” (“about the dead”): “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

At John 11:21 “de mortuorum” (“about the dead”): “Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”



It seems that even in the seventh century, in the face of death, they turned to the Word — for resurrection.








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