The Bibles, written in Greek and bought by art collector Charles L. Freer in the early 1900s, date from the third and fourth centuries. They are seldom on display because of their fragility and sensitivity to light.
One Bible, now known as the “Washington Codex,” contains additional material, a logion, attached to the Gospel of Mark.
The “Freer logion” is attributed to Jesus, and, according to a museum translation, says while “‘other terrible things draw near,’ Satan’s power on earth is ended.” This logion has not been found in any other known version.
The discovery of this additional phrase caused much excitement and controversy among historians and ministers in 1912 when a scholar, Professor Henry Sanders, published a piece about it. Clippings from the period showed a split between a popular enthusiasm regarding an undiscovered biblical fragment, and skepticism from religious experts.
The Bibles were purchased from Al Arabi, an antiquities dealer in Giza, who was probably working with an “opportunistic digger” that he paid for his findings, said Lee Glazer, associate curator of American Art.
Freer himself was suspicious of Al Arabi and his sources of antiques, according to his letters. But he decided, Glazer said, that he “would not benefit by probing into that too deeply. It’s better for that to remain a secret.”
She added, “These were totally unauthorized excavations, by the way. But it’s not a problem for us because it happened a long time ago,” prior the 1970s.
Glazer said the theory of the Bibles’ origins “is that these manuscripts originated in a Greek monastery near Cairo then were either removed from their site of production ... either lost, buried, hidden, put somewhere else, and so the site of the find was probably different from the site of production.”
The Bibles came into Freer’s hands with sand amid their pages, discovered when they were unpacked from a shoebox at Freer’s mansion in Detroit.
Freer had his experts restore them from their desiccated state and examine them for authenticity. When in Cairo, he had promised Al Arabi a gold watch if they were proven to be authentic, and the next year, he returned to Egypt with the promised watch.
The Bibles are on display in the Freer’s Peacock Room.
Normally on the third Thursday of each month, the museum opens the shutters for visitors to enjoy the ornate room, designed by James Whistler, in natural light. But the shutters won’t be opened again until Feb. 20, after the Bibles have been removed.