In 1703, when Narcissus Marsh founded Marsh’s Library beside St Patrick’s Cathedral in the Liberties, religion was one of the hot topics of academic debate.
Marsh was an Anglican bishop, a linguist and a philosopher, and like many of his contemporaries, he was searching for answers about creation and which version of the Bible was the truth.
“These theologians recognised that the Bible was a very human document and had passed through many hands,” says Sue Hemmens, deputy director of Marsh’s Library, surrounded by tall, oak cases full of old books.
“At this stage in the late 17th century they were trying to zero in on the truest, most authentic version of the word of God,” she says.
Marsh was interested in lots of things: maths, music, and astronomy. But his main love was studying the Old Testament in Hebrew and other Near Eastern languages. He amassed a collection of 150 books in Hebrew and Yiddish, mostly biblical texts.
Over the centuries, the library added around 100 more Jewish books to Marsh’s original collection, and they recently launched an online exhibition of the texts. They are stained and faded or yellowing, and some have ornate illustrations.
Jason McElligott, director of Marsh’s Library, says some of the Jewish texts on exhibit are very rare.
“What we wanted to say with the exhibition is the library here in the south inner-city is part of the Liberties, but it also opens up into this wider world that you just wouldn’t expect,” he says.
The Word of God
Official church teaching in Marsh’s time was that the world had been created 4,000 years before Christ, says Hemmens.
But in the early 1700s that had become problematic. Europeans had come into contact with civilisations, like China, which were obviously older and had their own timelines, she says.
There were also clues in nature, like fossils. They were trying to understand a lot of things that didn’t quite fit with the church’s world view, she says.
They were questioning everything, and debating – but carefully. Stray too far into criticising the church’s view, or into atheism, and it could destroy a career or even end in an execution.
One of the main things that the early 18th-century scholars were trying to comprehend was creation itself, says Hemmens. That is why the Old Testament is so important.
“They were trying to fit the whole jigsaw together – the language, the time and the space,” she says. “They want to understand more about how the process of creation might have happened.”
Academic elites debated ideas through letters and pamphlets, she says. “They are having major controversies about it,” says Hemmens. “The big pamphlet wars about how things might have happened.”
In books, people were often careful of what they said, but the truth of their ideas and questions can be found in their letters, which were then passed around among the academics.
That way, “private thoughts creep into the public domain”, says Hemmens. “Just like we do with social media today.”
Scholars at the time often printed books with several different interpretations of the same passage from the Old Testament, presented together.
That way, people could get a better understanding of the passage, to facilitate debate.
Some of Marsh’s Jewish books are made up of several original texts – books within a book. One of those original texts was printed in Lisbon, within 30 years of the invention of printing, says McElligott.
With the help of colleagues in Columbia University in New York who have been tracing the “footprint” of old Jewish books, as they moved around the world, they were able to track that Hebrew book.
“This book printed in Lisbon in 1489 makes its way circuitously through Europe and ends up in Marsh’s Library,” he says.
Experts can trace the books because people often wrote in them, he says.
They know that their book, which started in Lisbon, was later in Rome, because a Catholic censor crossed out some lines that went against the church’s teaching, and then signed his name.
Restoring a Scroll
As well as the collection of Jewish books currently exhibited online, the library is currently working on restoring a Hebrew prayer scroll, which dates back to between 1702 and 1714.
“It is roughly contemporary with the establishment of the library,” says Hemmens.
The scroll, printed on an animal skin, contains a prayer for Queen Anne, the monarch of the day.
“In every synagogue, even today, all over the world, there is a prayer for the monarch or the head of state,” says McElligot. “So this is part of that tradition.”
It would have been on display prominently in the local synagogue, he says. The scroll may have been donated to the library when Queen Anne’s reign ended. The synagogue would then have replaced it with a different one, for King George, he says.
They are going to clean it up as best they can and put it on display in the library, he says.
“We are also going to get DNA testing done to date it and find out what the skin is from and hopefully even where the animal was reared,” says Hemmens. “I think it is absolutely fascinating and can’t wait to see what comes out of it.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 15 January 2020 at 15.23. An earlier version mistakenly said one of the texts was printed in Lisburn – rather than Lisbon. Sorry for the error.]
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