“In the beginning was the Word,” reads John 1:1, and lest anyone forget that during the rock-star crowds and apocalypse-level shutdown of the city during the papal visit, Penn Museum’s new exhibition serves as a stunning reminder. “Sacred Writings: Extraordinary Texts of the Biblical World” offers three and a half millennia’s worth of words relating to both the Old and New Testaments.

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“We wanted to pick out a couple of iconic items from our collection that would resonate with visitors to the city who were drawn here by the Pope’s presence,” explains Dr. Steve Tinney, Associate Curator-in-Charge of the Penn Museum’s Near East Section. The two centerpiece items for the exhibition are one of the world’s oldest fragments of the gospel of Saint Matthew, a papyrus page dating from the third century CE; and a 3,500-year-old Sumerian cuneiform clay tablet containing the earliest version of the Mesopotamian flood story, predating Noah and his ark.

“Everybody who sees these pieces has this sense of awe when they’re in their presence,” Tinney says. “These are handwritten manuscripts created by people who were practicing the worship of these religions at the time, so being with them is much more intimate than what you get with books.”

To supplement these two pieces, the Penn Libraries are contributing a number of related items from their rare Bible and medieval manuscript collections ,offering different versions of the same two writings spanning thousands of years, including the first complete Bible printed in the New World. 

“This exhibit gives people a sense of how these texts and stories are transmitted over time,” says Dr. Mitch Fraas, Curator for Special Collections at the Penn Libraries. “Religions are built around texts. So these very early examples draw you back to when these texts were being formed and created and give you a sense of the depth of tradition.”

"Sacred Writings: Extraordinary Texts of the Biblical World" is at the Penn Museum, 3260 South St., from Aug. 15 through Nov. 7. Museum admission is $10-$15.