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Paper: The Digital Materiality of Early Christian Visual Culture: Building on John 20:24-29

Heath, Sebastian , Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University,

This paper explores the nature of digital materiality as it resides in the visual and written culture of Early Christianity. Within archaeology and related disciplines, “materiality” is a theoretical approach that focuses on physical things - such as objects, books, or buildings - as one starting point for building an understanding of past thought and behavior (White 2009). As a term, "digital materiality" does not yet have a fixed meaning and can refer to the physical manifestations of the computer age (Manoff 2006), to the processes by which digital representations become physical architecture (Gramazio and Kohler 2008) or to the effects of digital information in the modern world (Leonardi 2010). Here, I mean "digital materiality" as the transport of information about the material culture of past societies, and particularly the material culture of Early Christianity. Looking for fluid relationships between thought and object in ancient evidence suggests that "digital materiality" is an appropriate metaphor for both recovering past interactions with material culture and for describing the role of networked information in modern archaeological and art historical scholarship. It is this intersection of past and present that is of particular interest. While stressing potential, this paper also looks to the practical consequences of current efforts to digitize ancient activity that survives in material form.

Existing virtual representations have already exposed clear overlaps between the written word as object and the manifestation of those concepts in visual media. The Codex Sinaiticus is a fourth century codex bible removed from Saint Catharine’s monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt in the 19th century and now largely in the British Museum. Its early date makes it plausibly the first extant bible as that term is conceived in Christian terms. Most of the surviving pages of the codex are available online at the site . Among the passages found there is John 20:24-29, where the disciple Thomas, of “doubting Thomas” fame, demands to touch the wounds of the resurrected Jesus when he appears to his followers. The passage ends with the exhortation, “20:29. Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The traction this concept had in Early Christian culture is clear from a hammered gold disk produced in Egypt and now in the collection of the American Numismatic Society that has a stable digital representation available at the URI . This physical object quotes the text of John 20:29 while illustrating Thomas in the act of touching Christ. This paper stresses that the modern opportunity to engage in such a self-referential illustration of the materiality of thought in the Later Roman Mediterranean is a serendipitous result of independent efforts to digitize the material record of that time and place. Just as the creation of the surviving material record should be recognized as the cumulative action of many individuals, it is likely that exploration of that record will be enabled by many projects and institutions working within their own areas of expertise and with content specific to their domain (Heath 2010, Terras 2010). It is the interactions of a series of self-digitizing and independent communities – here Early Christian textual studies and Numismatics – that can recover relationships between physical object and human thought that is a primary goal of materiality as a methodological approach.

It is, of course, important to recognize that while the Internet will make evident the material implications of past human thought and action, it will not of its own bring scholars into direct contact with the material culture they study. Digital Humanities as applied to archaeology and visual culture will usually mean working with surrogates: one cannot download an object, one can only see its representation . The network does not take us to a site, it only provides access to descriptions and pictures. Digital materiality is therefore an act of transmission (Liu 2004) so that its deficiencies leave it open to criticism.

Trends within the study of textual evidence as embodied in manuscripts suggest that this observation is not a barrier to analytical progress. Projects such as the Codex Sinaiticus digitization effort are showing that digital access to manuscripts is returning the material to a central place in the study of primary sources that had been abstracted in critical editions. The digitized page images show in great detail the large number of variants and corrections that make plain that written evidence for the ancient world does not exist independently of its physical media. The Homer Multi-Text project ( is self-consciously engaged in enabling virtual access to multiple manuscripts of the Iliad and Odyssey that range from the Hellenistic to Medieval periods. Such initiatives indicate that material and thought become meaningfully unified in a digital domain. Accordingly, digital materiality is not a poor substitute for direct autopsy of material culture. Rather than de-emphasizing the physical, Digital Humanities will bring it to the fore. But it needs to be pointed out that at this moment, the best critical editions of the New Testament (Aland and Nestle 2006, Aland et al. 2006), with rich apparatus for the Gospel of John, is not available online so that commercial interests are an impediment to to the study of the text, whether considered as an idealized abstraction or a material object. This suggests that the constituent components of both modern and ancient digital materiality are at a transitional point where "primary sources" are more accessible than "secondary works".

It is particularly important to stress this point when we recognize that it is no longer possible within archaeological scholarship to have hands-on access to all relevant material (Stewart 2008). To recall the ending sentiment of the doubting Thomas story, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This can be applied to the current state of archaeological and material studies and lightly reformulated as an invitation to both make use of the full potential of material and textual sources on the internet, and to aggressively pursue such availability.


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