A Sefer Torah in the Bologna Library May Be the Oldest Known Torah Scroll

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Italian scholar Mauro Perani dated this Sefer Torah scroll from the University of Bologna Library to the 12–13th centuries C.E., making the manuscript the world’s oldest extant Sefer Torah. Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna/AP

Italian scholar Mauro Perani recently discovered what he believes to be the oldest complete Torah scroll. The recently-dated Sefer Torah—a handwritten Torah scroll containing the full texts of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—was written between 1155 and 1225 C.E. The monumental value of the sheepskin document went unnoticed for over a century; in 1889, it was mistakenly cataloged in the University of Bologna Library as a 17th-century Sefer Torah. While compiling a catalog of Hebrew manuscripts held at the library, Perani recognized that the script on the nearly 120-foot-long scroll was significantly older than its catalog date. Furthermore, the scroll did not follow scribal standards established at the turn of the 13th century by Maimonides, the foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism. The paleographic analysis was followed by carbon-14 tests at the University of Salento and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which confirmed the 12–13th-century date.

The Sefer Torah is the oldest known complete Torah scroll; however, it is not the oldest extant Torah. The Aleppo and Leningrad Codices, each of which contained the complete text of the Hebrew Bible, were written up to two centuries before the University of Bologna Torah scroll. The tenth-century Aleppo Codex, a 760-page parchment manuscript, was the oldest complete Biblical text containing the version that was ultimately selected and accepted as the most authoritative text in Judaism. The text was complete with vowel signs, punctuation, notations for liturgical chanting and textual notes. However, it was damaged and pages were lost during riots in Aleppo in 1947.* The Leningrad Codex, written around 1010 C.E., is now the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Both the Aleppo and Leningrad volumes are codices (books with pages or leaves), which are different from scrolls. In a BAR article discussing the Leningrad Codex,** scholars James A. Sanders and Astrid Beck write:

As early as the first century C.E., Christian scholars began transmitting their holy works in codices rather than scrolls, and by the third century the codex was standard. In the Jewish world, however, the codex was not adopted until about the seventh century. The traditional scroll, or roll book (Latin uolumen, from which our word “volume” comes), continues to be used today for reading the sacred text in synagogues. These scrolls for reading the sacred text, however, contain only the five books of Moses. No scroll is big enough to contain the entire Hebrew Bible.


Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In a free eBook, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism when you download our FREE Dead Sea Scrolls eBook.

While the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices are the oldest complete versions of the Hebrew Bible, synagogue tradition dictates that the weekly Torah portion be read from a scroll, known as a Sefer Torah. The University of Bologna Library scroll serves as the oldest extant Sefer Torah. However, many questions remain. Where was the scroll written, and how did it end up in Bologna? A Bologna University Library press release, published on Facebook on Tuesday, May 28, highlighted the city’s extended relationship with historical Torah manuscripts:

This discovery seems to confirm the bond that binds to double-strand Bologna and the Torah: it was in the city of Bo-lan-yah, the dialect pronunciation which in Hebrew means: “In it houses the Lord”, where in 1482, the first edition of the Hebrew Pentateuch got printed, and today, it is Bologna to claim the oldest Torah-scroll to be hosted and preserved in its BUB-library. In 1546, art. 50 of the Statutes of a Jewish charity confraternity, constituted in that year, paraphrased the verse of Isaiah 2,3: “For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah” saying: “For out of Bologna shall go forth the Torah”, referring to the editio princeps of the most sacred text that Judaism possesses, printed 62 years earlier in their town.

Click here to read the press release as it was posted by Mauro Perani.



* Yosef Ofer, “The Shattered Crown: The Aleppo Codex, 60 Years After the Riots,” BAR, September/October 2008.

** Astrid Beck and James A Sanders, “The Leningrad Codex,” Bible Review, Aug 1997.


Related Content in the BAS Library

Ofer, Yosef. The Shattered Crown: The Aleppo Codex, 60 Years After the Riots,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep/Oct 2008, 38-49.

Minkoff, Harvey. “The Aleppo Codex.” Bible Review, Aug 1991, 22-27, 38-40.

Beck, Astrid, Sanders, James A. “The Leningrad Codex.” Bible Review, Aug 1997, 32-41, 46.

Crown, Alan D. “The Abisha Scroll—3,000 Years Old?.” Bible Review, Oct 1991, 12-21, 39.

Shanks, Hershel. “Scrolls, Scripts and Stelae.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep/Oct 2002, 24-27, 29-30, 32-34, 68.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related Content in Bible History Daily

For dozens of articles on the world’s most famous scroll collection, visit our Dead Sea Scrolls page.

For more on early Torah manuscripts, read:

Comparing Ancient Biblical Manuscripts

The Aleppo Codex Online

Travelogue of the Aleppo Codex

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  1. Raimo says

    A bit surprising that even in 1889 it would have been dated that badly wrong; the writing material itself should have showed that a late date like then claimed could not have been right.

  2. james says

    It then seems that the historian/scholar didn’t know or didn’t realize the signifcance of proper analysis in 1889. Maybe he didn’t have the information available to him for age such items. If that was so, what else did he or they mis-age?

  3. JAllan says

    Because of the traditional way in which the Torah is read in the synagogue, the scroll is the most appropriate because it automatically maintains the “page” for the next session (the entire Torah is read in a year, in sequence), much like a tape cassette automatically “remembers” where to resume playing.

    Early Christians, however, like ministers and missionaries today, needed to access passages at random while talking to potential converts or instructing fellow church members, so the codex (like a diskette, CD ROM, or thumb drive) can be turned quickly to any desired page. Of course, it needs a bookmark for the kind of sequential liturgical use comparable to the Torah scroll, but it can also hold SEVERAL bookmarks for favorite passages. The format is so versatile that it came to be used for almost all secular writing as well.

  4. DALLAS says

    The continuing use of the scroll for the Torah also helps to distinguish it from and elevate it in authority compared to the N”K (Prophets and Writings), which have been packaged a codexes (books) since early medieval times.

  5. Eyal says


    Here’s another article relating to this piece.

  6. Eric says

    I wonder if this Torah was actually used in a shul.

    It has marginalia – either Masoretic notes or corrections – which AFAIK are never seen in Sifrei Torah used for ritual purposes.

    Here’s the image:


  7. Mauro says

    It is not strange that Leonello Modona, the cataloguer of the Sefer Torah of the late nineteenth century, has not become aware of the antiquity of roll, and this for the following reasons:

    1. codicology and Hebrew palaeography were born as science in the sixties of the last century (20th);

    2. the previous cataloguer had a clear idea of the characteristics of Sifre Torah exclusively based on the tradition which became unique and canonized from the 13th century up to present, and he seeing a totally different previous tradition remained disoriented;

    3. around the same years in which appeared the old catalog of the Hebrew manuscripts kept in the Library of the University of Bologna (1889) were discovered many Hebrew manuscripts in the famous Genizah of Cairo, including many texts written in ancient square oriental writing of the 10th-12th centuries, similar to that of the Sefer of Bologna, but they were known to the general public, many decades later;

    4. as happened for the system of putting vowels and accents on the consonantal Hebrew text of the Bible, before to be acknowledged as unique that used by the rabbinic schools of Tiberias, did exist also another one called Babylon, in the same way it happened for the graphic tradition of how to write the scroll of the Pentateuch.

    There was an Eastern graphic-textual oriental tradition of south-west or Palestinian, already present in embryonic form in the Mishnah and the Talmud (Menachot), which was confirmed in the external treaty Masseket soferim (8th century), which since the 12th -13th centuries prevailed, as the unique one, supplanting the other;

    But there was also a different oriental graphic and esthetic tradition of north-east namely Babylonian, fixed in the 8th century in the Sefer Tagin, read and cited by Sa’adia Ga’on (9th -10th centuries) in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, which is exactly the system fully adopted by the Sefer Torah in Bologna.

    For various reasons, from sec. 12th-13th the Babylonian system disappeared, supplanted by the Tiberian one, which became the only one which the copyists should follow.

    In both systems the crowns or tagin are placed upon different Hebrew letters, and the letters in particular curled form are different, as well as other characteristics permitted in the Babylonian system, but that will become absolutely forbidden in the Palestinian system, such as the use of graphic fillers for justification of the left at the end of every line, the use of a final nun in the margins, the use of erase texts and add in the margins, etcetera, all present in the Sefer Torah found in Bologna.

    Mauro Perani

Continuing the Discussion

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