New Old Torah Scroll

Even a sheet of an ancient scroll that is legible is a rare find worthy of exploration.

The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy) are summarily known as Torah (“Law,” in Hebrew). Traditionally ascribed to the prophet Moses, who received the word from God and wrote it down, these books are often referred to as the five books of Moses or Pentateuch (“five scrolls,” in Greek). They are one of the main sources of Jewish Law.

ASHKAR-GILSON 2 is a Torah scroll sheet possibly dated before 800 C.E. Unlike the new Library of
Congress manuscript, this fragment is not fully legible without the help of modern technologies.
Credit: Courtesy of David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

A scroll is comprised of a long series of individual sheets of papyrus or parchment glued together. Even after the ancient practice of writing on scrolls gave way to the invention of the codex—the predecessor of the modern book—the Jews retained the older technology of the scroll for liturgical purposes. To this day, the Torah scroll remains the central object in synagogue worship; it is housed in the Ark and brought forth for the public reading of the Bible.

Nevertheless, the oldest complete Torah manuscripts are in the codex form; the most authoritative being the famous Aleppo Codex, dating to about 920 C.E., and the St. Petersburg Codex (formerly, Leningrad Codex), which dates to 1009 C.E.

The few surviving Torah scrolls that are this old are all very fragmentary and almost illegible. It is thus exciting to find a very old, well-preserved Torah scroll, even if it’s only a fragment, a single sheet. One such treasure has recently augmented the collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. As Gary Rendsburg, Chair of Jewish History at Rutgers University, explains in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, this Torah manuscript is the oldest complete Torah scroll sheet fully legible to the naked eye.

Once part of a Torah scroll from circa 1000 C.E., this single sheet of parchment contains part of the Book of Exodus beginning with the Ten Plagues and ending with the first feeding of the Israelites with the “bread from heaven” in the wilderness (Exodus 10:10–16:15). “To our good fortune, and most unusually,” adds Rendsburg, “on the back of the sheet there is a bilingual inscription in Hebrew and Russian.”  The inscription tells the fate of the manuscript during the 19thcentury, when it evidently was brought from the Middle East to Crimea. Eventually, it was presented to a brother of Russian Czar Alexander II.

Song of the Sea

Penned around 1000 C.E., this precious Torah scroll sheet has recently been purchased by the Library of Congress. It contains the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1–18), usually arranged in a unique, “half-brick over brick, brick over half-brick” layout, recognizable here in the left column.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section

To uncover the mystery-shrouded history of this Torah scroll sheet, read the article “A Rare Torah in the Library of Congress” by Gary A. Rendsburg in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

More on Codices in the BAS Library:

“The Leningrad Codex”, Bible Review, August 1997

“The Aleppo Codex”, in Bible Review, August 1991

“Who Owns the Codex Sinaiticus?”, in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2007

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

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