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.

 


 
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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.
 


 

Notes

* 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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  • Adam says

    Any idea how much this would be worth? I mean a 120 foot long 11th century Hebrew manuscript on sheep skin. Must be worth a lot.

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