A Model Hebrew Bible Manuscript
BEFORE the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the earliest known Hebrew Bible manuscripts—apart from a few fragments—were from the late 9th to the 11th century C.E. That is barely a thousand years ago. Does this mean that before 1947 the Hebrew text of the Bible was uncertain? And why were there so few ancient Hebrew manuscripts?
To consider that last question first, under the orthodox Jewish system, any Hebrew Bible manuscript considered too worn for further use was locked away in a genizah, a storeroom in the synagogue. Later, the accumulated worn manuscripts were taken out and buried. The Jews did this to prevent their Scriptures from being profaned or misused. Why? Because they contained the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew letters representing the sacred name of God, which is commonly presented in English as “Jehovah.”
For the most part, the ancient Hebrew text has been faithfully transmitted from earliest times. For example, there was an important Hebrew manuscript, called the Keter, the “Crown,” that originally contained all the Hebrew Scriptures, or the “Old Testament.” It was guarded in the oldest synagogue of an ancient, small community of Jews living in Aleppo, Syria, a predominantly Muslim town. Earlier, this manuscript had been left to the Karaite Jews in Jerusalem, but it was captured by the Crusaders in 1099. Later, the manuscript was regained and taken to Old Cairo, Egypt. It reached Aleppo by at least the 15th century and subsequently became known as the Aleppo Codex. This manuscript, dated back to at least 930 C.E., was considered the crown of Masoretic scholarship, as its name implies. It is a fine example to illustrate the care taken in the transmission of the Bible text and was, indeed, a model Hebrew manuscript.
In more modern times, the guardians of this outstanding manuscript, superstitiously fearing the desecration of their sacred object, would not allow it to be consulted by scholars. Moreover, since only a single leaf was ever photographed, a facsimile edition could not be published for study.
When the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948, riots broke out in Aleppo against the Jews. Their synagogue was burned; the precious codex disappeared and was presumed destroyed. What a surprise, then, some ten years later, to learn that about three quarters of it had survived and been smuggled out of Syria to Jerusalem! In 1976 a fine facsimile edition of 500 copies in full color was finally issued.
The Work of a Master
Why is this manuscript so important? Because its original consonantal text was corrected and punctuated by about 930 C.E. by Aaron ben Asher, one of the most celebrated scholars trained in copying and transmitting the Hebrew Bible. It was therefore a model codex, setting the standard for future copies made by less skilled scribes.
Originally it contained 380 folios (760 pages) and was written generally in three columns on parchment sheets. It now consists of 294 folios and lacks most of the Pentateuch and the final section, comprising Lamentations, Song of Solomon, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah. It is cited as “Al” in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—Reference Bible (Joshua 21:37, footnote). Moses Maimonides (depicted here), a renowned medieval Jewish scholar of the 12th century C.E., pronounced the Aleppo Codex the best he had ever seen.*
The Hebrew text copied by hand from the 13th through the 15th century was a mixed one drawn from two major Masoretic text families, the Ben Asher and the Ben Naphtali. In the 16th century, Jacob ben Hayyim produced the text for a printed Hebrew Bible derived from this mixed tradition, and this became the basis for nearly all Hebrew Bibles printed for the next 400 years.
With the third edition in 1937 of the Biblia Hebraica (the printed Hebrew text), the Ben Asher tradition was consulted as it was preserved in a manuscript kept in Russia, known as the Leningrad B 19A. The Leningrad B 19A dates from 1008 C.E. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem plans to publish the Aleppo Hebrew text in full over a period of time, along with readings from all other important manuscripts and versions, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Bible text we use today is reliable. It was divinely inspired and was transmitted over the centuries by scribal copyists who worked with meticulous skill. The extreme care of these copyists is seen in that comparisons between the Isaiah scroll found beside the Dead Sea in 1947 and the Masoretic text show surprisingly few differences, even though the Dead Sea Scroll is more than a thousand years older than the oldest extant Masoretic Bible. Moreover, now that the Aleppo Codex is available to scholars, it will provide even more reason for confidence in the authenticity of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. Truly, “as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.”—Isaiah 40:8.
For some years certain scholars doubted that the Aleppo Codex was the manuscript punctuated by Ben Asher. However, since the codex has been available for study, evidence has been forthcoming that it is the actual Ben Asher manuscript mentioned by Maimonides.
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Jewish Division / The New York Public Library / Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations