'Shaping of the Bible' exhibit
- We had received the exhibitor's (?) announcement for this exhibit; I almost
forwarded it to the list myself. But now, perhaps better yet, we have a
review article about it from the IHT.
>International Herald Tribune[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
>The shaping of the Bible
>By Souren Melikian
>Friday, December 8, 2006
>Muffled by the arid academic prose of the exhibition book, pure dynamite is
>laid out at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery until Jan. 7 under the title "In
>the Beginning." The subtitle meekly states that the show is about "Bibles
>before the year 1000," but as readers quickly find out, the sensational
>novelty of the exhibition lies in the earliest material remnants of the books
>revered by Judaism and Christianity gathered here for the first time ever.
>The plural, "Bibles," is not innocent. There never was just one "Bible," as
>Harry Gamble demonstrates in his chapter, "Bible and Book." To Judaism, the
>Bible consists of the five books of the Torah, the 21 books of the Nevi'im
>("prophets") and the 13 books of the Ketuvim ("writings") sometimes referred
>to as the "Tanak," from the three initials T-N-K.
>Yet, Gamble insists, "The Hebrew Bible was not the only form" of the Jewish
>Bible in Antiquity. Few in the Jewish communities dispersed around the
>Mediterranean by the 1st century A.D. knew Hebrew. In Palestine, it had long
>ceased to be the language of daily life in favor of Aramaic, another Semitic
>language, spoken across the Near East.
>The international language of culture that was spread in the wake of
>Alexander's conquests, in the late 4th century B.C., was Greek. A
>translation of the Bible into Greek in the 3rd century B.C. gained wide
>currency and became known as the "Septuagint" (from the Latin
>septuaginta for 70) because tradition has it that 72 Jewish translators were
>called to Alexandria by the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.).
>However, Gamble rectifies, this is a myth. Variations in style and accuracy
>prove that different parts "were translated at different times and places
>around the Eastern Mediterranean." To the translation of the Tanak, the
>Septuagint added 15 other Jewish texts, of which most were directly composed
>in Greek. The translations are themselves sometimes longer or shorter than
>the 39 Hebrew originals.
>The divergence was maintained in Christianity. Orthodoxy and Roman
>Catholicism recognize the Septuagint as the authentic version of the Old
>Testament. Protestant churches retain the Hebrew Bible translated into
>There is not much agreement about the exact period when the Jewish Bible
>actually took its textual form. The Genesis may have been written down by
>the early 1st millennium B.C. but the Hebrew Scriptures were destroyed by
>the Babylonians and reconstructed around 600 B.C.
>As for the earliest surviving material specimens, these are later by
>centuries. The first texts were written on rolls (or "scrolls"), books
>appearing only in the 4th century A.D., and not much has come down to us
>from these early times.
>A fragmentary scroll found in a cave at Khirbet Qumran ("The Qumran Ruins"
>in Arabic) on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea preserves a few lines
>from Isaiah copied before 73 B.C. Many similar fragments surfaced at Qumran,
>making the 1947 find by Arab shepherds a landmark in the history of Hebrew
>The other huge discovery made half a century earlier was that of manuscripts
>in the Genizah (store room) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue dating from 882 A.D.
>at Fustat, the early Islamic city near Cairo. There they lay, because in
>law, flawed manuscripts must be set aside. These included fragments of vellum
>scrolls with lines from the Genesis copied in the 5th or 6th century or
>A series of fascinating revelations came with the pages of a manuscript of
>which the vellum pages had been washed out to be used again. The earlier
>text, still legible, retains a literal translation of the Hebrew Bible
>made by Aquila around 125 A.D. A fragment in a 6th-century hand, on loan
>from Cambridge University Library, illustrates the continued prevalence of
>Greek as a cultural language in some Jewish circles at a time when Syriac
>(the modern version of Aramaic), had long been the spoken language across
>the Semitic Near East.
>Written over Aquila's half-washed translations, the later text reproduces
>Hebrew poetry by Yannai, a Near Eastern writer who composed one poem for
>every weekly portion of the Torah read in the synagogue. Few of his poems
>were known prior to the opening up of the Genizah. Hundreds have now
>The Hebrew specialist Ben Outhwaite remarks that, while the Cambridge
>fragment "overwrites Aquila on Kings, another piece of the quire overwrites
>the Gospel of John in the Christian Palestinian Aramaic version. The scribe
>who wrote Yannai's poetry put his codex together from whatever odd sheets
>he had to hand." This demonstrates the intermingling of communities from
>different religious backgrounds.
>Another Genizah fragment from Cambridge in the show yields a fundamental
>document. Two pages with the end of Nehemiah (13: 20-21) have a three-line
>colophon naming the scribe, Joseph ben Nimrod, the place, Gonbad-e Malgan,
>and the year 1215 in the Seleucid era corresponding to 903-904 A.D. This is
>"the earliest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript," Outhwaite notes.
>I would add that the manuscript format is identical to that of small Iranian
>Korans of the 10th century, pointing to shared aesthetics in the scriptorial
>tradition. The catalogue does not say that Gonbad-e Malgan is recorded in
>the 10th century by the geographer Muqaddasi as a town in a palm tree
>grove in the Iranian province of Fars. The presence of a calligrapher of
>consummate mastery copying a Hebrew Bible in a small place underlines
>the extensive presence of Jewish communities in Iran.
>Not least among its treasures, the earliest near-complete dated manuscript
>of the Bible copied in 929 A.D. is believed to have also come from the
>Genizah. A page decorated with a scrolling pattern and an arcade with
>alternate triangular and round arches symbolizing the Temple Ark bears
>striking analogies to Koranic illumination in Syria.
>Another page with the frontispiece of a 10th-century Torah loaned by the
>National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, bears out the existence of a
>10th-century Middle Eastern school of Biblical manuscript illumination on a
>grand scale closely related to that of Koranic illumination. Time, alas, has
>been unkind to both.
>Not much survives of early Christian manuscripts either. One reason may be
>found in Gamble's observation about the four canonical gospels, and the
>other gospels written in the first half of the 2nd century - the Gospel of
>Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and others, all in Greek. "None of them was
>written with the idea of producing a document that might be incorporated
>into or placed alongside the scriptures of Judaism. Early Christianity had a
>Bible already and it was the Hebrew Bible."
>Indeed, the four gospels now accepted as canonical were not transcribed as
>a single volume until about 160- 170 A.D. The second reason for the lack of
>early Christian manuscripts is the massive destruction ordered in 303 A.D.
>by the Roman emperor Diocletian.
>A rare example of pre-Diocletian survival is part of a manuscript of the
>Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles on papyrus, which was
>recovered in the Fayyum area of Egypt. It is copied in elegant Greek
>The earliest complete Christian Bibles, all in Greek, date from the 4th and
>5th centuries. A fourth-century volume, possibly copied in Caeserea,
>Palestine, is on loan from the monastery of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai.
>Other fragments from Egypt allow tantalizing glimpses into the metaphysical
>approach of some early Christians. A page from the Gospel of Thomas datable
>to the 3rd century A.D. carries words from "The Sayings of Jesus" : "...
>Raise the stone and there you shall find me, split the wood and there I am."
>These mystical thoughts were not retained in official Christianity. They
>have parallels in later Islamic mysticism, particularly in Iran where
>"The Soul of the World" was the object of much meditation.
>All may have roots in early Jewish speculations later erased in times of
>Gazing at the manuscripts produced by the time Christianity had become
>officialized in Armenia, the first nation to adhere to Christianity, Georgia,
>Ethiopia, the Byzantine Empire, Western Europe and later Eastern
>Europe, viewers become aware of both the Eastern imprint and the prodigious
>transformation of what had begun as a Jewish sectarian movement with
>mystical leanings and strong libertarian ideas. That had made it intolerable
>to established authority. As Christian churches in turn became the
>authority, they shed subversive thoughts and stamped out diverging
>messages branded as heresy.
>In Western Europe, Christianity became Romanized. The Latin version of the
>Bible prevailed and the Palestinian prophet Yeshu, under his Latinized name,
>Jesus, was depicted wearing the imperial Roman toga. On a magnificent ivory
>plaque carved around 800 in Aachen, Germany, to adorn the binding of a
>Gospel Lectionary, there is not much to suggest that he ever set foot in
>International Herald Tribune <http://www.iht.com> Copyright © 2006 The
>International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com <http://www.iht.com>