Oldest exisiting scroll of Hebrew Pentateuch found

The University Library of Bologna has kept from times immemorial, and without knowing, the world’s oldest scroll of the Hebrew Pentateuch. The document, labeled as "Roll 2", is of soft sheep leather (36 meters long and 64 cm high), comprises the full text of the Torah (i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and had previously been cataloged a 17th–century scroll. Instead, "Roll 2", was copied in a period between the second half of the 12th and the early 13th century (1155-1225) and is therefore the most ancient complete Hebrew scroll of the Torah known today: a copy of immense value, the importance of which is evident to scholars and a non-specialist-audience alike.

Oldest exisiting scroll of Hebrew Pentateuch found
An Italian expert in Hebrew manuscripts says he has found the oldest known complete Torah scroll, a sheepskin document dating from 1155-1225 [Credit: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna/National Geographic]
The discovery was made by Mauro Perani, professor of Hebrew at the Department of Cultural Heritage, of the University of Bologna, Ravenna Campus, during the compilation of a new catalog of the Hebrew manuscripts, held in the BUB. The age, established by the textual, graphic and paleographic examination of the scroll, was confirmed by two carbon-14-tests, carried out at the Center of dating and diagnostics of the Department of Innovation Engineering of the University of Salento and by the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory (Illinois State Geological Survey) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The antiquity of "Scroll 2" had not been recognized by Leonello Modona, a Jew, native of Cento, who worked for years as a librarian at BUB, and who was the first to catalog the BUB-Hebrew-manuscript-collections, in 1889. Modona did in fact date the scroll back to the 17th century and described its Hebrew letters as "an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices." Professor Perani, on the contrary, examining the scroll for the new catalog, noticed that its early square, oriental script of Babylonian tradition was very elegant and finely written and the graphical and textual structure were totally atypical and had to be much older than 17th -century. The text of the scroll does in fact not take into account and respect the rules, fixed by Maimonides (dead in 1204), who established in a definitive way the whole rabbinic regulation about copying the Pentateuch. The BUB-Torah-scroll actually shows many graphical features and scribal devices, absolutely forbidden to copyists after the Maimonidean codification.

Unfortunately, to date, it is not known, how and when "Roll 2" has joined the acquisitions of the BUB, nor whether, as very likely, it was acquired after Napoleon’s suppression of monastic and religious orders. The interest aroused around its discovery, will, however, encourage further studies, as to the identification of its source.

The important discovery was also possible thanks to the initiative of the BUB. It was with great enthusiasm, that the library’s director, Dr. Biancastella Antonino, welcomed Prof. Perani’s project. The new catalog of the Hebrew manuscripts, co-written with Dr. Giacomo Corazzol, is planned to be published in the third issue of the magazine "inBUB: ricerche e cataloghi sui fondi della Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna" (Minerva Press), edited by Dr. Biancastella Antonio and Dr. Patrizia Moscatelli. The issue including the new catalogue will be available at the end of June 2013.

The Hebrew-manuscript-collection of the BUB includes among numerous other codes, the very famous Canon of medicine by Avicenna (Ms. 2197) with its splendid miniatures, reproduced in countless books and famously known all over the world. These Hebrew manuscripts, like other rare documents and archives, preserved and valued at the BUB, are the result of generous donations by among others, Ferdinando Marsili, founder of the Institute of Sciences, the naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, Pope Benedict XIV, the polyglot Gaspare Mezzofanti and other munificent donors.

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. 

Author: Professor Mauro Perani | Source: University of Bologna [May 28, 2013]

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