A few weeks ago the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that scientists had digitally deciphered 8 verses written on a charred, 6th century scroll of the Book of Leviticus. The scroll had been unearthed at Ein-Gedi in 1970, but could not be unrolled without damaging it. New technology has now made it possible to read the text without unrolling the scroll.
The 8 verses that have been deciphered come from the book of Leviticus. They are identical to those in our bibles today. It is not surprising; throughout history Torah scribes have been meticulous in copying the text. But in fact the most ancient manuscript of the Bible does differ, in small ways, from the text we use today.
Originally the written bible contained no vowels and no punctuation. Symbols indicating how a word was to be pronounced were invented long after the consonants were originally written down; until then it was tradition alone which determined how the bible was read. But, for reasons which are not entirely clear, by the seventh century scholars felt it necessary to formalise the bible text, by indicating the vowels and accents. These scholars, who became known as the Masoretes, found that their work was not straightforward. Jews in Babylon pronounced some words differently from those in Israel. The Karaite sectarians, who accepted the Bible but rejected rabbinic interpretation, had different traditions to other Jews. Sometimes words were spelt differently in different traditions. And, to complicate matters further, there were at least three different systems for writing the vowels.
But despite all this, by the tenth century a consensus on the “official” written Bible had nearly been achieved. In 930 Aharon ben Asher produced a codex (the earliest form of book) which is now regarded as the most accurate copy of the Bible text. It wasn’t unanimously accepted as authoritative; an alternative version known as the ben Naftali version circulated at the same time, containing a number of differences. The ben Naftali version has long been lost, although documents were found in the Cairo Genizah which lists differences between the ben Naftali and Ben Asher versions.
Aharon ben Asher came from a family of Masoretes and may have been a Karaite Jew. His codex survived for many centuries. It is believed that Maimonides worked from it in Cairo, and used it as the model for his rules on how to write a sefer Torah. By the end of the fourteenth century the codex had found its way to Aleppo, the city which is being so unhappily brutalised, even as you read this. The Jewish community in Aleppo treated the codex with tremendous reverence; placing it in a special shrine in the synagogue, and referring to it as their Crown. Sadly, in 1947, the codex was badly damaged in a fire. Its remains were shipped to Jerusalem but much of it is missing. The first four books of the Torah and most of Deuteronomy are no longer extant.
The Codex’s custodian’s in Aleppo were highly protective. They refused let it out of their sight and would not even allow it to be photographed. In 1929, when a group of scholars sought to publish an edition of the bible which listed all the known variant readings, they were unable to consult the Codex. Instead they based their work on an 11th century manuscript from Leningrad which purports to be a copy of Ben Asher’s codex. For technical reasons, modern authorities do not consider it an exact copy but it was the best available alternative. The Bible they published is known as the Biblia Hebraica and served for many years as the most authoritative version of the Bible.
Within the Jewish tradition however the Biblia Hebraica never gained traction. It relied too heavily on works which stood outside the rigorous framework within which Jewish scribes had worked for centuries. Today three printed bibles are regarded as the most important in the Jewish world, and their texts regarded as the most reliable, although they each differ from each other.
One of the three, prepared by the bible scholar Rabbi Mordechai Breuer is based on the Aleppo Codex. The other two, the Koren and the Simanim are not. Breuer’s text differs in two places from the Koren and Simanim, and also from the vast majority of Torah scrolls used in the synagogue. In Genesis 9,29, Breuer has vayihyu in place of vayehi; in Deuteronomy 23,2 he has dakah instead of dakaa. If Maimonides is right that the Aleppo Codex is the most reliable of all Torah manuscripts, then the Breuer text is more accurate than the Simanim or Koren. But almost universally, synagogue tradition dictates otherwise, and anyone trying to read in accordance with Breuer’s version is likely to be corrected.