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Ancient Jewish manuscripts reveal a forgotten history

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« on: January 01, 2011, 04:15:58 pm »

Ancient Jewish manuscripts reveal a forgotten history

New research has uncovered a forgotten chapter in the history of the Bible, offering a rare glimpse of Byzantine Jewish life and culture.

The study by Cambridge University researchers suggests that, contrary to long-accepted views, Jews continued to use a Greek version of the Bible in synagogues for centuries longer than previously thought. In some places, the practice continued almost until living memory.

The Cairo Genizah was not an archive designed to preserve documents. It was a “receptacle,” a final resting place or cache of “trashed” documents written in Hebrew or transliterated into Hebrew text, Arabic and other languages during the Middle Ages. The Ben-Ezra Synagogue in Cairo systematically disposed of deceased persons’ documents in a special vaulted room in the attic of the synagogue, accessible through a hole in the wall. Some of the Geniza’s contents had already gone to private collections or libraries – mostly via scholarly visitors or Middle Eastern antiquity markets. Luckily, Cairo’s dry climate prevented complete deterioration of the remaining writings even though they were damaged due to the ageing process.

In 1896, the importance of the Cairo Genizah came to the attention of Cambridge University scholar Prof. Solomon Schechter who transferred the remains – some 130,000 fragments – to Cambridge.
Now, a fully searchable online corpus ( has gathered these manuscripts together, making the texts and analysis of them available to other scholars for the first time.

“The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE is said to be one of the most lasting achievements of the Jewish civilization – without it, Christianity might not have spread as quickly and as successfully as it did,” explained Nicholas de Lange, Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, who led the three-year study to re-evaluate the story of the Greek Bible fragments.

“It was thought that the Jews, for some reason, gave up using Greek translations and chose to use the original Hebrew for public reading in synagogue and for private study” he added.

Close study of the Cairo Genizah fragments by Professor de Lange led to the discovery that some contained passages from the Bible in Greek written in Hebrew letters. Others contained parts of a lost Greek translation made by a convert to Judaism named Akylas in the 2nd century CE.

Remarkably, the fragments date from 1,000 years after the original translation into Greek, showing use of the Greek text was still alive in Greek-speaking synagogues in the Byzantine Empire and elsewhere.

Manuscripts in other libraries confirmed the evidence of the Cambridge fragments, and added many new details. It became clear that a variety of Greek translations were in use among Jews in the Middle Ages.

Not only does the new research offer us a rare glimpse of Byzantine Jewish life and culture, but it also illustrates the cross-fertilisation between Jewish and Christian biblical scholars in the Middle Ages. “This is a very exciting discovery for me because it confirms a hunch I had when studying Genizah fragments 30 years ago,” said Professor de Lange.

The online resource enables comparison of each word of the Hebrew text, the Greek translation – knows as the Septuagint after the 70 Jewish scholars said to have translated it – and the fragments of Akylas’ and other Jewish translations from antiquity.  There is no doubt that there will be more to learn in the future.


    * Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit
    * Unusual blog on the first visit into the Genizah Repository within the Ben Ezra Synagogue since 1911
    * The joint Penn – Cambridge project
    * The result:  a fully searchable online corpus ( with the world:
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« Reply #1 on: January 01, 2011, 04:16:44 pm »

Geniza palimpsest with Hebrew (shown upside down) written over the top of a 6th-century copy of Akylas' Greek translation (c. 125 CE) of the Books of Kings (shown the right way up); T-S 12.184r. Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
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