June 21, 2024
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The Earliest Surviving Texts of the Torah

Many of us are aware that the oldest complete Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex, which dates to the early 11th century. It is currently stored in the National Library of Russia in the city of St. Petersburg (formerly called Leningrad). Earlier than this, we have the Aleppo Codex, which dates to the 10th century.

In the Aleppo Codex, most of the Pentateuch is now missing, due to anti-Jewish riots that broke out in Aleppo (Syria) on Dec. 1, 1947, after the U.N. voted to partition Palestine. The rioters broke into the synagogue and burned many Torah scrolls. They also broke into the locked iron chest that housed the Codex. After the riots, only 295 of the original 490 pages of the Codex remained. In 1958, what remained was smuggled to Israel. We do not know precisely what happened to the missing pages. Probably most were burned in the riots. Periodically, individual Jews acknowledge possessing fragments.

Another notable early text of the Pentateuch is British Museum Codex Or. 4445. This text dates to the early ninth century and has most of the Pentateuch. We also have other texts of the Pentateuch from the 10th century, aside from the Aleppo Codex.

If we go 1,000 years prior to this, we have the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among these scrolls there are approximately 220 texts that are biblical texts (usually very fragmentary). These texts date from the third century B.C.E. to the early second century C.E. If we look at the totality of the texts, we have texts covering large portions of the Torah and the Nach. (There are no texts at all from the book of Esther, but this may just be a fluke.) We also have biblical texts from the first to second centuries C.E. from Masada and a few other sites.

But what about the centuries between the third century and eighth century C.E.? Let us focus on texts of the Pentateuch. Until I recently read two articles on this subject, I could not name any texts of the Pentateuch from this period. Usually I find I have difficulty squeezing all the relevant material into these short columns. Here our sources are so few that I will not have this problem! The following is what we have from the Pentateuch during these intervening centuries (a period referred to as “the silent era” in terms of biblical texts):

  1. 1. A scroll found in 1970 at Ein Gedi that has the text of Leviticus Chapters 1-2. It may originally have had more than that. The scroll was found in the synagogue there. The synagogue is dated to approximately 500 C.E., but carbon-14 testing reveals that the scroll dates to approximately 300 C.E. (Although found in 1970, it was only recently that the scroll was able to be read, due to the latest technological advances.)
  2. 2. Texts known as the London sheet, and Ashkar-Gilson sheet 2. In recent years, when the latter was on display in the Shrine of the Book in Israel, it was realized by two Israeli scholars that the London sheet and Ashkar-Gilson sheet 2 derive from the same scroll. The scroll dates to around 700 C.E. The surviving sheets contain Exodus 9:18-13:2 and 13:19-16.1. Where these sheets originated is unknown. Probably, they originated from the Cairo Geniza and then ended up on the antiquities market. (Most of the material from the Cairo Geniza dates from the 10th through 13th centuries.)

The London sheet was in the collection of Jews’ College in London for many years. It is now held in a private collection. The Ashkar-Gilson sheet is named for Fuad Ashkar and Albert Gilson, two American doctors who purchased the document along with others from an antiquities dealer in Beirut in 1972. Subsequently, they donated the documents they purchased to Duke University. Duke University put them on loan, temporarily, to the Shrine of the Book in Israel.

The Ashkar-Gilson collection includes other old Torah texts as well. For example, a text, known as Ashkar-Gilson 14, includes the Decalogue in Deuteronomy Chap. 5. The collection has not been completely analyzed yet. Many of the texts are so faded that they can only be read utilizing the latest advanced technology.

  1. 3. We have the following early biblical fragments, which are known to have come from the Cairo Geniza: A) T-S NS 3.21: portions of Gen. 13-17; B) T-S NS 4.3: portions of Gen. 4-6, and C) T-S NS 4.8: portions of Gen. 25-26. (T-S NS stands for “Taylor-Schechter New Series.)

A and B probably derive from the same scroll and date between 500 C.E. to 800 C.E. C dates a bit later.

Now let us ask the same question with regard to texts of the Pentateuch preserved in Greek translation and held by Christians over the centuries. Here we have much more. I am not doing justice to this subject and will leave out a lot, but it is important to mention three famous early Septuagint manuscripts:

– Codex Vaticanus from the fourth century, held in the Vatican Library. It has a complete text of Tanach, although a few sections were added in the 15th century.

– Codex Sinaiticus from the fourth century. The main body of the manuscript is in the British Museum in London. A small part is in Leipzig. The text includes much of the Nach. With regard to the Pentateuch, what has survived is only Gen. 23:19-24:46, and Num. 5:26-7:20 (with material missing even in these sections).

– Codex Alexandrinus from the fifth century. It is held in the British Museum in London. For centuries it had been held in a library in Alexandria. It has an almost complete text of the Tanach.

Codex Sinaiticus has an interesting story to it. There is a monastery in the Sinai called Saint Catherine’s Monastery. It is located adjacent to a mountain that many believed was Mount Sinai. (This monastery is a standard travel destination on tours to the Sinai. I was there in the 1970s. This was before Israel returned it to Egypt. I am sure many of you have been there as well.) A German biblical scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf noticed pages from this old text when he visited the monastery in the middle of the 19th century. Over the course of many years and subsequent visits he negotiated with the monks and paid them to take many of its pages out. He wrote up his story and claimed that it all started when he saw leaves of this parchment in a wastebasket; it was “rubbish which was to be destroyed by burning it in the ovens of the monastery.” The monks deny this and maintain that it was kept properly in their library. Most scholars today believe the monks and not Tischendorf and believe that he was just trying to tell a story that put the monks in a bad light so as to justify his duplicitous negotiations with them.

I used the term “codex” before but did not define it. A codex is the earliest form of a book. The advantages of a codex rather than a scroll are ease of browsing and rapid reference, and use of both sides of the sheet. Christians adopted the codex format for the Bible and other writings as early as the second century C.E. It took longer for us to adopt this format. We continued to write biblical texts on scrolls. But the codex format was eventually adopted by Jews as well, starting around the eighth or ninth century. Most of the material from the Cairo Geniza represent fragments from codices, not scrolls.


Most of the material for this article came from a 2018 article available online by Gary A. Rendsburg: “The World’s Oldest Torah Scrolls,” and from an article in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review by Paul Sanders. A useful work on this topic (although a bit out of date) is Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (translated by Erroll Rhodes).

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He admits that when he was taken on a tour of the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the 1970s, he had no idea that it was an important place in the history of the text of the Bible.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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