The 'Rediscovery' of the Oldest Torah Scroll

Tuesday, June 04, 2013 |  Tsvi Sadan

Last week, Mauro Perani, professor of Hebrew at the University of Bologna in Italy, announced the rediscovery of the oldest complete Torah scroll ever found.

The scroll is part of a small collection of Hebrew manuscripts belonging to Bologna University’s library. Perani insists on calling his find a “rediscovery” since the existence of the scroll was already well known, but until now it was thought to date back only to the 17th century. The rediscovery came about thanks to Perani’s realization that the scroll is actually centuries older, and was probably written anytime from 1150 to 1225.

In a radio interview he gave to “The Marginalia Review of Books,” Perani stressed the difference between a “scroll” and a “codex.” The oldest known complete Old Testament manuscript in a book form (codex) is the Leningrad Codex written in 1008.

Apart from form, Jewish tradition always preferred the use of scrolls over codices for Torah Reading in synagogues. Due to their sacred nature, centuries-old scrolls are extremely rare since Jewish tradition requires defective and worn out scrolls to be buried or put away in sealed rooms, a unique process called geniza. In addition, while a codex can contain the whole of the Old Testament, a Torah scroll will always have only the five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The date of the rediscovered scroll was determined by radiocarbon testing done at Italian and American laboratories, which both came to similar conclusion: The scroll should be dated from the mid-twelfth century to the first quarter of the thirteenth century.

In addition, and no less important, the age of the scroll was determined by paleography, which is the study of writing styles from earlier, especially ancient, documents. In the Bologna Scroll, for example, there are specially “curled” letters not found in later manuscripts, as these two examples of the letter “פ” (Pey) from this scroll show:


The left “פ” (Pey) is the correct form, while the “curly” form on the right is more common in manuscripts older than thirteenth century. Also visible are three vertical lines above the letter “ח” (Het) called a “crown.” The use of these crowns in the Bologna Scroll seem to be much less controlled than “newer” manuscripts, which followed stricter “crown usage” put forth in Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, written during the 1160s and 1170s.

While not particularly the concern of the average Bible enthusiast, the rediscovery of the oldest Torah Scroll in existence will contribute to the body of knowledge concerning the process of meticulous copying that has preserved long-gone original manuscripts. The Bologna Scroll, therefore, is yet further evidence to the reliability of the biblical text we read today.

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