Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Bible lost and only partly found

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, bible, manuscripts

Interested in translating the Hebrew Bible for yourself? Step 1: learn the Hebrew of the Sixth Century BCE. Then get access to a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, preferably the Leningrad Codex. This clip is from Exodus. Links to biblical texts are found at this Brandeis University page. That is step 2. Step 3 is to begin translating.

What is a critical edition? It is one that contains the most accurate compilation from all earlier manuscripts (see an example below), plus apparatuses that help a translator. For Biblical Hebrew, these include headnotes, footnotes and indications of the frequency of special words, and most importantly the diacritical marks above and below the letters, which indicate pronunciation and even the stress or emphasis to use while reading aloud. This helps a translating scholar determine the precise meaning of a word.

Think of the English "word" display. It is actually three words. As a noun or a verb, it is stressed dis-PLAY, but as an adjective most people say DIS-play. Then there is dove; to refer to a lovely, cooing bird, we say duvv, but the past tense of dive is pronounced dohv.

This situation is tougher in Hebrew, which has only one explicit vowel (aleph) and one semivowel (yod). SPPS NGLSH WR WRTTN THAT WY? (and without the question mark, either…nor any spaces between words!) How could you tell the difference between meet, met, mite, meat, and mete?

The self-chosen task of the Masoretes was to gather a compilation from the best manuscripts such as the Second Century CE one shown here, to produce an edition such as the Eleventh Century Leningrad Codex shown above. It is not known whether the original books were written this way, or whether there were word separations and punctuation, at least. All surviving early manuscripts look like this one. But the Masoretes had centuries of oral tradition and scholarship regarding how every word was to be pronounced during public reading, knowledge of which words were unique or used but twice (even if a certain string of consonants did not appear unique; its vowel sounds did differ).

They also developed methods to ensure faithful copying. A sheet of parchment was prepared by scoring with a grid. Each grid cell was to contain one letter. Every page of the entire Bible was gridded and thus would be identical to that in every other Masoretic copy.

The Leningrad Codex, dated about 1008, is the earliest complete Hebrew Bible, and the best. There was once a chance to make it second best, as we read in The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible by Matti Friedman. The 500-leaf (1,000 page) manuscript that became known as the Aleppo Codex (more here) was produced in the same generation as the Leningrad Codex, but in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, rather than in Cairo. It was the work of a single scribe, supervised by the chief scholar of his generation, and double-checked by the scholar and other skilled copyists to ensure that every letter, every vowel point, every item was perfect.

Mr. Friendman is currently based in Jerusalem, where the surviving portions of the Aleppo Codex are housed. By his account, during several years he crisscrossed the world to track down the manuscript's story. The book is part historical chronicle, part whodunit, but the "who" remains obscure, right to the end. It is hard to interview sources when most of them are dead.

The Aleppo Codex looks a lot like the Leningrad. This portion, from the end of Deuteronomy, shows purple stains at the page corners that have been touted as burn marks, but are actually fungus.

The manuscript was intended to guide scholars and copyists. It was used by Moses Maimonides, who was its custodian in the late 1100s. Sadly, he was the last scholar to use the book for its intended purpose. During later upheavals, it was taken first to one place, then to another, and eventually to Aleppo, in Syria, to the oldest Jewish community in the area (the Jews of Aleppo were there before the Syrians). It was kept safely in Aleppo for 600 years, until the day the UN voted to divide Palestine, setting up the state of Israel for the Jews after nearly 1,900 years as a stateless people.

In the rioting that followed the announcement, in late 1947 (just three weeks after I was born), the Great Synagogue of Aleppo was burned, and all the manuscripts scattered, including those in a doubly locked box. What happened next is a great mystery, one Friedman has largely solved, but not entirely. For months it was thought that the manuscript, called the Crown of Aleppo, had been burned. But it was not. That was a cover story. It was taken first to Turkey and then to Jerusalem.

At some point, about 40% of the leaves went missing, including nearly all the Torah, and the portion at the end that contains much of the Prophets. The remaining portions have been photographed (finally!) and images may be found at the link above.

The pages have a rather distinctive look, as this image shows. While all Masoretic texts are identical in layout, including where each letter is on each page, the handwriting is distinctive. The entire Aleppo Codex was crafted by a single scribe. Many others are in the hand of more than one scribe. Experts can recognize the handwriting. Even I can see that this scribe wrote more regularly and precisely than the scribe who wrote the Leningrad fragment shown above. It is the nearest thing to a machine-printed page produced in manuscript history.

Author Friedman set himself to peel back the layers of a very deep onion, to determine the true story of this manuscript's travels, and if possible to determine what became of the missing portions. He had the very great help of at least one or two of the principal players who were still living. He was also able to obtain documents that had been kept hidden for half a century, and it is likely that his narrative is accurate. His first objective was thus achieved. But not the second. When did the missing parts go missing, and who is responsible? Suspicion falls on a certain person, but much documentary evidence that could corroborate the suspicions of the remaining players has been lost, destroyed, or was never produced. A 4-year trial in the 1950s led to more obscurity, requiring much detective work to pick out the story from misdirection on nearly everyone's part.

We could have had a perfect Bible, in Friedman's opinion. The opportunity was squandered.

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