Cambridge academics throw light on medieval Hebrew Bible texts

21 July 2017

TYNDALE HOUSE

Link: the carpet page at the back of the Leningrad Codex

Link: the carpet page at the back of the Leningrad Codex

A DISCOVERY by a Cambridge academic could provide new insights into the medieval Hebrew texts on which most modern-day Bibles are based.

A research associate at Tyndale House, Dr Kim Phillips, has identified the creator of an anonymous document as the scribe Samuel ben Jacob, the person who transcribed the 11th-century Leningrad Codex, the earliest known complete Hebrew copy of the Old Testament.

Dr Phillips detected similarities between the Codex and the mystery text, known only as L17, which contains the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. Both documents are held in the National Library of Russia, in St Petersburg, but L17 only recently became available through an Israeli project to microfilm every known historic Hebrew document in the world. Dr Phillips was able to study images uploaded to the web by the National Library of Israel.

The text was produced by a scholarly Jewish community, the Masoretes, between the seventh and tenth centuries. Together with Greek translations, the Codex formed the basis of the Bible that we know today. It contains subtle differences to other codices from the same period, some of which Dr Phillips found replicated in L17. It also included Samuel’s “tag” on textual side-notes: a colon followed by a little circle followed by second colon. Samuel is known among academics for his transcriptions of biblical and other texts.

Dr Phillips said that his findings would now allow scholars to see whether the differences in the Codex are errors by the scribe or represent a separate Masoretic tradition.

“It is not going to suddenly give us a new rendering of the Bible,” he said. “It is a sister document to the original text, but it gives us so much more material to generate more evidence about the person who wrote it, and understanding Samuel ben Jacob as a scribe. That begins to open interesting lines of inquiry about what was going on it in this Masoretic period. We know a lot already, but there are a huge number of questions to be explored. It’s like an open door leading to an awful lot more work — which is excellent for me.”

The Masoretic texts are remarkable in that they copy in exact detail much earlier texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. “But the Scrolls are incredibly fragmentary,” Dr Phillips said. “If we just relied on them would have a much shorter Old Testament. The first complete Bible in Hebrew is these medieval copies.They were done with unfathomable accuracy. They are identical — letter by letter, in many cases. Checks with the Scrolls show an extraordinary faithfulness. That explains why the medieval text is so important: we get the complete Hebrew Bible.”

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
With Sam Wells, Catherine Fox, Mark Oakley, Suzannah Lipscomb and many others. 
See the full programme

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Theology Slam is back, continuing its search for the most engaging young voices on theology and the contemporary world. Find out more

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)