Wednesday, May 29, 2013

World's oldest Torah Scroll?

World's oldest Torah' scroll found at Italy university
Torah scroll found in University of Bologna library This Torah scroll may be more than 850 years old

The University of Bologna in Italy has found what it says may be the oldest complete scroll of Judaism's most important text, the Torah.

The scroll was in the university library but had been mislabelled, a professor at the university says.

It was previously thought the scroll was no more that a few hundred years old.

However, after carbon dating tests, the university has said the text may have been written more than 850 years ago.

This is a very interesting story, but at the same time I am skeptical. Normally manuscripts of this age are dated by paleography (the shapes of the letters) and other factors such as orthography (spelling) and the physical layout of the manuscript. The article does not indicate what the range of possible dates are for the carbon dating: 850 years would at best be only an average figure. Moreover, an object such as a complete manuscript has often been moved around a lot and could have had ample opportunity to become contaminated. The script and physical features are mentioned, but they are the key factors and I want to know more about them.

Nevertheless, unlike the story about this supposedly oldest copy of the Pentateuch, this one seems to have some merit. At minimum, it sounds as though a rather old complete Torah scroll has been newly identified, and this is a very good thing, whether or not it turns out to be the oldest one extant. And, of course, the issue is that it is a complete copy. Fragments of the Pentateuch from the Cairo Geniza (see, e.g., here) are centuries older than this, and fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls (see, e.g., here) are well over a millennium older.

UPDATE: I should have also explicitly noted (as reader Robert Labanti emailed with the following two links to remind me) that this is a Torah scroll and that there are older codices (i.e., in bound book format) of the Torah, such as the famed Aleppo Codex (incomplete) and the Leningrad Codex (complete). Cf. Jared Calaway: Really Old Torah Scroll at University of Bologna. Also, Bart Ehrman quotes a press release that addresses some of my concerns: Exciting Discovery of a Hebrew Bible Scroll. It sounds as though the carbon dating was ancillary to the paleographic etc. analysis, which is as it should be.