Monday, April 30, 2018

Stolen Samaritan Scriptures

SAMARITAN WATCH (see also correction in update below): An ancient sect, a brazen theft and the hunt to bring the stolen manuscripts home (Daniel Estrin, Minnesota Public Radio News).
Before dawn on March 21, 1995, someone broke into a synagogue in the Palestinian city of Nablus.

The thief — maybe it was a band of thieves — crossed the carpeted sanctuary, pulled back a heavy velvet curtain, and opened a carved wooden ark. Inside were two handwritten copies of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. One was a sheepskin scroll written around 1360 and kept in a slender copper case. The other was a codex, a thick book, probably from the 15th century and bound in a maroon leather cover. The thief or thieves snatched the manuscripts, escaped through the synagogue's arched doorway, discarded the copper case in a stairwell, and vanished.

These were no ordinary texts. They were perhaps the most ancient Torahs stolen in the Holy Land since the Crusaders pillaged Jerusalem. And they belonged not to Jews but to the Samaritans, one of the world's oldest and tiniest religious sects. Known from the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, the group has barely survived. Centuries ago, it numbered more than 1 million; today, according to the last count, there are only 810 Samaritans left.

The Samaritans trace their roots to the ancient Israelites and regard themselves as the most loyal followers of the word of God as transmitted to Moses. Women are kept apart from others when menstruating in adherence with ritual purity, and men sacrifice sheep each year on Passover, a biblical commandment Jews gave up millennia ago.

If the Samaritans are the true keepers of the biblical faith, their Torahs are title deeds: rare and sacred manuscripts, written in a variation of the original Israelite script that Jews abandoned long ago and featuring passages scholars say preserve some of the earliest drafts of the Bible. Of the three dozen old biblical manuscripts left in the community's coffers, the Samaritans say one is the oldest in the world, written by Moses' great-grandnephew. These manuscripts are the Samaritans' most jealously guarded possessions, and collectors across the globe have gone to great lengths to get their hands on them.

So have thieves.

This is a long article and a long story, with as many twists and turns as a Raymond Chandler novel. And it's just as hard to put down. Find some time and a comfortable chair and read it all.

Meanwhile, to make a long story short, the stolen scroll has been recovered by the Israeli authorities, but cannot now be returned for political reasons. (I hope that now that the story is getting this publicity, some workaround for that can be found.) The codex has vanished.

Regular PaleoJudaica readers will remember Benyamin Tsedaka, who has been mentioned from time to time. See here and links.

That exceedingly old Torah scroll is the Abisha Scroll (photo above). Fortunately, is not the stolen one. But alas, it was not written by Moses' great-grandnephew. The colophon (note at the end of the manuscript) which says so may be a cryptogram. The scroll itself is a patchwork of scrolls from different periods. The earliest pieces may go back to the eleventh or twelfth century C.E. For more on the Abisha Scroll, see this article by the renowned specialist on the Samaritans, Alan D. Crown.

Image: the Abisha Scroll (Wikimedia Commons). Click on the link for a larger version.

UPDATE (12 October 2018): Reviewing this post, I see there is some unclarity in the article and some confusion by me in my comments. The article says that a "leaf" from the "scroll" has been recovered. Scrolls don't come with leaves/pages. That would be a codex (book format). A clearer way of expressing it is that a column of the scroll (see photo in article), has been recovered. The scroll is being dismantled by unsewing its seams and separating out the individual columns. My confusion was to read this as the whole scroll having been recovered. It was just one column of it. Sorry for the error. For more on the story, see here.

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