Thursday, April 22, 2021

Afghanistan wants its "oldest" Hebrew siddur back

THE MUSEUM OF THE BIBLE IN THE NEWS: Afghanistan wants to repatriate stolen medieval Hebrew prayer book. The prayer book is currently in Washington DC’s Museum of the Bible (Gil Zohar, Jerusalem Post).
“It is our responsibility to get back our ancient treasures,” said Abdul Manan Shiwaysharq – the country’s Deputy Minister for Information and Publications in the Information and Culture Ministry – in the first-ever on-the-record interview between an Afghani official and an Israeli journalist.

Shiwaysharq argues photos of the ancient siddur in Kabul’s National Museum dating from 1998 contradict the ownership documents provided by the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. The MotB says it bought the siddur in 2013 from antiquities dealers in the UK who provided provenance documents showing the manuscript had been in Britain since the 1950s. The MotB paid $2.5 million for the prayer book. Though Shiwaysharq appraises the unique volume at $30m. for insurance purposes, it truly is priceless.

I have no opinion on the merits of the claim that the siddur was stolen. The principals and perhaps the courts will have to sort that out. I have a few thoughts on other matters.

First, the story behind this manuscript and its dating is complicated. On the one hand, early reports (see here and here) said that carbon dating, paleography, and the vocalization system all indicated that the manuscript was from the first part of the ninth century. On the other, there was soon dissent from specialists, who thought the manuscript looked much more recent. That was my reaction too when I saw the photo in the Jerusalem Post article above. One possibility mentioned was that a collection of older fragments was bound into the book "in modern times." Unfortunately, the links in the latter post have rotted.

Second, even if some or all the manuscript is from the ninth century, it is not "the world’s oldest Hebrew manuscript after the Dead Sea Scrolls" (or Judean Desert Scrolls). The carbonized Leviticus scroll from Ein Gedi was carbon dated to c. 300 CE. The London and Ashkar-Gilson fragments of Exodus are from c. 700 CE. Cambridge University Library, T-S NS 3.21, containing a fragment of Genesis, dates to c. 800 CE. For more on all three, see here and links. This is not necessarily a complete list, but it makes the point.

Third, I repeat my opinion that ancient artifacts are the heritage of humanity. They should be kept where they are safest. Sometimes that is not in their country of origin. I have commented on the issue here and mentioned it elsewhere. The people involved in the current controversy acknowledge the problem and have a constructive suggestion on how to address it.

Also, as I have noted before, the MOTB Gilgamesh fragment is in Akkadian, not Sumerian.

For more on the Museum of the Bible and the Green Collection, and the various problems that have arisen from their collecting, start here and follow the links.

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