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A Sefer Torah in the Bologna Library May Be the Oldest Known Torah Scroll


Italian scholar Mauro Perani dated this Sefer Torah scroll from the University of Bologna Library to the 12–13th centuries C.E., making the manuscript the world’s oldest extant Sefer Torah. Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita’ di Bologna/AP

Italian scholar Mauro Perani recently discovered what he believes to be the oldest complete Torah scroll. The recently-dated Sefer Torah—a handwritten Torah scroll containing the full texts of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—was written between 1155 and 1225 C.E. The monumental value of the sheepskin document went unnoticed for over a century; in 1889, it was mistakenly cataloged in the University of Bologna Library as a 17th-century Sefer Torah. While compiling a catalog of Hebrew manuscripts held at the library, Perani recognized that the script on the nearly 120-foot-long scroll was significantly older than its catalog date. Furthermore, the scroll did not follow scribal standards established at the turn of the 13th century by Maimonides, the foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism. The paleographic analysis was followed by carbon-14 tests at the University of Salento and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which confirmed the 12–13th-century date.

The Sefer Torah is the oldest known complete Torah scroll; however, it is not the oldest extant Torah. The Aleppo and Leningrad Codices, each of which contained the complete text of the Hebrew Bible, were written up to two centuries before the University of Bologna Torah scroll. The tenth-century Aleppo Codex, a 760-page parchment manuscript, was the oldest complete Biblical text containing the version that was ultimately selected and accepted as the most authoritative text in Judaism. The text was complete with vowel signs, punctuation, notations for liturgical chanting and textual notes. However, it was damaged and pages were lost during riots in Aleppo in 1947.* The Leningrad Codex, written around 1010 C.E., is now the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Both the Aleppo and Leningrad volumes are codices (books with pages or leaves), which are different from scrolls. In a BAR article discussing the Leningrad Codex,** scholars James A. Sanders and Astrid Beck write:

As early as the first century C.E., Christian scholars began transmitting their holy works in codices rather than scrolls, and by the third century the codex was standard. In the Jewish world, however, the codex was not adopted until about the seventh century. The traditional scroll, or roll book (Latin uolumen, from which our word “volume” comes), continues to be used today for reading the sacred text in synagogues. These scrolls for reading the sacred text, however, contain only the five books of Moses. No scroll is big enough to contain the entire Hebrew Bible.