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They should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers
July 25, 2012 7:52 AM   Subscribe

The Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem houses the Aleppo Codex, considered the oldest and most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible. Written in the 10th century AD and annotated by Maimonides himself, it was safeguarded by the Jewish diaspora and revered for its linguistic precision and its beauty. "The story of how some 200 pages of the codex went missing — and to this day remain the object of searches carried out around the globe by biblical scholars, private investigators, shadowy businessmen and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency — is one of the great mysteries in Jewish history."

The New York Times article was inspired by Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman's book, "The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible," which was published in May by Algonquin Books. Reviews: Salon, Christian Science Monitor, WSJ. Friedman wrote an interesting blog post a few days ago: Codex vs. Kindle.
posted by zarq (36 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
The first link in this post has images of pages from the Aleppo Codex.
posted by zarq at 7:56 AM on July 25, 2012


private investigators

"I was working late when a sultry dame with dark hair, dark eyes, and legs that wouldn't quit slipped into my office. 'My name is Esther,' she said. 'I've got a job for you'..."
posted by Egg Shen at 7:58 AM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Hey Dan...yeah it's me, yeah, your publisher. Don't act like you forgot my name. So I just read this story and I thought of you." ~ Dan Brown's Publisher.
posted by Fizz at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


AWESOME post title!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:06 AM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


And that 40% was the bit that contained the rituals to wake the Black Pharaoh from his slumber beneath step pyramid on the dead plateau. Or maybe it was specifications for a defense against CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. Guess we'll never know.
posted by Chekhovian at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


My, how fortunate for Mr Friedman that his book would "inspire" an article in the NYT only 2 months after it was published!
posted by DU at 8:11 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where then is the missing section of the Aleppo Codex?

Oh come now we know exactly where they are.
posted by griphus at 8:15 AM on July 25, 2012




annotated by Maimonides himself

I think this is a bit of a slip... for one thing, the codex was written in the 10th century and Maimonides lived in the 12th century.

It is believed that Maimonides saw the codex and deemed it the best available representative of the Masoretic text of the bible, conforming his codification of certain details of how Torah scrolls are to be paragraphed to the the codex.
posted by Paquda at 8:39 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


But seriously, thanks for the link. There's something really appealing about ancient artifact mysteries, even if parts of the story are very likely embellished.
posted by Behemoth at 8:40 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh come now we know exactly where they are.

And they are being studied by top men. Top. Men.
posted by likeso at 8:40 AM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wait, the oldest and most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible is only 1000 years old?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:47 AM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


A great mystery with a cool story. Ancient curses, secret agents, book dealers, smuggling! It's like a Jewish Club Dumas.
posted by steef at 8:51 AM on July 25, 2012


Sebbagh wouldn’t say where he obtained the fragment, which he had laminated and kept in his pocket at all times.

At least he didn't Bedazzle it.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 9:00 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait, the oldest and most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible is only 1000 years old?

This isn't terribly surprising. I believe that the oldest copy of Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic War" is dated some 900 years after Caesar.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:07 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


annotated by Maimonides himself

I think this is a bit of a slip... for one thing, the codex was written in the 10th century and Maimonides lived in the 12th century.


As I read the sentence he just annotated the existing copy, which is completely consistent. I could annotate a book - just scribble in the margins - and it would say nothing about when that book was published.
posted by winna at 9:24 AM on July 25, 2012


Such an interesting story! Makes me wonder if there are any rumors in London about who has it now?
posted by Jehan at 9:38 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Huh. Usually when something ancient goes missing, it happens centuries ago, not sixty. It's not stated, but I presume hand written copies were made of the Codex, since photography was a no no? That is, even though the original is missing 40% of its pages, there are complete copies?
posted by Atreides at 9:49 AM on July 25, 2012


True, but to be fair, "Commentaries on the Gallic War" isn't the fundamental text of a major western religion. Wikipedia lists like 20 manuscripts of the Vulgate, all older than the Aleppo Codex, and, while not in Hebrew, one would like to think Jerome was making a faithful translation of the Hebrew text (for values of one equal to Pope Damasus the First). It just seems surprising that none of the Hebrew texts he worked from survived.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:54 AM on July 25, 2012


Also, are blue nitrile gloves the right thing to be wearing while handling an ancient text?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:57 AM on July 25, 2012


Better than pawing at with your own oil-soaked and acid-dripping bare hands, no doubt.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:59 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, here's a breakdown of the pros and cons of various glove materials for handling different objects. Thanks, National Park Service!
posted by Panjandrum at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wait, the oldest and most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible is only 1000 years old?


The oldest complete one.
posted by ocschwar at 10:12 AM on July 25, 2012


And Aleppo itself is being shelled into the stone age right now. I really hope the missing pages aren't there.
posted by ocschwar at 10:14 AM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


The oldest extant Biblical manuscripts are fragments in the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated from 150 to 70 B.C. There are fragments of the Greek Septuagint that date from the second century and complete manuscripts from the 4th century. The Vatican Codex is the oldest complete Bible.
posted by chrchr at 10:25 AM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


If portions of The Dead Sea Scrolls have parts of the Hebrew bible, and those scrolls are carbon dated close to 1, 2 BC--or shortly after Common era, then the Hebrew bible clearly goes back much more than one thousand years.
posted by Postroad at 10:30 AM on July 25, 2012


Kid Charlemagne: "True, but to be fair, "Commentaries on the Gallic War" isn't the fundamental text of a major western religion. Wikipedia lists like 20 manuscripts of the Vulgate, all older than the Aleppo Codex, and, while not in Hebrew, one would like to think Jerome was making a faithful translation of the Hebrew text (for values of one equal to Pope Damasus the First). It just seems surprising that none of the Hebrew texts he worked from survived."

There has been a lot of controversy over the accuracy of various translations over the years. Jewish Torah scholars have generally not put much stock in them.
posted by zarq at 10:32 AM on July 25, 2012


DU: "My, how fortunate for Mr Friedman that his book would "inspire" an article in the NYT only 2 months after it was published!"

Was there an actual accusation you intended to level here, or are you just adding noise to the thread?
posted by zarq at 10:33 AM on July 25, 2012


Regarding the age and value of the Aleppo Codex relative to other extant manuscripts of the Bible: People look to the Aleppo Codex for questions of how certain words are vowelled, whether certain letters have the diacritical mark that indicates doubling of a consonant's sound, as well as certain questions of cantillation marks--all of these features of the text being inventions of the Tiberian Masoretes, who created complex systems of symbols to to represent them. You can't find a manuscript much older than the Codex to look to concerning these features because they weren't invented yet.
posted by Paquda at 10:49 AM on July 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


Wait, the oldest and most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible is only 1000 years old?

There are older complete translations into Greek (for many centuries Jerusalem was a backwater and the largest and most important Jewish community in the world was in Greek speaking Alexandria), and there are many older fragments in Hebrew, but basically yes.
posted by atrazine at 11:34 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Aleppo is on the front page of today's New York Times for something completely different. That was pretty weird going there after reading this thread.
posted by bukvich at 11:37 AM on July 25, 2012


That's quite a story.
posted by ThisIsNotMe at 12:49 PM on July 25, 2012


Just a bit of background: Hebrew was originally written without vowels or punctuation. This meant that the meaning of Hebrew words was often context dependent, and texts might be susceptible of more than one reading. The meaning and pronunciation of Biblical texts was transmitted orally.

Apart from this, there were divergent Biblical manuscripts - some quite divergent, some with only small differences. I'm talking about ones used by mainstream Jews, not things like the theoretical basis for the Septuagint or the versions used by the Samaritans or other textual families.

Scribes had aides like collections of traditional notes about unusual spellings or words in the Biblical text, and counts of letters and numbers (so you tell if you left things out, or added them). Anyway, there were a number of techniques for showing pronunciation and punctuation, and the most popular of these became associated with a group of scholars in Tiberias (and Jerusalem) around 1300 years ago. They also developed the standard collection of traditional notes, called the masorah and because of all this work they're called the Masoretes and the standard Hebrew Biblical text is the Masoretic Text.

The Aleppo Codex was one of the best exemplars of their work, and it eventually became the best and pretty much definitive. Until it was partially destroyed? broken up? it was also the oldest complete exemplar; that honor is now held by the Leningrad codex.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:54 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


AND then there is THIS, a very old and valuable MS that seems to have been stolen
posted by Postroad at 5:58 PM on July 25, 2012


That's a beautiful manuscript. I also like the way the cursor turns into a yad as you move it over the text.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


That in Aleppo once...
posted by VikingSword at 1:20 AM on July 26, 2012


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