Scroll hidden in plain sight

An Italian expert says this document is the oldest known complete Torah scroll, dating from 1155-1225. The scroll, which has been kept in the library of the University of Bologna, was mistakenly cataloged as dating from the 17th century.


An Italian expert in Hebrew manuscripts said Wednesday he has discovered the oldest known complete Torah scroll, a sheepskin document dating from 1155-1225. It was right under his nose in the University of Bologna library, where it had been mistakenly cataloged a century ago as dating from the 17th century.

The find isn’t the oldest Torah text in the world. The Leningrad and the Aleppo bibles — both of them Hebrew codexes, or books — pre-date the Bologna scroll by more than 200 years. But this is the oldest Torah scroll of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, according to Mauro Perani, a professor of Hebrew in the University of Bologna’s cultural heritage department.

Two separate carbon-dating tests — performed by the University of Salento in Italy and the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign — confirmed the revised dating, according to a statement from the University of Bologna.

Such scrolls — this one is 40 yards long and 25 inches high — are brought out in synagogues on the Sabbath and holidays, and portions are read aloud in public. Few such scrolls have survived since old or damaged Torahs have to be buried or stored in a closed room in a synagogue.

On Wednesday, Perani said he was updating the library’s Hebrew manuscript catalog when he stumbled on the scroll in February. He said he immediately recognized the scroll had been wrongly dated by the last cataloger in 1889 because he recognized that its script and other graphic notations were far older.

Specifically, he said the scroll doesn’t take into account the rabbinical rules that standardized how the Pentateuch should be copied that were established by Maimonides in the late 12th century. The scroll contains many features and markings that would be forbidden under those rules, he said.

The 1889 cataloger, a Jew named Leonello Modona, had described the letters in the scroll as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices,” according to the University of Bologna release.

Perani, however, saw in the document an elegant script whose square letters were of Babylonian tradition, the statement said.

Perani told The Associated Press it was “completely normal” for a cataloger to make such a mistake in the late 1800s, given the “science of manuscripts was not yet born.”

Outside experts said the finding was important even though older Hebrew bibles do exist. “It is fairly big news,” said James Aitken, a lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament studies at Cambridge University. “... It certainly is important and clearly looks like a very beautiful scroll.”

Perani said it remains a mystery how the scroll came to be part of the university library but that he anticipated further study would begin.