Jan 2014 Journal

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Letter from Israel: The Book of Books

As everyone knows, the Bible has been translated into almost every language under the sun, is the world’s bestselling book, and has had a profound influence on the development of mankind since its inception.

The title of the current exhibition at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, which is situated opposite the Israel Museum, is the same as the title of this column. The exhibition traces the history of the Bible in its various translations and versions through the 2,000 years of its existence.

Inevitably, the exhibition begins with examples of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in and around the Qumran caves and date from the period of the Second Temple. They contain the texts of all the books of the Old Testament apart from The Book of Esther as well as texts elucidating the beliefs and rules of the sect that lived in the region. Among the various messianic sects that proliferated in the Land of Israel during Roman rule was one that developed into Christianity, accepting the Bible but regarding the writings of the prophets as referring to Jesus. Its adherents proceeded to add their own corpus of texts, which became known as the New Testament.

According to legend, during the Second Temple period the king of Egypt, Ptolemy II, sponsored the translation of the Bible into Greek and this became known as the Septuagint, purportedly produced in 72 days by 72 rabbis who miraculously all produced the same translation.

The earliest New Testament manuscripts date from the first half of the second century CE, three or four generations after the crucifixion of Jesus. They were written in Greek though it is thought that some may have been written originally in Hebrew and Aramaic.

The exhibition contains many beautiful illuminated manuscripts, among them psalters, prayer books and holy books from pre-medieval and medieval Europe. Scribes in monasteries copied and illuminated Biblical and holy texts, while Jewish scribes were engaged primarily in copying out the Torah for use in synagogues.

Documents from the Cairo Geniza are also on display. The discovery of the Geniza in the 19th century brought to light a treasure trove of around 300,000 documents that had accumulated over almost 1,000 years, shedding light on the religious and secular lives of the Jews and their neighbours.

Also on display are copies of the New Testament from Ethiopia written in the Ge’ez language and dating to the 4th and 6th centuries CE, alongside a Yemenite Old Testament written in the 15th and 16th centuries, with exquisite calligraphy and delicate designs, and Bibles written in Syriac, Armenian and, of course, all the European languages.
The invention of printing brought about a radical change in the approach to and availability of the Bible, and a page taken from the original Gutenberg Bible in Latin and printed in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s can also be seen.

The exhibition also contains Jewish medieval commentaries on the Bible, among them those of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, David Kimhi, Nahmanides and Gersonides. Another vitrine contains several Polyglot Bibles, produced in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and containing Bibles printed in at least four languages – Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin – though one printed in London contains an additional five languages – Syriac, Samaritan, Ge’ez, Arabic and Persian.

In the 16th century Martin Luther translated the Old and New Testaments into vernacular German (examples are on display), thus making the texts accessible to a much wider segment of the population.

The English translation, initiated by King James and published in 1611, was translated by groups of scholars at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and at Westminster Abbey in London. Its rolling cadences and poetic phrases still resonate throughout the English-speaking world and innumerable terms and expressions have become an integral part of the English language.

The exhibition also contains the versions known as the ‘He’ and ‘She’ bibles because of the two different ways a verse from the Book of Ruth was translated into English. Only in the 13th century was the Bible divided into chapters, by the Archbishop of Canterbury; in 1448 Rabbi Isaac Nathan divided the Old Testament into verses; and this was done in the 1550s by Robert Stephanus Estienne, though the two sets of divisions differed, being based on different considerations.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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