So you want to begin reading handwritten ancient manuscripts?

This post is meant to be a practical application of the previous post.  In order to illustrate the differences between a modern critical edition and a facsimile edition of an old manuscript, I will provide an image of a passage from the Leningrad Codex (henceforth LC) along with the same passage in the BHS (copied from my Logos Bible Software).  The comparison text is Genesis 1:1-3.  In order to make the comparison easier for a new reader, I have re-created the LC column divide for the BHS text.

Genesis 1:1-3 (Leningrad Codex)

1 בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים

אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

2     וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ

וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ

אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י

הַמָּֽיִם׃  3     וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י

א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃

In my experience, I found it most helpful to start reading manuscripts of texts that a student would know fairly well.  I chose Genesis 1:1-3, because of its likely familiarity.

Start your comparison letter by letter.  Then begin comparing the passages word by word.  Eventually, the writing style of the scribe will become more familiar to the student, and the student will be able to read with greater speed and more confidence.

Take note of the following:

  • The lack of uniformity in the length of the yods.  This is to be expected with any hand written sample.  However, one can easily imagine how a slight error could occur during the copying process, especially if it was done by tired eyes.  A long yod may be look like a vav.
  • The presence or absence of space between words (the 2nd line in the LC is a great example of no space).  One can appreciate the difficulty that is associated with copying words that are so close together.  Occasionally scribes made errors.  They divided words incorrectly. They forgot to add a letter because the word next to it begins with the same letter. There are many other errors that can be attributed to coping a crowded text.
  • The circle above the end of some words.  This circle signifies that the word has ended (at least in the mind of one scribe).  Unfortunately this circle isn’t at the end of every word, and occasionally the placement of this circle may be disputed.

Reading these manuscripts will only strengthen the reading and text critical skills of your students.

Happy reading!

3 comments to So you want to begin reading handwritten ancient manuscripts?

  • James Tucker

    I’ve never understood why most profs never move to reading from Mss., especially since there is a great Internet resource stock of finding PDF or jpegs.

    Another great post you might consider adding to this series is a comparative script post (i. e., paleo-Hebrew to square script.).

  • Adam Couturier

    It is rather bewildering that students can get a graduate education in Hebrew Bible studies and never be asked to look at an actual (or scanned) Mss. I have been thinking about creating a post on comparative script. Frank Moore Cross Jr. wrote one of the best essays on that topic, and I have been contemplating distilling some of his script images for that purpose.

    Frank Moore Cross Jr., “The Development of the Jewish Scripts,” in The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of William Foxwell Albright (ed. G. Ernest Wright; New York, NY.: Doubleday, 1961.

  • [...] Hebrew Manuscripts, part II. This post is a continuation of two earlier blog entries (here and here).  Its purpose is to help facilitate the reading of handwritten Hebrew manuscripts for [...]

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