The Importance of Reading Handwritten Manuscripts

Often when students learn to read ancient (i.e. biblical) Hebrew texts, they do so through a very cold and sterile medium.  We learn to read the language from clean modern type-faced critical editions of biblical texts, such as those found in the BHS/BHQ/BHK.[1] This method is fine for 1st year students of the language, but I think that this practice is unacceptable for 2nd and 3rd year Hebrew students.

When students are encouraged to read only from modern print editions, they will inevitably have a difficult time reading ancient and medieval handwritten manuscripts.  The first time I read from the Leningrad Codex I didn’t recognize some of the letters, I experienced vav/yod confusion, and I didn’t always know when one word ended and the other began.  This was my experience, and I would guess that it is the experience of most other Hebrew students when they first encounter these types of manuscripts.

The value of reading ancient and medieval manuscripts should not be minimized.  Below are five valuable skills/lessons that can be gained by this practice:

  • A student will be able to ensure that a modern publisher has transcribed the material correctly.  (See an example that I uncovered in this older post).
  • A student will appreciate more fully the work of ancient scribes.
  • A student will understand how errors in transcription arose, such as dittographies (errors resulting from the repetition of a word or letters), haplographies (errors resulting from accidental omission of a word or letters), homoeoteleutons (errors from omitting elements of a text because of similar endings on words), etc.
  • A student will begin to see and recognize the evolution of the Aramaic script used throughout the history of written Hebrew.
  • A student will be able to sight read more easily a text displayed in a museum.

In the past, cost and access were the two biggest obstacles associated with assigning readings of actual or facsimile editions of Hebrew manuscripts. Thankfully, the previously mentioned impediments are no longer an issue.  High resolution images can be found easily on the internet at no cost to a student/teacher.

Free Resources:

While the cost of purchasing a handsomely bound facsimile edition of the Leningrad Codex ($200+ US) is a bit steep for the average student, a lower resolution pdf can be found on the internet for free (go here)!  As I reported a year ago, the Aleppo Codex has been made available for viewing on the internet, as well (go here).

Thanks to technology, there is no reason that an intermediate student of the language can’t get their hands dirty by reading hand written texts from the past.  While the sterile modern critical editions have their value, there is nothing like reading parchment that contains every beautiful imperfection from the scribe’s own hand.  The more a student reads the better she will get.

Tolle Lege!

(Take, Read!)


[1] This is not an attack on the type-face of the BHS.  I love my BHS!  I have a small copy that is always on my desk, along with the BHQ edition of Proverbs.

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