Oldest Copies of the Torah in the World

9 Oldest Copies of the Torah in the World

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The word Torah can mean many different things, but in general it refers to the first five books of the Jewish Bible, which is known as the Pentateuch. However, “torah” is also used to refer to the entire Jewish Bible as well as the whole body of Jewish laws and teaching. According to Jewish tradition, the oral Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God, who then passed on what he learned to the Jewish people.

No one knows for sure when the Torah was first written down, but scholars believe that the final version of the Torah we have today was recorded during the Babylonian exile (c.539 BCE). A few fragments of texts from around this time period have survived, but the oldest complete Torah only dates to the 11th or 12th century.

9. University of Bologna Torah Scroll

Year Written: between 1155 and 1225 CE
Location:  University of Bologna, Italy
Contents:  The complete Torah (Pentateuch)

photo source:  National Geographic News

In 2013, a Torah scroll from the University of Bologna in Italy made international news as it was deemed to be the world’s oldest Torah – this is technically true as it is the oldest complete Torah scroll.  Professor Mauro Perani announced that radiocarbon tests showed that the Torah scroll was about 800 years old, dating between 1155 and 1225.

Although the University of Bologna had possessed the Torah scroll for over a century, it was misidentified by the school’s original librarian and cataloguer from 1889, Leonello Modona. He did not recognize the Hebrew script and thought the text was “bad” Italian script from the 17th century. Professor Perani noticed the mistake when he set out to update the library’s Hebrew manuscript collection.


8. Leningrad Codex

Year Written: 1009 CE
Location:  Written in Cairo, Egypt; currently at the Russian National Library, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Contents:  Complete Hebrew Bible

photo source:  Wikimedia Commons

While the Aleppo Codex is older and was used to make corrections to the Leningrad Codex, because parts of the Aleppo Codex has been missing today, the Leningrad Codex is officially the oldest complete Hebrew Bible in existence. The Leningrad Codex contains all 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, including the Torah. This Hebrew Bible was written in 1009 CE, which is known because the date is written on the manuscript.

The Leningrad Codex was written in Cairo, Egypt, but has been housed at the Russian National Library in Saint Petersburg for more than 130 years. As the oldest and most complete version of the Hebrew Bible, the Leningrad Codex has been used as a model for modern Jewish bibles.


7. Damascus Pentateuch

Year Written: c.1000 CE
Location:  Jewish National and University Library in Israel
Contents:  Nearly all of the Torah (Pentateuch); missing parts of Genesis and Exodus 18:1–23

Damascus Pentateuchphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Damascus Pentateuch is the oldest, almost complete manuscript containing only the Torah of the Hebrew Bible. While the manuscript contains most of the Torah, the beginning is missing parts of Genesis, as it starts at Genesis 9:26; Exodus 18:1–23 is also missing. The Damascus Pentateuch was written around 1000 CE and includes full vocalization, accentuation, and Masoretic annotation.

The manuscript was named after the Jewish community of Damascus, who owned the Pentateuch until 1915 when it was acquired by a collector named D.S. Sassoon. Since 1975, the Damascus Pentateuch has belonged to the Jewish National and University Library of Israel.


6. Aleppo Codex

Year Written: c.930 CE
Location:  Tiberias, in what is now Northern Israel; currently in Jerusalem
Contents:  Prior to 1947, the complete Hebrew Bible; hundreds of pages missing today, including nearly the whole Torah (Pentateuch)

photo source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Aleppo Codex was at one point the oldest and most accurate copy of the complete Hebrew Bible. For more than a thousand years, the Aleppo Codex was carefully preserved by Jewish communities in the Middle East. It resided in Aleppo, Syria for hundreds of years before being destroyed in 1947 after riots broke out in Syria following the establishing of the State of Israel.

Initially, everyone thought that the Aleppo Codex had been completely destroyed, but parts of it were secretly rescued. In 1958, the remaining Aleppo Codex was smuggled out of Syria and taken to Jerusalem for safe keeping. Today only about 295 pages of the Aleppo Codex have survived, including nearly all of the Torah (the Pentateuch). Over the years, a few of the missing pages have turned up and many efforts have been made to find the rest of the Aleppo Codex.


5. London Manuscript and Ashkar-Gilson Hebrew Manuscript #2

Year Written: 7th or 8th century CE
Location:  Found in Beirut, Lebanon; may have actually come from the Cairo Genizah in Egypt
Contents:  Section of the Book of Exodus

London Manuscript and Ashkar-Gilson Hebrew Manuscriptphoto source:  Center for Online Judaic Studies

Prior to 2007, no one knew that the two Torah fragments known as the Ashkar-Gilson Hebrew Manuscript #2 and the London Manuscript were actually part of the same scroll. Dr. Mordechay Mishor, a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, is credited with first noticing the similarities between the Ashkar-Glison Manuscript and the London Manuscript. Mishor contacted Dr. Edna Engel of the Hebrew Palaeography Project at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, who determined that the two fragments were in fact a perfect match.

The Ashkar-Gilson Manuscript had been donated to Duke University after it was first discovered in 1972. The University gave Engel and Mishor a facsimile of the manuscript and gave them permission to publish their findings. The owner of the London Manuscript, the Loewentheil Family of New York, also cooperated with Engel and Mishor on their mission to reunite the two pieces. The reunited scroll contains a section from the Book of Exodus, including the “Song of the Sea.”


4. En-Gedi Scroll

Year Written: c. 3rd or 4th century CE
Location:  Ein Gedi, Israel
Contents:  Section of Leviticus 1:3

photo source:  Science Advances

The En-Gedi Scroll (or Ein-Gedi) was discovered all the way back in 1970, but not much was known about its contents because of how damaged it was – the scroll looks like a lump of charcoal. For nearly 50 years, researchers have wondered what was written on the En-Gedi Scroll and they finally got their answer in 2016. A team of computer scientists from the University of Kentucky used specialized X-ray imaging to reveal the writing inside the scroll without unwrapping it.

Thanks to the scientists, we now know that the En-Gedi Scroll contains a portion of Leviticus 1:3. The scroll has been radiocarbon dated to the third or fourth century CE, sometime after the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to the research team, the En-Gedi Scroll is the oldest Old Testament scroll ever found in the holy ark of a synagogue.


3. Nash Papyrus

Year Written: c.2nd century BCE
Location:  Unknown – allegedly from Fayyum, Egypt
Contents:  The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and part of The Shema (a prayer from the Torah)

photo source:  Wikimedia Commons

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nash Papyrus was the oldest known manuscript containing text from the Hebrew Bible. The papyrus fragment dates back to the around the 2nd century BCE and contains the Decalogue or Ten Commandments as well as the beginnings of the Shema prayer. Researchers believe that the Nash Papyrus may have been part of a tefillin (small boxes containing scrolls with verses from the Torah) that was used for daily prayer.

The provenance of the Nash Papyrus is unknown, but it allegedly comes from Fayyum (or Faiyum), Egypt. In 1902, Dr. Walter Llewellyn Nash (the papyrus was named after Nash) purchased the papyrus from an Egyptian antiquities dealer. Nash turned the scroll over to the Cambridge University Library in 1903 for further research.


2. Dead Sea Scrolls

Year Written: between 2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE
Location:  Qumran Caves in the West Bank near the Dead Sea
Contents:  All five books of the Torah and every part of the Hebrew Bible except the Book of Esther

Dead Sea Scrollsphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Dead Seas Scrolls are some of the most important and well-known biblical artifacts ever discovered. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written between the 2nd century BCE – the 2nd century CE, and had remained buried in the Judean Desert for thousands of years before being discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd. The shepherd’s initial discovery of the first seven Dead Sea Scrolls, launched a massive search for more scrolls in nearby caves. Eventually, thousands of scroll fragments (amounting to over 900 manuscripts) were uncovered at numerous sites across the Judean Desert and are collectively known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are divided into two main categories, “Biblical” and “Non-Biblical”. The biblical contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain every book of the Torah and whole Hebrew Bible except for the Book of Esther.


1. Ketef Hinnom Silver Scroll Amulets

Year Written: c. late seventh or early sixth century BCE
Location:  Ketef Hinnom archaeological site, near the Old City of Jerusalem
Contents:  Blessings possibly from an early version of the Book of Numbers

Ketef Hinnom Silver Scroll Amuletsphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons via Tamar Hayardeni

The two silver scroll amulets from the Ketef Hinnom archaeological site are the oldest pieces of the Torah ever found in the world. The scrolls were discovered in 1979 and were estimated to be from around the late seventh or early sixth century BCE. The two small strips of silver contain what is known as the Priestly Benediction, from the Book of Numbers (the fourth book of the Torah), making it the oldest biblical passage ever found on an ancient artifact.

For many years, doubts over the contents and age of the scrolls persisted. Much of the silver scrolls have been corroded and the words are barely legible. However, in 2004 researchers at the University of Southern California reexamined the scrolls using new photographic and computer imaging techniques. They were able to fully read the text and determine that the silver scrolls were from a period of time just before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.


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