Lost and Found and Digitally Preserved: The Cairo Genizah

A hundred years ago today, The New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article titled “Important Jewish Manuscript Older than Gospel.” It tells of the debate between two scholars regarding the meaning of a fragment of a Hebrew manuscript:

“The fragment just published by Dr. Schechter is called by him a Document of the Jewish Sectaries. He sees in it an extraordinarily interesting account of the beliefs of a band of Jews who broke away from the main religious body about 290 B.C., went to Damascus and founded a cult of their own, based closely on the Jewish Law, but with an additional belief in some sort of Messiah. Dr. Margoliouth, on the other hand, finds an entirely different meaning. To him the document is of much later date, probably of the second half of the first century of the Christian era. To his mind there are two Messiahs, not one, spoken of, the first a forerunner and the second a unique ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ — the ‘Only Teacher.’ He identifies the first Messiah with John the Baptist and the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ with Jesus himself.” The article ends with “Other great scholars will decide between these two great scholars after much study and discussion. At any rate, it is certain that the past has given up a document of vast importance to the history of Christianity.”

This fragment and more than 200,000 other texts are part of the Cairo Genizah. According to The Friedberg Genizah Project, this collection of ancient texts was mostly discovered late in the nineteenth century. Many of the documents were stored in the loft of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo between the 11th and 19th centuries. A genizah is a storage room where copies of respected texts with scribal errors or physical damage, or unusable documents, are kept until they can be ritually buried. The dark, sealed room in the arid Egyptian climate contributed to the preservation of the documents, the earliest of which may go back to the eighth and ninth centuries. “These manuscripts outline a 1,000-year continuum of Middle-Eastern history and comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world. The Genizah can be described as one of the greatest Jewish treasures ever found.”

The goal of the The Friedberg Genizah Project is to locate the manuscripts in the various libraries and collections around the world where they are housed today, and to transcribe, translate, digitize, and publish them online. Here’s what it says about the contents of the document discussed in the New York Times article (on this page, scroll down to last row, middle document), identifying it as a 10th century manuscript:

“The laws, practices and ideology of a group of Jews who lived in Judea before the rise of Christianity. They cover such topics as the role and rules of the group and its attitude to other Jews, dietary laws, marriage customs and sabbath observance. The form of Judaism here represented has common elements with Essene, Pharisaic and Sadducean forms of the religion but is not identical with any one of them. The only other source for this work is the Dead Sea Scrolls. The survival of this document points to its use a millennium later than the period in which it originated, possibly by the Karaites or a similarly minded group of non-rabbinic Jews. It raises interesting questions about the contexts in which such literature survived during the intervening centuries.”

A number of libraries have started digitizing and publishing online their collections of the Cairo Genizah manuscripts, for example the libraries at the University of Manchester and Cambridge University.

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One Response to Lost and Found and Digitally Preserved: The Cairo Genizah

  1. Pingback: On Memory | The Story of Information

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