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New Testament Texts in the Cairo Genizah

October 7, 2014

In the course of checking up on some details pertaining to another matter, I’ve come across a fascinating item:  Copies of NT texts among the many fragments of material from the ancient Cairo “Genizah”.  I confess that, although these items were published over a century ago, I didn’t know about them.

The publication I’ve only recently come to know is this one:  Hebrew-Greek Cairo Genizah Palimpsests from the Taylor-Schechter Collection, Including a Fragment of the Twenty-Second Psalm according to Origen’s Hexapla, ed. Charles Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900).

The term “Genizah” (alternate spelling, Geniza) refers to a kind of storeroom in ancient synagogues where worn out manuscripts were placed.  So, e.g., the Cairo Genizah contained masses of largely now-fragmentary manuscripts, which are now in Cambridge (where there has been a major project to identify, study and publish them).

“Palimpsests” are manuscripts in which one text was written over a previous text.  The NT texts in question are the “under-writing” and the later “over-writing” is one or another Hebrew texts (e.g., portions of the rabbinic text, Bereshith Rabbah) The under-writing in these fragments includes portions of Matthew 10, John 20, Acts 24, and just a few bits of 1 Peter.

Intriguing questions immediately form, such as these:  What is the provenance of the NT manuscripts that were acquired and then re-used at some later point?  Why were they acquired, likely by members of the ancient Cairo Genizah?

The Greek of the NT texts was written in remarkably fine “majuscule” (capital) letters, and was dated palaeographically to the late 5th or early 6th century CE.  Taylor proposed that the original codex from which the Gospel fragments come “must have been an Evangelisterium [liturgical Gospel book] or other Lectionary” (p. 89).   The copy of Acts and 1 Peter may have been part of another codex (Acts was typically copied with the “Catholic” epistles in ancient manuscripts).

Did the synagogue acquire copies of NT writings to get acquainted with them for purposes of dialogue and/or debate?

As well as these NT texts, Taylor’s slim volume also includes transcriptions and analyses of fragments of another palimpsest in which the under-writing is Psalm 22, perhaps remnants of what was originally a full Greek Psalter, and still another palimpsest whose under-writing was some of the Psalms according to the Greek Version by Aquila (made in the 2nd century CE).   A few years earlier, F. C. Burkitt had published another slim volume giving transcriptions of fragments of 1-2 Kings in the Aquila Version:  Fragments of the Books of Kings according to the Translation of Aquila, from a MS. formerly in the Geniza at Cairo Now in the Possession of C. Taylor D.D. Master of St. John’s College and S. Schechter D.Litt. University Reader in Talmudic Literature (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1898).

To return to the fragments with portions of NT texts, it’s clear that they are Christian copies of these texts, readily reflected in the “nomina sacra” forms at points (e.g., ΤΟΝ ΚΝ [“the Lord”] at John 20:11, and ΧΝ ΙΝ [“Christ Jesus”] at Acts 24:24).

By contrast, the Greek of the Psalms has the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) rendered as  “ΠΙΠΙ” (“pipi”) in the fragments of Origen’s Hexapla, and in the fragments of Acquila’s Version of the Psalms YHWH is consistently written in archaic Hebrew characters.  Further, in the one preserved instance of θεος (“theos“) in Psa 91:2 (LXX 90:2), it is written in full (i.e., not as a nomen sacrum).  These data suggest a derivation from Jewish copyists, who didn’t typically use the apparently Christian innovation of the nomina sacra.    (I’ve given a list of nomina sacra in an item by this name under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site.  For a fuller discussion, see my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, pp. 95-134.)

I’d be grateful if readers know of scholarly publications on the items published in the two volumes I’ve mentioned.  The two books themselves are now available in cheap reprint editions.


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  1. This is not 093??

    • aland 093.James: The Genizah palimpsest fragment of Acts & 1 Peter is Gregory 093.

  2. Hi Dr. Hurtado, I enjoy reading your blog every week. I was listening to a lecture by Hebraist Dr. Bill Barrick on how the Jews would give manuscripts that had been copied incorrectly a “proper burial” in a geniza. Finding manuscripts in a geniza normally meant that such scrolls would either not had been used or no longer used in the normal life of synagogue. Rather than tossing them out, the Jews felt the need to place used, damaged or improperly copied scrolls in such genizas. I noticed you mentioned in the article the presence of palimpsests. Is it possible that Jewish Christians felt it was o.k to reuse the geniza scrolls due to the fact they were ceremonially discarded by the synagogue members?

    • You misunderstand the data: The original texts of the palimpsests in question were NT writings, so from Christian provenance. Then, several centuries later, these were over-written with Hebrew texts of obvious Jewish provenance. Then, when these palimpsests (and other manuscripts) were deemed redundant or worn, they were placed in the synagogue genizah.

  3. Jeff Cate permalink

    Scratch that. The Mt & Jn fragments must be Van Haelst 355 = GA L-1276.

    • Yes, the Matt & John fragments from the Genizah = van Haelst 355. The Acts & 1 Peter fragments = van Haelst 487.

  4. Wayne Brindle permalink

    could you please give us the publication/order information for the cheap reprints you mentioned? Thanks.

  5. jfjoyner3 permalink

    This is fascinating.

    This is only indirectly related (or might be unrelated): your discovery reminds me of an article by David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai, re-publishing their earlier publication, and entitled in the English translation, “The Apocryphal Psalms of David.” It was based on two double-sided pages from the Cairo Genizah. The composition presents a flagrantly messianic image of David. It almost certainly has allusions to John 17:17 and Hebrews 1:4 and other NT passages.

    My curiosity is high: could the users of this apocryphal psalm be the same as those using the NT texts you learned about? (I know you cannot answer, I’m just sharing my question.)

    • jfjoyner3 permalink

      Ok, this is a question I hope you can answer …

      If these NT fragments were found at the Cairo Geniza, and if the apocryphal flagrantly-messianic psalm (with allusions to John 17:17 and Hebrews 1:4 and other NT passages) published by Flusser and Safrai were found at the Cairo Geniza … that really seems interesting and exciting! What is the range of plausible options to explain the presence of these texts? Can these texts be considered potential clues of an early Jewish-Christian group worshipping at or in association with the Cairo synagogue?

      • I’d think it much more plausible that the items in question reflect some interesting level of interchange and social exchange among Jews and Christians in Cairo in that period.

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