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Provenance of Aquila OT Genizah Manuscripts

October 9, 2014

In a recent article Edmon Gallagher has queried the widely-shared assumption that the manuscripts of Aquila’s translation of the OT attested among the Cairo Genizah fragments come from Jewish copyists.  Instead (or at least as plausibly), he contends, they may well be Christian copies acquired by Jewish readers, much later over-written with Hebrew texts, and so eventually in the Cairo Genizah:

Edmon L. Gallaher, “The Religious Provenance of the Aquila Manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah,” Journal of Jewish Studies 64 (2013): 283-305.

Where these manuscripts of Aquila’s translation came from is in itself an intriguing question, of course.  For me, however, there is an additional reason to be interested, and that has to do with the continuing questions about the origins and significance of the ancient copyist practice known as the “nomina sacra.”  These are shortened forms of certain key words, typically with a horizontal stroke placed over them, the earliest and most consistently treated words = θεος (“God”), κυριος (“Lord”), Ιησους (“Jesus”), and Χριστος (“Christ”).  (For a fuller discussion, see my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, pp. 95-134.)

The Aquila fragments (portions of 1 Kings and 2 Kings) usually render the Hebrew divine name (“Tetragrammaton,” YHWH) in an attempt at palaeo-Hebrew characters (bearing in mind that the rest of the text is Greek), nine times by my count.  This is a practice attested much earlier as well (e.g., the remnants of a Greek scroll of the Minor Prophets, 8HevXIIgr, and the remnants of a Greek copy of Job, P.Oxy. 3522).  In contrast, the ancient Christian practice was to render YHWH with the nomina sacra form of Kyrios (e.g., ΚΣ, ΚΥ, etc.).

So, because of this, plus the discovery of these fragments in a synagogue genizah, most scholars have presumed that the manuscripts of Aquila from which the extant fragments come were likely produced by Jewish copyists.  But there have always been some curiosities that have made people scratch their heads a bit.

First, the manuscripts were obviously codices, the bookform early preferred by Christians in particular.  Now, to be sure, by the likely time that the Aquila manuscripts were copied (ca. 5th-6th century CE), the codex was becoming more and more preferred generally.  On the other hand, identifiably Jewish copies of biblical writings in codex form are hard to find much earlier than the 8th century CE.

Second, there are a couple of other copyist devices that seem curious.  The more well-known one is the single instance where YHWH is written as ΚΥ (and with the horizontal stroke above it typical of nomina sacra, fol. 2v, col. 1, line 15).  In addition (and less frequently mentioned), the word “Israel” is written in a nomina sacra form in all three occurrences.  These nomina sacra forms are much more typical of Christian copyist practice (indeed, scholars would typically take instances as themselves evidence that a given fragment likely comes from a Christian copyist).  So, are these nomina sacra forms evidence that the practice was at some point also taken up by some Jewish copyists?

Possibly.  But one additional thing to note:  The palaeo-Hebrew representations of YHWH aren’t done very skilfully.  E.g., whoever wrote them seems unable to distinguish between the Hebrew letters yod and vav.  Now, it’s possible that by the 5th/6th century a Jewish copyist had such a difficulty.  But it’s also possible that a non-Jewish copyist making a copy of a Jewish manuscript of Aquila’s translation tried to copy YHWH in palaeo-Hebrew characters, “drawing” them, so to speak, and not quite getting it right.

This would fit with the other data mentioned: The one lonely instance of the nomina sacra form, ΚΥ, a case where the copyist reached the end of a line and, without sufficient space on that line to write the palaeo-Hebrew YHWH, reverted to his usual practice of rendering it in the nomina sacra form for Κυριος?  Also the instance of “Israel” written in nomina sacra form could, then, further indicate a Christian copyist.

We know for sure that there are Christian manuscripts attested among the Cairo Genizah fragments:  palimpsests in which the under-writing is portions of the Gospels of Matthew and John, Acts and 1 Peter in Greek, and fragments of NT writings in a few other languages as well (bibliographical references here).  So, it wouldn’t be strange at all that copies of Aquila derived from Christian copyists were acquired as well.  In addition, the Genizah fragments include remnants of manuscripts of various NT writings in various translations, as noted by Friedrich Niessen, “New Testament Translations from the Cairo Genizah,” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 6 (2009): 201-22.

As Gallagher grants, we can’t really settle this matter sufficiently to exclude totally either possibility.  But I agree with him that there are good reasons for treating seriously the option that the Aquila manuscript later used as a palimpsest in the Cairo synagogue may well have been a copy made by a Christian copyist.  In any case, the uncertainty about the matter should caution scholars about citing these fragments as any strong evidence for Jewish copyist practices.  In particular, it seems to me perilous to use the Aquila fragments as evidence that the nomina sacra originated as a Jewish scribal practice.

Oh, one more observation.  It appears that the Aquila Greek manuscript dates from the 5th-6th century CE, and then was over-written with a Hebrew text that is dated several centuries later.  This is another indication that ancient manuscripts could have a rather long life-usage, a point made by George Houston and on which I posted some time back here.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Interesting comments on the Aquila manuscripts. I thought that the main argument in favour of Jewish provenance was simply the nature of the text: Aquila’s translation was produced by Jews to replace the ‘Christian’ Septuagint. Nevertheless it sounds reasonable, from your explanation, that it could be the work of either Jewish or Christian scribes. But I doubt it tells us anything one way or another about the origins of the nomina sacra, it’s hundreds of years too late to be relevant surely.

    • Yup. That was a point (about the nomina sacra) that I made in my posting. The earliest evidence indicates that the nomina sacra originated in/among Christian copyists.

  2. Question from the viewing audience: Taking into account the OT Genizah Manuscripts, how should one answer when asked, “How many Hebrew MSS of the OT are in extant today?”

    • Well, I don’t myself keep up to date account of Hebrew biblical MSS. Until the Qumran find, however, it was common to refer to the Leningrad codex as about the oldest (from ca. 1000 CE). So, the problem wasn’t the number but the date of MSS of the Hebrew Bible. With the Qumran find, we now have a hugely increased body of MSS from ca. 1000 yrs earlier, although many/most are damaged or even fragmentary.
      As for the Cairo Genizah material, it is cited as amounting to some 200,000 fragments, most of which have not been studied or published. There might be a surprise or two awaiting us.

  3. ounbbl permalink

    Thank you for your article.

  4. jfjoyner3 permalink

    Of all the great postings you’ve done, I am compelled to blurt out that these recent few on the Cairo Geniza manuscripts and related issues are nothing less than fascinating! I’m hoping your blog is receiving tens of thousands of hits (don’t we wish)!

    • Well, “fascinating” to geeks like me. Several hundred views per day, not tens of thousands.

  5. Historians and anthropologists often tell us that evaluating very ancient cultures, or even more recent archeological and manuscript evidence of course, is very difficult – and often speculative. Particularly in the case where we only have a very few texts; most of which were repeated, re copied and modified, from one culture or language, to another. For probably a period of thousands of years.

    Often of course, in History and Science, we have to go with whatever evidence there is; no matter how minimal. In these cases though, we should often simply caution that there is so little information, so little data, that any conclusions that we might wish to come to from what we know, are extremely hazardous, and speculative.

    It’s good to hear about the latest speculations. Though now and then it’s worth reminding everyone just how problematic nearly all the typical conclusions are, that try to use very early textual evidence.

    • Wentham: Do you yourself actually do ancient historical work?? I wonder. Your comment seems to me a bit “armchair historian” in nature. Those of us who do historical work hardly need to be reminded about drawing conclusions beyond the data. And in the case of the Genizah fragments, we have bases for probing the provenance of the manuscripts. Their contents are rather clear. So, it’s not the purely speculative exercise that you seem to project.

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