A few days ago, the international press announced the auction of what could be the most expensive book of all time: a bible estimated at 50 million dollars. It would be one of the oldest Bibles in the world, a unique witness to this work unlike any other. What is it really ?
The origins of the Bible
The Bible is said to be best-selling book in the world. It must be said that she has a head start: in the XVe century, when Gutenberg perfected his famous printing technique, it was of course the Bible that he chose to be distributed on a large scale. It is a real revolution.
At the time, Gutenberg printed a Latin version of the Bible, which is called the "Vulgate", translated by Saint Jerome at the turn of the Ve century after Christ. Jerome had then made his translation from the original languages of the Bible, namely Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. This plurality of languages is due to the composite character of the Bible which, in reality, is not a book, but a collection of books written at different times by authors who did not all speak the same language. The word "Bible" itself means "the books", in the plural (in Greek: "ta biblia"). Everything is in the title !
The Bible that will be auctioned on May 16 is in Hebrew and dates from the Xe century AD, approximately. It is a venerable age, but there are much older manuscripts. A thousand years earlier, scribes copied the same books onto rolls of parchment (or, more rarely, papyrus).
Some of these manuscripts spanned millennia hidden in caves on the western shores of the Dead Sea. They were discovered in the middle of the XXe century by Bedouins; these "Dead Sea Scrolls", as they are called, are, to this day, the oldest manuscripts of the Bible. Unfortunately, they are dislocated and fragmented: there are more than 30000 shards which were to correspond to about a thousand rolls. So many puzzles to piece together, without a model, and with most of the pieces missing. The oldest date from the IIIe century BC, and perhaps even from the XNUMXthe even Ve century, as I have recently proposed. The most recent date from the IIe century after Christ.
In most cases, the proposed dating is based on the "paleography" - the way the letters are drawn -, the idea being that we do not write in the same way in the IIIe century BC and in the XNUMXnder century of our era.
A dating problem
Carbon-14 dating is, in theory, useful, but it comes up against several difficulties: it is a destructive method, because samples have to be taken and crushed; these samples are often contaminated and give aberrant results; even when they are correct, the results must be calibrated, and this sometimes leads to several possible and rather imprecise datings; finally, even when the dating proves plausible, only the parchment or papyrus is dated, and not the copy of the text, which may have been made long after – especially if the parchment has been washed and reused, as was done often: at the time, everything was recycled.
The same problem of dating arises for this Bible put up for auction. Sometimes, the scribe adds a mention specifying his identity, the date of the copy, the name of the person who ordered this work from him, etc. A bit like the finished print that you will find today at the end of any book. This mention is called a "colophon", but there is none here. We just know that it was sold at the turn of the IIe millennium after Christ. We deduce that it was copied before and, thanks to paleography, we have dated it around the Xe century of our era.
On the occasion of the auction, a carbon-14 dating was carried out, but the results have not been published. We are told that this Bible would date from the end of the IXe or the beginning of the Xe century, but without further details. The seller has every interest in proposing the oldest possible dating to raise the stakes, even to the point of presenting this Bible as a missing link with the Dead Sea Scrolls, while a millennium separates them, so that some decades will make little difference.
A missing link?
However, the missing link exists: these are Greek Bibles dated from the IVe or Ve centuries after Christ. The best known of them is in the Vatican: it is the Codex Vaticanus. These manuscripts provide access to the biblical text in its original language, Greek, for books written in that language. But for the books written in Hebrew and in Aramaic, it is necessary to be satisfied with a Greek translation. Now, to translate is to betray.
This raises the question of the reliability of this Greek version, especially since it sometimes differs from later Hebrew Bibles such as the one being auctioned. Were the Greek translators incompetent? Distracted? Oriented? The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls solved this enigma, since some of these scrolls, including in Hebrew, agree with the Greek version. In other words, the Greek translators worked rather well, because they had before their eyes a Hebrew text different from that of the medieval Hebrew Bibles.
The evolution of the biblical text did not stop there. These different versions of the Bible circulated for centuries, copied and recopied by Jewish and Christian scribes who did not necessarily speak to each other much.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Jewish scholars developed systems of punctuation of the biblical text. It must be said that the Hebrew alphabet does not note the vowels in a systematic and precise way; the same text can be read in different ways, with the consequences that one imagines when it comes to the Holy Scriptures.
To remove any ambiguity, we have dressed the text with small dots and dashes to specify the exact pronunciation: vowels, intonation, punctuation, cantillation. Several pronunciations were in competition, and it will be necessary to wait for the Xe century to find the first Hebrew Bible with the pronunciation still in use today. This Bible is the Aleppo Codex, dated around the year 930, and which can be admired at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Several sheets are lost, but its heir, the Saint Petersburg Codex (or Leningrad Codex), copied in 1009 AD, is complete. It is this manuscript that serves as a reference for the study of the Hebrew Bible and for most modern French translations of the Bible.
A living text
The Bible being auctioned is neither the Aleppo Codex nor the St. Petersburg Codex. This is Codex Sassoon 1053. Unlike the St. Petersburg Codex, it lacks leaves, so it cannot claim the title of oldest known complete Hebrew Bible. Also, its punctuation is slightly different from that of the Aleppo Codex. This is both a defect and an asset: believers wishing to read the Hebrew Bible according to the official pronunciation will dismiss Codex Sassoon 1053, while specialists have long noted the interest of this manuscript for a comparative study of the Hebrew punctuation.
In any case, the astronomical price mentioned for this auction – up to 50 million dollars! – is indicative of the importance of the Bible and religion to billions of people around the world. To the point that some American collectors have not hesitated to spend millions of dollars on the Dead Sea Scrolls, in order to buy scientific and politico-religious credibility. Ironically, these manuscripts were forgeries...
We must protect this cultural heritage from any form of instrumentalization and appreciate it at its fair value. The Codex Sassoon 1053 has other qualities: for example, it arranges the books of the Hebrew Bible in a slightly different order from the one we know. The book of the prophet Isaiah was placed after that of Ezekiel and not before that of Jeremiah. Imagine watching the films of the saga Star Wars in a different order from that in which they were released in the cinema; the effect would not be the same! This is what happens here: we read the Bible in another way. Each manuscript is unique. The multi-millennial history of the Bible invites us to discover it, not as a monolith imprisoned in a univocal reading, but as a living and always different text.
Michael Langlois, Doctor of historical and philological sciences, HDR lecturer, honorary member of the IUF, University of Strasbourg
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.