One of the greatest spiritual revolutions in human history was launched towards the end of the First Temple period, when the Jewish people began the long process of canonizing the ancient traditions.
The process gathered momentum particularly after the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE and culminated in the first centuries CE with the collection of the sacred books we know today as the Hebrew Bible, which paved the way for both New Testament and Quran.
By virtue of this contribution to human culture, the Jewish people came to be known as the people of the Book.
Over time, the Bible became the cornerstone of Jewish national identity. Thus, it is not surprising that when the oldest Bible manuscripts (The Dead Sea Scrolls) were discovered in the Judean desert in the late 1940s, the idea was conceived to build a museum called the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel, to house the ancient writings as well as other rare Biblical and historical manuscripts.
One of the exhibits in the museum is devoted to the remarkable story of one of the Hebrew corpus (a collection of manuscripts) known as The Aleppo Codex, or The Crown of Aleppo. It is called such because it was housed in Aleppo, Syria, for about 500 years. This manuscript was written by Masoret (Jewish scholars) around 930 CE. The Dead Sea Scrolls, about 1000 years older than the Aleppo Codex, and the main exhibit at the Shrine of the Book Museum.
The Bible tells us that during the reign of King Josiah, 639-609 BC, the Scroll of the Law was found. Later, during the Persian Period (5th to 4th century BCE), the first corpus of sacred books came into being and known as Torah. Another landmark was the book of Wisdom of Joshua, the son of Sirah, which was composed in Jerusalem, in 180 BC. The grandson of Ben Sirah translated the book into Greek in 132 BC. This book is very similar to the book of Proverbs and the author encourages the reader to learn the law and to fulfill it. The text was known and often quoted by the Jewish sages, but later the original Hebrew version was lost which is one of the reasons it did not become part of the Hebrew Masoretic canon. Until the end of the 19th century, it was known through the Greek text and a Syriac translation which later became part of the canon of the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Bible).
In 1896, an American born scholar and educator, Rabbi Solomon Schechter from Cambridge University traveled to Cairo and purchased thousands of pages from the writings of Ben-Sirah in Hebrew. They were kept in Cairo Synagogue archival depository (or Genizah in Hebrew) for worn or defective sacred documents. A total of six copies of Ben Sirah's book were found. In 1964, the excavation team directed by Yigael Yadin found other scroll fragments from the book of Wisdom. This version was definitely copied before the fall of Masada and the comparison of both finds shows that the Cairo version maintained the original Hebrew text.
In the book of Wisdom, the expression the law, the prophets and other writings occurs three times. This expression is known in the modern Hebrew as a general name for the corpus of the Holy Scripture books, the Bible, TaNaKh.
The most famous discovery of modern times was made in Qumran, between 1947 to 1956, when fragments of about 900 different scrolls from the Second Temple period (538 BCE to 70 CE) were found in 11 caves of the nearest mountains. Though only 20 scrolls were in fairly good condition and the vast majority of material was in fragments, almost all the copies of the Old Testament were identified except the books of Nehemiah and Esther. The book of Psalms had been copied out 36 times (!), Deuteronomy - 27 times and the book of Isaiah - 21 times.
(To be continued...)
(To be continued...)