The book of Ben Sira (also known as Ecclesiasticus) is a collection of proverbs and poems thought to have originally been written in Hebrew in the 2nd century BCE. Although excluded from the Jewish canon, it is included in many Christian Bibles; nevertheless, it is occasionally cited with reverence in ancient and medieval rabbinic works. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the book are in Greek and Syriac; the oldest one in Hebrew, discovered in 1896, was written in the late-11th century CE and contains mysterious faded letters, which a scholar now believes he has deciphered:
[Eric R]eymond has [made] a connection between the lost first page of the manuscript and the strange ghosts of backward letters that appear on the first of the surviving pages. He posits that the backward letters are offsets or impressions of the missing text transmitted from the opposite, and long-missing, first folio page of this ancient manuscript. . . .
A scholar of ancient Hebrew texts, Reymond has been noticing and puzzling over the faint traces of letters since he was in graduate school. Were they Arabic or some other language? Could they reveal something about Ben Sira’s text that was not known from the Greek or Syriac Aramaic translations? Could they help resolve which of the variant translations—the Greek or the Syriac—was closer to the original mark?
The discovery that the ghost letters are backward Hebrew is important in and of itself. What adds even more value to his find is that it seems to indicate that the Hebrew . . . is, for the passage in question, closer to the Syriac translation than to the Greek, which will help guide future research on the evolution of Ben Sira’s text.
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