By Recycling, a Medieval Jew Preserved a Major Work of Christian Bible Scholarship

March 27 2019

Composed by the church father Origen in the 3rd century CE, the Hexapla (“six-fold”) contained, in parallel columns, the text of the Hebrew Bible, a transliteration into Greek, and four different Greek translations. The work was a key tool of ancient Christian biblical scholarship, including Origen’s own. While no complete versions, or even complete pages, of the Hexapla are extant, a fragment discovered in the Cairo Genizah—a repository of used books and document at a medieval synagogue—sheds light on what the original may have looked like. Benjamin Kantor writes:

There has been scholarly debate about whether there really was a first column (Hebrew in Hebrew letters) as part of the Hexapla, since there are no remains of the first column in any of the extant textual witnesses. It is only attested in ancient authors’ descriptions. On the basis of the precise measurements and proportions of this Genizah fragment, however, it has been persuasively argued that this palimpsest, [a parchment where writing has been scraped off and written over], originally did contain a Hebrew column. . . .

This 6th- or 7th-century palimpsest happens to be the oldest direct witness to the Hexapla extant today. It contains a portion of Psalm 22. We do not know much about the history of the text, but it was probably an early copy of the Hexapla (or the Hexaplaric Psalter) that circulated in Christian circles in Palestine and/or Egypt in the latter half of the first millennium. Eventually, at least, it found its way to Egypt, whether before or after being written over with the Hebrew liturgical poetry of Yannai in the 10th century. . . .

In terms of analyzing the original format of the Hexapla, this is the most important witness we have. Although only portions of columns II (Hebrew in Greek letters), III (the translation of Aquila), IV (that of Symmachus), and V (the Septuagint) remain, the proportions and measurements of the fragment, according to [the scholar] R.G. Jenkins, prove that this palimpsest originally contained both column I (Hebrew in Hebrew letters) and column VI (the translation of Theodotion). This is partially due to the fact that you can still see the original gutter (i.e., “crease”) that marked the center of the codex.

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Read more at Taylor-Schechter Genizah

More about: Cairo Geniza, Christianity, History & Ideas, Translation

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy