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

March 27, 2019 | Benjamin Kantor
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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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