Culture

The manuscript purported to be the world's oldest prayer book
Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum unveils what they suggest is the world's oldest siddur. But is it really?

It's a story of intrigue, big money and the origins of religion shrouded in the mists of time.

In the world of archeology and ancient manuscripts, every museum or scholar would love to lay claim to the next big discovery that rewrites our conception of the past.

Now, a mysterious book purported to be the world's oldest siddur, or Jewish prayer book, has been put on display by Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum. Amid the fanfare, scholars are questioning whether the book is what it's being hyped as.

The book has been loaned to the museum by Oklahoma businessman Steve Green, who said he had it carbon dated three times and that it is estimated to have originated in 820 A.D. The siddur went on public display for the first time on Thursday and will be shown until after the Sukkot holiday in mid-October.

The 50-page book, supposedly still in its original binding, was even presented to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said on Thursday that this is “ a connection between our past and present, and that is something of great value.”

Green is an evangelical Christian who plans to build an $800-million national Bible museum near the National Mall in Washington D.C. He is one of the world's foremost collectors of rare Biblical texts and artifacts.

It is written in Hebrew and contains fragments of the morning service, psalms and the Haggadah, which is traditionally recited at the Passover Seder dinner.

The book has been known to scholars for about 12 years, and was first sighted in Iraq, where antiquities dealers said it had been passed down within the same family for generations. At one point the asking price was $120,000 but sources say it probably ultimately sold for much more.

"I believe the Green Foundation acted in good faith based on the information they received when they purchased the book," Matthew Morgenstern, a professor of Hebrew at Tel Aviv University, told i24news.

Nevertheless, there are many questions as to the book's provenance.

"No one is casting doubt that the actual pages in the book are authentic," says Morgenstern.

"But the book was written by a number of different scribes, many of the texts are incomplete and the pages are of slightly different sizes. Is what we're seeing actually a book that was bound in the Middle Ages?"

Morgenstern says it is not impossible that the ancient fragments, while genuine, could have been bound together in modern times by an antiquities dealer looking to fetch a higher price.

"A prerequisite to any serious study of the scroll would be a detailed codicological examination of the 'book' and its binding, by a scholar with expertise in material of the period."

If the book is merely a modern compilation of ancient fragments as opposed to an actual ancient siddur, it would be an interesting discovery "but not the great missing link" between ancient and modern liturgy it is being touted as, says Morgenstern.

Still, even if one of the fragments was from the 9th century, it would still be one of the oldest extant siddur fragments known to scholars.

But Dr. Ben Outhwaite, head of the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University, casts doubt on that as well. He told i24news that he hasn't seen the manuscript and doesn't know where it's from, but it raises several questions in his mind.

"It looks very similar to many other texts we have from the Cairo Genizah, and the majority of these fall in the period of the 11-13th century, or can be 10th century at the earliest."

"I'd want a good reason to believe it's earlier than that. Carbon dating is a good reason -- but what method was used? Were multiple leaves tested? What was the range of potential dates?"

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