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UNESCO adds world's oldest bible to registry of world treasures

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Oldest surviving copy of the Hebrew Bible recognized in International Memory of the World Register

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on Monday officially added the Aleppo Codex, believed to be the world’s oldest surviving copy of the Hebrew Bible, to its International Memory of the World Register.

According to Dr. Adolfo Roitman, the head curator of the Shrine of the Book Museum in Jerusalem, where the Codex now resides, all current versions of the Old Testament stem, “in one way or another, from this ancient manuscript.”

It was written in the town of Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in or around 930 CE, and then moved to Jerusalem, from where it was stolen when the Crusaders sacked the city in 1099.

It was later ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, and brought to that city.

But the Codex is significant not only for what it contains, but also for what it doesn’t. Some 190 pages of priceless text – around 40% of the total - are missing. These include four out of five books of the Pentateuch - the first section of books in the Bible also called the Five Books of Moses - as well as five books from the last section - Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel and Ezra.

In the 14th century it found its way to Aleppo, Syria, where for hundreds of years it was kept in the synagogue.

The Codex however was smuggled out, kept in a safe place until it arrived in Israel in 1958, and was presented to then-president Yitzhak Ben Zvi. It became the property of the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, a government-funded research center.

The Codex remained at the institute until it was moved to the Israel Museum in the mid-1980's, where parts are presented to the public in the Shrine of the Book, alongside another significant and not dissimilar item - the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The missing pages were initially thought to have been destroyed when the Aleppo synagogue was set alight, or perhaps looted by Syrians.

But journalist Matti Friedman, author of a book on the subject, has a different explanation. "Judging from the evidence that I uncovered, the pages were lost in Israel, that's the most likely scenario," he says.

Professor Eyal Ginio, director of the Ben Zvi Institute, disagrees. He thinks the pages were lost during the rioting in Syria.

"If parts of the Codex were lost after 1947 and were sold or taken for a private collection, the pages would have surfaced,” he says.

Instead, only two segments from the missing pages have so far surfaced, and in both cases those who had them “claimed they were found by their ancestors on the floor of the Synagogue."

The question of the Codex ownership is also a subject of dispute.

Filmmaker Avi Dabach, who hopes to make a documentary about the Codex, believes the manuscript belongs to the Jewish community which was forced out of Syria.

"In the 1960s the Aleppo-Jewish community sued the people who brought the Codex to Israel… The Israeli Authorities decided to confiscate this item and then, from a position of strength, force on the community an arrangement," he states.

For many years members of the Aleppo Jewish community came to the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum to see the Codex and pray in front of it. For them, the significance of the Codex goes beyond religion. They regard it as something that held their community together for many years in a Muslim dominated country.

Dabach and his crew have opened an online fundraising campaign to finance their movie, and hope they can continue the investigation Friedman started.


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