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The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex: Bible Proof and Promise, Part 2

Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalms Scroll, Quram

Dead Sea Scroll of the Book of Psalms (Photo courtesy of Israel Antiquities Institute)

In Part 1 of this series, we began to uncover the providence of God in the history of two of the most ancient and sacred texts known to Judaism — the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex — and two foundation texts of the Messianic Prophecy Bible, which we are creating.

Although some would argue that their discovery and return at the same time as the rebirth of the modern state of Israel is mere coincidence or serendipity, they are evidence of the God of Israel fulfilling end-time prophecy concerning Israel.

These ancient texts were His birthday gift to us and confirmation to the world that the Bible we have today is accurate.   They are also confirmation of the rightful place of Jerusalem in God’s plans:

“The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”  (Isaiah 2:3)

This week, we will uncover the mystery and intrigue of how God’s hand moved to keep most of these texts hidden and safe so that they can be studied, digitized and made available for free to both Jew and Gentile alike through Bibles for Israel’s print and software versions of the Messianic Prophecy Bible.

Isaiah 53, Great Isaiah Scroll, Dead Sea Scroll

Isaiah 53 from the Great Isaiah Scroll (Dead Sea Scroll) (Photo by Ardon Bar Hama)

God Inaugurates His Special Treasures

Fifty days after God led the Israelites out of Egypt, they stood before Mount Sinai.

The Spirit of the Lord descended on the mountain in fire and smoke and Israel was given the Torah (instruction/ law).  (Exodus 19:16–18, 20:1–17, 34:32)

Jewish tradition says that God gave the Israelites this gift on the Feast of Shavuot (meaning Weeks in Hebrew), which many call Pentecost (meaning 50 in Greek).

As a new nation who had known the sinful decrees of their Egyptian slave owners, God promised the people freedom.  They were to be His treasured possession (segulah) out of all nations if they fully obeyed His voice and kept the covenant He made with them at Sinai, which included His laws — the Torah (Exodus 19:5).

Over the centuries, the words of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and later those of the Prophets (Nevi’im) and Writings (Ketuvim), were preserved on scrolls of parchment or animal skins.  Together, all of these books form the Tanakh (Old Testament).

The process of copying or scribing the Tanakh has always been a very serious vocation.  Even one mistake would render an entire leaf of writing to the scrap pile; however, skeptics have always doubted exactly how accurately our modern Tanakh reflects ancient copies.

Masada, sofer, Jewish scribe, Torah

Masada’s sofer (Jewish scribe) works on a scroll. (Photo by Rodrigo Balan Uriartt)

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has helped to assure the world that the Hebrew Tanakh we have today is highly reliable, despite minor discrepancies between manuscripts.

“Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls actually have more in common with the Greek Septuagint than the traditional Hebrew Masoretic Text, showing that the Greek translators must have been translating from Hebrew texts that resembled the Dead Sea Scrolls,” writes Noah Weiner for Bible History Daily.

While Bible critics emphasize discrepancies, these minor differences, which are mostly spelling variants, do not relate to the instructions of God, His covenants with Israel, or the prophecies about the coming Messiah and the salvation of the world.

The foundation of the Jewish faith and God’s plans for mankind are rock solid regardless of which manuscript we translate from.

But how did the Dead Sea Scrolls end up in caves around the Dead Sea?

Scholars theorize that between 150 BC and AD 70, overlapping Rome’s conquests in the Holy Land, the Jews of Qumran scribed approximately 800 scrolls of various biblical and extra-biblical texts.

Another theory states that with the destruction of the Holy Temple in AD 70, Rome dispersed most of the Jewish people in Israel to the four corners of the earth and they took with them the scrolls from Jerusalem, hiding them at Qumran before crossing the Dead Sea.

Whichever is the case, the scrolls of Qumran remained hidden and forgotten.

Caves, Qumran, Dead Sea Scrolls

Caves at the Qumran site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  (Photo by Lux Moundi)

The Aleppo Codex: Ancient Melodies and Pronunciation

With the Dead Sea Scrolls still hidden, north of Jerusalem, about 860 years after the Romans “left not one stone [of the Temple] on top of another” (Matthew 24:2), the Masorete scholars developed a system of pronunciation marks for the Tanakh.

These vocalization marks indicate the sounds of the unwritten vowels between written consonants.

They also developed cantillation marks to “convey the tradition of the melody of the reading, which was also passed on from generation to generation,” the Aleppo Codex website states.

“… on the basis of old and reliable manuscripts, they decided how to write every single word [and every single letter] in every place in the Bible,” the website continues, “and in passages where they found differences between texts and ways of reading, they issued a decision and ruled as to which opinion was correct.”

Deuteronomy, Aleppo Codex, Torah

A page of Deuteronomy from the Aleppo Codex. (Source: Aleppo Codex Website)

While the exquisite handwritten text of the Aleppo Codex is attributed to Shlomo Ben Boya’a, the vowels, cantillation marks, and commentary were added by Tiberias-born Aharon Ben Asher, who apparently took over the work from his father, Moshe Ben Asher.

Records indicate that the codex might have remained in Tiberias for more than a hundred years before a Babylonian Karaite bought it and dedicated it to the Karaites of Jerusalem — at which point it would have arrived in Jerusalem in the mid-1000s.

The Karaites — from the Hebrew word kara (read) — are a minor Jewish sect that some scholars argue originated during the Second Temple period.  Others trace their origins to the 8th century.

Karaite Jews believe only in the authority of the Tanakh, rejecting later additions to the Hebrew Bible, such as the Rabbinic Oral Law (Mishnah and Talmud).  They contend that every individual can and should read the Tanakh and do not need to rely on commentaries to comprehend it.

Despite differences, both Karaites and Rabbinical Jews were permitted access to the codex, and it became an authorized source for the text of the Bible.  (Aleppocodex)

Karaite, synogogue, Jewish prayer, ark

Karaite synagogue in Ramla (Photo by Evi Horowitz)

Israel Loses Its Crown to Egypt

The Aleppo Codex did not remain in Jerusalem.

Between June and July AD 1099, after an appeal by Pope Urban II to recover the Holy Land from the “infidels,” the Crusaders besieged Jerusalem for five weeks.

Finally, the Catholic army broke into Jerusalem, “massacring most of the city’s non-Christian inhabitants,” writes Jewish Virtual Library.  “Barricaded in their synagogues, the Jews defended their quarter [in the Old City of Jerusalem], only to be burnt to death or sold into slavery.”

One theory maintains that the Crusaders stole the Aleppo Codex from Jerusalem, intending to seek a ransom for the holy book.  The Israel Museum in Jerusalem offers a second theory:  the Muslim Seljuk Turks smuggled the codex out of Israel in 1071.

 Thereafter, the codex was taken into Egypt, ransomed by the local Jews living in ancient Cairo, and taken to a synagogue in Fustat, a town near Cairo.

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides or the “Rambam”) served as a leader of that Jewish community in the 12th century, and he confirmed the book’s authority. 

Isaiah,  Aleppo Codex, Prophets, Neviim

A page from Isaiah in the Aleppo Codex.

At the conclusion of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states:  “In these matters we relied upon the codex, now in Egypt, which contains the twenty-four books of Scripture and which had been in Jerusalem for several years.  It was used as the standard text in the correction of books.

“Everyone relied on it, because it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself, who worked on its details closely for many years and corrected it many times whenever it was being copied,” he states.   “And I relied upon it in the Torah scroll that I wrote according to Jewish Law” (Sefer Ahavah, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:4).

The Aleppo Codex Comes to Syria

Both Maimonides’ closest disciple, Yosef Ben Yehudah Even Shim’on (to whom his Guide of the Perplexed is dedicated) and Maimonides’ great-grandson’s grandson, Rabbi David Ben Yehoshu’a, moved from Egypt to Aleppo — the latter in AD 1375.

In Aleppo, Shim’on built a House of Study to teach the Law, while Ben Yehoshu’a took many manuscripts with him from Egypt, including Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah.

Nevertheless, how the Crown made it to Syria remains a mystery. A record of it being used in the Aleppo Jewish community only emerged in the second half of the 15th century.  (Biblical Archaeology Review)

The Aleppo Codex remained fully intact for most of its 600 years in the Aleppo Jewish community.  It rested there in a crypt safe beneath the Aleppo synagogue.

Several attempts to retrieve the codex failed — until the rebirth of Israel.

Ben Gurion signs Declaration of Independence, held by Moshe Sharet.

Ben Gurion (left) signs the Declaration of Independence, which is held by Moshe Sharet. (GPO photo)

Israel’s Riches are Restored

Both the Aleppo Codex (which was smuggled into Israel in 1958) and the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept in special climate-controlled rooms in the Shrine of the Book museum in Jerusalem.  However, not all of the Aleppo Codex has been recovered.

All but the last 11 pages of the Torah, as well as the books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations are missing.  Were they burned by an Aleppo mob or destroyed in some other manner?  Or are they being held to this day as someone’s treasured possession?

The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, by Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman, details a compelling saga of antiquities espionage and murder.

London Judaica mogul Shlomo Moussaieff told Israel’s Channel 1 News in 1993 that he was offered about 90 pages of the codex at a price of $1 million. Moussaieff tried to get a good deal at $300,000.  Someone else bought them for $400,000.

In 1989, the seller was found dead in a Plaza Hotel room in Jerusalem, and Moussaieff has refused to release the buyer’s name.  (p. 232; NYT)

Image of photograph of a now-missing page from the Aleppo Codex taken in 1910 by Joseph Segall and published in Travels through Northern Syria (London, 1910), p. 99)

Photograph of a now-missing page from the Aleppo Codex took in 1910 by Joseph Segall and published in Travels through Northern Syria (London, 1910, p. 99).

Since the recovery of the majority of the codex in 1958 (see Part 1 of this series), two missing pieces have publicly emerged.  Forensic testing on a piece from Exodus, presented by a Syrian Jewish family in the 1980s, showed no evidence that the codex had burned at all.

“Some of it did possibly burn or could have been stolen,” Yosef Ofer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in December 2007.  “Other parts could be with people, but so many years have passed that it might be in the hands of the second or third generation who do not realize what they have in their hands.”

In late 2007, another fragment of the Aleppo Codex returned to Israel after spending decades in a wallet in Brooklyn, NY.  Businessman Sam Sabbagh had explained to his family that he had found the small parchment of the Biblical text on the floor of the Aleppo synagogue during the Syrian riots in 1947.

After his death in 2000, Sabbagh’s family began to negotiate with authorities over the return of the fragment to Israel.  The family also described how Sabbagh had kept it close by, even during open-heart surgery — feeling that the written Word of God on the Aleppo Codex had sacred powers.  (JTA)

The fragment was found to be a small part of the missing five Books of Moses.  Upon it are written the words that began the chronicle of God’s Treasured Possession:

“Let my people go, that they may serve me.”

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