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New Facsimile Brings Oldest Hebrew Bible to Light

Marilyn Lundberg and Bruce Zuckerman show off the recently published facsimile edition of the Leningrad Codex, which features 16 illuminated “carpet pages” showing how the ancient Bible was illustrated. Zuckerman and Lundberg traveled to Russia eight years ago to bring back photographs of the annotated manuscript.

photo: Irene Fertik

Scholars no longer need pore over blurry text saved on poor-quality film to study the world’s oldest complete Hebrew Bible, known as the Leningrad Codex.

Now they can buy a special facsimile edition of the Codex, composed of high-resolution photographs made by associate professor of religion Bruce Zuckerman and his team from the USC West Semitic Research Project (WSRP).

The Leningrad Codex, A Facsimile Edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing and Brill Academic Publishers, 1998) is the culmination of a decades-long effort to reproduce this ancient manuscript, considered to be the primary reference for the text of the Bible in its original Hebrew. Although most of the facsimile is printed in black and white, the edition also features 16 illuminated “carpet pages” decorated with gold, blue and red ornaments.

The facsimile edition was produced by a team of scholars, headed by editor David Noel Freedman of UC San Diego, with managing editor Astrid Beck of the University of Michigan. Zuckerman, director of the WSRP, oversaw the original photography as well as the digital imaging of the photographs for publication.

The computer-processed images were entirely produced through the WSRP lab in the basement of Leavey Library.

Z Cube, a digital imaging lab run by Zuckerman’s brother, Kenneth Zuckerman, and Kenneth’s wife, Peggy, offered technical advice and support.

“The publication gives scholars their clearest access to the codex, which by consensus is the Bible of record for Hebrew biblical text,” Bruce Zuckerman said. “Modern translations of the Old Testament almost invariably cite the codex as their primary source.”

Freedman, holder of the UCSD Chair in Hebrew Biblical Studies, first proposed reproducing the codex 25 years ago, and asked Zuckerman to head a photography team to Leningrad. An earlier reproduction of the manuscript, known as the Makor edition, was based on a microfilm of poor quality. This made the most significant portions of the text either illegible or very difficult to decipher, Freedman said.

The Zuckermans produced the photographs during an expedition to St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) in 1990. The brothers meticulously shot more than 5,000 pictures of the codex using sophisticated photography techniques they have pioneered for reproducing ancient writings.

Zuckerman’s team was the first group of Western scholars to gain access to the manuscript – a difficult feat, especially in the Gorbachev era of the USSR. The team included Marilyn Lundberg, then of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center and now a WSRP associate, and Garth Moller of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center. The mission was a joint effort of the WSRP and the biblical manuscript center in Claremont, headed by James A. Sanders.

The codex is one of the “flagship manuscripts” of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sanders told the Los Angeles Times in November 1990 after the team returned from Leningrad. “The photographs mean that these doors are, for the first time, open for all of us.”

Dating from the year 1010 C.E., the codex was written in Cairo and later found its way to Damascus. In 1862, Abraham Firkovich, a Jewish businessman and a collector of ancient manuscripts, donated the codex and other rare documents to the Odessa Society of History and Antiquities in Russia. The collection was later transferred to the St. Petersburg Imperial Library, now the Russian National Library.

The codex is considered one of the best examples of Masoretic text, a specially edited form of biblical text that became the standard for all subsequent Hebrew Bibles. The manuscript contains small marks above and below the letters, some of which serve as vowels, and some as punctuation and even as musical notation for chanting the text in religious services.

Furthermore, the Masoretes preserved the biblical text from generation to generation by writing notes in the margins. These notes – small letters or symbols – informed scribes about unusual words that should not be changed.

According to Zuckerman, one of the challenges of photographing the codex was to make sure all of these notes and symbols were readable. During the publication process, Zuckerman proposed that the WSRC take over the digital imaging of the photographs so that the final printing would be as accurate as possible. He and Lundberg did all of the digital adjustments and fine-tuning of images at the WSRC’s Leavey lab.

Not only did their work ensure the edition’s scholarly accuracy, but it helped keep the printing costs down. The list price of $255 (available for $160 through some outlets) would have been more than $500 if a commercial firm had produced the digital imagery, Zuckerman said.

Bruce Zuckerman’s mission to Leningrad was a pilot project aimed at producing more readable photographs as well as paving the way for similar joint projects to photograph ancient manuscripts. Since then, Zuckerman has carved a niche as an expert in reproducing ancient biblical and Near Eastern documents, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.

New Facsimile Brings Oldest Hebrew Bible to Light

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