British Museum blog

Exploring the First Gaster Bible: a British Library Hebrew manuscript

Ilana Tahan, M.Phil. OBE, Lead Curator of Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies, British Library

The Hebrew Bible, commonly termed in the Christian West as ‘The Old Testament’ but known to the Jews as the Tanakh, is a literary mosaic made up of tales, laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, speeches, royal chronicles, decrees and much more. The Tanakh’s three main divisions are: the Torah (i.e. Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im meaning Prophets, and the Ketuvim or Writings. The word Tanakh is in fact an acronym based on the first consonantal letters of these principal sections.

In antiquity the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was penned on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Bound books with pages known as codices (singular codex) appear in Judaism around the 8th century AD, although they may have been in use before then. Codices of the Hebrew Bible became abundant in the 10th century AD, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

The First Gaster Bible currently displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, shows visible signs of wear and tear. Its parchment pages boasting fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded decorative motifs, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What would have originally been a complete codex of Ketuvim (Writings), the third main division of the Hebrew Bible, has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just sections from the Books of Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ruth and Daniel.

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Psalm 71 with palmette (top left) and ornamental fillers. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.17r © British Library Board

When turning the manuscript’s pages one’s eye is caught by the small script annotations that accompany the biblical text. These are collectively known as the Masorah from the Hebrew root msr denoting to hand down. The Masorah is a body of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the scriptural text that ensured the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th century AD. The Masoretes’ greatest achievement was the compilation of a system of vowels and signs that established in writing the exact way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously riddled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation both of which have been penned in the First Gaster Bible: the large Masorah (masora magna) which is inscribed at the top and at the foot of pages, and the small Masorah (masora parva) which is written between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from modifications. The latter is ampler and includes lists of entire passages from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other peculiarities.

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Psalm 102 with divisional motifs and a decorative chain executed in Islamic style; the masora magna in very small script can be seen above and beneath the textual columns. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.23v © British Library Board

Named after its illustrious last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was created most probably in Egypt around the 10th century AD. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript supplying facts about its production – is missing, thus nothing is known about the original commission. Its date and place of production have therefore been established through comparison with extant Hebrew Bibles written in Egypt and/or the Middle East between the 9th and 10th century.

It is interesting to note that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving oriental Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th–11th centuries are incomplete. The Aleppo Codex copied c. AD 930 – the oldest and most authoritative extant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that was proofread and vocalised by Aaron ben Asher, one of the greatest Masoretes from Tiberias – is held in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The manuscript is incomplete, having lost apparently 196 of its 491 original pages. The oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex. Copied most probably in Egypt and dated to around AD 1010, it is preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg.

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Section from the Book of Ruth (3:14–4:7) with masora parva penned between the columns and marginal decorations in Islamic style. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.23v © British Library Board

Nineteenth-century scholars argued that the early masoretic bibles were created by Karaites. Funded by Anan ben David (c. AD 715–795 or 811) in Babylonia, the Karaites were a Jewish sect who split up from mainstream Judaism accepting the Tanakh as their only norm of religious authority. Some scholars went as far as maintaining that the most prominent Masorete Aaron ben Asher may have been a Karaite. Recent scholarship has firmly rejected this view claiming that he was in fact a rabbinic Jew. An illuminated specimen of a Karaite biblical text is displayed in this exhibition.

It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript is a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art. Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is clearly functional.  Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include undulating scrolls and spirals, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and golden chains.

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Section from Ecclesiastes (2:24–3:12) with masora magna and masora parva (above and between the columns of text) and Islamic style embellishments. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9789 f.32v © British Library Board

The First Gaster Bible is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

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