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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Looking for a time machine: astrolabes in medieval Jewish society


Josefina Rodríguez Arribas, researcher

Astrolabes are the medieval equivalent of the kind of handheld technology we’re all very accustomed to in the twenty-first century. They were instruments you could use to find your way, tell the time, track the movements of the sun and stars, and were – still are – complex, and incredibly impressive.

As the researcher working on a project with the British Museum and the Warburg Institute to study these fascinating objects, my recent trip to Israel was not the first time I’ve been there in search of medieval astronomy and astrology. However it was the first time I have returned with a database of about 140 Hebrew manuscripts dealing with astrolabes: a treasure trove of texts describing and explaining how to build or use these instruments in their almost two thousand years of history. In other words, texts written mostly in Hebrew and a few in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic with Hebrew script) between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries by Jews from around the world (astrolabes remained in use until the nineteenth century in Islamic countries).

These manuscripts are not all physically in Israel – most of them are in libraries and private collections around the world, as are the few surviving Jewish instruments. However, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem hosts the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, in which we can look for and read microfilms of practically all the Hebrew manuscripts in the public and private collections of the world.

Comparing manuscripts

Comparing manuscripts

An amazing resource, and very convenient. I can sit in the manuscripts reading room, in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem, and let my eyes go from a Sephardic script of the thirteenth century to an Askenazi of the fifteenth or a Byzantine of the sixteenth century, all of them explaining how an astrolabe works.

These texts were written and copied by Jews spread over three continents, in countries and cities so close or so distant as Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, Yemen, Lisbon, Baghdad, Mantua, Benevento, Syracuse, Senegal, and more. Most of them were also copied many times throughout the centuries, some in years as decisive for the history of the world or the history of the Jews as the year 1453 (the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands) or the year 1492 (edict of expulsion of Jews from Spain), when many codices and manuscripts were destroyed or lost for many reasons.

These handwritten texts are like a time machine encapsulating in their parchment, paper, ink, writing, binding, and list of owners, information about the authors and the readers, the Jewish communities where they were produced and the patrons who paid for them. So the transcription, translation, and study of these texts is going to provide us with decisive information about the degree of scientific knowledge and familiarity with certain scientific instruments of many Jewish communities from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and even later.

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Here’s a #regram from @mrapachekat. Doesn’t this lion look majestic? The Museum’s Montague Place entrance is just as grand as the more-visited Main entrance on Great Russell Street. This part of the Museum contains the King Edward VII galleries, and the foundation stone was laid by the King in 1907. This side of the building was designed in the Roman style rather than the Greek Revival of Great Russell Street. It features numerous imperial references, including the coat of arms above the door, and sculptures of lions’ heads and crowns. The architect Sir John James Burnet was knighted for his work designing these galleries, and the building was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914 (Edward VII had died in 1910). #regram #repost #architecture #BritishMuseum #lion Another brilliant photo of the Museum’s Main entrance on Great Russell Street – this time by @violenceor. The perspective gives a good sense of the huge scale of the columns. The Museum has two rows of columns at the main entrance, with each being around 14 metres tall and 1.5 metres wide. Designer Sir Robert Smirke used 44 columns along the front elevation. This design of putting columns in front of an entrance is called a ‘portico’, and was used extensively in ancient Greek and Roman buildings. #regram #repost #architecture #neoclassical #BritishMuseum The Museum looks spectacular with a blue sky overhead – especially in this great shot by @whatrajwants. You can see the beautiful gold flashes shining in the sun. This triangular area above the columns is called a ‘pediment’, and was a common feature in ancient Greek architecture. The copying of classical designs was fashionable during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was known as the Greek Revival. The sculptures in the pediment were designed in 1847 by Sir Richard Westmacott and installed in 1851. The pediment originally had a bright blue background, with the statues painted white. #regram #repost #architecture #neoclassical #sculpture #gold #BritishMuseum Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum
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