Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Religious Provenance of the Cairo Geniza Aquila Fragments

More than a hundred years ago, the Cairo Geniza yielded palimpsest fragments with the Greek text of Aquila written under a later Hebrew work. (For publication, see Burkitt and Taylor.) The script used for the Aquila fragments has been dated to the fifth or sixth century CE. (See now this article by Natalie Tchernetska.)

But the question remains, did these fragments of Aquila belong to Jews or Christians? In a previous post, I assumed that the fragments belonged to Jews. This seems to be the general assumption among LXX scholars: Burkitt (p. 9), Munnich (p. 147), Fernández Marcos (p. 113).

However, Stefan Reif (pp. 105-6) points out that the presence of NT fragments among the palimpsests recovered in the Geniza indicates possibly that all of the palimpsests were originally Christian. Indeed, this is the theory of Michael Sokoloff and Joseph Yahalom, as the title of their article indicates: "Christian Palimpsests from the Cairo Geniza," Revue d'Histoire des Textes 8 (1978): 109-32. They argue that all of the Greek material was Christian, and was sold as scrap to the Jews, who then re-used it for Hebrew compositions. This is also the assumption of Stemberger (p. 37).

On the other hand, Tchernetska (p. 251) has recently supported the Jewish origin of these fragments based on the presence of "a bilingual Greek and Hebrew list of words, apparently a glossary" as the underwriting of one of the previously unidentified palimpsests. "Such a glossary was almost certainly copied by a Jew," she says. Tchernetska (with Nicholas de Lange and Judith Olszowy-Schlanger) has now published this glossary (see the link for an abstract).

I have not yet seen this full publication of the fragment, but even were I fully convinced that a Jew must have composed this glossary, a scenario I do find highly likely, I'm not sure that would settle the matter for the other palimpsest fragments. Indeed, along with Reif, I am highly dubious that the New Testament materials published by Taylor originated in a Jewish context.

So, we have one palimpsest that probably originated among Jews (the glossary) and one small group of palimpsests that probably originated among Christians and were later sold as scrap to Jews (the NT mss; probably also the fragments of the Hexapla published by Taylor). Where does this put the Aquila fragments? Is it more likely that they originated among Jews or Christians?

Perhaps a Jewish origin for the Aquila fragments is indicated by the use of a form of paleo-Hebrew script for the tretragrammaton. But is this decisive in favor of a Jewish origin? Burkitt (pp. 15-16) discusses the peculiarities of the paleo-Hebrew script in his fragment, and says, "To the scribe of our MS the Tetragrammaton must have been a mere symbol, blindly copied from the model." Couldn't this be as true (or truer) of a Christian scribe as of a Jewish one? The Divine Name in the Aquila fragments published by Taylor (see pp. vi and 72) also seems to be written by a scribe more familiar with writing Greek than Hebrew. (My impression: it looks like backwards lambda's for the yod and waw, and backwards epsilon's for the he's.) If Christians made copies of the Greek Bible that included Hebrew letters, I imagine that it would look something like this. (Some Christians butchered the Hebrew letters even further, and represented them with Greek letters, with the result that they spelled out PIPI in Greek; see Burkitt, p. 15; Taylor, p. vi.)

As far as I can tell right now, then, the question about the religious provenance of these Aquila fragments comes down to whether it would be more likely that Jews or Christians produced and/or used Aquila's translation. At present, however, that is a debated topic.

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