Egypt’s Geniza Texts

Fragment of the Cairo Geniza

Egypt’s Geniza Texts

Darrell Sutton considers an incomparable collection 

Discoveries are sometimes made by accident, as archaeologists can readily attest. Hidden passageways can lead to welcome treasures of real historical value. This happened in the case of Howard Carter (1874-1939) and the famed Tutankhamen cache of riches found in Egypt years ago. He stumbled upon a priceless gold mask that still captivates crowds in museums around the globe when ever it is on display.

Moreover, Egypt has yielded up numerous artifacts that are useful for studying peoples of ancient times: e.g., (1) the thirteen leather bound codices of Nag Hammadi, found in upper Egypt in 1945, paved the way for new approaches to understanding the beliefs of Gnosticism in the earliest centuries of “Late Antiquity” (2) the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus at Saint Catherine’s Monastery persuaded scholars of early Christian studies to accept it as a standard critical text in transmission of the New Testament. Sinaiticus’ one practical virtue is the Syriac which shares its pages with the Greek New Testament text. Practically ready for disposal in flames at that remote monks’ residence, C. Tischendorf (1815-1874) rescued the manuscript and altered text-critical studies of the New Testament, for good and for bad.  Moreover, it is impossible to overlook the 4000 years of hieroglyphic information available in pyramid texts, coffin texts and papyri lately found in secret places along the Nile valley.

The ‘ancient Geniza’, likewise, has helped scholars to glean microscopic pieces of information from hundreds of thousands of tiny fragments. These small bits tell a great deal about the times in which Jews dwelled among Muslims and Christians of the medieval era. S.D. Goitein (1900-1985), the doyen of Geniza studies, published a multi-volume set of books (see A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. I-VI). A comprehensive understanding of the Mediterranean worlds cannot be acquired without extensive use of his research.

To begin with, concerning the meaning of the term ‘Geniza’, Hebrew literature contains a number of uses. One of its definitions in the Middle Ages means a ‘room or space (typically connected to a synagogue but not always) where useful texts, once highly regarded, were set aside and removed from public use and view’. Through the centuries, vast numbers of written texts accumulated over time were forgotten. There was no catalogue system for ancient Genizan materials. All items therein found their way into its confines by reason of the verdicts of men and women who no longer esteemed them. The systematic removal has been chronicled with detail. And a great deal of further information can be gathered by reading S.C. Reif, The Cambridge Genizah Collections: Their Contents and Significance (2002).

The importance of Genizan studies today is underscored by the massive amount of material presently being registered in the Taylor-Schechter library of Cambridge. The 1896-97 acquisition of thousands of fragments from Cairo’s Genizas has led to a reassessment of ideas concerning the middle ages. Jacques Mosseri (1884-1934) ventured around the area of Fustat and other locales in Cairo, Egypt and found valuable MSS in the Ben Ezra synagogues. This occurrence took place after Solomon Schechter’s (1847-1915) rummaging through the materials. The discovered texts comprised personal letters, commentaries on biblical texts, and shorter notes from notable Jewish and/or rabbinic figures, plus legal texts, marriage certificates, property transaction deeds and various lists which annotate purchases et cetera.

One would like to think that scholarship changed overnight, but this would be stretching the truth. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls’, whose discovery was celebrated with such exuberance, the Geniza texts, though recognized to be of immense value, were undervalued, underappreciated and lightly esteemed by far too many biblical scholars and historians seven decades ago. It is true that the Dead Sea Scroll MSS have highlighted a number of interesting enigmas in Hebrew texts, but since their provenance is still unsettled[i] for some—their use and placement in caves near the Dead Sea remains a mystery. And with all the books on the market today, little is known of the supposed authors or maintainers of the texts, aside from speculation.

The Geniza texts, on the other hand, provide intricate insight into worlds hitherto unknown. Social contexts come alive, medieval cultural issues are brought before the eyes of a twenty-first century reading public, and changes in epigraphy, lexical diversities and anomalies are now apparent. Atop all this are the recorded interactions between various subgroups of the majority religions. To study the fragments is to read ‘what was going on’ at the time and also to see how they viewed their own sacred writings, since these texts were no longer in mainstream use, nor meant for publication.

Readers are permitted to look in on the discussions of ancient rabbis, study Islamic philosophy and culture from a Jewish perspective, while at the same time reading of the Christian authors whose writings had remained extant since the patristic era. Knowledge of the degrees of richness among the Geniza texts depends largely upon the particular field of expertise in which one labors. There are Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-German texts and there are Judeo-Greek documents. There are also a number of Syriac or Aramaic MSS worth investigating.

One text of note is T-S AS 139.1. It is a fragment in the Cambridge Taylor-Schechter corpus of MSS and it is a palimpsest containing a sermon by the venerable theologian, Augustine (AD 354-430). F.C. Burkitt (1864-1935) offered some reconstructive remarks on it in his note ‘Augustine-Fragments from the Cairo Genizah’ in The Journal of Theological Studies, Jan. 1916, 1, 137-138. The words have been somewhat rubbed out and overwritten by a Jewish scribe who needed the space to write a Masoretic list. The whole fragment is not in the best condition. Still, from a paleographical perspective, both the Hebrew and Latin scripts are crisp and clear. I have received some prepared notes on the fragment from the hand of Dr. Ben Outhwaite, head of the Cambridge Geniza [1]Unit. Hopefully, he will publish a complete transcription of the Masorah. From his notes it is easy to deduce that a tremendous amount of work went into the restoration of the text. All that remains to be said relates to a few points which will hopefully enlighten a reader’s mind on Middle Age thought and practice:

  1. The Latin script is dated cautiously to about the sixth century.[ii] If this date holds it will be of everlasting importance to Augustine scholars. I would not be surprised if the script is judged favorably to replicate the literary inscriptions of the late fifth century. The shape of each ligature is definitely patristic in style. At the least, what the palimpsest tells us is that Augustine’s writings were in use for devotional purposes. The careful scribbling of a portion of De Sermone Domini in Monte (The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount) proves the on-going utility of writings of arguably the most influential ancient church father who expressed himself in Latin.
  2. How this text came into Jewish hands, and eventually found its way into a Geniza, requires too much re-imagining for it to be of any value at all. Of note is the fact that a Jewish writer or scribe would have used a MS upon which Christian writing is found. Jewish precepts concerning the preparation of biblical documents were strict. In this case the strictures seem to have been relaxed, which is odd. Not only would there have been variants and alternate Hebrew renderings recorded by Jews and written on a vellum MS formerly used by Christians, but they would have been placed upon a document whose words were still legible and therefore still providing a witness to later readers of a belief in a Messiah all orthodox Jews of the middle ages categorically denied to be God’s Son. This point may seem moot, but it speaks volumes of the possible variegated conformities of some Jews to modern culture during the tenth to thirteenth centuries. And we can see that a Jewish scribe somehow, but indirectly, made Augustine’s voice resound in the Middle Ages.
  3. Looking at the columns in the fragments and comparing them to the notes made by Dr. Outhwaite, I am of the opinion that the author of the list may have either been a Masorete or somehow connected to this professional school of copyists. The famed Aleppo Codex, Keter Aram Tzova, was well known in later antiquity, in part, by the popularization of Maimonides—who made use of it at one time. The manner in which these notes are drawn up seem to imply that this scribe had access to either the variants of Shlomo Halevi ben Buya’a (c.AD 929) or to a later set of books also distributed in the era before that of Jacob ben Chayyim ibn Adonijah’s (c.1470-1538) recension. My own collation of many of these notes lead me to this conclusion.

The collections in the Cambridge Geniza unit’s treasuries deserve the notice of today’s scholars of sacred and secular studies. With interdisciplinary curriculums taking shape and spreading quickly, who, but the masters of these texts, will be able to study the features of Islam in West Asia, the Jews of the Middle East or even engage in research fields that deal with ancient Mediterranean peoples and religions.

[i] There was once a consensus theory among scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls that Qumran was a home for an all male Essenic group who used the texts/ritual documents for liturgical purposes. Archaeologist Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg’s 2007 publication, The Qumran Excavations (1993-2004) Preliminary Report, refuted many popularly held arguments regarding evidence for a ‘monkish style’ habitation in Qumran, and, like Norman Golb, they view the scrolls in the cave as a repository of Jerusalem escapees who hid the scrolls in the caves in order to prevent their destruction at the hands of the invading Romans. The latter hypothesis also is based on speculation, and is equally without evidence; even though it is more plausible than the former theory noted.
[ii] So states the Taylor-Schecter Genizah Research unit (May 2007).

Darrell Sutton is a Pastor and independent research scholar-in-residence in Red Cloud, Nebraska. He publishes poetry, literary studies on the writings of A.E. Housman and technical studies on Manilius’ Astronomica (a 1st century AD text), in addition to studies and reviews on numerous other biblical and classical themes

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