Introduction to Ancient & Medieval Manuscripts

For historical context, lets take a look at ancient Hebrew manuscripts.

Babylonian Talmud

Babylonian Talmud, Vat.ebr.108, Talmud Babli, sec. XIII/XIV. Courtesy of Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

Prevailing interest in Hebrew manuscripts are of original Biblical work (Old Testament) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The rarity of manuscripts produced from that region and era make their discovery especially significant. These artifacts date back to 135 B.C.E., after which there is barely any record of manuscripts during this era during the creation of Jewish religion (Sirat, 2002).

The collection from Yeb (Elepahntine), Assuan in Egypt, and Edfu, which are thought to date from the third century B.C.E., as well as the Book of Heremiah and fragments from II Samuel are of equal significance. Scrolls from the Judean Desert are said to date from the second century BCE to the Bar-Kokhba war between 132 – 135 B.C.E. (Loewinger, Kupfer & Katsh, 2007).

Judaism became a textual religion after the the fall of Jerusalem in 135 B.C.E., during which ancient Israel texts (religious and non-religious) emerged al tong with their distinct perspective. Between 515 B.C.E – 70 C.E (the Second Temple Period), texts were used to authenticate religion (Schmid, 2012).

Nash Papyrus

Fragment of the Nash Papyrus (MS Or.233), courtesy of Cambridge University Librar

Toward the middle of the 9th and 10th centuries (genomic period), Arab influences and the growth of European Disapora, or exile, resulted in technical changes to writing (Ansbacher & Roth, 2007). We’ll take a look at the tools used in creating manuscripts in the Paleograhy portion of the series. For now, it is important to note that there are three periods of Hebrew bookmaking:

  1. Ancient to final editing of the Talmud (c. 7th century), including the Bible (Tanakh), Apocrypha and Dead Sea Scrolls (Ansbacher & Roth, 2007).
  1. Genomic times to the end of the 15th century when the first Hebrew books were printed (1470) (Sirat, 2002).
  1. From 1470 to present day (Sirat, 2002; Ansbacher & Roth, 2007).

Most surviving Hebrew manuscripts (handwritten texts) from Ancient Israel (and Egypt) are one of three types: scrolls (written in parallel columns, horizontally), rotuli (long scrolls written lengthwise in a single column) and large books, or codices, which are composed of quires (Sirat, 2002).


Ansbacher, B. M., & Roth, C. (2007). Books [PDF]. In M. Berenbaum & F. Skolnik (Eds.), Encyclopaedia Judaica (2nd ed., Vol. 4, pp. 71-76). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from

Loewinger, D. S., Kupfer, E., & Katsh, A. I. (2007). Manuscripts, Hebrew [PDF]. In M. Berenbaum & F. Skolnik (Eds.), Encyclopaedia Judaica (2nd ed., Vol. 13, pp. 488-495). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from

Sirat, C. (2002). Hebrew manuscripts of the Middle Ages [Electronic resource]. Retrieved from

Schmid, K. (2012). The Canon and the Cult: The Emergence of Book Religion in Ancient Israel and the Gradual Sublimation of the Temple Cult [PDF]. Journal of Biblical Literature, 131(2), 289-305. Retrieved from


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