An Italian professor and expert in Hebrew has stumbled upon what appears to be the world’s oldest known Torah scroll. Mauro Perani said a sheepskin scroll, housed for at least a century in the library of his institution, the University of Bologna, was originally misdated by a Jewish librarian in 1889.
The Torah scroll—containing the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, written in Hebrew—is nearly 120 feet long and two feet tall. It was painstakingly made with 58 strips of sheepskin sewn together. Such a scroll would have been read publicly in synagogues on the Sabbath or during other special gatherings.
Although the earlier librarian guessed the scroll dated to the 17th century, Perani, upon examining it, realized the letters of the script bore the square, oriental features of an earlier writing style of Babylonian influence.
In addition, the writing of the scroll didn't conform to stylistic scribal rules established by Maimonides, a 12th century scholar. Perani concluded the manuscript must date between A.D. 1155 and 1225. Two carbon dating tests supported the range, making the manuscript the oldest Torah scroll known.
Perani said the Jewish librarian, Leonello Modona, didn't deserve much blame for misdating the manuscript a century ago, since the science of textual dating was undeveloped at the time. Modona assigned the 17th century date to the scroll, labeled “Scroll 2,” but jotted a question mark beside it.
At least two older copies of the Torah exist, but they are in “codex” form, where sheets are bound together, like a modern-day book. The Dead Sea Scrolls, dating to the time of Christ, or earlier, contain portions of the Torah, but like many ancient texts, they are in fragments. The University of Bologna’s scroll would be the oldest complete Torah, making it “a copy of immense value,” a university statement said.
The scroll was housed at a Dominican convent until the 18th or 19th century, when it came to the University of Bologna.