Teaching Manuscripts Across the Humanities Curriculum: A Case Study in Biblical Manuscripts

Jonathan Homrighausen is a writer, calligraphic artist, and doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at Duke University. His research centers around the intersection of sacred text and lettering arts, and he has published on Psalms, Esther, the Song of Songs, and The Saint John’s Bible, a contemporary illuminated manuscript of the entire Catholic Bible.

Any manuscript scholar can attest that manuscripts touch on just about every aspect of medieval society, from agriculture to art. These connections do not, however, always translate into the undergraduate classroom. As a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible, and a calligrapher married to an archivist, I am always looking for ways to get biblical manuscripts into students’ hands.

Recently I created a module incorporating such manuscripts into an introductory Hebrew Bible/Old Testament course. The goal: guide students to (1) relate biblical manuscripts to the complexities of the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible in different eras and (2) engage biblical manuscripts as material objects and as windows into the entire cultural and historical life of a manuscript. This module is freely available online, and those interested might also consult my article forthcoming in Teaching Theology and Religion.

Durham, Duke University, Hebrew MS 15
Durham, Duke University, Hebrew MS 15, an eighteenth-century Esther scroll. The column featured here is the scribal layout of the sons of Haman (Esther 9:7–9), in two columns to echo the gallows from which Haman’s sons were hung. Image taken by author.

Some context: biblical scholarship has included systematic study of manuscripts and translations since at least the early modern era, as evidenced by the Complutensian Polyglot Bibles. New Testament textual scholars, for example, use sophisticated methods to reconstruct the earliest text of the Gospels from the thousands of Gospel books, lectionaries, and commentaries in late antique and medieval Greek hands. For the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls have served as invaluable witnesses for both textual criticism and scribal practices in Second Temple Judaism.[1]

More recently, though, our interest in biblical manuscripts has expanded beyond mainly antiquity. Rather, even very late minor changes across copies and translations are seen as witnesses to the reception of the Bible in various times and places. Further, the material forms of these manuscripts can tell us a great deal about how the Bible’s uses in private reading, communal worship, iconic rhetorical display, and even apotropaic amulet.[2]

The module itself took place over two class sessions. To prepare, students copied out Genesis 1:1 and wrote a short paragraph reflecting on their experience. One student quipped: “I learned from this exercise that it is remarkably easy to make mistakes.” The first class, which took place in the special collections reading room, oriented them to the guiding questions of the module and gave them some time to choose a manuscript and work in pairs to familiarize themselves with the manuscript, its time and place of origin, and its material and textual features.

Between the two classes, students were each assigned a two-page worksheet of readings and questions related to their chosen manuscript. Questions were oriented toward summarizing the readings, contextualizing their manuscript in the survey they read, and engaging in the detective work of noticing physical and textual features of the manuscript that might give clues as to its function, history, and creation. For example, the worksheet for a late medieval leaf of 1 Samuel from an Ashkenazi biblical codex, directs students to ask how many different people might have worked on this manuscript. By noting that the consonantal text has faded more than the vocalization, the student should hypothesize that different inks were used for each, indicating different scribal hands.

Durham, Duke University, Hebrew MS 13 (recto)
Durham, Duke University, Hebrew MS 13 (recto), a late medieval Ashkenazi fragment from a biblical codex containing 1 Samuel 13:18–14:21. Image courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Students returned to the second class ready to briefly present their manuscript, covering the following questions:

  • What is this manuscript?
  • When and from where did it originate?
  • What features appear on the page(s)?
  • What was it used for, and by whom?
  • What did you learn about textual transmission and manuscript culture as reflected in your manuscript(s)?

In the last 10–15 minutes of class, I challenged students to draw some larger hypotheses from their very small sample of the history of Jewish biblical manuscripts: What themes and connections emerge between different items? Given the time and money required to write a Torah scroll or other manuscript, what conclusions might you draw from that about the presence of the written Bible in Jewish life before the age of print? Finally, far from an idea of a scribe as a mere rote copyist, what would scribes need to know to produce these materials? One student’s enthused reply: “Everything!”

The module itself was immensely satisfying—the material came to life. The students gained a sense of the Bible as a human document, tangibly connected to the lives of individuals and communities. The largest challenge was to give them enough background information to help them think like detectives and ask good questions about these manuscripts. Given that these students could not read Hebrew and had no training in manuscript studies, this was no minor task!

Although few American institutions have Hebrew manuscripts, the quantity of digitized material makes this material possible for anyone. The digitized manuscripts in the Braginsky Collection and the British Library are great resources, as are the biblical manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah digitized at Cambridge. The National Library of Israel’s Ktiv project aims to create a database of every digitized Hebrew manuscript in the world.

For manuscript scholars and librarians, I hope this description generates ideas for how you might help scholars from many fields incorporate codices and scrolls into the classroom in discipline-specific ways. I can attest firsthand that the benefits for student interest are worth it.

Jonathan Homrighausen, Duke University

[1] The literature on this immense, but for those curious, see: D.C. Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2011).

[2] David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).

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