When copying and translating an ancient text, the more and older the manuscripts there are to reference, the better.
The Aleppo Codex is a valuable resource to scholars. Over a thousand years old, the Aleppo Codex currently consists of 294 pages, though it is estimated that it originally had 487 pages. The Codex contained the entirety of the Hebrew Bible.
The Aleppo Codex is unique, with a dramatic and fascinating history.
This article will answer what the Aleppo Codex is, its history and origin, and why it is important for us today.
What Is the Aleppo Codex?
Though the Dead Sea Scrolls are older, the Aleppo Codex is the oldest Hebrew Bible, as the Dead Sea Scrolls were never consolidated into a single book. It was written around AD 930 in Tiberias, Israel, by Jewish scribes called the Masoretes.
The Masoretes were dedicated to faithfully preserving the Bible and correcting errors that might have crept in during the Babylonian captivity.
The original Hebrew Old Testament did not contain vowels, so the Masoretes inserted them, combining written and oral tradition, as well as cantillation marks, which directed pronunciation.
The Masoretic Text is considered the most accurate and complete version of the Old Testament and is used for most of today’s Bible translations.
The Aleppo Codex is a specific copy created by the Masoretes. It contains the signature vowels of the Masoretes, handwritten on parchment. Its accuracy and attention to detail have earned it the title “The Crown of Aleppo.”
The History of the Aleppo Codex
It is unknown who commissioned the Aleppo Codex, though its colophon (something like endnotes) states that it was copied by the scribe Solomon ben Buya’a, with vocalization, cantillation marks, and Masoretic comments added by Aaron ben Asher.
The Codex made its way to Jerusalem many years later after having been purchased by a wealthy Karaite and donated to a Karaite synagogue there.
In the late 11th century, it was smuggled out of Jerusalem, either by Seljuks in 1071 or Crusaders in 1099. It was possibly held for ransom by the Crusaders, among other important documents.
The history continues to be a bit fuzzy, but it is believed the Codex was brought to Cairo, bought by Egyptian Jews.
Sometime in the 14th or 15th century, the Aleppo Codex was brought to Aleppo, Syria, from which it gained its name. There, it was kept in the “Cave of Elijah,” an ancient synagogue, and zealously guarded.
Scribes from around the world came to study it or sent inquiries for details to be checked. We can piece together some of the missing parts of the Codex from surviving correspondence about it.
For hundreds of years, the famed Aleppo Codex remained in the Central Synagogue of Aleppo. Then, on December 1, 1947, two days after the UN Security Council’s decision to establish the State of Israel, anti-Jewish riots broke out, and the synagogue was burned.
For years, it was believed that the extraordinary and beloved Aleppo Codex was no more.
The Aleppo Codex Today
But the Aleppo Codex was not destroyed. It had been saved from the blaze and hidden for ten years. In 1958, it was smuggled out of Syria to Jerusalem and delivered to the President of the State of Israel, Izhak Ben-Zvi.
The Codex was in bad shape. Around 200 pages were missing, including most of the Torah. Extensive restoration was carried out in the Israel Museum laboratories for years while searches were conducted for the missing pages. Despite best efforts, only one complete page and one fragment of a page have been recovered.
In Aleppo, the Codex had been carefully guarded and few were allowed to view it. However, once restoration efforts were completed in Israel, the Aleppo Codex was made available for public view in the Israel Museum, displayed with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Study of the Aleppo Codex began again in earnest. It is considered the most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible, though, for the missing portions, scholars are forced to turn instead to the Leningrad Codex. Multiple modern versions of the Bible have pulled from it extensively, and it has served to verify the accurate transcription of other documents and versions.
Today, you can view the entirety of the remaining 294 pages online at AleppoCodex.org.
For Further Reading:
The Israel Museum: “A Wandering Bible: The Aleppo Codex”
Biblical Archeology Society: “The Aleppo Codex”
The New York Times Magazine: “A High Holy Whodunit”
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Jacek_Sopotnicki
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.