Today, I pause from my usual focus on converging methods of interpreting the Bible to consider a related issue, the transmission of the biblical tradition. I am inspired to do this by Matti Friedman’s acceptance speech (http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-words-that-bind/) upon receiving the Sami Rohr Prize for his book The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.
First, let me provide a little background on the Aleppo Codex. It was a copy, produced in book form (codex), of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanak) during the tenth century C. E., so the manuscript is about 1100 years old. The Aleppo Codex had a complex life for centuries, which Friedman traced in his book, until it landed in the synagogue in Aleppo, a city in Syria that has been in the news for the past year for the most tragic reasons. When the Jewish community was forced to abandon Aleppo in the late 1940’s the story of the codex became even more complex. It is now in Jerusalem but about one-third of the pages have gone missing.
The transmission of the biblical tradition is an act akin to breathing. The process includes inhaling and exhaling. The production of the Aleppo Codex and the volume called the Leningrad Codex, within a few decades of each other by members of the ben Asher family, was a great act of inhaling. So was the translation of the Bible into Latin by St. Jerome in the fourth century, the production of complete Christian Bible manuscripts like Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus in the fifth century, the production of the Second Rabbinic Bible by Jacob Ben Hayyim in the sixteenth century, and the translation of the King James Version in the seventeenth century. The person who worked on all these projects were determined to get the words of the Bible, in its various forms, just right. Like a great inward breath, the written text became compressed and fully contained, under the control of the breather. The question that acts like these must answer is “What next?” What do we do with a sacred text once we get all of the words exactly how we want them? If we return to the breathing metaphor for the life of the Bible then the next act is exhaling, and it makes us uneasy. Those who believe that the truth is something to be carefully guarded have a tendency to try to defend the Bible, but when we breathe it out into the world it is no longer under our control.
Modern biblical scholars are discovering that the processes of writing, copying, translating, and interpreting the text were intertwined from the very beginning. The Bible as a physical object has never existed in a state of perfection. There was no great inhale at the beginning, followed by a long exhale, but a long, living process of steady breathing of tradition, and the breathing gave life to communities.
Friedman was right when he said:
Writing about the codex taught me something those scholars knew, and that I think Sami Rohr knew – that the secret of our survival was never a king or an army. It was always words, and it still is.
Such a realization could lead us to become more protective, but it should assure us of the Bible’s own ability to survive and that acts of possession, which resemble only inhaling, lead to distortion and death. My own experience is that a sacred text works best not when we ask it questions and demand answers we can guard carefully, but when we let the text ask us the questions and risk answers beyond our control.