2,000-Year-Old Manuscript of the Ten Commandments Gets Digitized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Resolution

How old is the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible? As with most such ques­tions about dis­put­ed reli­gious texts, it depends on whom you ask. Many con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian scholars—or “maximalists”—have long accept­ed the text as con­tain­ing gen­uine his­tor­i­cal records, and dat­ed them as ear­ly as pos­si­ble. Mod­ern crit­i­cal schol­ars, the “min­i­mal­ists,” informed by arche­ol­o­gy, have made strong empir­i­cal cas­es against his­toric­i­ty, and date the texts much lat­er.

These debates can become high­ly spec­u­la­tive the fur­ther back schol­ars attempt to push the Bib­li­cal ori­gins. One has to take cer­tain claims on faith. As far as the tex­tu­al evi­dence goes, the ear­li­est com­plete man­u­scripts we have are the so-called “Masoret­ic Text,” copied, edit­ed, and dis­sem­i­nat­ed between the 7th and 10th cen­turies CE. But we have frag­ments that date back over two thou­sand years, dis­cov­ered in the Qum­ran Caves among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Pri­or to their dis­cov­ery, the old­est known frag­ment was known as the “Nash Papyrus,” which dates from the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, BCE.

Pur­chased from an Egypt­ian antiq­ui­ties deal­er in 1902 by Egyp­tol­o­gist Dr. Wal­ter Llewl­lyn Nash and donat­ed to the Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Library the fol­low­ing year, the papyrus con­tains a com­pos­ite of the two dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the Ten Com­mand­ments, from Exo­dus 20 and Deuteron­o­my 5, and the She­ma, a prayer from Deuteron­o­my 6. In 2012, the Nash Papyrus was dig­i­tized, “one of the lat­est trea­sures of human­i­ty,” report­ed Reuters, “to join Isaac Newton’s note­books, the Nurem­berg Chron­i­cle and oth­er rare texts as part of the Cam­bridge Dig­i­tal Library.”

“It has been sug­gest­ed,” notes the Cam­bridge descrip­tion of the ancient man­u­script, “that it is, in fact, from a phy­lac­tery (tefill­in, used in dai­ly prayer).” But the papyrus’ actu­al ori­gins are uncer­tain, though it “was said to have come from the Fayyum,” a city near Cairo. And while the Nash Papyrus may not resolve any debates about the Torah’s ori­gins, its open acces­si­bil­i­ty is a boon for schol­ars grap­pling with the ques­tions. As uni­ver­si­ty librar­i­an Anne Jarvis said upon its dig­i­tal release, the “age and del­i­ca­cy” of the man­u­script make it “sel­dom able to be viewed” in per­son. The leaf papyrus is, as the Cam­bridge Dig­i­tal Library notes, full of holes, “bare­ly leg­i­ble” and com­posed of “four sep­a­rate pieces fixed togeth­er.”

At the library site, users can see it in high res­o­lu­tion, zoom­ing in very close­ly to any area they choose. You can also down­load the image, embed it, or share it on social media. And if that gets your ancient Bib­li­cal engines run­ning, you can then see dig­i­tal Dead Sea Scroll man­u­scripts of the Ten Com­mand­ments here and get an up close look at many oth­er texts from that ancient trea­sure trove—as well as learn about them in a free online Rut­gers course—here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Google Dig­i­tizes Ancient Copies of the Ten Com­mand­ments and Gen­e­sis

Google Puts The Dead Sea Scrolls Online (in Super High Res­o­lu­tion)

Har­vard Presents Two Free Online Cours­es on the Old Tes­ta­ment

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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