A three-year study to re-evaluate the story of the Greek Bible fragments has provided a rare glimpse of Byzantine Jewish life and culture. The new research also illustrates the cross-fertilisation between Jewish and Christian biblical scholars in the Middle Ages.
The study by Cambridge University researchers in the UK suggests that, contrary to long-accepted views, Jews continued to use a Greek version of the Bible in synagogues for centuries longer than previously thought.
The key to the new discovery lay in manuscripts, some of them mere fragments, discovered in an old synagogue in Egypt and brought to Cambridge at the end of the 19th century, according to the study.
The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE is said to be one of the most lasting achievements of the Jewish civilization - without it, Christianity might not have spread as quickly and as successfully as it did, said Nicholas de Lange, Cambridge Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
It was thought that the Jews, for some reason, gave up using Greek translations and chose to use the original Hebrew for public reading in synagogue and for private study, until modern times when pressure to use the vernacular led to its introduction in many synagogues, said de Lange.
The study led to the discovery that some contained passages from the Bible in Greek written in Hebrew letters. Others contained parts of a lost Greek translation made by a convert to Judaism named Akylas in the 2nd century CE. Remarkably, the fragments date from 1,000 years after the original translation into Greek, showing use of the Greek text was still alive in Greek-speaking synagogues in the Byzantine Empire and elsewhere.
The research also showed that a variety of Greek translations were in use among Jews in the Middle Ages.
This is a very exciting discovery for me because it confirms a hunch I had when studying Genizah fragments 30 years ago, said de Lange.