The world’s oldest complete Torah scroll has been found in a university archive in Bologna, according to an Italian professor who said the text could be from the 12th century.
The precious lambskin scroll had been classified by the university library as being from the 17th century and was named simply “Scroll Number Two”.
But Hebrew Studies professor Mauro Perani told AFP on Wednesday he noticed that the text did not conform to key changes in Torah writing brought about starting from the 12th century.
“I immediately thought it was much older,” he said, adding that it contained letters and symbols that were banned by Jewish scholar and philosopher Moses Maimonides.
The Torah was among around 30 Jewish manuscripts in the university library that Perani began to catalogue in February of this year.
“The scroll is very rare because when the manuscripts spoil they lose their holiness and can no longer be used. They are then buried,” he said.
“The state of conservation is excellent.”
Tens of thousands of Torah scrolls were also destroyed by the Nazis in Germany and central Europe and by the fascists in Italy.
“There was an incredible destruction in the 20th century,” Perani said, adding that some Torah scrolls were even cut up and used to bind books.
The oldest previously known scroll dates from the late 13th century, although a biblical codex — which has a book form instead of being rolled up — exists in St Petersburg that dates from 1008.
Carbon dating in Italy and the United States confirmed his findings, placing the manuscript between the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
The intact scroll is 36 metres (118 feet) long and 64 centimetres wide and the report said it had been mislabelled by an archivist in 1889.
“He said the text looked awkward and contained uncommon annotations. He was completely wrong, it is a splendid manuscript,” Perani said.
The professor said the scroll came to Bologna university from a Dominican monastery in the city, most likely after Napoleon disbanded religious orders in the country in the 19th century.
It was “completely normal” that Dominican friars would have an ancient Torah as there was close collaboration between Christian and Jewish scholars in the early Middle Ages, Perani said.
The city of Bologna has long had a large Jewish community and the university first began teaching Hebrew studies in the 15th century.
Fragments of the Torah have been found from as far back as the 7th or 8th centuries — much older than the presumed date of the Bologna scroll.
“This is the oldest complete one,” Perani said.
He said very few Torah scrolls exist from before the 14th century since they were buried.
Torah scrolls are not dated under Jewish tradition, complicating the work of researchers.
The scroll was exhibited briefly on Tuesday and Perani said he hoped there could be a more permanent display in the near future.