The Motley Migrations of Duke’s Hebrew Manuscripts

In this project, Jonathan Homrighausen and Noam Sienna investigate the provenance and migration of Duke’s Hebrew manuscripts collection. We aim to craft a scholarly, accessible, and classroom-friendly digital humanities project presenting our research.

The seventeen manuscripts in Duke’s Hebrew Manuscripts collection form an eclectic band. Ranging from large, intact liturgical scrolls, to tiny fragments found in the bindings of other books in Duke’s collections, to a tattered page from a medieval codex, the only common denominator in this collection is that all the manuscripts so far studied are biblical. Their paleography reveals diverse regions of origin, from Western Europe (Ashkenaz) to the Mediterranean (Sepharad) to Yemen. Their known dates of acquisition range from 2017 to 1940—a date which, in Jewish manuscript migration history, always suggests a larger story which may be fraught with ethical questions.

Given our complementary backgrounds in biblical studies (Homrighausen) and Jewish book history (Sienna), we see this project as relevant to multiple audiences. Among curators, historians, and codicologists, the migration, coerced sale, and even outright theft of Jewish manuscripts and cultural artifacts remains a major issue. For biblical scholars, these manuscripts witness the ways in which the Bible as material artifact divulges hints about its interpretation, use, and cultural impact in many times and places.

Update: Noam and Jonathan have been investigating several of Duke’s Hebrew Manuscripts. In doing so, they have discovered new provenance information about two manuscripts in particular, Hebrew MS 01 and Jantz Early MS 115. 

Hebrew MS 01 is a Torah scroll that was specifically used for liturgical purposes in the synagogue. It has been attributed to Ashkenazi Jews and dated to the 1700s. However, this dating is uncertain. In 1939, the Duke School of Religion Bulletin was released, but did not mention this object. In 1940-1941, Elbert Russell, dean of Duke Divinity School, mentioned the acquisition of this object in the Duke School of Religion Bulletin. So, how did Duke acquire this item? William Stinespring, Professor of the Old Testament at Duke Divinity School from 1936-1971, claimed that this object would give “students a fair idea of what ‘the Law’ looked like in the time of Jesus” in the 1941 Duke School of Religion Bulletin. It is possible that Stinespring acquired this object either in New York or through his connections with the American Schools of Oriental Research.

The Jantz Early MS 115 is the only illustrated Hebrew MS at Duke and was likely used as a liturgical piece for supplementary prayers. The script contains accomplished calligraphy of a central European style, inspired by the aesthetics of Hebrew books printed in Amsterdam. This piece is signed by a scribe, Moshe Maisels and was possibly created in 1775-6 or 1830-1. This manuscript was later bought by Harold S. Jantz, a professor at Duke from 1973-87. Duke acquired Jantz’s books in 1976 and his manuscripts in 1996.


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