(November 10, 2013 / JNS) The discovery of the oldest Jewish siddur (prayer book) ever found has set off a flurry of attention on ancient religious texts. Dating back to 840 CE, the siddur sheds new light on medieval Judaism and the continuity of Jewish traditions over time.
Currently part of Hobby Lobby President Steven Green’s “Green Collection,” the largest private collection of biblical texts and artifacts in the world, the siddur and the rest of the collection will be donated to the as yet unnamed international Bible museum in Washington, D.C., slated to open in 2017.
Jerry Pattengale—assistant provost at Indiana Wesleyan University and director of the Green Scholars Initiative, the research arm of the Green Collection—spoke to JNS.org about the discovery of the ancient siddur, Jewish-Christian relations, and the upcoming Bible museum.
What are some of your responsibilities at the Green Scholars Initiative?
“My role is to put together the research teams and programs as well as interface with other academic institutions. We have 90 professors involved in over 60 universities and a number of museums as well. I also administrate all of our lecture series across the world. We have had nearly 100 scholarly lectures in the past four years.”
What is the story behind the ancient siddur? How did the Green Collection come into possession of the book?
“In short, since 2008, many families that had collections for many decades have started to offer major items for sale due to the economic downturn. When we started purchasing items from different collections, we became bombarded by people looking to sell their stuff. Often we get very unique calls because they are convinced of what we are doing. Mr. Green is giving all of this to the museum. He is not buying to collect it; he is giving it all away.
“In this particular case, a family called and wanted to offer it to us. They knew it was valuable and how meaningful it would be to a lot of different traditions. It wasn’t until we started our research on it that [we learned] it was the earliest Jewish prayer book ever found.”
How was the date of the book’s origin determined?
“When we realized what we were looking at, we decided it would be best to carbon date it. We removed two small sections from the book non-invasively and sent them to two separate labs. They did not know what they were testing; it was a double blind test. Both results came back with a date of 840 CE. Our scholars had originally dated it to 850 CE. The whole process was very exciting.”
What contents of the siddur would modern Jews find familiar, and what would they find different?
“It has services for the Sabbath and the 100 blessings, which you would find in most modern prayer books. That alone makes it relevant to most Jewish communities and something they would recognize right away. There is also the liturgy in there for Passover and the ‘Song of Songs’ poem for Sukkot.”
“I think something a lot of people would be interested in is the poem on the end of times or the apocalyptic text. This is a story that was very popular at the time, but we don’t see often anymore. Finally, there is a really unique section at the end that we are calling the ‘Salvation for Zion.’”
The Green Collection/Scholars Initiative is largely connected with Evangelical Christians. What role does the Green Initiative play in that interfaith relationship?
“The Green Scholars Initiative is the research arm of the Green Collection and attempts to remain objective in its research initiative. There is no religious requirement for involvement. We have various scholars from different religious traditions and/or sects within them.
“While we attempt not to recruit scholars that are predisposed critically against a view, our efforts have been to have top scholars as the main consultants over projects, and capable scholars working on items.”
“Given the nature of our collection, it’s only sensible that the vast majority of interested parties are Jewish and Christian.”
Do you feel that the Green Initiative helps to bring Jews and Christians closer together?
“Certainly, many of our scholars either studied in Israel or with Jewish scholars in the US, or are Jewish scholars who have studied with key scholars of Christianity… The Green Scholars Initiative, through generosity of the Green family, funded the workshop at the Israel Museum last year on conservation of Dead Sea Scrolls and early papyri texts. This was a wonderful educational event for a mix of scholars from these faith traditions.
“The current exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum [in Jerusalem] is also a joint project, as well as the items on exhibit from the Green Collection with the Gabriel Stone at the Israel Museum…Also, the Greens have made very serious purchases from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and key collectors that include important items for both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions.”
Will you also be involved in the upcoming D.C. Bible museum? Can you tell me a bit more about what future visitors can expect to see there?
“Besides an investment in the hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve and share the history, story and impact of the Jewish and Christian texts, and the huge investment for continued research and resources, the museum will also have a space offered to Israeli institutions for display. Besides a major space for rotating exhibits, the museum is offering three spaces of around 12,000 square feet to three major world museums. This is still in negotiations, but we have been in contact early on with a Jewish institution, offering this wonderful opportunity to have a special presence a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
“One thing that also is often lost in this, is that the Green family is giving all of the items to the museum. They are not collectors. They are doing this for the public good.”
Part of the JNS.org special section on Jewish books.