The oldest complete Hebrew Bible in the world is a box full of parchment pages, squirreled away in a gloomy old library in Leningrad.
In a wood-paneled back room in the Saltykhov-Shchedrin State Public Library, with the 1,000-year-old pages spread out on a broad felt-covered table, biblical scholars said they could come close to miraculously penetrating the veil of time.
They could read Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms and the other books of the Old Testament much as they were read in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago.
But until last spring, the library and the so-called "Leningrad Codex" were off-limits to all but a few Westerners.
In May, after lengthy negotiations with Soviet authorities, four representatives from the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont traveled to Leningrad and photographed the ancient Bible, page by page.
The pictures they brought back--each of 982 pages of the Old Testament was photographed six times--will eventually be used to produce a facsimile edition of the codex.
It's one of the "flagship manuscripts" of the Judeo-Christian tradition, said James Sanders, president of the manuscript center, which is housed in the School of Theology at Claremont. The center was established 12 years ago by Sanders to preserve ancient and medieval manuscripts on film, making them available to researchers.
"The photographs mean that these doors are, for the first time, open for all of us," said Sanders, with some of the project's photographs spread out before him.
Most of the pages of the Leningrad Bible, which was transcribed in the first decade of the 11th Century by a scribe named Samuel ben Jacob, have triple columns of Hebraic writing. They also have tiny notes in the margins.
This is where the Leningrad Codex can help the scholar to defy time, Sanders said. The marginal notes, called Masora, are the work of a group of ancient scholars known as the Masoretes, who were from Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee. Between the 7th and 11th centuries, the Masoretes--which translates as "those who transmit traditions"--developed a unique system of notes to preserve biblical texts from error.
"No other literature in the world has such scribal notations," Sanders said.
The notes, containing information which has passed from generation to generation, can be as simple as an emphatic warning to copy a unique word correctly. Sanders translates from the margins of a page from the Book of Samuel, referring to a place name in the text: "Make sure you copy it exactly right, for this is the only time it appears in the Bible."
Or they can enumerate, say, the six appearances of a word or name, warning future scribes copying the texts, "don't make it five and don't make it seven." Punctuation marks inserted by the Masoretes also clarified some confusing syntax, and a system of accent marks offered a guide to spoken Hebrew.
Taken together, the markings of the Masoretes help to give as accurate an idea as possible of the way the Old Testament--some of it from as early as the 11th Century BC--was read and interpreted at the time it was recorded, said Sanders.
Much of the Leningrad Codex has been studied by Western biblical scholars since 1937, when one scholar was allowed to microfilm the pages. But the tiny marginal notes, which shed light on a slew of interpretive issues, did not reproduce well on microfilm, Sanders said.
The Claremont Leningrad expedition included Bruce Zuckerman, acting director of the manuscript center and one of the world's leading experts on reproducing ancient manuscripts; Kenneth Zuckerman, his brother and another leading photographic historian; Marilyn Lundberg, assistant director of the center, and Garth Moller, translator.
Their goal was to record the parchment pages on high-resolution 4-by-5 film, reproducing the tiniest of markings. Members of the expedition describe three weeks of 12-hour work days in "a library ordered up by Stephen Spielberg or Walt Disney," as Bruce Zuckerman described it.
"This is what a library with ancient tomes should look like," he said. "You expected Peter the Great or Tolstoy to walk in."
Scholars from the manuscript center plan to return to Leningrad next year to photograph other valuable manuscripts, Sanders said.
The Leningrad Codex was one of many donated to the library more than a century ago by Abraham Firkovitch, a Jewish businessman who had collected manuscripts all over the Middle East.
Even in the era of perestroika, though, the stern visage of the father of the Russian Revolution loomed over the four Americans, said Lundberg, describing the wood-paneled library room with glassed-in shelves where they completed their mission.
"There was a huge column with a bust of Lenin, overlooking the whole project," she said.