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Q&A Wednesday: Sacha Stern on Jewish interest in the Byzantine Christian calendar

T-S NS 98.51
T-S NS 98.51 (recto)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Sacha Stern
Wed 19 Jan 2022

Sacha, what are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been looking at a fragment in T-S NS 98 – it's full of calendar texts. This one is T-S NS 98.51. It’s extremely damaged and fragmentary. We’ll probably never find the rest of it, and the missing bits are almost certainly lost.

It’s a parchment fragment and looks quite old. How old is it?

I’m not an expert, but palaeographically speaking it looks to be from around the year 1000.

What is it and why are you working on it?

It has two parts. The first part which occupies almost the entire bifolium is a description of the Christian Byzantine calendar, and right at the end there is another text – a prognostication text. Gideon Bohak is working on that part of it, and it was he who brought the fragment to my attention. I had known about it but not looked at it properly. When Gideon mentioned it to me I examined it carefully and realised what it was. It’s interesting, because we don’t find the Byzantine calendar used in the Cairo Genizah. The Copts used the Coptic calendar, so it’s really unusual to find it, and it is possibly the only text like it in the Genizah that describes anything to do with the Byzantine calendar. It seems to go through everything – it explains how the year is structured (which is almost the same as the secular calendar today – it is basically the Julian calendar, except the year begins in September/October, instead of beginning in January), and then goes on to explain how to calculate the date of Easter.

And how do you do that?

The calculation of Easter is very complicated, and what survives in this fragment is not much. So, I don’t know exactly how they do it, but what I can say is that they provide data for a 19-year period, giving the day of the week and the date and month, giving very precise information for when Easter will fall that year. And a further unusual thing about this fragment is that those years can only fit the early eighth century.

The eighth century?!

I have no other way of explaining this, other than that must have been when the text was composed, because no one writing in the year 1000 would take at random the data from the early eighth century. It just doesn’t make sense.

So, this was a text that was composed in the eighth century and then copied out onto our fragment in the late tenth century or beginning of the eleventh?

Yes, and it is a Jewish work. It’s in Hebrew, in a form of the language compatible with other sources known from the eighth century.

And are you sure that this text was originally composed in Hebrew or might it have been written in Greek and then translated into Hebrew later?

I think it is written from a Jewish perspective, because the way it tells you how to calculate the date is not standard, and not what you would expect to find in a Christian text.

It’s a bifolium. Are the pages contiguous or are there intervening pages from a quire that are now missing?

I don’t know for sure. If it is not consecutive, I think we are missing a maximum of one bifolium in the middle.

Looking at the verso, I see there’s a loose piece of parchment that is stuck down.

Yes, I don’t think it belongs to the manuscript but it has been stuck down on it. I won’t ask you to remove it though, as I don’t think it obscures much. 

Do you have any idea who would have composed a calendrical work like this?

My presumption is that in the early eighth century the text would have been composed in Palestine rather than Egypt, which would explain why they are looking at the Byzantine calendar. Christians in Palestine were still roughly affiliated to the Byzantine church at this time – at least, I would certainly say that their calendar was the same as the Byzantine calendar. But why was this particular text composed? It’s partly to do with the prognostication text, which Gideon Bohak is working on, that follows. The prognostication text is called Masoret Ezra and says things like, for example, if it rains on 1st January then the whole year will be like that. Predictions are made for the whole year based on what happens on 1st January. The only way you can operate this text, though, is if you know when 1st January is. That’s why the author of the text has gone a bit over the top in explaining how to work out the date of 1st January and other dates. If this text had been a Christian text originally, I don’t think that there would have been a need to go to such lengths to explain when 1st January is, as every Christian would know it.

Is the prognostication text also from the eighth century? Or have they been put together somehow?

I think the prognostication text is earlier, and I believe it has been preserved in Syriac sources too. It’s one of these texts that circulate around the Near East in different languages.

Is it unusual or even unique to find such an interest in the Christian calendar in Jewish sources?

It really is unusual to find it in the Near East. You find it in Europe a lot from the thirteenth century onwards, but there are few texts like this in the Cairo Genizah and the others all focus on the Coptic calendar. My colleague Nadia Vidro and I have found only a handful of such texts in the Genizah. It means that Jews were generally not that interested in the Christian calendar. They must have needed at times to convert Coptic dates into Jewish dates if, for example, they were drawing up contracts or doing business deals with Christians in Cairo who might have wanted to date something according to the Christian calendar, but I don’t even know how much the Coptic calendar was used in social life in the Middle Ages. The Coptic calendar was probably used for fiscal purposes, because the Islamic calendar drifts through the seasons and this drift is very unhelpful for tax authorities who want to know that every year there will be a harvest and there will be a certain regular source of income. If you have an Islamic calendar, losing 10 days every year, that’s not so helpful for the agricultural cycle. So, in the Islamic world alternative calendars were used by fiscal authorities. The Coptic calendar was used in Egypt, and the Persian calendar in Iran and surrounding regions, but I don’t know how much the Coptic calendar was used in Cairo beyond fiscal and liturgical uses. That could explain why there is not much of it in the Cairo Genizah, whereas of course in Europe the Christian calendar was the main calendar, and Jews living there had to accommodate themselves to it.

You mentioned that because of its fragmentary state you are not hopeful of recovering more pieces of it?

Yes, I had a good look at the minute fragments preserved at the end of NS 98 to see if any pieces were there, but there wasn’t anything helpful.

What are you planning to do with this fragment?

I’m writing a Fragment of the Month about it, which will be published in a few months’ time, and it’s part of a broader investigation I’m making into Jewish interest in the Byzantine calendar in the eighth century. There are a quite a few other sources to suggest that the Byzantine calendar was an important source of inspiration for Jewish calendar makers in this period. I should also mention that my work on this fragment has been progressing somewhat slowly. I first became aware of the fragment in 2018 but didn’t start working on it properly until 2019, from a photo. I knew I should go to Cambridge to look at the original, but then the pandemic struck in early 2020 and the library closed to visitors. There was a small window when it reopened in October that year and I rushed to Cambridge and spent a whole day peering at the fragment. It was important to see it in person because there were some areas around the edges that looked like traces of ink and it was only on seeing it in person that I could work out what was text, what was shadow, and what was discolouration. It was a very important trip and I had a very different outlook after visiting the library than I had from just examining the image. It does go to show that it’s important to look at the originals, especially with fragments that are so damaged and stained. Most of my conjectural readings were discarded after that trip and I came out of the library with much less than I’d had going in! It was good to have certainty though.

With so many of us working from images now, it’s good to be reminded of this. Thank you Sacha, and we’ll look forward to reading the Fragment of the Month soon.

Sacha Stern is Professor of Rabbinic Judaism and Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London.

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