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2013 Year in Review: Oxbridge Libraries Purchase Collection of Semitic Texts

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The BBC reported on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 that the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge had successfully raised £1,200,000 to purchase The Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection from the United Reform Church's Westminster College at the University of Cambridge. [The United Reformed Church is a Calvinist church formed in 1972 as a result of a merger between the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Church in England & Wales.] The affluent and scholarly Scottish twin sisters Dr. Agnes Smith Lewis Ph.D., LL.D., D.D., Litt.D. (1843–1926) and Dr. Margaret Dunlop Gibson, LL.D., D.D., Litt.D. (1843–1920) had deposited the 1,700 fragments of Hebrew and Arabic texts in this collection at Westminster College, which they endowed in 1899.

Cambridge’s Dr. Ben Outhwaite called the collection "precious" and opined it gives us "a unique and vibrant window into a lost age." He added, "Its fragments of sacred texts, legal documents and the writings of ordinary, everyday folk present a snapshot of life as it was lived in the Middle Ages."

Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson (also known by their maiden name as the Smith sisters) showed a document they had purchased to Rabbi Solomon Schechter (1850-1915), a Romanian-born scholar who at the time was the Reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature at the University of Cambridge. [This was after their work at St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai earlier in the decade.] He was shocked to read a Hebrew version of the Book of Wisdom of Ben Sira (also known as Sirach and Ecclesiasticus), which had previously only been known in Greek and Syriac translations.

This book is not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and is considered apocryphal by Protestant Christians. However, it did make it into a Koine Greek translation, the Septuagint, the composition of which was commissioned by the second Macedonian-Greek pharaoh, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Consequently, it is part of the Old Testament in the Bible for Catholics, Easter Orthodox Christians, and Oriental Orthodox Christians.

Curious, Schechter traced the manuscript to the genizah (storeroom for worn-out religious books) of Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Fustat district of Old Cairo and grasped the significance of the informal archive in 1896. This prompted him to raise funds to bring back what turned out to be 193,000 manuscripts from what has become known as the Cairo Genizah to the University of Cambridge in 1898. Remarkably, members of the congregation had placed not only sacred documents in the genizah over the course of about 1,000 years, but also letters, shopping lists, business documents, medical books, marriage and divorce documents, works of Sufi and Shi’ite philosophy, Arabic fables, and even purportedly magical amulets.

Schechter had the moral and financial support of Dr. Charles Taylor, Master of St. John's College at the University of Cambridge. This is the origin of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection at Cambridge University Library.

After the documents in the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection undergo conservation at Cambridge – try saying that five times fast – they will be digitized. Then, they will be divided between the Cambridge University Library and the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

Dr. Outhwaite said the Cambridge University Library and Bodleian Libraries had "a responsibility to preserve such vital cultural heritage and ensure that - through digitisation, publication and interpretation - it is not locked away, but made as widely accessible as possible".

On February 8, 2013, the BBC reported Westminster College’s Principal Reverend Dr. Susan Durber “said the theological college was selling the documents as it did not have the resources to conserve and research them or to make them more widely available.”

Cambridge University Librarian Anne Jarvis, who became the first woman to hold the post in 2009, stated, "We are seeking to build on our collections while recognising that there would be a greater benefit to scholarship if we joined together to save the Lewis-Gibson Collection from division and dispersal."

Historian Professor David Abulafia Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, stated: "There is nothing to compare with them as source for the history of the tenth to twelfth centuries, anywhere in Europe or the Islamic world."

He added, "They shed a bright light on the social, economic and religious life of the Jews not just of medieval Egypt but of lands far away."

Donations towards the appeal included £500,000 from the Polonsky Foundation and £350,000 from the Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation. This is the first time the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge have had a joint-fundraising effort.

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