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Chapter 2. Tabernacles of Text: A Brief Visual History of the Hebrew Bible

From the book Impagination – Layout and Materiality of Writing and Publication

  • Theodor Dunkelgrün


This chapter explores the history of the Hebrew Bible from the point of view of its layout on the two main material forms of the Jewish book: scroll and codex. It examines several of the fundamental ways in which Jews (and a few Christians) have organized the Hebrew Bible visually, from the earliest surviving witnesses among the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls (third century BCE) to the printed editions of Early Modern Europe. It pays special attention to the way the material and spatial limitations of a writing support spurred various kinds of scribal creativity; and it traces the way practices that began by chance become ritually, legally or exegetically meaningful in the process of transmission across centuries. The chapter explores book-historical evidence internal to the biblical corpus and considers possible models for scribal practices among other, non-Jewish and non-Hebrew cultures of the book in the Ancient Near East. It explores the development of scribal law in early Rabbinic literature, in which ancient textual accidents and idiosyncrasies are reinterpreted as meaningful, visual expressions of a perfect, sacred text. It then considers the dynamic relationship between scroll and codex in the Medieval period, focusing both on the transformative emergence of the Masoretic codex and on the iconography of the Temple therein, as expression of the idea of the Hebrew Bible as portable Temple and a visual response to exile. The chapter then considers various ways in which Jewish and Christian editors and printers adopted and adapted these ancient and medieval visual practices of textual distribution in the early years of print. Finally, it looks at the paratextual superimposition of Christian and Jewish reading traditions onto the text, and therewith, the origin of the shape of the Hebrew Bible as commonly printed to this day.

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