The Mystery of the Good Book 

The Da Vinci Code it's not, but a jumbled, ancient Hebrew text with countless interpretations is good enough for Paul Hamburg.

Each weekday morning Paul Hamburg, the librarian for the Judaica Collections at UC Berkeley, strolls toward campus along tree-lined Euclid Avenue and feels the quick patter inside his chest. "The sight of the building alone makes my heart race each and every day," he says of Doe Library, which hosts the century-old Bancroft Library, which houses, in turn, the university's collections of rare and valuable books.

The librarian got a new kind of cardiac workout in September when he oversaw the purchase of a rare Hebrew Bible from a New York auction house. On behalf of the university, Hamburg procured a copy of the Second Biblia Rabbinica for somewhere north of $100,000. The four-volume set, printed circa 1548, was the largest single-item purchase for the Judaica Collection since the 1970s, Hamburg says. Only a dozen such Bibles remain in the world. "It's a masterpiece," he gushes. "The kind of thing you don't come across every day."

When the book arrived, Hamburg was so excited he brought his family along to photograph the moment he opened the FedEx box in the library's vault. After the initial thrill settled, he inspected the hide-bound volumes closely for the first time. A few minutes later, he made a startling discovery. The page numbers in one volume suddenly jumped ahead. A poem that was supposed to appear on the final page of the fourth volume was missing. An entire section of the book, in fact, was gone. The possibilities raced through his mind. A fraud? Or a unique find?

"It was a little shocking to say the least," Hamburg recalls. "It was a big purchase, and at first, it looked like we were missing part of the book."

Scholars know the first complete printed edition of the original Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was published in 1488. A later edition known as the First Biblia Rabbinica -- complete with rabbinical commentary and chapter and verse numbers for easy reference -- made its debut in 1517. Yet this first edition, despite its reader-friendly efforts, came with its own set of problems.

One of the most glaring was the inclusion of a papal imprimatur, which made the edition unwelcome in the Jewish community. "When the Pope says it's a good idea," Hamburg notes, "the Jews might not feel it's such a good idea."

In short, the Bible needed fixing, and it went beyond its Christian sponsor. From the start, Jewish scholars have debated the meaning of the Scriptures. Early scholars parsed word choice and context carefully, and in several cases, generated fierce debates. Over the course of generations, the competing biblical interpretations spawned competing versions of the text -- which supporters of each touted as the "correct" one.

Enter a scholar named Jacob ben Hayim, who set out on a monumental task. In the early 1500s he collected every printed version of the Bible he could find and read them side by side. He considered the inconsistencies among competing versions, and, like a one-man Supreme Court, ruled on the proper meaning behind each sentence. Hamburg compares ben Hayim's process to a great literary scholar gathering early versions of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" to decipher which transcript held the author's truest intent.

In 1525, with the publication of the Second Biblia Rabbinica, ben Hayim introduced the Masoretic Text -- an apparatus that converted the "unvocalized Bible" to a universal version that could be read aloud with consistency by Jews from Jerusalem to Jupiter, Florida. Ben Hayim's work, in essence, ended the interpretation controversies and "fixed the printed text," Hamburg says.

It's an achievement that stands to this day. Nearly four hundred years later, biblical translators all defer to ben Hayim's version of the Old Testament as the correct reading.

On a warm September afternoon, Hamburg led the way to the vault underneath the Bancroft Library. The Rare Books reading room is long and cool in temperature, with rows of fluorescent tubes glowing overhead. The four books of the Biblia Rabbinica rested inside separate acid-free cardboard boxes on a white table. Hamburg carefully removed the first volume from its casing just as another librarian stepped in to slide two foam pads underneath for the book to rest upon.

Early-16th-century bookmaking was a laborious process, Hamburg notes. It took a team of perhaps a dozen printers two years -- two years! -- just to set the type of this Bible. These bindings, complete with locks, were the work of Jesuit Catholics, Hamburg said. That suggested the book was used for study by Christian clergy.

The Bible's provenance and its pathway to the Cal collection is still a mystery, however. It's unclear how the volumes got to the United States, and the seller at the auction chose to remain anonymous. Regardless, Hamburg's buyer outbid the Library of Congress for the item. "We had to have it," he said. "After all, this Bible has become the basis for all Bibles afterward."

Hamburg looked up and delighted in the moment. The worn bindings were tanned and sturdy. The valuable pages, thick with pulp and glue, crackled as they turned. "This book is strong," he said, giving it a barehanded stroke down the page. "These were made to last."

The librarian pushed his eyeglasses up on his forehead, squinted, and placed an index finger on the text on the first page. "When God began ..." he read aloud, then stopped. "Or, you see, it can also be read as, 'In the beginning of God's creation ...'

"Or," Hamburg added, "It's 'In the beginning ...' -- but in the beginning of what?"

He looked up from the book and inched his eyeglasses back down onto his nose. "All of which is to say there's no one meaning of the text, which is also to say, from the very beginning -- the very first word -- the Hebrew Bible is a problem."

Hamburg shook his head and laughed. When he first inspected the new purchase, he feared an even bigger problem: missing parts. At first, he thought it was incomplete, and that he'd vastly overpaid for it, or had been duped. But a more careful reading solved that mystery. The missing poem turned up in volume two, as did the other misplaced pages. Hamburg had procured neither an unknown new edition nor a harshly edited one, but an archaic Bible with a binding error.

His story conjured up the image of a printer working on the bindings in his shop, circa 1550, and suddenly realizing he's muffed the order. Oh well, he decides. I'll just stuff this section here, move this section around to there, and be done with it.

Now, more than four centuries later, an impressed Berkeley scholar stood over the book and marveled at its beauty. "This goes to show there's much more to reading a book than just interpreting its words," Hamburg said. "There's an experience that goes beyond."


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