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Lisbon Bible

The Lisbon Bible is the most accomplished dated codex (that is, a manuscript in book form rather than a scroll) of the Portuguese school of medieval Hebrew illumination. Completed in 1482, the Lisbon Bible is a testimony to the rich cultural life the Portuguese Jews experienced prior to the expulsion and forced conversions of December 1496.

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Lisbon Bible

Lisbon Bible, Lisbon, Portugal, 1482
BL Or. MS 2626, Vol. 1, f. 23v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Hebrew Bible?

The first part of the Hebrew Bible is the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch. The Torah is the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible because, according to tradition, Moses wrote it at divine dictation. The five books making up the Torah are Be-reshit, Shemot, Va-Yikra, Be-Midbar and Devarim, which in the Christian Bible correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew titles derive from the first characteristic word appearing in each book, while the name used in the English Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.

The second and third parts contain the Prophets and the Hagiographa (Writings or Holy Writings) respectively.

Added to this manuscript are lists of the Commandments in the Torah, as well as masoretic material (commentaries and marginal notes written by rabbis) which give information on the correct spelling, reading and pronunciation of the biblical text.

What's on this page?

The page illustrated is from the first book in the Torah. It is the frontispiece to Be-reshit (which means "In the beginning") from the opening words "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). The title Genesis translates as 'creation' or 'birth'. The book's 50 chapters describe the creation of the world by an all-powerful and omniscient God. Human beings are constantly urged to lead an upright and ethical life, and to obey and serve God. There are accounts of Adam and Eve and their descendants, including Noah and Abraham, the First Patriarch of the Hebrew people and founder of the monotheistic faith. There are also stories about Abraham's heirs Isaac, Joseph and Jacob and their families, including Joseph's rise to power and the settling of Jacob in Egypt. The final chapters tell of Jacob's and Joseph's deaths.

Who made this Bible and how do we know?

Samuel ben Samuel Ibn Musa, known as Samuel the Scribe, copied the biblical text in an elegant square script for the manuscript's patron Yosef ben Yehudah al-Hakim. The sumptuous decorations, which mix Italian, Spanish and Flemish influences, were created by a team of skilled artists.

Samuel wrote out his text in two columns of 26 lines with a reed pen in his characteristic Sephardi style, adding the vowels under the Hebrew letters. The initial word is inscribed in gold letters in a mauve filigree panel surrounded on three sides by multicoloured foliage.

A second unnamed scribe wrote minute comments and notes on the main text in the upper and lower margins of the page and between the columns. These are known as masoretic notes. These notes were penned in minute unvocalised script (that is, without vowels). Rather than copying the text in straight lines, the anonymous scribe has created circular designs from lines of minute text, a technique known as micrography.

We know who produced the book from the colophon (the 'credits panel' at the end of the book). In it, Samuel identifies himself as the scribe, and tells us that he finished it on a Friday evening in the Jewish month and year of Kislev 5243, corresponding to November/ December 1482CE.

Woodcut portraying Lisbon in 1553, illustrating a compilation of writings by the ancient Greek historian Polybius

Why is it important?

The Lisbon Bible is one of the most accurate of Hebrew biblical manuscripts, and as such it has been used in a number of modern critical editions. It may even have been designed specifically as a model text. It is the most accomplished dated manuscript of the Portuguese school of medieval Hebrew illumination.

The British Museum Library (now the British Library) bought the manuscript in 1882. The present binding was crafted in 1954 and replaced the 16th-century leather covers.

How can I see more of this book?

We have also created a digital version of the book using our award-winning Turning the Pages™.