Benjamin Kennicott’s Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum (the Columbia connection)

Benjamin Kennicott is probably best known today for the incredible illuminated manuscript at the Bodleian Library at Oxford that bears his name.  However, his magnum opus was a two-volume print edition of the Hebrew Bible, based on extensive research from various manuscripts.

We have discussed here earlier the great interest in Hebrew texts by various faculty in the early days of King’s College, and so it is not surprising that Kennicott turned to the College for help in borrowing a  manuscript in the course of his research for the Bible.  The manuscript was owned by Sampson ben Joseph Simson (an uncle of the Sampson Simson who presented a Hebrew address at the Columbia College commencement in 1800),*

Reference to Simson ms, Vetus Testimentum, v.1, p.82

with King’s College President Myles Cooper serving as courier for the loan (see article from “The Gazette of the United States, July 7, 1802).

Kennicott apparently kept up his conversations with administrators at King’s College, and, shortly before the Bible was printed, wrote  Cooper to say that he would “be honored with any Subscription from your Territories,” Indeed, King’s College, New York, is listed on the subscriber list.

Additional Fellows at King’s College in New York were very interested in the Bible, and other subscribers from Columbia’s predecessor are listed among the subscribers as well.  (I was surprised to see that Harvard College, where the first Hebrew grammar in America was printed, was not on the list.)

The Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum has been digitized and is freely available on the Internet Archive.

*Thanks to Dr. Theodor Dunkelgrün for correcting my conflation of the two Sampson Simpsons. (April 23, 2019)

Postscript (April 28, 2019): Thanks to Yisrael Dubitsky in the Manuscripts Department at the National Library of Israel, I learned that the manuscript borrowed by Kennicott is currently at the British Library. Tipped in the end of the manuscript (ff. 417 recto and verso in the digitized editions) is the letter from Kennicott to Simpson asking to borrow the manuscript for the term of 12 months.  (August 18, 2020) As Dr. Gary Rendsburg has pointed out, the “Gazette of the United States” indicates that the manuscript was returned to Simson by 1772. A note in the manuscript at the British Library indicates that it was sold to the library by M. Levy in 1901.

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