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Project acronym: KaraimBIBLE ERC Starting Grant № 802645

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(Re)constructing a Bible. A new approach to unedited Biblical manuscripts as sources for the early history of the Karaim language (KaraimBIBLE)

General information

KaraimBIBLE is a research project financed by the European Research Council (ERC) the basis of which will be a comprehensive edition of the entire Karaim Bible based on carefully selected sources from the 15th–20th centuries. The sources will receive grammatical and palaeographical descriptions. Beyond that, it will be investigated whether the Biblical manuscripts and the Karaite semi-cursive script types belong to one or multiple scribal traditions in order to better understand the way these translations were created. The Karaim texts will be translated into English and efforts will be made to discover further manuscripts.

To achieve the research objectives an on-line digital critical edition will be created – equipped with a lexicographical database. The platform will be a complex research instrument providing a highly interconnected network of data based on the technologies commonly referred to as Semantic Web.

Eastern European Karaims are the sole representatives of Karaite Judaism in Europe. Their native tongue is a severely endangered Turkic vernacular (it is included on UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger; ISO 639-3 code: kdr), but merely a fraction of its surviving written heritage has entered scholarly circulation. In particular, the Karaim translations of the Hebrew Bible – the oldest written records of this language – still await investigation. As a result, on the one hand, the Karaim data cannot be effectively exploited in historical-comparative studies and, on the other hand, there is no edition of the Bible that Karaims could read in religious practice. The existing translations are locked in sources written in Hebrew script – a script which Karaims cannot read any more. What makes this project crucial to sustaining this endangered culture is the fact that Karaite Judaism is based on the recognition of the Hebrew Bible alone as the supreme authority in religious law and theology.

The Research Centre for Language Documentation of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków provides a support platform for implementing the project.

The Prinicipal Investigator of the project is dr hab. Michał Németh, prof. UJ, MAE.

The project is conducted in collaboration with the Uppsala University (Sweden).

Duration: 60 months (2019–2024). ERC funding: 1.48 million euro.

Rationale and research objectives

The project and its objectives are shaped by two pivotal factors. Firstly, due to its archaic nature Karaim plays a key role in Turkic comparative linguistics. Having been isolated from the Turkic linguistic world for centuries, and surrounded mainly by Slavonic languages, it has preserved a number of archaic features.

Secondly, of great importance is the fact that the essence of the religion of this intriguing ethno-linguistic-religious minority lies, unlike mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, in its recognition of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) alone as the supreme authority in religious law and theology. For instance, they do not consider the Talmud to be an authoritative interpretation of the Torah. Today, however, this fundamental component of Karaim identity is lost: There is no comprehensive Karaim edition of the Hebrew Bible that this minority could refer to. Why? Because Hebrew was, for centuries, their liturgical language. The Karaims evolved into a Turkic-speaking ethnic group that used Hebrew script to record their written heritage. However, due to the gradual extinction of their culture, most of them have lost the ability to read Hebrew script and therefore are unable to access the content of their Biblical manuscripts and most of the printed editions. In fact, there is not even any available Karaim translation of the Hebrew Bible as a whole. The only nearly complete edition (lacking 1–2 Chronicles) that is ‘potentially available’ is the Eupatorian print: an extremely rare edition printed in 1841, and published, once again, in Hebrew script in the extinct Eastern variety of Karaim, which is barely intelligible to present-day Karaims. As a consequence, they are forced to use non-Karaim (Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian) translations of the Hebrew Bible, which has accelerated both their ethnic and cultural assimilation and the extinction of their native language.

Given that

  1. nearly all Karaim Biblical texts require proper editing and examination,
  2. they include the oldest records of the Karaim language yet remain unedited,
  3. the Tanakh is the central component of the Karaims’ disappearing culture, and
  4. no exhaustive study has been conducted on the typology of Karaim Hebrew scripts

the project will venture to answer, based on reliable philological evidence, elementary questions regarding the early history of the Karaim language and culture that have remained unanswered for decades and will address pressing problems relating to the disappearing Karaim language and culture. More specifically, the objectives are as follows:

  1. A comprehensible historical-linguistic description: The oldest records will be examined with the aim of determining when, where, and how the Karaim language split into dialects.
  2. A stemmatological analysis: An attempt will be made to reconstruct and understand the way in which the Karaim Bible was created by determining the genealogical relationship between the manuscripts.
  3. A palaeographical description: An attempt will be made to reconstruct the way in which Karaim semi-cursive scripts evolved.
  4. A lexicographic database: The dictionary of Karaim will constitute, in the future, the basis of a comparative dictionary of Middle Turkic Languages.
  5. A comprehensive edition of the Karaim Hebrew Bible: The project will make the full text of the Tanakh available in Karaim so that both scholars and native-speakers can benefit from it.

To achieve these objectives, a complex scientific instrument will be developed: a comprehensive and dynamic digital edition of Karaim Hebrew Bible translations – interconnected with a lexicographical database (dictionary).

In view of the severely endangered nature of the Karaim language (it is included on UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger; ISO 639-3 code: kdr) this task is extremely urgent. Since reading the Hebrew Bible – i.e. one of the most important and influential works in world literature and at the same time a common textual source of the canonical editions of the Christian Old Testament – constitutes the essence of Karaite Judaism, this task is vital to efforts to sustain this endangered culture. It is precisely such an awareness of the oldest Bible translations into European languages that constitutes an important component of national and transnational identities on our continent.