It had lain in the bowels of Sion College for 363 years until it was recently rediscovered by Brad Sabin Hill, head of the Hebrew section of the British Library. He spotted the complete 12-volume set as he was browsing through a 17th-century catalogue of the college's collection.
The discovery is one of the earliest printed sets of the Talmud in the world. Twenty years ago a similar set was uncovered in Westminster Abbey library. There are only two other sets of these editions known to exist, in collections in New York.
The Talmud, the Hebrew word for 'study', is known to have been used by Henry VIII to help justify his divorce with Katherine of Aragon. It is a compilation of rabbinic traditions and discussions on Jewish life and law which was collated from about AD200.
Later, Jewish scholars in Palestine and Babylon added commentaries to it. The Babylonian Talmud was completed in about AD500.
The history of the Talmud has been checkered by censorship by the Catholic Church. In 1240 a Papal edict was issued in France that required manuscripts of it to be burned, and only one full set was left intact in Munich.
The first printings of the complete work were made in sixteenth century Italy by Daniel Bomberg, a wealthy Christian who turned his hand to reproducing Hebrew texts.
But the Babylonian Talmud was viewed by the Catholic Church as a hostile work that inhibited Jews from converting to Christianity. In 1553 a Papal Bull ordered all copies to be burnt. On Jewish New Year, 9 September, the Campo di Fiori in Rome was lit up by an enormous pile of burning books, one of the most potent images of censorship in history.
The Sion College set includes third and fourth editions of Daniel Bomberg's work, which were printed after his death and just before the papal clampdown. Jack Lunzer, custodian of the Valmadonna Trust collection of rare Hebrew books, said it was remarkable that they survived. 'They must have escaped the destruction by the skin of their teeth,' he said.
It is not known who imported the set to England, but it was likely to have entered the country just after the Reformation when study of the Talmud by Christian scholars flourished.
It was purchased for pounds 110 by 17 parishioners of the City of London and donated in 1629 to Sion College, where it will remain for the indefinite future.
Mr Hill said that the volumes were untouched and in virtually perfect condition. 'They will allow us to unravel some of the bibliographic questions surrounding the early printed editions of the complete Talmud,' he said.
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