A document that an Italian expert says to be the oldest known complete Torah scroll is seen at the Alma mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna. (Alma Mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna/AP Photo)
An Italian professor believes he has found the world's oldest and most complete torah scroll safely tucked away in the archives of University of Bologna.
The ancient scroll of Judaism's most important text is almost 120 feet long and made of sheep skin.
The manuscript had been stored in the university's library at least since the 18th century, but had been incorrectly dated and had remained unnoticed. The University of Bologna is the oldest university in the Western world.
On Tuesday the university released a statement announcing that Mauro Perani, who has been professor of Hebrew at the university since 1977, came upon the scroll while compiling the library catalogue and has since been able to date it somewhere between the 12th and 13th centuries.
"I didn't discover a scroll that had been hidden away in a hole," Perani told ABC News today.
He said the manuscript has been in the university library for centuries, but no one had understood its importance until now. Perani said that he felt "great excitement" about making such an important discovery and he spoke with great passion when describing it and his studies. "It is one of the most intact copies of the Torah, but sadly it is missing its decorative features."
Leonello Modona, the librarian at the university in 1889, erroneously dated the scroll as being from the 17th century. Modono was Jewish and had a good knowledge of Hebrew, but Perani explained that at that time the tools required to correctly date ancient texts were not available.
Once Perani came upon the manuscript in November 2012, he immediately understood that it was much older than how it had been catalogued. The professor saw that the scroll was written in the square oriental Babylonian style, and not in the Palestinian style that was used in the 17th century.
He also spotted another clue: the scroll did not follow the rules of Hebrew script written by the scholar Maimonides in his Code of Jewish religious law in the second half of the 12th century which forbade many features found in this scroll. Every manuscript written since the Code follows the rules. Perani consulted the top experts in the field from Paris to Jerusalem and was able to conclude that the copy of the Torah is at least 800 years old, probably written between the years 1155 and 1225. Two carbon-14 tests were carried out on the manuscript in Italy and the United states which confirmed Perani's conclusions.
Perani said, "The value of this discovery is due to its rarity and to the importance that the Torah has for Jews and Judaism."
The find isn't the oldest Torah text in the world. The Leningrad and the Aleppo bibles - both of them Hebrew codexes, or books - pre-date the Bologna scroll by more than 200 years. But this is the oldest Torah scroll, Perani told the Associated Press.
Over the centuries many Torah scrolls have been lost or destroyed especially as a result of Jewish persecution which makes any example of great historical and religious importance.
This most ancient scroll will now be preserved with greater care at the library of the University of Bologna, while leading ancient bookbinders have already offered to examine and restore the scroll "free of charge," said Perani.