The story of how we received the text of the Hebrew Old Testament as it exists today, and how the texts of these 39 books were continually preserved and passed down through the ages, is a complex albeit important one that every serious student of the Bible should have a working knowledge of.1 Note that this analysis will strictly cover the progressive development of the actual text of the books of the Hebrew Old Testament. A discussion of the development of the Old Testament canon unfortunately remains beyond the scope of this present examination and will have to wait for another day.
The Original Autographs of the Hebrew Old Testament
For the layman with little to no knowledge of the history of biblical transmission, it is quite easy to just assume that the books of the Hebrew Old Testament are exact copies of the handwritten manuscripts of the biblical writers. Unfortunately, things are not nearly that simple. The original autographs of the books of the Old Testament (the original manuscripts produced by the biblical writers themselves) were written on parchment and vellum and vanished long ago. We do not possess an original autograph of a single biblical book. As a matter of fact, we do not even possess a direct copy of an original autograph; nor a copy of a direct copy of an original autograph (you get the idea). In antiquity there was no printing press, and all books had to be continually re-copied by hand in order to be continually preserved throughout the generations. With regard to the books of the Old Testament, this task was carried out by professionally trained Jewish scribes. Presumably, most of these would have been from the priestly tribe of Levi (Deut. 17:18; 2 Chron. 34:13; Neh. 8:7).
Because the ancient Jewish scribes and copyists responsible for preserving our Hebrew Old Testament believed that newer manuscripts were always superior in authority and inspiration to more ancient ones, they routinely discarded older manuscripts once their physical condition had deteriorated to a certain point through gradual wear and tear. Consequentially, our oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament date to the third century BC. This means that our oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament were made 150-200 years after the last book of the Old Testament was written, and about 1200 years after the five books of Moses were written. That’s quite a chronological chasm between the original autographs and our oldest textual witnesses, and that’s only our oldest Hebrew manuscripts! It is also worth nothing that our modern printed editions of the Old Testament aren’t even based on these old Hebrew manuscripts, but rather manuscripts that are only a little over 1,000 years old!
In fact, it is only because of the accidental discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948 that we have any manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament which are older than the medieval manuscripts on which modern printed Bibles are based. As such, our knowledge of the state of the text of the Hebrew Old Testament from the original autographs to the third century BC is entirely theoretical, being based on an intensive comparative analysis of later manuscripts and translations such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Masoretic text, the Septuagint, Origen’s Hexapla, and others.2
The Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Old Testament
All printed editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, as well as all translations of the Old Testament found in modern Bibles today, are based on what is known as the Masoretic text (MT). For all intents and purposes, the Masoretic text can be thought of as the Textus Receptus of the Hebrew Old Testament. The consonantal text of the MT can be traced in a direct line back to the consonantal text that was chosen by the rabbinical establishment to become the standard Hebrew text-form at the beginning of the second century. The two most important Hebrew manuscripts which represent the MT are the the Aleppo Codex (ca. 930 AD), the Leningrad Codex (ca. 1004 AD). After part of the Aleppo Codex was lost in a fire in 1947, the Leningrad Codex became our oldest surviving manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible. Thus, the manuscripts upon which both printed Hebrew Bibles as well as all modern translations are based—are only between 1,000 and 1,100 years old, and are thousands of years removed from the original autographs of the biblical writers!
The Masoretic text is the standard authoritative text of the Hebrew Old Testament. It is called the Masoretic text because it is a text-form which was produced by certain medieval Jewish scribes and copyists known as Masoretes, who were active during the sixth through eleventh centuries. The Masoretes were Karaite Jews who rejected all rabbinical tradition and notions of an oral Torah, and contended that only the text of the written Hebrew Scriptures was authoritative. It was this reverence for the Written Word which drove them to be exceedingly meticulous about its preservation. They are best known for their creation of a system of vowel markers which they added beneath the consonantal letters of the Hebrew text they had inherited from their rabbinical predecessors.3This was done in order to ensure the preservation of the correct pronunciation of the text after Hebrew had ceased to be a living vernacular.
By divine providence, the textform produced by the Masoretes became the textus receptus of the Hebrew Scriptures. As previously stated, the manuscripts produced by the Masoretes in the Middle Ages are among our oldest complete (or nearly complete) manuscripts of the entire Hebrew Old Testament, and are the chief source texts for all printed editions of the Hebrew Bible, as well as translations found in modern printed Bibles.4
The sole survivor of a once multitude of divergent text-forms
It should be noted that the Masoretic text stands at the very end of a very long and sluggish process of textual development & refinement which took place over the course of thousands of years. In order to demonstrate just how far removed the manuscripts which comprise this text are from the original autographs of the biblical writers, I have constructed the following time-line:
As previously noted, because the Jewish scribes who preserved and transmitted the Hebrew text of the Old Testament down through the ages routinely discarded older manuscripts after new ones were made, there is not enough available data for textual scholars to successfully keep track of the state of the Hebrew text from the original autographs all the way to the manuscripts which comprise our familiar Masoretic text. Again, there are absolutely no surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament that were made prior to the late third century BC, and thus our knowledge of the state of the text between the original autographs to this time is particularly murky. What we can say definitively, however, is that by the late Second Temple Period (ca. 250 BC – 100 AD) there were multiple divergent consonantal Hebrew textforms floating around alongside the proto-Masoretic consonantal text. This is proven by the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain Hebrew manuscripts of not only the ancestor of our familiar Masoretic text, but also several other different text-forms which once existed alongside it.
What the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal about the state of the text of the Hebrew Old Testament in antiquity
There are approximately four categories of Hebrew textforms found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first of these is a consonantal text that is in remarkable agreement with our present-day Masoretic text, and is very obviously the ancestor of it. It was this text-form which would ultimately be chosen by the Jewish rabbinical establishment to be the the official standard Hebrew consonantal text early in the second century AD. Another type of textform we find among some of the DSS is a consonantal text that is either identical with, or very closely related to–the unknown Hebrew manuscripts that were used to produce the Septuagint (ca. 250 BC – 1 CE). A third text-type we find among the DSS is a mixed-type category that has elements of the previous two, and the fourth and final text-type is one which is at present unknown to us.5
The fact that we find four distinctively different text-forms among the Dead Sea Scrolls reveals that there was not one standard official consonantal text of the Hebrew Old Testament in existence during the late Second Temple period. Rather, there appear to have been multiple slightly different “versions” of the Hebrew Old Testament floating around at that time. It seems that this period was one characterized by not only great religious diversity within Judaism,6 but also great textual diversity with regard to the Hebrew Scriptures.
What do I mean by different Hebrew text-forms?
I anticipate that there are many reading this now who might be confused by my declaration that there were a diversity of text-forms of the Hebrew Old Testament in circulation in antiquity. For those of you reading this who might not be familiar with the history of biblical transmission, when I use the word “text-form”, I am simply referring to a particular version of the text.7 Based on a comparative analysis of ancient Hebrew manuscripts (found among the Dead Sea Scrolls), we know that prior to about 100 AD, there was not one official standard consonantal text of the Hebrew Old Testament, but rather a number of slightly different “versions” of the text that were in circulation. It should be stressed, however, that the observed differences which define these different versions of the text are by no means extreme. Most are grammatical in their orientation, and sometimes manifest as slight differences in wording of a particular clause. However, it should be noted that: “. . . . textual divergences between the versions materially affect the intrinsic message only in relatively few instances.”8 Still, when dealing with a text which we hold to be inviolable and absolute—it would seem that absolute precision in wording would be imperative. To this agrees the witness of Jesus himself, who declared that Scripture is absolute and precise down to even the tiniest Hebrew letter (Matt. 5:18). From this we can conclude that while the other ancient Hebrew consonantal text-forms extant at that time were undoubtedly sufficient for doctrine, reproof, spiritual nourishment, and faith—none of these were stamped with the Lamb’s seal of messianic authenticity. This reveals that at this point in history, the Hebrew Scriptures were still in the process of being purified and purged.9
There are a number of theories that have been put forth which seem to explain the differences exhibited between the different text types found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is likely that the differences exhibited between these various text types are evidence that they were descended from different ancestor texts which perhaps originated and became authoritative in specific Jewish communities in the centuries preceding the onset of the common era. This in turn would lead one to suspect that different text-forms likely began to develop during the early intertestamental period as individual synagogues and Jewish communities throughout the diaspora began producing their own copies of the Scriptures.
The Supremacy of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Old Testament
Sometime around the close of the first century, Jewish rabbinical authorities got together to produce a standard consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible. For reasons which are not entirely understood, they chose the aforementioned proto-Masoretic consonantal text to be the official Hebrew text-form going forward. Once this decision was made, all of the other Hebrew textforms quickly fell out of use.10 The totality of the available evidence suggests that this direct ancestor text of the MT remained quite stable and unaltered from that time, until the time that it was received by the Masoretes several centuries later.11
I want to reiterate that the Masoretic text does not refer to one particular manuscript, but rather a particular text-form which is represented by several different manuscripts. Although the actual wording of the Hebrew text is the same in all of these manuscripts, they do very occasionally exhibit very minor spelling differences. The reason for this is that the individual scribes and copyists often had differences of opinion on whether to use a traditional vowel marker or a consonantal vowel to indicate a vowel sound on certain Hebrew words. Consequentially, there are occasional instances where certain words will contain an extra yod or vav in one Masoretic manuscript that isn’t found in another. Obviously, such minor spelling deviations have absolutely no impact on the meaning of the text.
Although such minor spelling differences have absolute no bearing on the meaning of the text, one would be correct in concluding that even seemingly insignificant minor spelling variations such as these are going to be problematic as pertaining to our quest to determine the objectively correct reading in such instances; for as previously noted, there exists in heaven a text-form of the Hebrew Old Testament which is perfect and precise even down to the letter. Accordingly, the spelling of any particular word in any given Hebrew manuscript on earth is either correct (in line with the heavenly text-form), or incorrect (not in line with the heavenly text-form). I will return to this point in the conclusion of this examination.
Summarizing the textual transmission of the Hebrew Old Testament
We have covered a lot of ground thus far in this examination. I realize that this is an overwhelming amount of information, particularly for those who are less historically literate. To help bring it all together, let us briefly re-cap what we have learned thus far about the long and complicated history of textual transmission of the Hebrew Old Testament. This history can be broken down into five distinct historical periods, which I will now summarize.
ca. 1446 BC – 396 BC
Over this period of just over 1,000 years, the 39 books of the Hebrew Old Testament are written by about 32 different men living at various times in various places in the Middle East. The vast majority of these books were written in the ancient Hebrew language in paleo-Hebrew script. Because of Jewish assimilation to Babylonian culture during the Babylonian captivity (Dan. 1:3-5), this script for representing Hebrew in writing was replaced by Aramaic square letters sometime during (or shortly after) the Babylonian exile. It is likely, though not certain, that Jewish scribes began using this new Aramaic script when producing new Hebrew manuscripts from older ones written in the older Paleo-Hebrew script. As for the Old Testament books that were written after the Babylonian captivity (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 & 2 Chronicles), these would have presumably been written by the biblical writers with the new Aramaic script.
Because Jewish scribes deemed new manuscripts to be superior in authority to older ones, they simply discarded older manuscripts after making new ones. Consequentially, we do not possess any Hebrew autographs, manuscripts, or translations from this period.
ca. 457 BC – 300 BC
We know practically nothing about the state of the text for this period (often referred to as the Persian period). According to rabbinical Jewish tradition, it was during this time that the Great Assembly was formed, to whom fell the task of sealing the Hebrew Scriptures. To this end, it is said that they got together and decided which books to include in the canon of Scripture and which to leave out. What is more, it is also said that they determined the correct spelling and pronunciation for the Five Books of Moses. This is important, as (if true) it suggests that there was a definitive closed Old Testament canon during this period, and also that there was a standard spelling for at least the first five books of the Old Testament at this time.
Unfortunately, no Hebrew manuscript or translation of any book of the Old Testament made during this period survives, and everything we know about the state of the Hebrew text for this period is purely theoretical and speculative. What we do know is that, just a few centuries later there would be many divergent textforms of the books of the Hebrew Old Testament in circulation among Palestinian Jews. This would suggest that, if the Great Assembly did ever produce a standard consonantal text of the Five Books of Moses, the scribes who produced manuscripts of those books in the succeeding years either did not take heed to follow it perfectly, or occasionally altered the text deliberately for theological reasons.
ca. 250 BC – 99 AD
It was during this era that both the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Aramaic Targums were produced. These contain many notable differences which reveal that there were many divergent text-forms of the Hebrew Old Testament in circulation during the late Second Temple period.
ca. 100 AD – 500 AD
Sometime around the beginning of the second century, the Jewish rabbinical authorities decide to get together and standardize the Hebrew consonantal text. They choose the ancestor of the Masoretic text to be the standard consonantal text-form going forward. Shortly thereafter, all of the other divergent Hebrew text-forms of the Hebrew Old Testament begin to drop out of use. This proto-Masoretic Hebrew text-form will change very little before being taken over by the Masoretes several centuries later.
ca. 500 AD – 1004 AD
During this period the Masoretic scribes became the guardians and preservers of the consonantal text of the Hebrew Scriptures. By this time Hebrew was no longer a living spoken vernacular, and thus to preserve the correct pronunciation–the Masoretes develop a system of vowel markers and add them to the Hebrew consonantal text that they had inherited to indicate the correct pronunciation. They produced a number of manuscripts in the High Middle Ages which to this day are the chief source texts upon which all modern editions of the Hebrew Bible, as well as translations of the Hebrew Old Testament, are ultimately based.12 Until 1947, the Aleppo Codex was our oldest surviving manuscript of the entire Hebrew Old Testament. So between about mid fifteenth century BC – the end of the fifth century BC, the OT books are written. This was followed by a 150-200 year gap for which we have no manuscript evidence and consequentially the state of the text is unknown. This is followed by the period between about 250 BC – 99 AD, during which time many variant text forms of the Hebrew Old Testament are floating around Palestine. This is followed by the period in which the proto-Masoretic text was chosen to be the standard authoritative text form by the rabbinical authorities, at which point all other consonantal text-forms drop out of circulation and eventually disappear. This is followed by the period of the Masoretes who received this consonantal text and used it to produce the manuscripts upon which our modern Hebrew Bibles and translations are based.Unfortunately, parts of it were lost in a fire. Today the Leningrad Codex is our oldest complete manuscript of the entire Hebrew Old Testament.
So between about mid fifteenth century BC – the end of the fifth century BC, the OT books are written. This was followed by a 150-200 year gap for which we have no manuscript evidence and consequentially the state of the text is unknown. This is followed by the period between about 250 BC – 99 AD, during which time many variant text forms of the Hebrew Old Testament are floating around Palestine. This is followed by the period in which the proto-Masoretic text was chosen to be the standard authoritative text form by the rabbinical authorities, at which point all other consonantal text-forms drop out of circulation and eventually disappear. This is followed by the period of the Masoretes who received this consonantal text and used it to produce the manuscripts upon which our modern Hebrew Bibles and translations are based.
I have constructed the following timeline to help make it easier to visualize this long and complicated history of progressive textual development:
How can we be certain of the authenticity of the Hebrew Old Testament?
Given such a long and complicated history of textual development and transmission, the question inevitably arises–“How can we be certain of the authenticity of the Hebrew Old Testament?” Given that the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that there were once many divergent text-forms of the Hebrew Old Testament, how can we be certain that our present-day Masoretic text perfectly reflects the original autographs of the Old Testament writers? The answer to the latter question is simple: we can’t. As a matter of fact, I can practically guarantee that most (if not all) of the Masoretic manuscripts of the Old Testament books that we possess do not perfectly reflect the text of the original autographs with 100% precision. What is more, it is literally impossible with our present textual-witnesses to ever conclusively reconstruct the exact text of the original autographs with 100% precision. This realization is troubling for a lot of Christians, and often becomes an intellectual stumbling block that causes them to waver in their faith and fall. This is extremely unfortunate, not least in part because such baseless sorrow is rooted in a ridiculous erroneous belief that for some reason most Christians tend to have by default, namely–the belief that only the original autographs of the biblical writers were divinely inspired. This belief in turn inevitably leads one to the false and misguided conclusion that any deviations or changes made to the text during the many centuries of textual transmission are errors and corruptions of man which must be corrected. This is an erroneous and dangerous belief that inevitably leads to all kinds of doctrinal confusion and heresy and must therefore be destroyed.
One of the reasons that this belief is so ridiculous is that it requires one to believe that God was perfectly capable of inspiring the words of all of the biblical writers, yet is somehow incapable of watching over and preserving his word over the course of transmission (1 Sam. 3:19; Jer. 1:12). Such a notion is ultimately rooted in a spirit of unbelief. And so prevalent is this misguided belief and the resulting obsession with the text of the original autographs that there is an entire field of biblical studies (known as textual criticism) which seeks in vain to reconstruct the exact text of the original autographs through an intensive comparative analysis of all surviving Old Testament manuscripts and manuscript fragments.
The text of the original autographs is irrelevant.
Contrary to majority opinion, the text of the original autographs is not more divinely inspired or authoritative than our received Masoretic text. The claim that they are is equivalent to claiming that the rough draft of a research paper is superior in quality and authority to the carefully revised and perfected final copy. It’s absurd, and those who cleave to this belief fundamentally do not understand the progressive nature of canonical development, and are ignorant of the divinely overseen processes of textual sanctification (Ps. 12:6).
The books of the Old Testament were each written at different times by different men who each had their own individual set of conscious intentions and motivations which the Holy Spirit used as creative fuel to get them to write whatever he desired. The author of Judges likely thought he was merely writing a history of Israel covering the period of the Judges. The prophecies of prophets like Amos and Micah were originally sermons delivered orally to the societies in which they lived, which were conceived to address grievous social injustices taking place in those societies. The book of Job was (in my opinion) likely one of Solomon’s 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:32), which he may have consciously assumed was merely a work of creative fiction while he was in the process of composing it.
The point I am trying to make here is that each and every book of the Old Testament was written by an individual writer who had his own internal set of motivations and intentions which the spirit of prophecy latched on to in order to speak of things of things afar off of which the writers themselves were not even consciously aware of. None of the OT writers had any clue that they were penning a document that was going to be continually re-copied and preserved, elevated to the status of Scripture, and eventually put into a tightly-knit 66 book anthology which would be mass disseminated throughout the whole earth.
The original autographs of the biblical books were perfectly sufficient to fulfill the conscious intended temporal purposes of the individual biblical writers who wrote them. However, God could not allow them to be admitted into the biblical canon in the forms then extant. In order for a book to be qualified to enter the biblical canon, it must first undergo a process of textual sanctification that involves heavy editing, rearranging, word changes, and even minor spelling changes. The reason for this is that God designed the Bible to function in a very specific way–as one perfectly unified body of timeless revelation. Each book therefore had to be re-shaped and sanctified in order to make it fit to fulfill whatever holy function that God appointed it to fulfill within the collective body of Scripture. This entire process, which took place over the course of many centuries, was overseen by the seven eyes of the Lamb. Through the hands of many Jewish copyists and scribes working centuries apart from one another, the spirit of God made very minor deliberate changes to the proto-Masoretic text of each of the 39 books of the Hebrew Old Testament. This was necessary in order to join the 39 books inseparably together and cause them to function as one unified testimony of Jesus Christ (John 5:39; cf. Exod. 25:36; 37:22).
It was during this lengthy period of textual refinement and sanctification (which lasted for several centuries) that ELS codes, alphanumeric codes, and other various watermarks of divine authenticity began to gradually appear in the text of the 39 books of the Hebrew Old Testament, as the copyists and scribes handling and making minor alterations to the consonantal text (whether deliberately or mistakenly) were unknowingly being moved by the Holy Ghost. One will find that these watermarks are largely absent from the more ancient Hebrew consonantal textforms found among the Dead Sea Scrolls–and that the number of them present in the text decreases the farther back you go in the history of textual transmission. This is crucial, as it proves that the text of the Hebrew Old Testament has been in a continual state of refinement from the time that the original autographs were written, until the final manuscripts of the Masoretic text. This continual refinement and purification of the text of the Hebrew Old Testament was carried out over the course of several centuries by many scribes and copyists whose hands were unconsciously being guided by the Holy Spirit (Ps. 12:6).
The Hebrew text that we have in our hands today is the most authoritative and inspired form of the Hebrew Old Testament to yet exist. It is far more divinely inspired than the text of the original autographs, which even if it were possible to reconstruct–would represent the text at an inferior, premature stage of its long and sluggish progressive development. I am confident that this truth will become more and more evident as you are confronted with the numerous canonical watermarks that I have documented (and will document) on this blog.
- When I use the phrase “Hebrew Old Testament,” I am referring to the 39 books of the Old Testament written in the original Hebrew. Every book of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, although small portions of certain books (Ezra and Daniel) were written in Aramaic.
- One theoretical model which has sprung from this analysis is what is known as the local recensions theory, which essentially contends that divergent consonantal Hebrew textforms emerged from a single standard Hebrew textform in the fifth – fourth centuries BCE. The idea is that these new textforms emerged gradually over time as different geographically isolated Jewish communities produced their own copies and very gradually yet continually accumulated slightly divergent readings over time. The theory is that these hypothetical new textforms which developed were the ancestor text-forms of the multitude of divergent text-forms that we now know (thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls) were floating around during the late Second Temple Period.
- All 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are consonants. In written Hebrew, vowels are represented by system of vowel markers placed beneath, in, and above the consonantal letters to indicate vowel sounds. This system of vowel markers was developed in the Middle Ages by the Masoretes.
- It was long assumed that Hebrew ceased being a living spoken language during the Babylonian captivity, after the Jewish captives living in Babylon adopted Aramaic as their vernacular. This has since proven to be false. It is now believed that Hebrew continued to be spoken alongside Aramaic in Palestine until about the third or early fourth century AD.
- F. F. Bruce, “The Text of the Old Testament,” in The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1963), pp. 123.
- There were many different sects of Judaism in the late Second Temple Period. Most of these arose after Hellenism swept over the near east beginning in 331 BC, at which time Jews began having to grapple with the questions of what it means to be Jewish, and how does one remain faithful to the law of Moses in such radically different social, political, and cultural circumstances from those in which the Law was written. Such questions inevitably led to disagreement, and this disagreement caused Judaism to fragment into various sects. Th only two sects which survived after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD were the Pharisees–whose traditions evolved into Rabbinic Judaism and the Nazarenes–which became Christianity.
- If you have ever noticed that whenever Old Testament verses are quoted in the New Testament, that the wording of the quoted verse is sometimes slightly different than it appears in the Old Testament–this is because the NT writers quoted from the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), and that translation was made using ancient Hebrew manuscripts which were of a different text-form than our Masoretic text. Accordingly, the slight differences in wording in these unknown Hebrew manuscripts inevitably are reflected in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which is based on them.
- Peter R. Ackroyd et al., The Cambridge History of the Bible Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 162.
- This is a subject that I will speak about in far more detail in a future article.
- Bruce, 123.
- Bruce, 121.
- The two most significant of these are those of the Ben Asher family of texts, namely–the Aleppo Codex (ca. 930 AD) and the Leningrad Codex (ca. 1004 AD).