How Well Has the Old Testament Text Been Preserved?

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

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Internal Conditions

Judaism has always been a book religion: it stands or falls with the Old Testament, especially with the Pentateuch. Although no manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament is older than the 10th-century B.C.E, save for one minute papyrus, we know, from citations, translations, etc., that the consonantal text of the Old Testament was in the 1st century C.E. practically what it is today. The Jews transliterated as well as translated their Bible. All the most important translations–the Septuagint, Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus–were made by Jews and aimed at a more literal rendering of the Hebrew–that of Aquila being hardly Greek. The Syriac (Peshitta) seems to be also by Jews or Jewish Christians. Great care was taken of the text itself, and the slightest variant readings of manuscripts were noted. One manuscript belonging to Rabbi Meir (2nd century) is said to have omitted the references to “Admah and Zeboiim” in Deut. 29:23 and to Bethlehem in Gen. 48:7, and to have had other lesser variations, some of which were found also in the manuscript which, among other treasures, decked the triumph of Vespasian (BJ, VII, v, 7).

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External Circumstances

Religious persecution makes for the purity of the Scriptures by reducing the number of copies and increasing the care bestowed on those saved. The chief moments in which the existence of the Jewish Scriptures was threatened were the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple under Nebuchadnezzar in 7th-century B.C.E, in which the Book of Jashar and that of the Wars of Jehovah may have been lost; the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes, during which the possession of the sacred books was a capital offense (1 Macc 1:56,57; Ant, XII, v), in which the sources used by the Chronicler may have perished; and the capture of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD. By this time, however, the Law at least was known by heart. Josephus says Titus made him a gift of the sacred books (Vita, 75). It is also said that at one time only three copies of the Law were left, and that a text was obtained by taking the readings of two against one. However that may be, it is a fact that there are no variant readings in the Massoretic Text, such as there are in the New Testament.

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The Septuagint Version

The only ancient version which can come into competition with the Massoretic Text is the Septuagint, and that on two grounds. First, the manuscripts of the Septuagint are of the 4th century AD, those of the Massoretic Text of the 10th. Secondly, the Septuagint translation was made before a uniform Hebrew text, such as our Massoretic Text, existed. The quotations in the New Testament are mainly from the Septuagint. Only in the Book of Jeremiah, however, are the variations striking, and there they do not greatly affect the sense of individual passages. The Greek has also the Apocrypha. The Septuagint is an invaluable aid to restoring the Hebrew where the latter is corrupt.

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Above by Thomas Hunter Weir

Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Period of Manuscript Copying

In the days of Ezra and beyond, there would have been an increasing need for copying the Old Testament manuscripts. As you may recall from your personal Bible study, the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity for seventy years. Most of the Jews did not return upon their release in 537 B.C.E., and after that. Tens of thousands stayed in Babylon while others migrated throughout the ancient world, settling in the commercial centers. However, the Jews would pilgrimage back to Jerusalem several times each year, for religious festivals. Once there, they would be reading from the Hebrew Old Testament and sharing in the worship of God. Over a century later in Ezra’s day, the need to travel back to Jerusalem was no longer a concern, as they carried on their studies in places of worship known as synagogues,  where they read aloud from the Hebrew Scriptures and discussed their meaning. As one might imagine, the scattered Jewish populations throughout the ancient world would have been in need of their own personal copies of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Within the synagogues, there was a storage room, known as the Genizah.[4] Over time, manuscripts would wear out to the point of tearing. Thus, it would have been placed in the Genizah and replaced with new copies. Before long, after the old manuscripts were built up in the Genizah, they would eventually need to be buried in the earth. They performed this duty, as opposed to just burning them, so the holy name of God, Jehovah (or Yahweh), would not be desecrated. Throughout many centuries, many thousands of Hebrew manuscripts were disposed of in this way. Gratefully, the well-stocked Genizah of the synagogue in Old Cairo was saved from this handling of their manuscripts, perhaps because it was enclosed and overlooked until the middle of the 19th century. In 1890, as soon as the synagogue was being restored, the contents of the Genizah were checked, and its materials were gradually either sold or donated. From this source, manuscripts that were almost complete and thousands of fragments have found their way to Cambridge University Library and other libraries in Europe and America.

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Throughout the world, scholars have counted and cataloged about 6,300 manuscripts of all or portions of the Hebrew Old Testament. Textual scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, for the longest time, had to be content with Hebrew manuscripts that only went back to the tenth century C.E. This, of course, meant that the Hebrew Old Testament was about 1,400 hundred years removed from the last book that had been penned. This, then, always left the question of the trustworthiness of those copies. However, all of that changed in 1947, in the area of the Dead Sea, there was discovered a scroll of the book of Isaiah. In following years more of these precious scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures were found as caves in the Dead Sea area yielded an enormous amount of manuscripts that had been concealed for almost 1,900 years. Specialists in the area of paleography[5]have now dated some of these as far back as the third and second century B.C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls as they have become known, vindicated the trust that had been placed in the Masoretic texts[6] that we have possessed all along. A comparative study of the approximately 6,000 manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures gives a sound basis for establishing the Hebrew text and reveals faithfulness in the transmission of the text.

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The Consonantal Text

The Hebrew alphabet consists of 23 consonants, with no vowels. Unlike English though, Hebrew was not written from left to right but from right to left. In the beginning, the reader had to supply the vowel sounds from his knowledge of the language. This would be like our abbreviations within the English language, such as “ltd” for limited. The Hebrew originally consisted of words made up only of consonants. Hence, “consonantal text” means the Hebrew text without any vowel markings. The consonantal text of the Hebrew manuscripts come to be fixed in form between the first and second centuries C.E., even though manuscripts with variants within the text continued to be produced for some time. Changes were no longer made, unlike the previous period of the Sopherim. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia writes,

Text and Canon Prior to the discovery of the DSS [dead Sea Scrolls], witnesses to the OT text and canon were principally the following: (1) the so-called Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, which could more accurately be designated the received consonantal text and the text with vocalization and other pointing by the Masorites (MT)—they should not be confused, for the consonantal text is several centuries older than the MT; and (2) translations, such as the Septuagint (LXX) and Jerome’s Vulgate. Other witnesses of significance included the Old Latin, the Syriac, the Samaritan, and other versions. The oldest extant Hebrew text was no earlier than the 10th cent[ury] A.D., but the versions give evidence that goes back to the 5thcent[ury] A.D. (the time of Jerome’s work) and to the 2nd or 3rd cent[ury] B.C. (the time of the LXX). With the discovery of the DSS there is primary evidence, not merely that of translations, that goes back to 1stthe and 2nd (and possibly even the 3rd) cent[uries], B.C.

The text of the biblical MSS from Qumrân may be divided into two main categories. In one group are those portions that agree within reasonable limits with the consonantal text. (Since the DSS texts are not vocalized, they cannot be compared with the MT.) By “reasonable limits” is intended the inclusion of orthographic differences (such as hw’h for hw’lw’ for l’, etc.) that do not present any significant difference in the text. The second category includes those readings that clearly are not in agreement with the consonantal text. This second group could be further subdivided into readings that agree with LXX but differ from the consonantal text, and those that differ from both. Published studies indicate that certain OT books, such as Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah, are textually much closer to the consonantal text that others, such as Exodus and Samuel. The evidence leads to the conclusion that there were in existence in the first cents B.C. and A.D. at least three Hebrew text-types: the received text that formed the basis of the consonantal, the text that was used for the Greek translation, and a text that differs from both of these.

This conclusion should cause no surprise, for it was already indicated by at least two lines of evidence. The witness of NT quotations of OT passages indicates that some quotations can be traced to the Hebrew Bible (received text), some to the Greek version, and some to neither of these (the third text). It has sometimes been the practice to consider this third group of NT quotations as “loose dealing” with the OT text, but it is open to question whether a writer seeking scriptural authority for his statement would be allowed to handle the biblical passages with such abandon. The second line of evidence comes from Jewish tradition, where the formation of the “received text,” often but questionably traced to the Council of Jamnia (sometime after A.D. 90), is described as taking the reading of two witnesses against one (Taanith iv. 2; Sopherim vi. 4; Siphre 356), in other words, working from three texts or text recensions that were in existence at the time.[38]

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Isaiah 40:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

God had promised that he would preserve his Word, the Bible. The apostle Peter quoted Isaiah 40:6, 8. For, “All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you as good news.” (1 Peter 1:24-25.) However, we must consider Satan, the enemy of God, who has likely played a significant role in attempting to corrupt it and destroy it. (Matthew 13:39) Nevertheless, what we have today is a mirror-like reflection of what was penned and published by the original authors. The Masoretes (Mas·o·retes  \ ˈma-sə-ˌrētes) scribe-scholars (‘preservers of tradition’) who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., based primarily in early medieval Palestine in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem. The Masoretes have not been adequately appreciated for their accomplishments. These nameless scribes copied the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures with meticulous and loving care.

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The Masora

These Masoretes were early Jewish scholars, who were the successors to the Sopherim, in the centuries following Christ, who produced what came to be known as the Masoretic text. The Masoretes was well aware of the alterations made by the earlier Sopherim. Rather than simply remove the alterations, they chose to note them in the margins or at the end of the text. These marginal notes came to be known as the Masora.  The Masora listed the 15 extraordinary points of the Sopherim, namely, 15 words or phrases in the Hebrew text that had been marked by dots or strokes. A number of these extraordinary points have no effect on the English translation or the interpretation. However, others do and are of importance. The Sopherim had a superstitious fear of pronouncing the divine name of God, Jehovah (Yahweh). Therefore, they altered it to read Adonai (Lord) at 134 places and to read Elohim (God) in some cases. The Masora lists these changes. The Sopherim or early scribes are also guilty of making 18 emendations, what they thought were helpful corrections, according to a note in the Masora. It appears that there were even more. It seems that these emendations were not done with bad intentions, as the Sopherim simply felt the text at these places were showing irreverence or disrespect for God or his human representatives.

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Genesis 18:3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

3 and said, “Jehovah,[a] if I have found favor in your eyes do not pass by your servant.

[a] This is the first of 134 places where the Jewish Sopherim changed JHVH to Adonai. This replacement was made out of misplaced veneration of God’s name.

Genesis 16:5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your bosom, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes. May Jehovah judge between you and me.” [a]

[a] “And you!” in the Masoretic text, is marked with extraordinary points by the Sopherim (scribes) to show that the reading “and you” is uncertain and should read, “and her.”

Genesis 18:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

 22 And the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood before Jehovah.[a]

[a] This is the first of the Eighteen Emendations of the Sopherim, the only one in Genesis. An ancient Hebrew scribal tradition reads “but Jehovah remained standing before Abraham.” Masoretic text, “but as for Abraham, he was still standing before Jehovah.” The Sopherim might see have perceived this as Jehovah standing before Abraham, as showing irreverence or disrespect for God because it would appear to put Jehovah in a subservient position. Our Creator, sovereign of the universe, does not need to deliver a message to humans here on earth. In the Old Testament, we find many occasions where He has sent an angelic messenger in his stead.

vowel ppoints aleppo codex

The Masoretic Text

Between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., the Masoretes setup a vowel point and accent mark system. (e.g., אִשָּׁה ishshah woman, wife, female) In the image of the Aleppo Codex above, all of the vowels appear below the line except Cholam ( ֹ), which is placed above, and Shuruk ( ִ), which appears in the bosom of Waw (וּ = u). This would help the reader to pronounce the vowel sounds properly, meaning that there would be a standard, and no need to have the pronunciation handed down by oral tradition. Because the Masoretes saw the text as sacred, they made no changes to the text itself but chose to record notes within the margins of the text. Unlike the Sopherim before them, they did not take any textual liberties. Moreover, they drew attention to any textual issues, correcting them within the margins.

The devotement of the vocalizing and accent marking of the Masoretic text throughout this period was done by three different schools, that is, the Babylonian, Palestinian, and Tiberian. The Hebrew text that we now possess in the printed Hebrew Bibles is known as the Masoretic Text, which came from the Tiberian school. The Masoretes of Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, established this method.

Unlike the Tiberian school, which placed their vowel signs below the consonants, the Palestinian school positioned the vowel signs above the consonants. Only an insignificant number of such manuscripts came down to us from the Palestinian school, showing that this system of vocalization was flawed. The Babylonian method of vowel pointing was likewise placed above the consonants. A manuscript possessing the Babylonian pointing is the Petersburg Codex of the Prophets, of 916 C.E., preserved in the Leningrad Public Library, U.S.S.R. This codex contains the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, as well as the “minor” prophets, with marginal notes. Textual scholars have readily studied this manuscript and compared it with the Tiberian text. While it uses the system of vocalization that places the vowels above the text, it follows the Tiberian text as regards the consonantal text and its vowels and Masora. The British Museum has a copy of the Babylonian text of the Pentateuch, which is substantially in agreement with the Tiberian text.

The vast majority of these Masorete scribes remain nameless even today. However, the name of one family of Masoretes is well known, the Ben Asher family. Below is what little we know of them and their fellow Masoretes.

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The Ben Asher Family

For the most part, the Hebrew Scriptures were copied faithfully by Jewish scribes. Hebrew for centuries was only written with consonants, as it was the reader who supplied the vowels (e.g. building would be bldng) By the time we come upon the Masoretes, however, the Jewish people were no longer fluent in their own language, so the pronunciation was being lost. Therefore, groups of Masoretes, in Babylon and Israel, added vowel signs (nikkudot), cantillation (the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible, chants are written and notated with special signs or marks), and accent marks (taamim) to the text, to show the proper pronunciation of vowels, which became known as the Masorah. There were at least three different systems that were developed. However, only one would become the most influential, the Masoretes in Tiberias, which was by the Sea of Galilee, the home of the Ben Asher family.

Ben Asher was descended from five generations from this unique family, starting with someone called Asher the Elder of the eighth century C.E. However, little is known about them other than their names. The father of Asher the Elder, Moses ben Asher, has been credited with writing the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (895 C.E.). In Hebrew ben means son; therefore, Ben Asher is the son of Asher. The others were Nehemiah Ben Asher, Asher Ben Nehemiah, Moses Ben Asher, and, finally, Aaron Ben Moses Ben Asher of the tenth-century C.E. The last two are certainly most prominent and important members of this family, and their work is the highest or climactic point of attainment after a long process. Accordingly, we might say that these Masoretes were among the forefathers of our modern Hebrew grammarians. It was Aaron, the last Masorete of the Ben Asher family tradition, who was the first one to record and edit this information. He did so in the first book of Hebrew grammatical rules entitled “Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te’amim.” This book would become the foundation for the other Hebrew grammarians over the next few centuries. However, believe it or not, there was a more important work by the Masoretes.

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The Phenomenal Masorete Memory

The Masoretes were very much concerned with the accurate transmission of each word, even each letter, of the text they were copying. Accuracy was of supreme importance; therefore the Masoretes use the side margins of each page to inform others of deliberate or inadvertent changes in the text by past copyists. The Masoretes also use these marginal notes for other reasons as well, such as unusual word forms and combinations. They even marked how frequently they occurred within a book or even the whole Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, marginal spaces were very limited, so they used abbreviated code. They formed a cross-checking tool as well, where they would mark the middle word and letter of certain books. Their push for accuracy moved them to go so far as to count every letter of the Hebrew Old Testament.

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