Transmitting the Hebrew Scriptures to You

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The Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament, is a section of the Holy Bible that is written primarily in Hebrew, with a few chapters and isolated verses written in Aramaic. This collection of texts was completed over 2,400 years ago, and many people question the accuracy of modern copies in comparison to the original texts. However, it is important to note that from the beginning of the Bible’s creation, efforts were made to preserve the Word of God. The Scriptures state that Moses commanded the Levites to preserve “this book of the law” for future generations (Deuteronomy 31:25-26). Additionally, the Kings of Israel were commanded by God to make “a copy of this law” when they took their seat on the throne (Deuteronomy 17:18). Through these efforts, we can be confident that the Hebrew Scriptures we have today are a true representation of the original texts.

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In the time of Ezra, a priest who, along with other Jews, returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in 468 B.C.E, a specific need for copies of the Hebrew Scriptures arose. This was because thousands of Jews had remained in Babylon, and others had been scattered around due to migrations and business pursuits. In different places, local assembly halls known as synagogues were established, and for these, scribes had to create handwritten copies of Biblical manuscripts. Ezra himself is identified as “a skilled copyist in the law of Moses” and as “a copyist of the words of the commandments of Jehovah and of his regulations towards Israel” (Ezra 7:6, 11). This highlights the efforts made to preserve and disseminate the Hebrew Scriptures, even in the face of diaspora and displacement. The fact that Ezra himself was a skilled copyist in the law of Moses shows the importance placed on ensuring the accuracy and authenticity of the biblical texts.

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THE WORK OF “SOPHERIM”

Copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures from Ezra’s time and onward for about 1,000 years were known as “sopherim.” According to a very ancient rabbinic tradition, this title is connected to a Hebrew verb (sa·pharʹ) meaning “to count.” The tradition states that “the early scholars were called Sof’rim, because they counted all the letters in the Torah,” referring to the first five books of the Bible. This meticulous approach ensured a high degree of accuracy in the transmission of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, it is important to note that over centuries of copying, some mistakes may have found their way into the Hebrew Bible text. There is evidence that the sopherim even made a few intentional changes. For example, copyists later in history identified 134 places where the sopherim changed the original Hebrew text to read Adonay [“Lord”] instead of God’s personal name YHWH [“Jehovah”]. Fortunately, these scribes indicated where they had made changes so that subsequent scholars would know the original text. This shows the level of care and attention the copyists of Hebrew Scriptures put in ensuring the preservation and accuracy of the text over the centuries.

According to Jewish tradition, before the destruction of the temple of God’s worship in Jerusalem in 70 C.E, extensive efforts were made to restore the original text of the Hebrew Bible. Robert Gordis, in his book The Biblical Text in the Making, writes that “the guardians of the Biblical text found one ancient, meticulously written manuscript and made it the foundation for their work. They established it as the archetype from which all official copies were to be made and by which all manuscripts in private hands could henceforth be corrected.” This shows the importance placed on ensuring the accuracy and authenticity of the biblical texts.

Rabbinic literature also mentions a Hebrew copy of the Pentateuch, known as the “Scroll of the Temple precincts,” that served as a model for the revision of new copies. This suggests that there was a centralized authority responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the Hebrew Scriptures. Additionally, there is mention of “correctors of biblical books in Jerusalem” who received their wages from the Temple treasury, which further highlights the importance and institutionalization of these efforts.

Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., Jewish tradition holds that there were efforts made to restore the original text of the Hebrew Bible. This was done by utilizing a meticulously written manuscript as the foundation for the work and making it the archetype from which all official copies were to be made and by which all manuscripts in private hands could be corrected. This was done under the supervision of “correctors of biblical books in Jerusalem” and the support of the Temple treasury.

THE “MASORETIC” TEXT

The Hebrew Bible manuscripts were originally written with only consonants. The Hebrew alphabet does not have vowel letters, such as “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u,” or “y.” However, if you look at a printed Hebrew Bible today, you will notice that above, below, or in the middle of each word, there are dots, dashes, and other marks. These were added to the text of the Hebrew Scriptures to safeguard the traditional pronunciation of each word. Without vowel points and accents, Hebrew words written with only consonants can often be pronounced in several different ways, leading to variations in meaning.

The vowel points and accents were added by specially skilled copyists who lived during the sixth to the tenth centuries C.E. These scribes came to be known as baalei ha-masoreth (“masters of tradition”), or “Masoretes.” The vowel-pointed Hebrew text is therefore called the “Masoretic” text. The Masoretes did not change anything when copying Hebrew Bible manuscripts. Instead, they examined all unusual word forms and made notes about them in the margins of Masoretic manuscripts. These notes are called “masorah.” A highly abbreviated method of notation, known as the “small masorah,” appears in the margins beside the Hebrew Bible text. The top and bottom margins contain the “large masorah,” which supplements the small masorah. At the end of some Masoretic manuscripts, there is a concordance-like “final Masorah.”

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The addition of vowel points and accents to the Hebrew Bible manuscripts was done to safeguard the traditional pronunciation of each word. This was done by specially skilled copyists known as Masoretes between the 6th to 10th-century C.E, who added these marks without changing anything in the text. They also made notes about unusual word forms in the margins, which were called “masorah” and were used as a reference for future scribes. This method of notation is known as the Masoretic text, and it is still used today as the standard version of the Hebrew Bible.

The notations made by the Masoretes reveal that they had amassed a vast amount of information for preserving the Biblical text. According to Robert Gordis, they “counted the letters of Scripture, determined the middle letter and the middle verse of the Torah [Pentateuch], established the middle letter of the Bible as a whole, compiled extensive lists of rare and unique Biblical forms, listed the number of occurrences of thousands of Biblical words and usages—all in order to help protect it from tampering and prevent scribes from introducing changes into the accepted text.” This shows the level of care and attention the Masoretes put into ensuring the preservation and accuracy of the text.

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For example, the small masorah notes that the first word of Genesis, bereshith (often rendered: “In the beginning”), occurs five times in the Bible, three of them at the beginning of a verse. This helps to ensure that the text is accurate and has not been tampered with. Additionally, many words on nearly every page of Masoretic Bible manuscripts are marked in the margin by the Hebrew letter lamedh (ל). This letter (equivalent to our “l”) is an abbreviation for the word leit, Aramaic for “there is none.” It indicates that the expression as it appears in that spot occurs nowhere else. This helps to ensure that the text is accurate and has not been tampered with.

Concerning the Masorah, Ernst Würthwein remarks in The Text of the Old Testament:

“Often such Masoretic notes seem to us far-fetched, frivolous and without purpose. But we must remember that they are the result of a passionate desire to protect the text and to prevent wilful or careless mistakes by the scribe, . . . The Masora bears witness to an extremely exact revision of the text, which deserves our respect, even though there is always the danger that in the care for the letter of the text its spirit has been missed.”

The notations made by the Masoretes reveal that they had amassed a vast amount of information for preserving the Biblical text. They compiled extensive lists of rare and unique Biblical forms, listed the number of occurrences of thousands of Biblical words and usages, and made notes of the middle letter and the middle verse of the Torah and the Bible as a whole. These notations helped to protect the text from tampering and prevent scribes from introducing changes into the accepted text. This method of notation is known as the Masoretic text, and it is still used today as the standard version of the Hebrew Bible.

ACCURACY CONFIRMED BY DEAD SEA SCROLLS

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written before the beginning of the Common Era, contain parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. They have been found to be highly consistent with the Masoretic manuscripts that were produced over a thousand years later.

One study, for example, examined the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah in a Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, copied about 100 B.C.E, and in the Masoretic text. The results of the study, as reported by Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix in A General Introduction to the Bible, found that “of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only seventeen letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word ‘light,’ which is added in verse 11 and does not affect the meaning greatly…In one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission—and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage.”

Another publication notes that the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah and an additional copy of parts of Isaiah found near the Dead Sea “proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95% of the text. The 5% of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”

In summary, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written before the Common Era, have been found to be highly consistent with the Masoretic manuscripts that were produced over a thousand years later. Studies have shown that the differences between the two are minor, mostly limited to variations in spelling and stylistic changes, and do not affect the overall meaning of the text. Therefore, when reading the Hebrew Scriptures, one can be confident that their Bible is based on a Hebrew text that accurately conveys the thoughts of God’s inspired authors, who have been passed through thousands of years of professional and meticulous copying.

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