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An exploration into how the Hebrew Scriptures, considered a part of God’s inspired Word, were copied, retained their integrity, and were transmitted to the present day.
The Reservoir of Inspired Documents
The divine words contained within the Hebrew Scriptures can be likened to a reservoir of life-giving truths. Unlike worldly treasures that degrade over time, these sacred words have remained intact. Scripture tells us, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). But how have these truths remained unadulterated over time? We find the answer in examining the preservation of the Hebrew text and the extraordinary measures taken to ensure its accuracy and availability.
The Original Hebrew and Aramaic Texts
Written by human scribes under divine guidance, the original Hebrew Scriptures were penned from 1446 B.C.E. to shortly after 445 B.C.E. While none of these original documents exist today, their preservation was meticulous. For instance, the “very book of the law” of Moses, possibly the original copy, was found in King Josiah’s time (2 Kings 22:8-10) and had been carefully preserved for 871 years. Ezra, described as “a skilled copyist in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), was likely a custodian of divine writings and may have had access to originals of inspired writings (Neh. 8:1, 2).
The Era of Manuscript Copying
With the scattering of Jews across various lands and the establishment of synagogues, the demand for copies of Hebrew Scriptures grew, sparking an era of manuscript copying.
Synagogues and the Genizah: The synagogue’s storage room, known as the genizah, held discarded manuscripts, later replaced by newer copies. The contents of the genizah would often be buried to prevent desecration. A unique discovery came from the genizah of the synagogue in Old Cairo, which, in 1890, revealed complete manuscripts and fragments dating back to the sixth century C.E.
Discovery of Manuscripts: In libraries worldwide, approximately 10,200 manuscripts of all or portions of the Hebrew Scriptures have been cataloged. A significant discovery occurred in 1947 near the Dead Sea, where a scroll of the Book of Isaiah and other manuscripts dating back to the last few centuries B.C.E. were found.
The examination of these manuscripts provides a substantial foundation for understanding the Hebrew text and testifies to the faithfulness in transmitting the text. This journey through history attests to the purity of these “waters of truth,” illuminating the reverence and care shown in preserving the Hebrew Scriptures. It brings to light not only the relentless pursuit of mankind to keep the word of God untouched but also the divine hand that has ensured its preservation for future generations.
The Hebrew Language
A thorough examination of the Hebrew language, tracing its origins, developments, and its essential role in conveying the inspired Word of God.
Origins and Development of Hebrew
The Hebrew language, known today as such, was initially the language spoken by Adam in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, it may be referred to as man’s first language. It continued to evolve, expanding its vocabulary during Noah’s time, and remained the primary language even after God confused human speech at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1, 7-9).
As a member of the Semitic group of languages, Hebrew is considered the head of the family. It appears to be connected to the language of Canaan during Abraham’s era and evolved into various dialects among the Canaanites. In Scripture, it is called “the language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18).
Notable scholars like Moses were proficient in Hebrew, enabling them to read and comprehend ancient documents. This skill allowed Moses to record information found in the Book of Genesis.
Hebrew later became known as “the Jews’ language” (2 Ki. 18:26, 28) during the time of Jewish kings. In Jesus’ era, the Jews spoke an expanded form of Hebrew, leading to rabbinic Hebrew. Despite this, the Christian Greek Scriptures still refer to it as the “Hebrew” language, not Aramaic (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; Acts 22:2; Rev. 9:11).
Hebrew as a Binding Language
From the earliest times, Hebrew served as a unifying language for Jehovah’s people, both before and during the Christian era. The Hebrew Scriptures became a reservoir of pure truths, conveyed and compiled under divine inspiration.
However, this treasure was initially accessible only to those proficient in Hebrew. How could others, speaking different languages, partake of these spiritual waters and find divine guidance? (Rev. 22:17).
Translation and Its Impact
The solution lay in translating the Scriptures from Hebrew into other languages, making God’s truth available to all nations. This began around the fourth or third century B.C.E. and continues today, with portions of the Bible translated into more than 1,900 languages. Such translations have been a blessing to all seeking spiritual enlightenment, enabling them to find “delight” in these sacred waters (Ps. 1:2; 37:3, 4).
The Bible itself justifies translation into other languages. God’s word to Israel and Jesus’ prophetic command to Christians necessitate translation to reach all nations (Deut. 32:43; Matt. 24:14).
As a language, Hebrew stands as a vital link connecting humanity to the divine truths conveyed in Scripture. From its origins in the Garden of Eden to its evolution into various forms and dialects, Hebrew has been instrumental in preserving and communicating God’s Word.
Its translation into other languages has further broadened its reach, ensuring that people worldwide can partake in the divine wisdom contained within the Scriptures. This preservation and dissemination of the Hebrew reservoir of truth affirm the faithfulness and integrity of the Scriptures and reflect Jehovah’s blessing on the tireless work of making His Word available to all.
Earliest Translated Versions of Hebrew Scriptures
The Hebrew Scriptures have a rich history of translation, which facilitated their spread to different cultures and languages. Let’s explore some of the most significant early translated versions:
The Samaritan Pentateuch
The Samaritan Pentateuch is a transliteration of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Samaritan script. Originating from the ancient Hebrew script, this version dates back to the times of the Samaritans, descendants of those in Samaria after the conquest of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. They mixed Israelite worship with their pagan practices and accepted the Pentateuch.
The transcription of this text is believed to have been made around the fourth century B.C.E., though some scholars argue it could have been as late as the second century B.C.E. Though it contains around 6,000 variations from the Hebrew text, many are minor. Existing manuscript copies rarely predate the 13th century C.E. The New World Translation makes occasional references to this version in its footnotes.
The Aramaic Targums
The Aramaic Targums, meaning “interpretation” or “paraphrase,” came into existence as Aramaic became the common language for many Jews in the Persian territory. From Nehemiah’s time, translations into Aramaic were required alongside readings of Hebrew Scriptures. These likely reached their final form around the fifth century C.E.
Although not accurate translations, the Targums are valuable as loose paraphrases that provide rich context to the Hebrew text and assist in understanding complex passages. The New World Translation also refers to the Targums in its footnotes.
The Greek Septuagint
Arguably the most important early translation, the Greek Septuagint, began around 280 B.C.E. by 72 Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. Completed by the second century B.C.E., it served Greek-speaking Jews and was used by Jesus and his apostles. Most quotations and references in the Christian Greek Scriptures are based on the Septuagint.
Papyrus fragments from early Christian times, like the Fouad Papyri collection, assist in assessing the Septuagint’s text. These discoveries, including the first-century B.C.E. portions of Genesis and Deuteronomy, are valuable in understanding the textual history. Notably, the divine name, the Tetragrammaton, appears in the Septuagint of Origen’s six-column Hexapla, completed about 245 C.E.
Several hundred vellum and leather manuscripts of the Septuagint exist, some from the fourth to the ninth centuries C.E. Uncials, or large capital letter manuscripts, and minuscules, written in a smaller cursive style, provide insights into variations of the text. Prominent examples include the Vatican No. 1209, the Sinaitic, and the Alexandrine. The Updated American Standard Version (UASV) frequently refers to the Septuagint.
The Latin Vulgate
The Latin Vulgate serves as a foundational text for Catholic translators. The word “vulgatus” signifies “common,” and the Vulgate was initially translated into the common Latin of the Western Roman Empire.
Jerome, the scholar behind the translation, worked directly from the Hebrew and Greek originals from 390 C.E. to 405 C.E. Though the Vulgate contained Apocryphal books from the Septuagint, Jerome clearly distinguished canonical and non-canonical texts. The Updated American Standard Version (UASV) often refers to Jerome’s Vulgate.
These early translations represent vital links in the preservation and dissemination of Hebrew Scriptures. They played a pivotal role in making the Scriptures accessible to diverse cultures and languages. Each version, with its unique characteristics and historical context, contributes to our understanding of the development of the Biblical text.
The Hebrew-Language Text
The scribes, also known as the Sopherim, were responsible for copying the Hebrew Scriptures from the time of Ezra until Jesus’ era. They began making textual alterations, which were not within their right to do. Jesus explicitly criticized these actions (Matthew 23:2, 13).
The Masora Reveals Alterations
After Christ, the Masoretes succeeded the Sopherim. They recorded earlier changes made by the Sopherim in the margins of the Hebrew text. These notes are known as the Masora. This record included 15 specific alterations in the Hebrew text, including the replacement of the name “Jehovah” with “Lord” and “God” in certain places. Some changes seemed to be made to avoid disrespect or irreverence towards God or His representatives.
The Consonantal Text
The original Hebrew language consists of 22 consonants without vowels. The reader must know the language well enough to add the correct vowel sounds. The “consonantal text” refers to this Hebrew text without vowels. This form became standard between the first and second centuries C.E., unlike the previous period of changes made by the Sopherim.
The Masoretic Text
In the latter half of the first millennium C.E., the Masoretes created a system of vowel points and accent marks, previously passed down orally. They took great care to avoid making changes in the text itself, but they did record notes in the Masora where necessary. Three main schools, the Babylonian, Palestinian, and Tiberian, developed this system. The modern printed Hebrew Bible utilizes the system created by the Tiberian school, with the Updated American Standard Version (UASV) frequently referring to it.
Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Wadi Qumran, near the Dead Sea. Among these, the first Isaiah scroll, dating to the end of the second century B.C.E., was a remarkable find, as it was about a thousand years older than any existing Masoretic text. Fragments from all Hebrew Scriptures books, except Esther, were found in other caves in the area, offering scholars valuable insight into the ancient texts. Though there were some variations in spelling and grammar, the doctrine remained consistent, and these scrolls were referenced in the preparation of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).
Through careful study of various text lines, including the Samaritan Pentateuch, Aramaic Targums, Greek Septuagint, Tiberian Hebrew text, Palestinian Hebrew text, Babylonian Hebrew text, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have come to understand that the Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved substantially in the form initially recorded by God’s inspired servants. This collection and comparison of texts provide a firm foundation for the accuracy and integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Second Rabbinic Bible and Early Textual Studies
The standard printed edition of the Hebrew Bible, up until the 19th century, was the Second Rabbinic Bible by Jacob ben Chayyim, published in 1524-25. Only in the 18th century did scholars like Benjamin Kennicott and J. B. de Rossi embark on the critical study of the Hebrew text, publishing variant readings from over 1,400 Hebrew manuscripts. Hebrew scholars in Germany, such as S. Baer and C. D. Ginsburg, also contributed by developing a critical master text, which evolved from the initial 1894 version to the revised version of 1926. These efforts led to several English translations, such as The Emphasised Bible in 1902, and a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in 1917.
Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica and Its Impact
Rudolf Kittel, a Hebrew scholar, released the first and second editions of his refined Hebrew text, Biblia Hebraica, or “The Hebrew Bible,” in Germany in 1906. This work included an extended textual apparatus that compared various Masoretic texts. The 10th-century Ben Asher Masoretic texts later became the basis for a completely reworked third edition.
Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica in the 7th, 8th, and 9th editions (1951-55) served as the foundational text for several modern translations. In 1977, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia was published, and a 20-volume edition, Biblia Hebraica Quinta, is underway, with the expected completion date in 2024. As of August 2023, the Ezekiel volume’s release is anticipated in 2024.
Kittel’s work, especially his presentation of the marginal Masora, influenced accurate renderings in translations, including the Updated American Standard Version (UASV). This includes restorations of the divine name, Jehovah, and reflects the continuous advancement in the field of Biblical scholarship.
The Sources and Reliability of the Hebrew Scriptures in the UASV
Accompanying this text, a list titled “Major Critical Texts and Manuscript Abbreviations of the Old Testament” details the sources used for the Hebrew Scriptures in the UASV. Generally, the primary weight goes to the original language manuscripts, with the Codex Leningrad B 19A and the Aleppo Codex almost always preferred.
The Old Testament Textual Criticism approach emphasizes the Masoretic text, and any deviation is considered only a last resort. While the Masoretic Text is not infallible, a strong burden of proof is required for alternative readings. The UASV Chief Translator could present an authoritative and dependable translation of the original inspired Hebrew Scriptures by carefully examining all evidence, including sources like the Latin Vulgate and the Greek Septuagint. These sources are all documented in the footnotes of the UASV.
The Hebrew Scripture portion of the UASV reflects the product of extensive scholarship and research. It builds on an integral text, the result of faithful textual transmission. The translation combines flow and style in a manner that invites serious Bible study and offers a genuine and precise portrayal. It is a testament to Jehovah, the communicating God, that His Word continues to resonate and exert influence today (Heb. 4:12). The study of God’s precious Word remains a catalyst for faith and action in our significant times (2 Pet. 1:12, 13).