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    Bible-Origins  Main-Page

1. What is the Bible?

2. What is the historical background of the Bible?

3.Is the Bible Inspired?

4. How was the Bible written?

5.What are the books of the Old Testament?
(The Canon)

6.The Apocrypha, The Septuagint LXX, and the Canon

7. Who decided what books are in the New Testament? (Cannon)

8.  How was the Old Testament Transmitted?

9. How was the New Testament Transmitted?

10.  Old Testament Manuscripts and Textual Criticism

11. New Testament Manuscripts and Textual Criticism

12. History of the English Bible


               10.  What are the Old Testament (Tanakh) Manuscripts?


Introduction to New Testament Transmission



            The Old Testament portion of today’s Bible is derived from Hebrew manuscripts.  These manuscripts are copies derived from the autographs, which originated from 1450 to 425 B.C.  The process of manuscript copying, from generation to generation is manuscript transmission

            Manuscript transmission is a human process, as copies are made of copies, originating from an autograph.  Because the process is human and over long periods, copying variations and errors may occur over time.  These “transmission” errors themselves became part of the text over time, causing variations in some manuscripts.  By examining the manuscripts themselves, their history and background, we are able to get to arrive at a clearer understanding of the text of the autograph. This process of examination, textual criticism, is defined as the science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable wording of the biblical text.[1]

            In studying the Bible, a distinction needs to be made between the autograph and the copy of the autograph (manuscript transmission).  Since the copy of the autograph, is transmitted via human agency, over long periods, variations and human error have a tendency to appear in the text, the result of copyist errors.  This is in contrast to the autograph, which was inspired or “God breathed” when it was originally revealed.    

 Biblical Inerrancy


            The message of the scripture is inspired and original autograph is inerrant.  For the most part, when looking at variations of between various manuscripts, the effect on the text is rather minimal. Most variations involve spelling and grammatical differences between manuscripts with absolutely no effect on the meaning of the text.

            Many people confuse the concept of manuscript transmission and textual criticism, as evidence the bible is a book with errors and therefore not inerrant.  First, what does inerrancy mean? The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines Inerrancy;


 the view that when a the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autograph and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to social, physical or life sciences.[2]


Biblical Inerrancy and textual criticism


The purpose of textual criticism is to restore, as near as possible the text of the original autograph, by examining the various manuscripts. Commenting on the extent of variation between the manuscript sources, Paul Wegner writes,[3]


 Bruce Waltke, former Old Testament professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, notes in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia[4] one textual notes appears for every ten words; thus 90 percent of the text is without significant variation.  And Shermaryahu Talmon, from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, asserts, “errors and textual divergences between the versions materially affect the intrinsic message only in relatively few instances.” Old Testament textual criticism therefore, concerns mainly details and discrepancies in relatively insignificant matters.


            By comparing the various OT manuscripts, we are able to examine the textual transmission of the Old Testament, and see if there is corruption in the transmission process.


Textual Criticism


            The process of textual criticism begins with a compilation of the evidence.  The main sources of evidence are the available manuscript readings on the verse. The textual critic would then weigh the various reading from the manuscripts. A summary of these main sources are:



The Masoretic Text:  The most authoritative version of the Hebrew scriptures, which became standardized about A.D. 100, based on manuscript evidence.  The name come from the Masorites who were scribes from A.D. 500-1000.  They carried on the work of earlier scribes who maintained the Hebrew scriptures.


The Samaritan Pentateuch: Written in paleo-Hebrew, this work only involves the first five books (Torah), the version could be dated to the 3rd to 2nd century B.C. The oldest existing manuscript is dated to the 13th century.


The Qumran Manuscripts (Dead Sea Scrolls): Manuscripts found at the Dead Sea, dating between 250 B.C. to A.D. 50.  A portion of every book of the Bible except has been found at this site.


Ancient Hebrew Manuscripts: Other ancient Hebrew manuscripts have been discovered, in addition to the Dead Sea Scrolls. These include the Nash Papyrus, Masada, Murabbar’at and the Cairo Genizah).


The Septuagint: (250-100 B.C.), the Greek translation of the Old Testament.


OT Greek Manuscripts: Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion.


Syriac Peshitta: Dated to the 1st century A.D.


Jewish Targums: Aramaic paraphrase translations of the Old Testament 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., These translations have a much older tradition dating back to the time of Ezra possibly.


Latin Vulgate: A.D. 390-405, Latin Translation by Jerome.


Evaluating the evidence

Once the verse in question is compared against the manuscripts, the textual critic then begins to evaluate the verse itself, based on its construction.  He would look for:

1. Vowel changes

2. Copying mistakes


Vowel changes


Vowels in Hebrew are a late addition (9th century), they were added to help the have the correct pronunciation of the word.  If a vowel was pointed incorrectly, it can change the entire meaning of a word.  Pointing are the symbols (points) used under and over words indicating if the vowel and whether is long or short. 

            For example the dog, has the consonants d and g. These consonants can make up the words, dog, dug, dag, dig and deg.  If you had the following sentence, “The boy loves his dig.”  More then likely, the word meant here is dog instead of dig.


Copyist errors


No matter  how well trained the scribes were, they are still human, and over time various copyist errors have crept into the manuscripts.  These errors would then follow as the manuscript was copied and then recopied from generation to generation. Many of these copyist errors are clearly known and very obvious, many are noted in the manuscripts themselves.   The types of errors and some examples are below, adopted from Paul Wegner chart:[5]





Possible examples


Mistaken letters

Confusion of similar letters

Genesis  10:4 cites a race known as the “Dodanim”  but I Chronicles 1:7 calls them the “Rodanim”.



Substitution of similar sounding words.

Isaiah 9:2



Omission of a letter or word usually due to similar letter or word in context.

Judges 20:13



A letter or word that has been written twice instead of once

Jeremiah 51:3 “yidrok” (he drew) appears 2 times



Reversal in order of two letters or words

Deuteronomy 31:1, Masoretic Text reads “Moses went”, Qumran reads, “Moses finished”.



Incorrect word division that results in two words joined as one

Leviticus 16:8



Incorrect word division that results in one word written as two.

Hosea 6:5



An omission caused by two words or phrases that end similarly.

I Samuel 14:41



An omission caused by two words or phrases that begin similarly.

Genesis 31:18


Other omissions

Any other omissions.

The years that Saul reigned are omitted from 1 Samuel 13;1



Evaluating the evidence


There are several factors to weigh when you examine the evidence for a particular verse.  The weight of evidence does not lie with the number of manuscripts but with the weight of manuscripts.  In addition to the manuscript evidence several other factors need to be taken into account.


1. Language of the witness

2. Date of the witness

3. Reliability of the witness

4. Provenance (Origin/Source) and purpose of the witness

5. Interdependence of the witness.




Old Testament Manuscripts, sources of textual criticism



Silver Amulets

These are the oldest existing Old Testament texts in existence. They were found in a grave, near St. Andrew’s church of Scotland at Jerusalem, south of the walls of Jerusalem about one mile.  They quote numbers 6:22-27, the priestly benediction, they are similar to the Masoretic Text. They are dated to about 850 B.C., amulets like these were worn as charms on the arms or neck to protect against evil. The fact they are made out of rolled thin silver preserved them to this point. The large one measures 4 inches by 1 inch, the other one is 1 inch by ½ inch.


Samaritan Pentateuch

In 722 B.C., the Assyrians removed 22,290 Israelites and replaced them with other people from conquered Assyrian lands.  These foreigners mixed with the remaining population of Israel and became known as the Samaritans.  They were considered half-breeds by the Jews of Judah, when the Jews returned after the Babylonian captivity in 539 B.C., the Samaritans were not allowed to help rebuild the Temple.  So the Samaritans built their own Temple on Mt. Gerizim.

      With the split of the Samaritans from the Jews from the 8th century B.C., there arose a second Hebrew revision of the Pentateuch, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch.  It contains the five books of Moses and is written in Paleo-Hebrew script similar to the that found on the Moabite Stone, Siloam inscription. 

            Author Frank Cross believes the Samaritan Pentateuch branched off in the Pre- Masoretic text in the 2nd century BC.

            The  differences from the Masoretic text are

trivial and orthographic. The Samaritan Pentateuch differs from the Masoretic text in about 6000 places, most are spelling and grammatical in nature. Sixteen hundred of these differences agree with the Septuagint.

        Some of the differences were introduced by Samaritans with the interest in preserving their status. Such as the location of the Arc. The oldest existing manuscript is dated to the 11th century AD.




Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran Manuscripts)

Dead Sea Scrolls

In March 1947 a young Arab boy discovered in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea jars containing several leather manuscripts dating to the time of Christ. They belonged to the Essenes.  The Essenes were a Jewish sect that settled in the Judean desert, near Qumran. Other manuscripts were found over the next 10 years. Two copies of the book of Isaiah were found along with books and fragments from the whole Old Testament except for the book of Ester. 

            Prior to the discovery the oldest existing book of the Hebrew Old Testament dated to about 1000 AD.   Carbon dating has placed them between 168 BC and 233 AD. Archaeology puts the dates at between 150 BC to 100 AD.

            Gleason Archer observed that the two copies of Isaiah 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.  The scrolls gave an overwhelming confirmation of  the Masoretic text.  Some of the variants show parallels to the Greek text of the Septuagint (LXX).

The  Dead Sea Scrolls are owned by the Nation of Israel



Nash Papyrus

In 1902 W.L. Nash acquired a damaged copy of the 10 commandments from an Egyptian dealer, he donated them to Cambridge University. This manuscript has been dated to the Maccabean period by William F. Albright (169-37 B.C.). Paul Kahle places its origin before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.[6]  This scroll seems to be a combination of texts from Exodus 20:2-17 an Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and may have been used for another purpose, rather then just a text.


Murabba’at Manuscripts


Excavated in January 1952, caves found 11 miles south of the Dead Sea site, manuscripts were found dating to the time of the Simon bar Kochba revolt, (A.D. 132-135).  Archeologists found in Cave 2, fragments from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, along with Isaiah.  Also one of the oldest papyrus manuscripts of the minor prophets was discovered, this manuscript was nearly identical to the Masoretic Text, affirming a standardization of the text by the 2nd century, only three variants existed.



Herod constructed a palace at Masada (36-30 B.C.), located along the Dead Sea.  The 1300-foot walls create a natural fortress. Masada was the last scene of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the first revolt in A.D. 66-73.  The occupants held out until the Romans used forced Jewish labor to build a ramp.  As the Roman 10th legion, led by Flavius Silva was about to enter, the Zealots who occupied Masada, committed suicide.

         Manuscripts found at the site during excavations 1963-1965 include Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms and Ezekiel.  These documents were dated prior to A.D. 73.


Wadi Habra

Located one the western shore of the Dead Sea, one mile south of Ein Gedi, in 1952 fragments of Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Psalms were found. One of the more amazing discoveries was a Greek translation of the Minor prophets, which used the ancient Hebrew script, for the Lord’s name in the Greek text. These manuscripts dated to A.D. 132, were virtually identical with the Masoretic Text.


Genizah fragments


The Ben-Ezra Synagogue in Cairo Egypt was built in 1015, in Old Cairo. Located in the attic was the Genizah or storage room, which had no walls or windows and was only accessable by a hole in the western wall. 

    The room was discovered in 1860, and from that point manuscripts made their way to Europe. Some estimates put the number of manuscripts and fragments at 200,000.  Most manuscripts dated from 1000 to 1400, some however, were dated much earlier.

    The most important manuscripts included biblical manuscripts dated to the 5th century. The Zadokite Document, also known as the Damascus Document.

And a Hebrew version of the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, prior to this only Greek texts were in exisitence.


Codex Cairenis (C )

This manuscript was preserved by the Karaite[7] Community of Cairo, and contains only the former and Later prophets.  The codex seems to have been written and pointed by Moses ben Asher in Tiberias for  Yabes ben Shelomo in A.D. 895, a Karaite Jew.


Aleppo Codex (A)

The Aleppo Codex dates from the Masoretic period,    of Old Testament copying. During this period there was a deep reverence of the Scriptures, complete review of established rules and a systematic renovation of transmission techniques. During the crusades July 15, 1099 it was taken as plunder, but seven years it was returned to the Karaites, who then brought it their community at Cairo.


Aleppo was written by Shelomo ben Baya’a but according to a colophon it was pointed (vowel marks were added) by Moses ben Asher (930 A.D.) It is a model codex based on the Masoretic text. It was not permitted to be copied for a long time and was reported to be destroyed.  Aleppo Codex was smuggled from Syria to Israel. It has now been photographed and will be the basis of the New Hebrew Bible to be published by Hebrew University.  It is a sound authority for the Ben Asher text.



Codex Leningradensis

This manuscript is dated A.D. 1008, and was pointed by the ben Asher family.  This manuscript was the source for the Biblia Hebraia, edited by R. Kittel ( 1929-1937) version of the Old Testament, and used by most recent translations of the Old Testament today.




The Septuagint or the LXX

The LXX version is the first translation of the OT ever made. The translation was inaugurated by Ptolemy of Philadelphus (285-247 BC). Ptolemy was fond of books and wanted to add the Hebrew Pentateuch to his collection in Alexandria. The LXX was the bible of the early church.  The order of OT books is derived from the LXX through the Latin Vulgate translated by St. Jerome.             

            On the basis of the LXX Catholics advocate the “Larger” canon of the Jews in Alexandria. Protestants deny the existence of an independent canon in Alexandria, in view of the “smaller” canon of the Jews in Palestine.  The difference is 7 complete books and portions of 2 others. The books are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, I & 2 Macabees and additions to Daniel and Esther.

            These portions are rejected by protestants.

The oldest existing LXX manuscripts is dated to the mid 4th century, they are Sinaticus and Vaticanus Codexs.



Codex Vaticanus

Dated to the 4th century, contained all the Old Testament at first, portions are missing today.  Missing are Genesis 1-46:28a, 2 Samuel 2:5-7, 10-13; Psalms 105[106]:27-137 [138]:6b; There are 617 leaves for the Old Testament, each leave bearing three columns with black ink, written on calf skin (velllum).  This was cataloged in the Vatican library in 1471 or 1481, but was not available for viewing.

      Napoleon carried off this codex to Paris was war booty, it was returned after his death in 1815. Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-1874) viewed the document for a few hours in 1867, and published an edition. The Vatican released photographs of the leaves in 1889/90.


Codex  Sinaticus

This version of the Septuagint contains only half of the Old Testament. Dated the 4th century, the story of its discovery is amazing in its own right.  In 1844, Count von Tishchendorf was at St. Catherines monastery, at Mt. Sinai, in the Library, when he noticed the monks using manuscripts leaves to keep a fire burning. He later saw they were Septuagint Greek manuscripts.  He was able to secure the remaining leaves, he was informed two baskets had already been burned.

   In 1853, he returned not finding any more manuscripts. Again he returned in 1859, with a letter from czar Alexander II of Russia, he was shown Sinaticus but was not allowed to purchase it. Later , the monks gave it to Tishchendorf as a gift, because the czar influence over St. Catherines.  In 1863, he published Codex Sinaticus.  In 1933, Russia sold the manuscript to the British Museum for 100,000 pounds.



The Targums


The Targums are Aramaic translations of the Old Testament.  After the Jews returned from Babylon in 539 B.C., many had lost the ability to communicate in Hebrew, which became the sacred language of priests and scribes. Aramaic was the common language.  To help Jews understand scripture, a vernacular version of the scriptures was assembled, which was varied from literal to paraphrase in the quality of translations. 

      Targum Onqelos was very literal and became stand for the Pentateuh. Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel became standard for the prophets.

      The Targums are viewed more as commentaries more then translations because of their interpretive nature.  They reflect the Masoretic Text in their translation, and allow us to see how the rabbis applied scripture.  Targums exist for every book  of the Old Testament except for Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah.


[1] Paul Wegner,  Journey from Text to Translation, Baker Academic  1999, pg 177

[2] The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Books, 1984, Walter A. Elwell, editor, Pg. 142

[3] Paul Wegner, Journey from Text to Translation, Baker Academic 1999, Pgs. 177-178

[4] The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, or BHS, is an edition of the Hebrew Bible published by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (German Bible Society) in Stuttgart. It is widely regarded by both Jews and Christians as a reliable edition of the Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures (i.e., the Tanakh in Jewish terminology, the Old Testament in Christian terminology) and is substantially the most widely used original-language edition among scholars.It is a revision of the third edition of the Biblia Hebraica edited by Rudolf Kittel, the first Bible to be based on the Leningrad Codex. The footnotes are completely revised. It originally appeared in instalments, from 1968 to 1976, with the first one-volume edition in 1977; it has been reprinted many times.

[5]  Paul Wegner, Journey from Text to Translation, Baker Academic 1999, Pg. 180

[6] Ibid, Pg.188

[7] The Karaites were a community of Jews which rejected the traditions of the Rabbis, including the Talmuds and Midrash. They came to existence in the Middle ages, about 10,000 exist today.