Introduction to Old Testament transmission
Today there is no known surviving autograph of an Old
or New Testament Book. What we have are copies of copies of
the autograph. An autograph is the original copy of the
manuscript, which the prophet or his secretary copied to
text. This “Inspired” autograph was then transmitted over
time, copied from generation to generation.
The Bible we have today is collection of these
copied manuscripts assembled into two collections, an Old
Testament and New Testament. The topic covered here is the
process of this transmission, especially in regards to Old
Testament manuscripts. The circumstances regarding New
Testament manuscript transmission are different, and treated
The Hebrew Text
The task of taking a document and transmitting
it over time is more daunting then most realize. There are
a number of factor, which work against the transmission
process in addition to time itself. Wars, adverse
environments, and competing cultures all work against this
whole process of transmission.
In our day, with computers, DVD’s and email our
concept of document transmission is instant and exact. It is
hard for us to relate to the biblical process. From
biblical times to the invention of the printing press (A.D.
1455), the Bible was transmitted by hand, hence the name
The history of the Old Testament text, can be
divided into several periods,
1. The Text before A.D. 100
2. The Text from A.D. 100 to 500
3. The Text from A.D. 500 to 1000
4. The Text after A.D. 1000
The Hebrew text of today is different from the
original in several aspects. First, the Hebrew alphabet
changed after the Babylonian exile (586 B.C.) from a Paleo-Hebrew
script to the Babylonian-Aramaic square script, the
current Hebrew script. Another change from the original was
the addition of vowel points, which aid the reader in
pronunciation (A.D. 500-800). In addition, chapters added in
the 12th and 13th centuries, helped
locate specific areas of scripture. In the 15th
century, the Hebrew text solidified with the first printed
copy of the Hebrew Bible in 1488.
The purpose of the original manuscript was to
convey the “communication”, the Word of the Lord to
His people. The fact we do not have the original
manuscripts, the autographs, often leads to the question,
why did God allow the autographs to disappear, making us
rely on copies of copies to know His Word.
Why not the Autographs?
Could God have preserved the original
autographs? Of course, He could have, so why not? There
are several reasons suggested, one of the most consistent
with history and human nature, is the tendency of man to
worship an object, rather then the creator. If the original
manuscripts were preserved, humanity would more then likely
would have made the item an object of worship, keeping it
out of the reach of common people. Wars would have be
fought over it, churches, synagogues or mosques built on top
of it. The item itself would be too sacred to read, and only
Kings and priests would ever have access to it. We know
this because, this is exactly what has happened with other
relics and objects of adoration.
In the day of Gideon, when Israel defeated
Midian, Gideon made an ephod (Ceremonial apron) of gold from
the plunder, this ephod became a snare to Gideon’s family.
Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city,
Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It
became a snare to Gideon and to his house Judges 8:27
The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:8-9) made by Moses in the
wilderness also became a subject of worship, forcing
Hezekiah to destroy the image, 700-years later.
4 He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars,
cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze
serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the
children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it
Nehushtan. II Kings 18:4
The subject of preservation is not the document, but the
message, “The Word of the Lord” contained in the document.
Aside from the above reason there were also
several other factors which work against manuscripts.
1. Age and Decay:
Most manuscripts were made of leather or papyrus, which
because of their nature would have deteriorated over time.
The main reason the Dead Scrolls were preserved was that
they were virtually untouched for 2000-years, and remained
in an arid and dry location, in the Qumran caves near the
Dead Sea, hidden from humanity.
2. Calamities on the
The history of the Jewish
people has undergone at least three national calamities in
the last 2500-years. In each of these calamities, the
biblical manuscripts would have been subject to the
destruction of foreign armies.
A. Babylon destroyed the Temple and
Jerusalem in 586 B.C., we know from Daniel, scriptures were
carried into Babylon (Daniel 9:2), and Daniel reads from the
book of Jeremiah in 539 B.C.
B. Antiochus Epiphanies (165-163 B.C.),
the king of Seleucid, Greek Kingdom, sought out and
destroyed biblical manuscripts in an attempt to turn the
Jews away from the God of Israel. This lead attack on
Judaism, leading to the Maccabean revolt and a hundred-year
Jewish kingdom in 163 B.C. after the Jews defeated the
C. Roman destruction of Jerusalem (A.D.
70, 132). The Romans, like the Babylonians destroyed
Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, led by the future
emperor Titus. According to Josephus, over 1 million Jews
died in the war. In 132 A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian put
down a Jewish rebellion, slaughtering 580,000 Jews,
destroying Jerusalem again.
3. Reverence for the text:
Since the manuscripts were sacred, they bore the “Word of
the Lord” and contained the sacred name of God. When they
became old and began to deteriorate, they were replaced by
newer manuscripts. The older worn manuscripts were then
placed in a genizah (hiding), a storage area, until
they could be buried in a ceremonial grave. The Qara’ite
synagogue of Old Cairo, had one such genizah
uncovered in the late 19th century. In 1896,
Solomon Schechter uncovered many as 90,000 documents
including fragments. Encyclopedia Britannica highlights the
discovery of these documents,
In 1896 Solomon Schechter investigated
a genizah in the old Ezra synagogue in Cairo. In time, some
90,000 manuscripts were uncovered there, a cache so
priceless that biblical scholars subsequently referred to
the site simply as “the genizah.” This vast collection of
liturgical, legal, commercial, and literary documents—among
them a fragment of the original Hebrew text of
Ecclesiasticus—generally revolutionized the study of the
medieval history of Palestinian and Middle Eastern Jewry.
The Text before A.D. 100
When the English translation of the bible, the
King James Version, was translated, the Hebrew Bible
used as the source, was based on the Masoretic Text.
The Masoretic Text was the work of Talmudic scholars in
Tiberius and Babylon who began their work in the 7th
century A.D. Their work is main source of Hebrew Bible
Sixty years ago, the oldest dated, complete
Hebrew manuscript was the Leningrad (St. Petersburg)
Manuscript dated to A.D.1008, based on the Masoretic
Text. This all changed with the discovery of the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea Scrolls provided biblical
manuscripts dated from 250 B.C. to A.D. 50, over 1100-years
older then the Leningrad Manuscript. In short, the
Dead Sea Scrolls gave Bible students and critics, a view
back in history, to a time before the Masorites. The newly
discovered documents allowed an examination of the process
of Manuscript transmission, over a significant
period. When compared to the Masoretic Text, the Dead Sea
Scrolls according to Norman Geisler is 95% identical,
With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have
Hebrew manuscripts one thousand years earlier than the great
Masoretic Text manuscripts, enabling them to check on the
fidelity of the Hebrew text. The result of comparative
studies reveals that there is a word-for-word identity in
more than 95 percent of the cases, and the 5-percent
variation consists mostly of slips of the pen and spelling.
Questions such as, what types of script was used
by Moses and those before him remained. We know alphabetic
script existed, which predated Moses, such as those found in
Babylon and Canaan. The script used in the Dead Sea
Scrolls and the Masoretic was the Babylonian square script,
which is a newer script adopted following the return from
Babylonian captivity in 586-539 B.C.
The script used by Israel before the Babylonian
captivity was the Paleo-Hebrew script as evidenced in the
Siloam inscription, the Silver Amulets, the
Gezer Calendar and the Moabite Stone. All these
archeological finds predate the Babylonian captivity, and
demonstrate an alphabet closely related to the Phoenician
Alphabet. The Hebrew Scriptures were more then likely
recorded in this text type first, then copied into the newer
alphabet, after the Jews returned from Babylon.
Siloam Carving (701 B.C)
2 Kings 20:20, 2 Chronicles 32:30
When the armies of Assyria were in the process of
invasion, Hezekiah secured the water supply to
Jerusalem. When the tunnel diggers met, an
inscription was carved into the wall recording the
Silver Amulets (850 B.C.)
Scripture engraved on silver strips in the paleo-Hebrew
Gezer Calendar 800-900 B.C.
Schoolchild’s calendar with cursive paleo-Hebrew.
2 Kings 3:4
1 Kings 16
The Moabite stone proclaims freedom from Israelite
oppression, recorded in the paleo-Hebrew or
Other questions regarding the earlier Hebrew
text remain. One debate still raging is the use of word
division. The Siloam inscription had dots, between words,
which indicated a separation of words, while the Silver
Amulets do not have spaces between separate words.
The Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts, which date
almost 500 later show a less then, clear division between
words in the Hebrew square script. The work of the Dead Sea
Scrolls was the continuation of a group known as The
The scribes (500 B.C- A.D. 100)
In 539 B.C., the Persians defeated Babylon under
Cyrus the Great (Daniel 5). Cyrus issued a
proclamation allowing the
to return from the land of their captivity back into the
land of Israel. The problem was many Jews had lost the
ability to communicate in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script.
Ezra the scribe, who established the tradition
of the scribes, is credited with changing the Hebrew
alphabet to the Babylonian square script, which is in use
10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the
Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in
Israel. 11 This is a copy of the letter that King Artaxerxes
gave Ezra the priest, the scribe, expert in the words
of the commandments of the Lord, and of His statutes to
12 Artaxerxes, king of kings, To Ezra the priest, a scribe
of the Law of the God of heaven: Perfect peace, and so
Ezra was both a priest and a scribe, the pattern he
established continued until the New Testament era. Ezra’s
legacy was continued by a group known as the Soferim
(Scribes), they preserved the sacred traditions of Israel.
Regarding the scribes, Paul Wegner writes,
“From 500 B.C. to A.D. 100, an influential group of teachers
and interpreters of the Law called sopherim (scribes) arose
to preserve Israel’s sacred traditions, the foundation of
the nation. The Babylonian Talmud (Qidd. 30a) says, “The
early [scholars] were called soferim because they
used to count [sfr] all the letters in the Torah”
The impact of this group is demonstrated in the New
Testament, they are the experts in the law and scriptures in
the time of Christ. Their close association with the
Priests, Law and Pharisees is the demonstration of this
link, traced back to the time Ezra. The scribes were experts
in the law, maintaining the transmission of the manuscript
from the time of Ezra to the time of Christ. Questions about
scripture were taken to them, since they spend all day long
committing the words to the scroll.
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go
to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and
chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be
raised the third day. Matthew 16:21
The Text of the Scribes
What is the text maintained by these scribes is
the subject of debate, since there are minor variations
Texts, Qumran (Dead Sea) Texts, Septuagint
(LXX)and Samaritan Pentateuch. There are several
theories, which can be explored in detail when we explore
the manuscripts of the Old Testament.
William F. Albright from John Hopkins
University and Frank M. Cross form Harvard University argued
the source of the Masoretic Text was three text families,
which were standardized by the rabbinic community in A.D.
100, accounting for the diversity present in various Old
In the 9th century B.C., Hebrew did not have
vowels in their alphabet. To help with pronunciation, long
consonants were added, the consonants of
These words became known as Matres lectionis (mothers
of reading). Words without these consonants were known as
partial reading as opposed to full reading (plene).
The Old Testament text A.D. 500-1000
The Standardized Text
In the first century, the Hebrew text became standardized.
The evidence for this is found in recent manuscript
discoveries, the text found at Qumran (The Dead Sea), which
dated from 250 B.C. to A.D. 50 showed variety from
manuscript to manuscript. While the later discoveries at
Masada (A.D. 73) and Waddi Muraba (those text
related to Bar Kochba rebellion A.D. 132-35) showed
little variation. Therefore, at some time, near A.D. 100 the
text was standardized, from that point, scribes were careful
to maintain the standard text. This text would become known
as the Masoretic text over time.
Tannaim (A.D. 70, 135-200)
The standardized text corresponds with the period in Jewish
history, where a group of scribes known as the Tannaim came
into existence. The word Tanna’im means, “to hand
down orally, to study, to teach”. With the destruction of
Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the defeat of Bar Kochba,
the rabbinic community became the leaders of the Jewish
community. The rabbis represented the Jewish community to
Rome. The Tannaim also maintained the traditions (Oral Law,
and biblical manuscripts under the watchful eye of Rome.
Encyclopedia Britannica comments on this age of Jewish
With the defeat of Bar Kokhba and the ensuing collapse of
active Jewish resistance to Roman rule (135–136),
politically moderate and quietist rabbinic elements remained
the only cohesive group within Jewish society. With
Jerusalem off limits to the Jews, rabbinic ideology and
practice, which were not dependent on Temple, priesthood, or
political independence for their vitality, provided a viable
program for autonomous community life and thus filled the
vacuum created by the suppression of allother Jewish
leadership. The Romans, confident that the will for
insurrection had been shattered, soon relaxed the Hadrianic
prohibitions of Jewish ordination, public assembly, and
regulation of the calendar and permitted rabbis who had fled
the country to return and reestablish an academy in the town
of Usha in Galilee.
Rabbi Akiba (A.D. 55-137) established
the structure of the Mishna, the six divisions and minor
tractates, and Judah the Prince (Nasi) at the close
of the 2nd century compiled the various oral
traditions and closed collection, the Mishna. During this
period and the later Talmudic period, rules were established
regarding the preservation of the Old Testament texts. Paul
Wegner, quoting F.G. Kenyon, records these rules of
1. Only parchments made from clean animals were allowed;
these were to be joined together with thread from clean
2. Each written column of the scroll was to have no fewer
than forty-eight and no more than sixty lines whose breadth
must consist of thirty letters.
3.The page was first to be lined, from which the letters
were to be suspended.
4.The ink as to be black, prepared according to the specific
5. No word or letter was to be written from memory.
6.There was to be the space of a hair between each consonant
and the space of a small consonant between each word, as
well as several other spacing rules.
7. The scribe must wash himself entirely and be in full
Jewish dress before beginning to the scroll.
8. He could not write then name of Yahweh with a newly
dipped brush, nor take notice of anyone, even a king, while
writing this sacred name.
Amoraim (A.D. 200-500)
During this period, a third group of Jewish
scribes came into existence. Known as the amoraim,
meaning lecturers or interpreters. They developed what is
known as the Talmud, a commentary on the Mishna, the Oral
Law. Two centers of Talmudic study were established one in
Palestine the other in Babylon, giving rise to the
Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud.
Also during this time, the scribes began to note
the areas in scripture where there might have been
corruption in the whole transmission process over time.
These notations were made in what later became known as the
Masorah, or in the text. These notations are
recorded in the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia.
The Old Testament Text (A.D. 500-1000)
A forth group of
scribes followed in the tradition of the Amoraim, known as
the Masorites from A.D. 500 to 1000. Their work established
the source of today’s Hebrew text, which has been translated
into most English bibles. Their goal was to preserve the
text, the Hebrew Canon, their notes numbered each letter and
chapter, even recording the number of letters used in a
book, even showing the middle letter in a book.
The Masorites work
flourished in the two centers of Jewish learning and
scholarship, Babylon and Tiberius, Palestine. After the
Muslim defeat of Byzantium in Palestine A.D. 638, Tiberius
became the chief center for Jewish studies. The Masorites
also added vowel points, accents and Masorahs (text notes)
to clearly transmit the text.
In the 10th
century, two families came to the forefront of biblical
manuscripts, the Ben Asher family and the Ben
Naphtlai family. Over time, the Ben Asher traditions
became the standard verses the Naphtali tradition.
The Masorites made
notations were they felt there were textual problems. These
notations were designed to help the reader understand what
the textual problem was and possible solutions to it, in the
reading. Here are some examples of the Masoretic notes, the
list is not complete.
1. Special notes
(puncta extraordinaria): The Masorites added small diamonds
over either the letters or the words, which is not clear.
These notes indicated some reservation on either the text or
the doctrine. This notation is used in 15 places in the
Hebrew text. According to a statement in the Babylonian
Talmud, tractate Abot de Rabbi Nathan, the reason for
the diamonds was not clear. Quoting Wegner,
“Some say, ‘why are
the dots used? Ezra said, ‘If Elijah should come and askme
why I accept that reading, I can point out that I have
dotted the letters in question (to show they are suspect),
but if he should tell me that the reading is correct, I can
remove the dots (Version A, 34).
letters (litterae suspensae): Four words have
suspended letters above the line ( Judges 18;30, Job
38:13,15, Psalm 80:14) The suspended nun in Judges 18:30 is
thought to be added to protect Moses from the embarrassment
of having a relative who set up a graven images at Dan.
Qere: The Masorites used these notations to indicate
when scribes felt the text to be lacking. The Masorites
rather then change the text, noted their preferred reading.
Also, Words which read different then they are written are
known as Perpetual Qere. The name of God is a Perpetual
Qere, the Hebrew reads
but is pronounced differently.
The Hebrew after A.D. 1000
The Masoretic text was mostly hand copied
(Manuscript) until the printing press. Even after the
printing press, hand written copies continued for almost
100-years. The first Hebrew Bible was printed in 1488.
This was followed by the first rabbinic Bible, printed by
Daniel Bomberg in 1516-17. Bomberg printed a second edition
in 1524-25, prepared by Jacob ben Chayyim. The text
of this Hebrew Bible was the source in the translation of
the King James Bible.
The Final Masorah
At the end of each book, notations were made
indicating, the number of verses, the number of words and
the middle word, this helped guarantee a faithful
transmission of the manuscript.
When someone quotes a Chapter and a verse from a
Bible, it’s often assumed the Chapters and verses always
existed. Most people are surprised to learn chapter
divisions are fairly new. The Archbishop of Canterbury,
Stephen Langton (1150-1228) is credited with adding them to
the Latin Vulgate. His divisions were later transferred by
Solomon ben Ishmael (1330) to the Hebrew Bible, with some
Verse notations have an early date, but there
were significant variations at these various centers. Ben
Asher is credited with standardizing these verse settings.
The Hebrew Text has 23,100 verses, notations of these
verses, were separated by a large colon,
was placed at the end of the verse.
Old Testament Textual Criticism
When we read the Bible, in particular its
important to understand, the source document is in Hebrew
and Aramaic. Additionally, the source document has been
transmitted over time by human hands. In the process of
transmission, human errors have crept into the biblical
text. Finding and correcting these errors in the
transmission process is the science known as Biblical
Criticism. The goal being, to come as close as possible
to the original autograph.
By comparing the various available manuscripts,
the Septuagint (LXX) (250 B.C.), The Dead Sea scrolls (250
B.C.-100 A.D.) the Samaritan Pentateuch (100 B.C.), and the
Masoretic Text, (A.D. 1000), we can see there is some
variety to the Hebrew text.
These manuscripts along with other manuscripts,
allows us to go back into time an view the options regarding
any scriptures in question.