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               8.  How was the Old Testament Transmitted?



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 separately.


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 manuscript.

            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 Jewish people: 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 Greeks.

            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.[1]


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[2]. 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 translations today. 

            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 Scrolls. 



            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. [3]


            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.


Archeological find

Scripture Reference

Find details

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 event.

Silver Amulets (850 B.C.)

Numbers 6:22-27

Scripture engraved on silver strips in the paleo-Hebrew script.

Gezer Calendar 800-900 B.C.


Schoolchild’s calendar with cursive paleo-Hebrew.

Moabite Stone

2 Kings 3:4

1 Kings 16

The Moabite stone proclaims freedom from Israelite oppression, recorded in the paleo-Hebrew or Phoenician script.



            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 scribes.

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 Jews 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 today.


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 Israel:

12 Artaxerxes, king of kings, To Ezra the priest, a scribe of the Law of the God of heaven: Perfect peace, and so forth.

Ezra 7;10-11


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”[4]


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 between the Masoretic 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 Testament manuscripts.


Hebrew Vowels


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 h He, y (yod) and w(waw).

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, Mishna[5]) and biblical manuscripts under the watchful eye of Rome.


Encyclopedia Britannica comments on this age of Jewish history,


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.[6]


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 transmission,



1. Only parchments made from clean animals were allowed; these were to be joined together with thread from clean animals.

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 recipe.

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.[7]


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[8].



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.


Masoretic notes


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).[9]


2. Suspended 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.


3. Perpetual 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 hwhy 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.

Chapter divisions


            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 modifications.  

Verse divisions


            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, : , which 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. 


[1] Encyclopedia Britannica 1994, Genizah article.

[2] Masoretic text is named after a group of scribes known as the Masorites who lived in Palestine. They copied and preserved manuscripts for Jews in 7th to 11th centuries.

[3] Geisler and Nix, A  General Introduction to the Bible, 1986 Moody Press Pg. 382

[4] Paul D. Wegner,  The Journey from Text to Translation,  Pg. 168, Baker Academics

[5] The Mishna is called the Oral Law, and contains the rabbinic traditions on various aspects of the five books of Moses. Jewish tradition claim the oral law was an oral transmission of law dating back to the time of Moses.  The Oral Law was placed into written text, becoming known as the Mishna. The Talmud is a commentary on the Mishna.

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica, 1994 Edition, Rabbinic Judaism, the age of the Tannaim.

[7]  Paul D. Wegner,  The Journey from Texts to Translation, Baker Academic,  Pg. 172

[8] This work was completed in 1977, and incorporates the work of the Masorites into a completed Hebrew volume for those wanting to study the Hebrew text.

[9] Ibid Pg. 173