On December 10 and 11 I will be giving my eight-lecture remote course on “Finding Moses: What Scholars Know about the Exodus and the Jewish Law.”  This was supposed to happen a month earlier, but life got in the way and we had to postpone it.  The course is not connected to the blog per se, it is part of my other outreach program the Bart Ehrman Professional Services (BEPS), which hosts public courses and lectures.  To find out about the course and others like it, here’s the address: Online Courses by Dr. Bart Ehrman (10% Off First Order)

The course is one of a long series that I’ve started on the entire Bible, both Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) and NT.   My expertise, of course, is mainly NT and early Christianity; but all the way back in graduate school (about the time the book of Isaiah was written) my secondary field of training was Hebrew Bible, and I taught Introduction to Hebrew Bible at both Rutgers and UNC.

Some years ago when I decided to write my undergraduate textbook,  The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, and I decided that to do it right I had to re-tool in Hebrew Bible.  That was great fun: I got back into reading the Hebrew Bible (it was never one of my strongest languages, and these days ranks right up there with Swahili and Mandolin)  and I caught up on a good deal of scholarship.  For this course I’ve had a terrific time catching up on some of the most interesting more recent stuff.

In the next couple of posts I’ll be talking about the sorts of things I’ll be going into in greater depth in the course, just to give you a taste.  In this post I’ll be dealing with a preliminary matter that a lot of people ask me about: do we have a reliable account of what the authors of the Hebrew Bible (whoever they were!) actually *wrote*.  Or is it like the New Testament — lots of manuscripts, none original, and all of them changed in lots of ways, sometimes significantly?

As it turns out, the problems I’ve talked about in my publications and on the blog about the New Testament are even more pronounced for the Hebrew Bible.  The situation is much worse.

With the New Testament, we have over 5600 manuscripts in the Greek language that it was originally written in, some of the fragments dating to the second century.  With the Hebrew Bible, prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our Hebrew text was almost entirely based on

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one (count them, one) manuscript from around the year 1000 CE (called Codex Leningradensis).   Suppose the book of Amos was written in the middle of the 8th century BCE.  That means the first complete copy we had of it was produced some 1700 years later.  That would be, well … 1700 years.   With the New Testament we have complete copies within 300 years.

Some people who have read around on such things will feel their knees jerking right now, and they’ll be saying two things: (1) the Dead Sea Scrolls give us a reliable text! And (relatedly) (2) We know that Jews were unbelievably careful in their copying practices, so that they were virtually human Xerox machines, never making mistakes.  So, they’ll be saying, it doesn’t *matter* if we base the text on a  late manuscript.   A manuscript a thousand years earlier would have looked virtually the same!

So, let me respond by giving some information.

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered: 1947).  These were indeed the most remarkable discovery  – absolutely the most important discovery in biblical archaeology in modern times.  The most important.  Among the scrolls are copies (mostly fragmentary) of every book of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther.  And these copies are about a thousand years older than our previously oldest copy.  That’s the good news, and it is good news indeed.  And it gets better.  In some instances the copies of the Hebrew Bible among the Dead Sea Scrolls are almost word for word the same as Codex Leningradensis.  But along with the good news is some news that’s not so good.
      • We do not have complete copies of the Bible from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and many of the manuscripts are in fact highly fragmentary.  So we can’t check the entire text.
      • Worse: in some instances the text in the Dead Sea Scrolls is significantly different from the text in Codex Leningradensis.   The books of 1 and 2 Samuel, for example, have very significant differences.  And a copy of Jeremiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls is more like the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) than it is like Leningradensis, and the Greek version is 15% shorter than the Hebrew version.
      • Worse still, even though the Dead Sea Scrolls can tell us something about Jewish copying practices from around the first century BCE or first century CE, but they can tell us nothing about copying practices in earlier centuries.   That gets me to the second point.
  • Jewish copying practices.   It is true that Jewish scholars called the Masoretes, starting around 500 CE, and working for about the next five centuries, standardized the text of the Hebrew Bible and incorporated copying practices that were to be followed that more or less guaranteed that the text would not be changed by scribes copying it.  These practices really worked.  Scribes didn’t change the text (we believe).  (Some of the practices involved counting the numbers of words that were to be copied and then making sure the right number were copied, and other even more elaborate devices).

But here we have the same problem we had with the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Even if the text had been more or less standardized centuries before the Masoretes – say, around the time of the first century CE – that doesn’t help us if what we want to know is whether the text of the Hebrew Bible got changed from the *originals*.

Again, suppose Amos’s book was first put in circulation in the mid 8th century BCE (he is predicting a destruction by the Assyrians – which happened in 722 BCE – so he was writing before that).  And suppose that 800 years later, the words of his text were standardized and from then on, not changed.  How does that help us know how much it got changed *before* that time, during all those 800 years of copying and recopying, by who knows what scribes with who knows what skills?

In short, to this point, there simply is no way to know.  (That’s my view of the originals of the New Testament as well.)  We simply can’t know.  I’m not saying that we can know that the texts we have are radically different from the originals.  I’m saying we can’t know either way – whether they are radically different or basically the same.  Any one who argues one way or the other is doing it on the basis of faith, not knowledge.  I wish it were different!

But given the differences in date, I think it’s clear that with the manuscript tradition of the Hebrew Bible, we’re not in nearly as good a shape as we are with the New Testament, where, at least, we have thousands of copies.