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How Accurate are our Copies of the Hebrew Bible?

After my recent posts on the Dead Sea Scrolls a number of readers have asked me about the surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible.  Is it true that Jewish scribes didn’t make copying errors and intentional alterations in the copies of the Hebrew Bible they produced, unlike the Christian scribes who made thousands?  How many manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible do we have?  How have the Dead Sea Scrolls affected our understanding of Jewish copying practices?

All terrific questions – both interesting and important.  I give an explanation of the situation in the second edition of my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.  Here it is:

 

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THE TEXT OF THE HEBREW BIBLE

We have seen that the earliest writings of the Hebrew Bible were probably produced during the eighth century B.C.E. This is the date of the oldest prophets such as Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem. When an ancient author produced a book, he obviously wrote it out by hand. And if anyone wanted a copy, he had to copy it by hand (or pay someone else to do it for him)—one page, one sentence, one word, one letter at a time. The term “manuscript” literally means “handwritten copy.” The books of the Hebrew Bible were passed down in manuscript form year after year, century after century. It was not until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century C.E. that things changed. Then it was possible to mass produce copies of books. And, more important, it was possible to make sure that every single copy of a book was exactly like every other copy, with no sentences, words, or even letters different from one copy to the next. That was not the case with manuscripts. Scribes who copied a text could change the text whenever they felt the need: maybe they thought the copy they were copying had a mistake in it and they wanted to correct it; maybe it didn’t say exactly what they wanted it to say, and so they changed it. Moreover, scribes could simply make a mistake when they were not adequately trained to do the job of copying, or when they were inattentive or sleepy.

The Manuscripts

The first printed copy of the Hebrew Bible (that is, from a printing press) appeared in 1488. Before then, for over two millennia, the Bible had been produced and reproduced by hand in manuscript form. The printers of the fifteenth century and later, of course, had to decide what to print, and for that they had to use manuscripts that were available to them. If what they used were manuscripts with lots of mistakes in them, then necessarily the printed version of the Bible—now in many, multiple copies—would reproduce the mistakes made by the scribes who had, centuries earlier, copied the text by hand.

Today there are millions of printed copies of the Bible in Hebrew and in modern translations, all produced by modern means. But what manuscripts are these printings based on?

The oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that we have, which is the basis for modern printings, is called …

The answers to the questions above may not be what you expect!   Want to keep reading?  Become a member of the blog.  It costs very little, and all your fee goes directly to charities dealing with the very needy.  So why not do some good for yourself and the universe at large?  Join!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    tskorick  July 1, 2020

    I picked up the Rahlfs-Hanhart Greek Septuagint from the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft web store (cheaper than Amazon, but slower) and am really enjoying it. Is there a book (or books) containing a good, deep scholarly comparison between Jewish bible texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls and related texts in the Septuagint that you would recommend?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      Maybe Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible by Emmanuel Tov (he’s one of the world experts)

      • Avatar
        tskorick  July 3, 2020

        Awesome I’ll check that out. Thanks!

      • Avatar
        nichael  July 4, 2020

        I’ll just add that in addition to the book that Prof Ehrman mentions, Tov also has a book dealing specifically with the Septuagint: “The Text Critical Use of the Septuagint”.

      • Avatar
        Yodidiyahu  July 4, 2020

        Hi Professor, thank you for your dedication to the ancient texts of life. Would you agree, without the proper Gematria of a word in Hebrew, the true meaning may be concealed? For example, some names have been changed slightly, David דוד and דויד. One is 14, one is 24

        • Bart
          Bart  July 5, 2020

          I would say that the concept of a “proper” Gematria is a complicated one. Proper according to whom? (It’s not like a mathmatical equation that has a right and wrong answer)

          • Avatar
            Yodidiyahu  July 6, 2020

            Thank you for your response, Professor. I admire how you see things. I am speaking specifically Hebrew gematria. I have discovered two systems, one is used for Biblical revealing, the other is used for numbering and counting. Jews are taught (at least the ones I have encountered) את = 401. However, את can also equal 23. ת is 22. א is 1. We know for a fact Halleys comet comes about ever 76 years. Yosef Son of Jacob was born 76 years after the death of Father Abraham. Eye of the LORD in Hebrew עיני יהוה is 76. Have you noticed in Matthews Genealogy of Jesus, there are 76 years omitted within the Kings of Judah. (Omitted: Ahaziah 1 year, Athaliah 6 years, Jehoash 40 years, Amaziah 29 years). Just a few connections with 76. בראשית is also 76 in Biblical Gematria. Did the Ancient Prophets know how to use Gematria? תודה

          • Bart
            Bart  July 7, 2020

            Where did you find that ת is 22? I’m not sure where you’re getting your numbers from, but in the ancient world, many people had a field day with them…

          • Avatar
            Yodidiyahu  July 8, 2020

            The Creator has us all numbered. יהוה is 26, always. דוד is 14 or דויד is 24. I usually tend to go with the less common route to the narrow gate. יודידיהו is 55 יודידיה is 49. Most Prophets had the Vav at the end of their name. אליהו. Some how the Vav got removed over time and hate for the Prophets. אליה = 28. Have you any correction with the number 112 or 118 in Biblical History? I know the Jews love 112. בראשית ברא אל equals 112 in Biblical Gematria or as I call it now, Gematria of the Prophets. If you multiply 112 by 28, you get 3136…Uzziah the King of Judah ruled during this time in year 3136 he would have ruled for 21 years. 3136 plus 63 years is 3199, Hezekiah begins to rule and Isaiah is walking in Judah. 3199 plus 6 or (the Vav) you get 3205, exile of the Northern Tribes. 118 multiplied by 28 (אליה) is 3304. Josiah found the Lost Scroll on His eighteenth year. 3304 Josiah was ruling for 19 years, one year after finding the Lost Scroll. Found the Lost Priestly Scroll in 3303.

  2. Avatar
    Scott  July 1, 2020

    My first thought is: Why did the Masoretes feel the need to accomplish this “Gargantuan task”? Were they just bored or was there a problem in the prior copies that required immense and sustained effort? In other words was the mere existence of this effort evidence that the situation was not “alright” in the 5th century?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      Defintely not that they were bored. There were probably lots of different copies and they needed to standardize the text.

  3. Avatar
    janmaru  July 1, 2020

    We don’t know if Shakespeare ever commissioned a portrait, but after he became famous, artists created very imaginative images of him out of thin air. There are two images of Shakespeare that are unambiguously recognized as him, although posthumous. And they both differ in detail even if some patterns can be shown as consistent.
    But the first statue or portrait thought to be based on a photographic image is the south-east corner Trafalgar Square bronze of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, who died of dysentery during the second siege of Lucknow.
    But a photograph of an imaginary late portrait of Shakespeare would make it more true than a real memory?

  4. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  July 1, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I have a question unrelated to this post. In your brief descriptions of each book of the New Testament, you give a overview of the book of James. It’s long been recognized that James is not saying that Faith Alone doesn’t save. That would put him at odds with Paul. I’ve heard you mention in other places, you don’t think there’s a contradiction between James and Paul. The accurate understanding of the text, is that James is comparing and contrasting the “Type” of faith that saves. A faith that shows itself true by its works compared to a faith that’s nothing more than an empty profession of mouth. All talk, no walk. You know very well the implications of suggesting that James believed in works based salvation. James is describing the type of faith that saves, he is not saying faith alone doesn’t save. Saving faith always produces works. But it’s faith that saves.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      I don’t think that the fact he might be at odds with Paul is a determinative factor in figuring out what he said. People contradict one another all the time. But no, I personally don’t think they are talking about exactly the same thing, so they’re not at complete odds.

  5. Avatar
    veritas  July 1, 2020

    Very informative and interesting and surprising to learn that the oldest full Hebrew Bible is from 1000 CE. In a way I can see why the Dead Sea Scrolls helped, in some sense, legitimize the validity of the Hebrew Bible. Why did it take so long , in your view, for the Hebrew Bible to come forth, considering the Jews were at that time the only true believers of one monotheistic God and practiced some very strict adherence to that belief and the Jesus ( Christian) movement was uprising?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      I’m not sure what you have in mind when you talk about the Hebrew Bible taking so long or coming forth. Coming up with a canon of Scripture made them unusual; it’s not the natural move of a religious movement (that is, no other religion in antiquity had a canon of Scripture, so there’s no reason that Jews would have been expected to have come up with one, earlier, later, or at all)

  6. Avatar
    Leopard75  July 1, 2020

    I’m curious what the strict masoretic rules were.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      I’m afraid I don’t know, but my sense is that they were long, complicated, and detailed.

      • Avatar
        Helbig  July 5, 2020

        I was told years ago that they counted the number of letters in each book they copied backwards and forward. The number obtained had to match a standard.

  7. Avatar
    uziteaches  July 1, 2020

    Bart, I don’t think that when Jewish scribes completed their own manuscripts, they destroyed the ones they copied from. Traditional Jewish culture places a very high premium on the sacredness of Scripture, and willfully destroying a scroll is a serious sin. There are surely reasons for the lack of older manuscripts, but destruction by scribes is not one of them. Uzi Weingarten

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      One reason to destroy a copy once you’ve made an exact copy of it is precisely to prevent the possiblity of it being handled in a disrespectful or sacrilegious way — that is, it is precisely *because* it is sacred that it is reverentially destroyed.

  8. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  July 1, 2020

    Bart, I was wondering if you ever read your members biographical info? You probably do not have enough time. I just think it would be interesting who is a member on your blog and their background.

  9. Avatar
    dankoh  July 1, 2020

    This is one reason I like the Robert Alter translation. He starts with the Masoretic, but he also refers to the LXX, to Targum and Talmud, manuscripts, other sources. Whenever he deviates from the MT, he has a footnote explaining why.
    Incidentally, I had occasion once to check something in the Qumran Isaiah scroll (whether that version uses ‘almah) and found that the Israel Museum has it all online. Neat! (And yes, it does use ‘almah.)

    • Avatar
      nichael  July 3, 2020

      I think this is pretty standard practice.

      Another notable example is the Tanakh (i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures) by the Jewish Publication Society. The translation is primarily based on the Masoretic Text, but where the translators feel it is necessary to base their translation on another source (or, for example, where there is no consensus on the meaning of the Hebrew Text) the issue is explained in the footnote.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  July 5, 2020

        I do have the NJPS; I use it primarily because it’s a bilingual edition. But, at least in the copy I have, there is very little room for footnotes and so the NJPS really doesn’t give any explanation. Alter’s notes are extensive and detailed.

  10. Avatar
    Matt2239  July 2, 2020

    It’s certainly an interesting coincidence that the Hebrew Bible in scrolls and the original Greek New Testament gospels in codexes all occurred in the first century. Makes you wonder if the split between followers of Jesus and the traditionalists in the temple were actually dividing up over things like language (Hebrew versus Greek) and media (scrolls versus codexes). The destruction of the temple is also an interesting contrast. While palestine was in such upheaval that it led to a revolt and the destruction of the temple, the Hebrew canon was finalized. You might expect that the turmoil and unrest in the region would prevent consensus around such a fundamental topic.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      There were Hebrew Bible scrolls long before the days of Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Matt2239  July 4, 2020

        Yes, there were Hebrew scrolls long before Jesus, and Jesus claimed to bring a “new” law. He was crucified, and then all these codexes in Greek began to circulate. The more you look at the historical context, the more you become convinced that Jesus and his disciples are the most unlikely historical figures ever.

  11. Avatar
    Poohbear  July 2, 2020

    Quote – ” the Hebrew Bible were probably produced during the eighth century B.C.E. This is the date of the oldest prophets such as Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem.”

    There’s four options concerning those supposed 8th Century BC scribes

    1 – they had a wealth of oral tradition to convert to text.

    2 – they were transcribing Bronze Age documents.

    3 – they were telling porkies

    4 – 21st Century AD scribes are telling porkies.

  12. Avatar
    Zak1010  July 2, 2020

    Dr Ehrman

    The NRSV omitted lots of key theological verses from previous Bible versions ( raising all sort of theological concerns)
    Am I right in correctly understanding that the Masoretic text was modified by the Septuagint ( centuries later ) which also omitted key theological verses from the Masoretic text. After all, all these versions whether NT or OT are human translations of possibly altered previous scripts?
    If so, how can the Septuagint be credible? The bigger question, don’t the Gospels depend on the Septuagint ? I mean with out the Septuagint… there is no NT => no Bible or credible Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      Which verses are you thinking of? I’m not aware of a lot that were omitted that had previously been included by, say, the RSV or the RV etc…. As to the Septuagint: no the Masoretic text didn’t exist until the Masoretes came up with it, which was centuries after the Greek translation(s) had been made and circulated.

      • Avatar
        Zak1010  July 6, 2020

        Matthew 17:21
        Matthew 18:11
        Mark 15:28
        Mark 16:15
        Mark 16:17 and 18
        Matthew 6:13
        Luke 8:11-12
        and of course 1 John 5:7

        Here are some, but I was not trying to open this up to be about the NT, but about the credibility of the OT. Only because the NT depends on the OT and it f the OT is questionable then how about the Bible as a whole?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2020

          Sorry — since you didn’t repeat your original point, I’m not sure why you’re naming these verses (neither will other readers of the comments). It’s a pain, but you’ll need to say what they are proving.

          • Avatar
            Zak1010  July 9, 2020

            Apologies, I thought since these posts follow each other, they would be concurrent. As for the versus quoted, I thought you were asking me for examples of omitted versus in the NT.

            Reliability and credibility of the OT in question.

            From Nabukhadnassar 6th century BC with a pit stop in 90 AD (The Council of Jamnia) till 6th century AD. ( 1000 years )
            The 3 major groups of Jews were the Samerites, the palestinian hebrews and the exiled Jews mainly Alexandrian.
            They differed on what should be in the OT. One only accepted the 5 books of Moses, the second added some books and rejected others, while the third (exiled) group added lots of books which eventually became the Jewish OT Canon.
            With differences in which books should be in the OT ( Song of Songs, Daniel, Esther and others specially Izekial which almost did not make it into the Canon) 2 of these groups rejected the Septuagint all together.

            With this being said, since the NT is dependent on the OT and the OT is not original ( 1000 years of human errors ) Doesn’t that show the non credibility of the NT and or the Bible as a whole?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 10, 2020

            A book can be true even if copyists end up altering it, I should think.

  13. Avatar
    fishician  July 2, 2020

    “The most famous is a complete copy of the book of Isaiah.” Is this just by chance, or was there a reason for including a complete copy of Isaiah? (I.e., were there originally other complete books that didn’t survive, or was Isaiah specifically preserved?) If so, why Isaiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      Ah, right, I didn’t explain that very well. It’s not that Isaiah was the one text they decided to copy in full. They had full copies of most of the biblical books. It’s just that the Isaiah one happened not be eaten by worms or destroyed by the elements.

  14. Avatar
    AndrewB  July 2, 2020

    Hello, Dr. Ehrman,
    If I recall correctly, is it the scholarly consensus that the Septuagint is based on a version of the Hebrew bible that is older than the Masoretic text? I know you discussed how the oldest Masoretic text is 1000 A.D. aside from some parallel documents from the Dead Sea Scroll, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that the Septuagint would have referred to polytheistic things like God in his court talking to other gods rather than angels, etc., and that this was a sign of older origins-willingness to discuss things in a way that might have upset later Jews (and Christians). With later codexes re-writing those moments as angels, etc., rather than gods. Am I making sense? I’m not sure.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      The Hebrew Bible talks about such things as well (“Let us make man in our own image”; or the openig of Job and the “sons of God” etc.) But yes, since the Septuagint was made centuries before teh Masoretes started their work, necessarily it was based on older forms of the Hebrwe than that found in the medieval Masoretic text.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  July 5, 2020

        There is also the famous (re)translation of Ex. 22:27 in the LXX, where “elohim” is rendered literally in the plural: “Do not curse gods.” This is unique in Jewish translations, and a number of scholars, including Robert Goldenberg (who cites to Tcherikover, among others) say it is fairly obviously an attempt at “Jewish community-relations publicity.” (Goldenberg adds that it didn’t work.)

  15. Avatar
    nichael  July 2, 2020

    A view common among knowledgeable Jewish friends with whom I’ve discussed this issue is basically this:

    “OK, let’s concede that there may (or may not) have been textual problems with the Hebrew Scriptures in ‘the old days’. But in a real sense that is basically irrelevant in that we’ve essentially *defined* the Masoretic Text (that is, roughly, the text established by the Rabbis) to be the ‘official’ (or perhaps better, the ‘sanctioned’) sacred text.”

    (I certainly don’t claim that this is a view held by all Jews —or indeed, perhaps even a common view among all Jews—; but it has always struck me as a very sensible approach.)

  16. Avatar
    aarsen  July 2, 2020

    was the septuagint scripture changed to seem more christian ? and more prophecies fit in ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2020

      No, teh septuagint manuscripts we have now are not Christianized.

  17. Avatar
    nichael  July 2, 2020

    Can you suggest a good book for those who might want to pursue this topic in more detail?

    (For example, I have Emmanuel Tov’s book on Textual Criticism of the OT, as well as his book on “The Text Critical Use of the Septuagint”. Any others?)

    Thanks as always.

  18. Avatar
    hankgillette  July 3, 2020

    Who made the brilliant decision to have a written language that left out the vowels? It would be obvious to anyone (one would think) that this could cause serious misunderstandings. Have you ever written about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      Ah. Right. They didn’t decide to leave out the vowels. They were writing before anyone in their environment had thought about having vowels (in written texts). Students of ancient Hebrew (well, the serious ones) even today learn to read the language without vowels and as you may know, modern Hebrew doesn’t have letters for vowels either.

  19. Avatar
    clerrance2005  July 3, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    1. What then may be the evidence for a possible tempering of Jewish scripture between the pre and post exilic periods?

    2. And in light of the Samaritan text (Samaritan Pentateuch) especially given the striking dissimilarity between the Jews and Samaritans?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      1. Hard evidence? We don’t have any hard evidence for Jewish Scripture in those periods. I.e, any evidence, of any kind, about any of it.

      2. I’m not sure how many differences there are between the hebrwe and Samaritan pentateuchs. Maybe someone else on the blog does?

  20. Avatar
    Phillipos98  July 3, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you know of or could you recommend any auhoritative scholars on Gnosticism and/or works written by them
    that are available for laypeople?
    Since there seem to be so little agreement among Scholars in the field it is hard for me as a layperson to find reliable and recent works by experts on Gnosticism (and to know who the experts are).

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      A good place to start is the classic by Elaine Pagels, the Gnostic Gospels. Written for lay folk. So too most of her other writings. If you want a serious explanation of Gnosticism that is not at the high scholarly level (doesnt’ require Coptic!), you might try David Brakke, The Gnostics.

      • Avatar
        nichael  July 5, 2020

        …and never missing an opportunity to plug The Great Courses, I’ll mention that TGC has an (as is to be expected) excellent course by Dr Brakke on this topic: “Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas”.

        (In view of your question I’ll add that I found Dr Brakke’s book and course especially helpful in that both make clear the wide variety of issues and philosophies encompassed by the term “Gnosticism”.)

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