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:
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 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 …
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