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Problems with the Hebrew Bible Manuscripts


Bart, these issues you’ve found in the New Testament, have you studied and found similar issues in the Old Testament?”


Yes indeed!   Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) was my secondary field in my PhD program, and I taught Introduction to Hebrew Bible at both Rutgers and UNC.   A few years ago when I decided to write my Introduction to the Bible I decided that to do it right I had to re-tool in Hebrew Bible.  I’m by no means an expert, but I have caught up on a good deal of scholarship and re-learned Hebrew (I hadn’t read it in years).  I try to read some Hebrew Bible every morning; I’m not great at it, but I can slog through with a dictionary…..

So, I think it’s fair to say that the problems that I have talked about in my publications about the New Testament are even more pronounced for the Hebrew Bible.   I think I will take three of the big issues (I’m happy to address others if there are any questions people have – that I can answer!) and devote a brief post to each one.

In this post: The textual situation.   My book Misquoting Jesus was about how we do not have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament, but only copies made later – in most cases many centuries later, so that there are some places where specialists cannot agree on what the text originally said, and there are some places where we’ll probably never know.   The situation is much worse for the Hebrew Bible.  Much much worse.


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Inconsistencies in the Hebrew Bible
Jesus’ Inflammatory Words



  1. Avatar
    Yentyl  June 7, 2013

    Sigh. Why can’t life be easy?

    Anyway, article from Wikipedia:


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    RonaldTaska  June 7, 2013

    Another excellent question and excellent response. It’s odd that we have so many New Testament copies and so few Old Testament copies. I wonder why that occurred. Obviously, the two Testaments were not combined into one book for centuries. The history of the hows and whys of that combination would be interesting as well.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2013

      It happened because Jewish scribes who copied a text (very accurately!) then destroyed it. No need for it, once it was reproduced….

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  June 8, 2013

        Aha! That is so helpful. I had no clue why there would be so few ancient Old Testament manuscripts. That explains it. Thanks, Ron

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        HawksJ  June 7, 2016

        ////It happened because Jewish scribes who copied a text (very accurately!) then destroyed it. No need for it, once it was reproduced…////
        I admit, this doesn’t make sense to me. If they didn’t want two (or more) copies, why go to the effort of making a reproduction?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 8, 2016

          Right. But if they wanted only one copy, they wouldn’t need the original any longer.

      • Avatar
        jhague  May 25, 2018

        How do we know that the scribes destroyed the text they just reproduced?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 27, 2018

          Well, it’s common knowledge, but now that you mention it, I don’t know the source of information. Maybe someone can help us out here. I assume it’s in a rabbinic source?

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    toddfrederick  June 8, 2013

    This is a question that I have to ask myself constantly regarding “problems” in the manuscripts:

    It seems to me that the foundation of three great religions is based on the accuracy of sacred literature: the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and the Qur’an. If this foundation is shaken, the religions fall.

    Your job as a scholar is to examine the New Testament documents historically and textually using the tools of critical analysis. if the results of your work shows that the New Testament is unreliable then your are out of a job and the Christian religion (and other religions) is based on a lie.

    Many have come to that conclusion and have renounced their faith.

    My son asks me why I read your writings. Why don’t I read the works of people who believe that the bible is the source of life changing divine truth in the person of Jesus? I tell him that I read your writings because you tell us what is historically and textually correct without personal interpretation….that what you do is historical and linguistic and is not theology.

    Would that be a good, yet simple, way to express what you do?

    The real danger in scholarship of this sort is that we we may lose the baby in the bathwater.

    If scripture is discredited then the message is also discredited.

    I don’t think that such is true: we can study scripture honestly and still retain the truth of the message.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2013

      I would say that Christianity historically has *not* been about the Bible; that’s only a modern development.

      And I wouldn’t say that my views are presented without interpretation. I would say that my interpretations are guided by historical principles rather than religious or theological principles.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  June 8, 2013

        Thank you for your reply…it is a clarification I needed to confirm…that is: Christianity is based on more than a text.

      • Avatar
        bensonian  July 15, 2016

        If the idea that Christianity wasn’t so much about the Bible until recently, what about the first and second apologies of Justin Martyr written during the second century? He quotes scripture frequently, and refers to it as the Word of God.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 17, 2016

          I think the Bible has always been supremely important for Christian thinkers. It’s just the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible that is a modern phenomenon, the idea that the very words were somehow dictated by God and have no errors of any kind in them.

          • Avatar
            bensonian  July 18, 2016

            Ah, yes that makes more sense to me now. Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    raskel  June 8, 2013

    Unrelated question/ feel free to ignore/ but what was the meaning and status conferred on a person by virtue of being an apostle and what was the criterion for attributing it to a person in the early Church? Any good early primary sources available in translation addressing this issue?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2013

      Apparently the title simply meant one who was “sent” by Christ on a mission; it came to be understood as one who was especially commissioned by Christ for the mission; and from there it came to mean one of the original leaders of the early Christian church and its mission. The only primary sources we have are those of the New Testament.

      • Avatar
        raskel  June 8, 2013

        Thank you. I was thinking more in terms of Greek Fathers and the meaning of Apostolic Succession-what exactly was being passed down.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

          My sense is that the church fathers thought that an “apostle” was one of the original followers of Jesus who had a vision of him after his resurrection (so the eleven and Paul, basically).

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    James Dowden  June 8, 2013

    The thing I find amusing about Jeremiah is how the Alexandrian accretions (Baruch and the Epistle) got parcelled off into the Apocrypha, whilst the Palestinian accretions got left in the main text. If only someone would publish an English Bible with both sets of accretions removed. I suppose part of the problem there is that Baruch and the Epistle are really very readable when removed, whereas the Palestinian expansions would look more like the Additions to Esther in being totally disjointed.

  6. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  June 8, 2013

    I’ve always been amused about how 1 Samuel 13:1 reads so differently in numerous Bible translations. Saul was how old and reigned how many years? Some Bibles just place “…” “…” for the years. Dr. Ehrman, do you have any other facts on that passage? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2013

      I’m afraid there are no facts to be had! The surviving witnesses don’t give us a number!

  7. Avatar
    Jerry  June 8, 2013

    When will your introductory book about both the OT and NT of the Bible be out?


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    seeker_of_truth  June 8, 2013

    very interesting!

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    mister.friendly  June 8, 2013

    I am (as you know) very interested in all this. I am interested here in your comment that you, “slog through [Hebrew] with a dictionary…”

    When dealing with an ancient language like this with – I presume – little in the way of extant examples of the language how easy is it to compile a reliable dictionnary? What is the meaning of the hebrew word ‘yom’? Does it mean day as we understand it or something else? What about ‘raqia’ often translated as firmament? And ‘tsela’ – does it mean or correspond to the English word ‘rib’?

    It is not so much these particular examples which interest me (though they do) but more the general question which I might put to you thusly:

    Having studied the NewTestament in Greek and being familiar with that language and now struggling with Biblical Hebrew what personal reflections might you share as to where the linguistic difficulties lie for the would be scholar of the Old Testament?

    Hope that makes sense. Very keen to follow the thread you have already started here. Many thanks for all this.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2013

      Yes, the linguistic difficulties of ancient Hebrew are much more pronounced than for ancient Greek (or ancient Latin, e.g.). That’s because we have so many, many more texts in Greek (and Latin) than in Hebrew, making it possible to establish the meanings of words with fair reliability. With Hebrew it is much more difficult. Linguists who specialize in ancient Semitic languages, as a result, need to rely heavily on cognate languages to help them establish the meaning of Hebrew roots. And so a real expert will also know Ugaritic, Akkadian, Sumerian, and possibly even other languages! It’s not for the faint of heart. And it is not guess work. It is unbelievably difficult and disciplined hard-core scholarship. I’ve known some of the top scholars of ancient Semitic languages. They are quite stunning in their knowledge and abilities.

      • Avatar
        richard  October 10, 2014

        Hello Doc Ehrman

        “Linguists who specialize in ancient Semitic languages, as a result, need to rely heavily on cognate languages to help them establish the meaning of Hebrew roots”

        any books you can recommend on this problem?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 10, 2014

          Hmmm. Great question. I”m afraid I don’t know. If they do exist, they would presuppose knowledge of Akkadian, Ugaritic, and so on….

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    John  June 9, 2013

    Bart , do you think that there was coordination at some point between those responsible for the Christian and Hebrew Bible? If not they surely had a copy of the Hebrew when they presented the Christian Bible. Is it probable that the Hebrew was written in Babylon? Coincidentally the Old Testament references Egypt often , where they imported their worldview from through Canaan, so they are in essence condemning what they are entrenched in as if it were someone else but not them personally. Tragically the New Testament inherently possesses these same paradoxical attributes of blame, murder, and false worship, the same paradoxical attributes that Genesis describes as consequences of the freewill fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that manifested from Adam to Cain. Clearly there is no coincidence here, just fruit. Furthermore instead of interpreting the discovery of of the dead sea scrolls as proof validating the bible, couldn’t it instead be seen as the forgery factory is is?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 9, 2013

      The Christian Bible was put together by church leaders who already had the “Old Testament” in its Greek translation. The Hebrew Bible was principally, but not exclusively, written in Israel itself. The Dead Sea Scrolls do not “validate” the Bible in the sense of showing that what it says is true; they simply show (a) that there were copies of the Bible very much like what one could find later, a thousand years earlier and (b) how some Jews were interpreting the Bible.

  11. Avatar
    SHameed01  July 9, 2013

    Were the Deutrocanonical books originally part of the Hebrew Bible?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013


      • Avatar
        SHameed01  July 9, 2013

        Weren’t there Hebrew/Aramaic of the Deutrocanonical books found in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2013


          • Avatar
            SHameed01  July 10, 2013

            If so, how would you explain the following words from the following link: http://www.oswaldsobrino.com/2003/05/dead-sea-scrolls-and-deuterocanonical.html? ( see below)

            Of the deuterocanonical books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Sirach is found in Hebrew, the Epistle of Jeremiah (Baruch 6) is found in Greek (although the editors state that it was “likely composed in Hebrew”), and Tobit is found in the Semitic languages of Aramaic and Hebrew (see DSC, pp. 599, 628, & 636). Some of those who raised doubts about the original language of some of the deuterocanonicals were fathers of the Church, who now stand corrected. As Joseph Fitzmeyer, S.J., who was part of the early editorial team working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, has written concerning the book of Tobit: “The fact that we now have both Aramaic and Hebrew forms of the book of Tobit reveals something about the book which neither Origen nor Jerome knew” (Joseph Fitzmeyer, S.J., The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins, p. 135 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2000])

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2013

            Veyr interesting. Thanks.

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    CalifiorniaPuma  December 17, 2013

    As a scholar, how do you ascertain whether an ancient manuscript is the *original*, even if it dates to the appropriate period? We may have only copies of the Old & New Testament books, but if much older manuscripts came to light, could you or your colleagues ever determine that a manuscript was an original? It sounds problematic in any ancient setting. Sorry if you covered this before and I missed it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      Yes, I’ve covered it a bit. My view is that it would be next to impossible to know if a copy from the right period is the original

  13. Avatar
    richard gills  September 16, 2014

    does the torah say that parts of it were burnt?

  14. Avatar
    richard  October 22, 2014

    Dr Ehrman

    Genesis 28:20-21:

    20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then Yahweh shall be my God.

    is yhwh understood here as a proper name for god or understood as an epithet?
    if as a proper name then was EL the dominant god who presided over yhwh?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2014

      YHWH is almost always the personal name of God in the Hebrew Bible. El or Elohim sometimes seems to function as a name, but it typically is a noun meaning “God” — as here.

      • Avatar
        richard  October 23, 2014

        Dr Ehrman

        how do you understand , ” YHWH shall be my God ” ?

        is it something Jacob chooses to be his god or is it no choosing at all but simply the name for god in ” if god will be with me…”
        in other words yhwh and elohim is the same name for the same god ?

        i think there are some scholars who say yhwh was a junior diety and El fathered yhwh

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2014

          He is choosing which God (Elohim) to make his own, and chooses YHWH from among them.

          • Avatar
            Kazibwe Edris  January 7, 2016

            if “elohim” in genesis is in the plural, then do you mean that yhwh is among the elohims?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 8, 2016

            Sometimes plurals refer to a singular, as when you say “heavens” to mean “sky” or “outerspace” or when the Queen says, We are not amused. Elohim is indeed plural, but its referent is singular.

          • Avatar
            Kazibwe Edris  January 19, 2016

            Jacob building an altar at Shechem and invoking ‘El, god of Israel’ (Gen 33:20)

            Genesis 28:20-21:

            20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then Yahweh shall be my God.

            Jacob promise that yahweh, not el or elohim, would be his god, why? is EL different than the god jacob chooses?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 19, 2016

            For the biblical author, at least, Yahweh and El are one and the same.

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  January 19, 2016

        “For the biblical author, at least, Yahweh and El are one and the same.”

        you mean for the author of genesis? is it true that scholars say yhwh was a lesser diety than el elyon and this idea is from the earliest parts of the torah?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 20, 2016

          Yes, whoever produced the Pentateuch in the form we have it now understood that YHWH was El was El Elyon was Eloim was Adonai, etc.

  15. Avatar
    Blackie  October 25, 2014

    Perhaps this question is out of left field. Was there a time when the ancient Hebrews polytheistical. Was Moses the founder of monotheism? In the epoch of henotheism and the birth of national gods was the storm god Yahweh promoted to Elohim and YHWH. Well God was surrounded by the heavenly host(angels of all ranks and service). There was deference for other spiritual beings but eventually only one multitasking god with auxiliaries.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2014

      Yes, certainly many ancient Israelites believed there were many gods, and the prophets are good evidence that many Israelites worshiped multiple gods.

  16. Avatar
    Adam Beaven  March 1, 2015

    Doctor Ehrman

    is the suffering servant guilty of his own sins in is 53:10?

    who is giving the soul as an offering?
    the sufferer ?

    “If his soul doth make an offering for guilt, ”

    who’s guilt? his guilt?

    many jews are arguing that the suffering servant is a sinner

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      His sins or the sins of the people (probably the latter)

  17. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  February 6, 2016

    Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

    [2] And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.
    [3] So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.

    if God spoke everything into existence, why is the author saying that he took rest?

  18. Avatar
    Saleem-Egan  April 25, 2020

    You mentioned that there are significant differences between some parts of the DSS to the Hebrew bible we have today, can you mention some of these differences to me, particularly the ones that have significant theological value?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2020

      The scroll of Jeremiah — it is jsut a portion of the book — is closer to the form of the text of the Greek version than the Hebrew, and that Greek version is 15% shorter than the Hebrew version that lies beyind our English translations.

      • Avatar
        Saleem-Egan  April 26, 2020

        So does this mean that later scribes added more to the Hebrew Bible in the book of Jeremiah? If so, does the portion which was added speak to any motivations the scribes had?

        I want to know if my understanding of the history of Bible is correct: Initially the Old Testament was written in Hebrew thousands of years ago but these manuscripts have not survived today. Then came the Septuagint written by Jewish scribes for the Jewish community in Egypt who only knew Greek and could not read Hebrew and was written around Jesus’ time or a little before. The Septuagint was presumably written from sources of the Hebrew Bible which we do not have today. Centuries after the Septuagint was written the Masoretic text started to be compiled but was this text written from other Hebrew sources that we currently do not have today or was the Septuagint used translate it from Greek back to Hebrew for the masoretic text? Is there anything about this that I got wrong? If there are any lessons to learn from the DSS, would it be that the Septuagint is validated and more accurate than the Masoretic text? Thanks so much Dr Ehrman.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 27, 2020

          Someone either added things or took away something. In *some* biblical books of the Dead Sea Scrolls the texts are remarkably *similar* to those in the later Hebrew manuscripts. It goes both ways. But all the manuscripts we have would be based on manuscripts much earlier. The Masoretic text through the middle ages was remarkably stable.

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