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The Copying of the Hebrew Bible

Here I continue on with my comments on the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, and the question of whether they were changed over the years.  Again, this is taken from my discussion in The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.


The Masoretic Text

The text of the Hebrew Bible that is read today and that is at the basis of all modern translations is called the Masoretic Text.  It is called this because the Jewish scholars who devised the rules for copying scripture are known as the Masoretes.   The term “masorete” comes from the Hebrew word masorah, which means “tradition.”  The Masoretes were the scholars who worked out ways to preserve the traditions of the Hebrew Bible.   They were active between 500-1000 CE.

To understand what the Masoretes accomplished, you need to remember that ancient written Hebrew was a language that used only consonants, not vowels.  Any language that is written only in consonants is open, obviously, to serious problems of interpretation.   Imagine if you were to write English that way.  Apart from context, you would have no way of knowing whether the word “npt” was “inept” or “input” or whether “mnr” was “minor,” “manor,” “moaner,” or “manure.”

Over the centuries of their work, the Masoretes accomplished several gargantuan tasks.  For one thing, they…

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Looking Back on the Blog 2016
Manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible



  1. Lowellbritt  December 29, 2016

    at some point during this thread will you be addressing the theories put forth by Richard Elliott Friedman in “Who Wrote the Bible” and Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in “The Bible Unearthed”? I would be interested in your perspective.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      I’m not planning to on this thread, but I will say that I htink both books are terrific and are precisely the ones I recommend to people who ask about the authorship and historicity of the Hebrew Bible.

  2. Gravenfox  December 29, 2016

    I’m a little confused about why there are so many more fragments and scrolls of the New Testament from the first millennium CE than from the Hebrew Bible. You mentioned that Jewish scribes destroyed their old copies when making new copies, but I gather that this wasn’t the approach that Christian scribes took. Did Christians from this period place less emphasis on the Hebrew Bible than they do today? Were they using the Septuagint instead and we have Greek fragments and scrolls from this period, but not Hebrew?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      Yes, Christians read the Greek Old Testament rather than the Hebrew (or later, the Latin Old Testament). Hebrew was used only by Jews. And yes, we have lots more Septuagint fragments than Hebrew. (And more Latin of course.)

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  December 29, 2016

    One issue is that the notion of an “every jot and tittle” level of fidelity didn’t become important until after the Temple was destroyed, and Jews were left having to sort out how to exercise a faith that depended on a Temple that no longer existed. By the end of the 2nd century, after various Jewish movements (such as that of Bar Kokhba and Rabbi Akiva) failed to rebuild the Temple, it became apparent to the surviving Jews that they were no longer a religion of a Temple, but were rather a religion of a book, and that’s when such meticulous fidelity became of paramount importance. The Bible became the means through which to worship God; the Bible became, effectively, the new Temple.

    • turbopro  December 31, 2016

      Thanks for this. This is an interesting development in Jewish history I should suppose.

      Might I ask if there are texts that detail these developments?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 1, 2017

        Bits and pieces of this history is scattered throughout the Talmud and other Rabbinic literature. There is no one, complete work.

        • turbopro  January 3, 2017


          Methinks that would be a book worth writing and reading.

  4. Tom  December 29, 2016

    This has been an immensely interesting thread, Dr. E. Thanks for putting it together.

  5. Robert  December 29, 2016

    Are there any obvious differing redactional perspectives displayed in the two basic versions of Jeremiah (Q, LXX vs MT)? I’m sure there must be many conflicting theories, but is there anything like a general consensus or significant agreement as to the redactional perspective responsible for the expansions and transpositions of the MT? Anything perhaps relating to the divergent tradition histories of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds? I’ve seen others propose an earlier potential Sitz im Leben already in the Babylonian Exile. (I figured it would be easier to ask you than to try to dig up my notes from Professor Bogaert!)

  6. James  December 29, 2016

    I do find it quite strange that virtually every Christian Bible these days translates the Masoretic Text, when we can see from the New Testament that from earliest times, Christians used and quoted the Old Testament in Greek. Wouldn’t it be more consistent to translate the Septuagint, especially in books such as Jeremiah where there is reason to believe that the Hebrew text was subject to editorial work after it was translated into Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      It’s a long story, but it goes back to the insistence by the Protestant Reformers that it was the original Bible in the original languages that was authoritative, not the Latin Vulgate.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 31, 2016

        So, if the Codex Leningradensis is the oldest complete Hebrew Bible we have, what is the oldest complete Christian Bible we have (I assume it preceded the Protestant Reformation) and was it’s Old Testament based on the Septuagint?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 1, 2017

          That would be Codex Sinaiticus, and yes, the Old Testament is in Greek.

          • TWood
            TWood  January 2, 2017

            In the Sinaiticus, is there evidence that it treated Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas less than canonical, even though it was basically part of the New Testament in Codex Sinaiticus? I believe Irenaeus and Tertullian believed the Shepherd was scripture… and if you can answer the same question regarding 1 & 2 Clement in Codex Alexandrinus (were they set apart from the canonical books they were among, or were they seen as scripture that belonged there?)… that’d be helpful.

            p.s. Not sure why, but this comment text box is bleeding into the right sidebar of the site (where the recent posts and books are)… not a huge deal but it’s hard to see and edit what you’re writing when your text goes behind an image or text in the sidebar… just an fyi in case someone else noticed it… I’ve got a brand new Mac Powerbook using Google Chrome… so there really shouldn’t be a conflict… again, not a big deal, but it’s worth fixing one day I think…

          • Bart
            Bart  January 3, 2017

            No, that’s one of the interesting things about Sinaiticus. It does not treat Barnabas and Shepherd any differently from the canonical books, but simply give them as part of its collection of Scripture.

          • TWood
            TWood  January 3, 2017

            That’s what I gathered too… thank you! and I think I misremembered Tertullian… I think it was Irenaeus and Origen (not Tertullian) who considered the Shepherd as scripture… but did Alexandrinus treat 1 & 2 Clement in the same way Sinaiticus treated The Shepherd and Barnabas (as part of the bible)?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 5, 2017


  7. rburos  December 29, 2016

    The amount of help you provide with this blog cannot be overstated. Thanks again and have a great new year.

  8. llamensdor  December 29, 2016

    without writing an entire book (which you are quite able to do if you haven’t done so already) is it possible to generalize about the differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text? Or at least provide a few examples of what you consider significant differences?

  9. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  December 29, 2016

    In your last sentence, are you referring to the alleged canonization of the Hebrew canon by Council of Jamnia? This story has been largely discredited, hasn’t it? What do scholars say now about who canonized the Tanakh and when they did?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      No, I don’t think the Bible was canonized at Jamnia. Maybe I’ll post on this.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 31, 2016

      Yeah, this can be a bit confusing, because different parts of the TaNaKh were “canonized” at different points in time, and in a specific order. The Torah was effectively set in stone by the time of Jesus, as was the Deuteronomic History (i.e. Former Prophets). By the time Yochanan ben Zakkai set up shop in Yavne post-Temple, the Latter Prophets were also pretty firmly established. However, the Ketuvim, especially books such as Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, were still routinely debated by the rabbis well into the Tiberian period of Yehuda ha-Nasi. The TaNaKh, as we have it today, is, for the most part, post-Tannaic, but definitely pre-Geonic.

  10. YahyaSnow  December 29, 2016

    Dr Ehrman, I really appreciate your dedication to produce interesting content for charity. Respect!

    Some apologists posit the idea of a controlled vs. uncontrolled textual transmission. They say the uncontrolled text transmission (ie. that of the NT where everybody and anybody copied the texts and proliferated texts widely through multiple streams) is stronger than that of a controlled textual transmission (where a governing body, say a government or council of rabbis, control the copying and distribution of the text).

    A. Do you think, closer to the time of writing the Torah, the textual transmission would have been “controlled” by the rabbis or left “uncontrolled” like the NT?

    B. Which type of transmission of text do you think is superior for ensuring accuracy and safeguarding against unauthorised changes, “Controlled” or “Uncontrolled”?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      I”m afraid I don’t see how an uncontrolled situation is likely to produce more standard results than controlled situations. Think, for example, of the manufacturing industries!! In any event, the evidence is quite clear that when uncontrolled and unskilled, the earlier scribes made far more mistakes than later ones. As to Torah, no, I think control came centuries later.

  11. gee140  December 29, 2016

    How does the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia compare to the Codex Leningradensis? When would you use one versus the other?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      It largely *is* Leningradensis!

      • gee140  December 31, 2016

        Thank you for the reply! Just on the second part, is there a reason to use one over the other? What are the differences?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 1, 2017

          I don’t think you would have ready access to an edition of Leningradensis itself — but maybe someone can correct me.

          • gee140  January 1, 2017

            Ok, thanks. I guess I assumed the Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia was the text you were referring to. I hope you have a great, well deserved, new year!

          • Bart
            Bart  January 2, 2017

            Ah, right you are! I wasn’t aware of this publication. For an informative review, with some comparison with the Stuttgart edition, see http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/v06/Dotan-ed2001rev.html

  12. jbjbjbjbjb  December 30, 2016

    Excellent post, thank you. I believe that the question of early flux can also be put this way – not only did the masoretes make firm the version they used, but – as you say – this standardisation process also helped *select* from multiple versions floating around. A key sentence from this post that stood out for me was this: “And they worked to make sure that no one would ever change the text **again** by implementing rules to be followed in the copying of the text.” (my emphasis). I agree with this “again” – it effectively means that we can read *occasion* into the whole enterprise. It was standardised…. because it wasn’t standardised…. because it *needed* standardisation.

    Once again, thank you. This post may have just convinced me to renew my membership! Happy New Year from France.

  13. mjt  December 30, 2016

    I’m trying to understand why “scholars today are reasonably certain that when the Masoretes started their work, they were dealing with a consonantal text that was already well established, that changes had not been made – at least significant changes – for centuries, since at least the end of the first century CE.”

    What evidence do scholars have, that demonstrates that the text had not undergone significant changes, from about 100CE to 500CE, when the Masorites started working on the text?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      It’s a great question! But I’m not sure *why* they’re so confident (and that it’s not simply wishful thinking). I’m afraid it’s not a field of expertise for me.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 31, 2016

      One clue is that we can compare the Hebrew of, say, the Mishna, which was written in the 2rd century CE with the Hebrew of the Bible itself, and we can see that the Rabbis who wrote the Mishna spoke and wrote a slightly different Hebrew (so-called Mishnaic Hebrew) from the Hebrew of the Bible itself. Now, I’m no Rabbi, so I’m not an expert in the difference between Mishnaic Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew, but as a speaker of Modern Hebrew I can say that when I read the Bible in Hebrew, I’m often left scratching my head and running to a Hebrew dictionary, but not so much when I read the Mishna in Hebrew. So I take that as a clue that the Masoretes who preserved the Hebrew text themselves knew and understood the difference between Mishnaic and Biblical Hebrew, and so they knew they were preserving the proper orthography and pronunciation of the Biblical Hebrew that went back as least as far as Temple times. (I HIGHLY doubt that the pronunciation we have today is the original pronuncation from the time of Ezra, but it’s reasonable that it may go back to the time of Jesus, as we can see from the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  December 31, 2016

      Isn’t part of the answer the Dead Sea Scrolls?

  14. RonaldTaska  December 30, 2016

    Excellent series. Thanks. I highly recommend Dr. Erhman’s textbook of the Bible.

  15. dankoh  December 30, 2016

    Fascinating! Now I have to wonder about the provenance of the LXX, since it too has the same vulnerabilities you’ve described here. Do you have any thoughts on its provenance?

    Another thought: The Gemara bases its arguments on citations from Scripture. Do you know how much those quotes differ from the Masoretic texts?

    And I hope you have a happy and prosperous new year!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2016

      I’m not sure what you mean about provenance. My hunch is that in different areas different Greek translations were made, and eventually one of them came to be more widely used than others. On the Gemara, I’m afraid I don’t really know!

      • dankoh  January 1, 2017

        “Provenance” might be a bit too strong here; I meant the degree to which we can be confident of the contents of the LXX at the time Paul and the gospel writers were using it.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 2, 2017

          Ah! That is an enormous problem. We don’t have the evidence we need. It is a perennial issue of scholarship: what form of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was available to Paul? Or to others at his time? Were there lots of Greek translations? How do we decide which form of the text was available where and when? Big problems!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 31, 2016

      The Talmud is made up the Gemara, the Mishna and excerpts from scripture. The Gemara is commentary, written in Babylonian Aramaic, on the Mishna, written in Mishnaic Hebrew. And the Mishna is commentary on the Torah, written in Biblical Hebrew. (Think of if like russian nesting dolls, with scripture inside of Mishna inside of Gemara — further inside Rashi, etc…it gets complicated.)

      The few excerpts of the Torah we see in the Talmud do, indeed, match the Masoretic text very closely. But we would expect that, because the Rabbis who wrote and compiled the Talmud were using the Masoretic texts!

      • dankoh  January 1, 2017

        As Bart pointed out in the article, the Masoretes were active from 500-1000 CE. The discussions recorded in the Gemara were largely over by then; almost all of them took place between 200-500 CE (we’re speaking of the Bavli, of course; the Yerushalmi probably ended sometime in the early 400s). So I would not say that the rabbis in either Talmud were using the Masoretic text, since it didn’t exist yet. They were using texts that became the basis of the MT, which is close to but not quite the same thing.

        Even in the Mishnah, the rabbis had to admit they didn’t always know what some of the words meant. Look for example at the 4 animals that have only one of the 2 simanim for kashrut; we know about the pig and the hare (though the hare actually lacks both simanim; this was a misunderstanding by the authors of the Torah), but the meaning of the other two terms had been lost by then. Somewhere in Huliin, but it’s been many years and I’ve forgotten exactly where.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  January 2, 2017

          You’re right. I meant to say that the Talmudists were working off the same texts as the Masoretes — namely, the Tiberian texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, which, by the 6th and 7th centuries, were standardized by the Masoretes.

  16. Prizm  January 3, 2017

    Angel Gabriel: Hooray, the time has come to reveal Your perfect Word to mankind!
    God: Make the text vague enough to be interpreted a hundred different ways.
    Angel Gabriel: But..
    God: And take out the vowels too. Just give them the crazy idea that vowels are too holy to be written down.
    Angel Gabriel: Oh come on.
    Jesus: lol
    God: rofl

  17. brandon284  February 12, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. A bit off topic but I had a question about the origins of Satan. Is it right that Satan originated in ancient Jewish thought during the Maccabean Revolt?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2017

      YEs, that’s when Jewish apocalytpicism came into being, and with it the view that God has a personal enemy, the devil.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  February 13, 2017

        Bart, what are our sources for that? One or more of the Book of Maccabees?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 14, 2017

          Yes, 1 and 2 Maccabees are our best sources of information about hte revolt itself. But not for the development of Apocalypticism, for which we depend instead on apocalyptic texts, such as the book of Daniel (chs. 7-12).

      • jrkovan  March 20, 2017

        Hi Dr. Ehrman – respectfully disagree. In traditional Judaism, the Satan is an angel of G-d, not an enemy of G-d… who accuses the Jews for their sins – in short, he is the accusatory angel. What is your support that Judaism ever held a view that Satan was an enemy of G-d? As a historian, you should follow the evidence where it leads…

        • Bart
          Bart  March 20, 2017

          I’m not disagreeing with that. I’m talking about what happened in apocalyptic Judaism, which, of course, came to be rejected by later rabbis (and does not represent the views of the Hebrew Bible either)

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