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What About the Original *Old* Testament?

Recently several readers have asked me about the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible; I talk a lot about the New Testament on the blog, but what about the Old Testament?  Are there problems there too?

Short answer, yes indeed.  I’d say!   Here’s how I dealt with this in a post long ago, back in the days of my youth.  Only one thing is different.  I don’t read from the Hebrew Bible every morning any more.  I’ve gotten obsessed with classical Latin!   Apart from that, everything here is still spot-on.  Or at least what I would continue to say, which admittedly is not the same thing….



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…..

I think it’s fair to say that the problems I have talked about in my publications about the New Testament are even more pronounced for the Hebrew Bible.   Here 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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Now: Literary Inconsistencies in the Old Testament
Some Pitfalls of Writing for a General Audience



  1. Avatar
    lmabe10  September 10, 2019

    I’m sure you’ve answered this before, so forgive me, but given the recent discussions on trade books and the Old Testament, do you have any recommendations for scholar-written trade books about the OT?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Ah, I’ve started in on the topic on today’s post. Best places for popular books: Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible; and Siliverman and Finkelstein, Excavating the Bible.

      • Avatar
        Boltonian  September 10, 2019

        The Bible Unearthed?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 11, 2019

          sorry, that’s what I mean. I was in a bit of a rush!

      • Avatar
        lmabe10  September 10, 2019

        Is it possible you were referring to “The Bible Unearthed” by Siliverman and Finkelstein? It appears the book “Excavating the Bible” is an apologist defense of the bible’s historical accuracy.

  2. Avatar
    XanderKastan  September 10, 2019

    I’m curious about your comment that Amos must have been written before the predicted destruction by the Assyrians. I haven’t read this book and do not know the historical facts, but I assume that conclusion is because Amos got significant details wrong that he most likely would have known if he were writing after the event. Or there is other reason to believe that he is living at a time just before the event and has an inkling that it is likely. Otherwise, the assumption would be that he must have written after the event and pretended to predict what already happened. Do I understand that correctly?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Read the book! It’s fantastic. But he is predicting, not describing, the coming destruction.

  3. Avatar
    Hon Wai  September 10, 2019

    For many books of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Pentateuch with layers of different source materials and centuries of editing, the very notion of the original copy is problematic.
    Any plans to publish the analogue of “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus Interrupted” applied to the Hebrew Bible? You can be sure it will be another bestseller.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2019

      Nah. But it’s been done. See, e.g., the bestselling book by Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?

  4. Avatar
    Marco Stacey  September 10, 2019

    This is a question I brought up in my OT class and the answer: We just don’t know.
    My question for you is this: If the manuscripts were changed over time, as someone reading the old copy what would be the explanation I would get in regards to the changes if I were to bring it up?

    Also Dr. Ehrman, what is the go-to translation for yourself regarding the Hebrew bible? Do you have any comment on Robert Alter’s work as such?

    I’m taking Biblical Hebrew this winter and terrified. That means it will be fun

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2019

      Good! Enjoy the class. It can be great fun if you throw yourself into it. My preferred translation is still the NRSV. And I’m not sure I understand your opening question.

      • Avatar
        Marco Stacey  September 11, 2019

        My apologies, my question made no sense. What I was asking was this:
        Because the Hebrew Bible was edited over a long period of time how does one argue as to what was original? What is the current Scholarly position as to our basis for comparison? When we are referencing the Hebrew Bible…what version are we referring to? I refer to texts in the OT but I actually dont know their backstory to the translation im reading. I take it as face value. Could you maybe provide some backdrop please. When I open my bible are Jewish people reading the same text in English as I?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 12, 2019

          Ah. Yes, that’s the problem: there *is* no basis for comparison. All we have are the manuscripts and early references in writers to early manuscripts. But yes, the English Bible you read is a translation of the Hebrew Bible that people who can read Hebrew read. Some words, different language (which, of course, creates its own problems).

  5. Avatar
    fishician  September 10, 2019

    It seems to me that fundamentalists shoot themselves in the foot when they argue that either the OT or the NT has been passed down to us in pristine unaltered manner. Then how do you explain all the contradictions (factual and philosophical), discontinuities, historical and scientific errors, poor writing (yes, there is much beautiful writing, too), and obvious differences in writing styles, even within the same book (like Isaiah), etc. It seems to me that acknowledging the possibility of human error in the writings and their transmission is better than claiming that God Himself is the author of such confusion!

    • Avatar
      Euler  September 30, 2019

      You read Hebrew/ Greek? I’m not a Chritian,btw. Can you give some examples of bad writing?

  6. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 10, 2019

    Although there might be some truth to the consistency of the OT and the Qumran scrolls, does not necessarily deem the OT reliable. They may be as reliable as the copies themselves written or copied by the people who copied them way after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The OT has much discrepancy, contradiction, different faith statements and theology and language, numerous unknown authors, books ascribed to prophets without authenticity ect… ( this is a period of roughly up to 1000 years after the Originals ).

    The OT went through a similar problem as the NT. The Original were not preserved. The Torah Tanakh and Tulmud were destroyed and burned by Nebuchadnezzar and his forces ( as was the case with the Original manuscripts of the NT ).
    Nebuchadnezzar hauled the remaining Jews back to Babylon as prisoners/slaves.
    These Jews were the second sect of Jews that exited Jerusalem known as the sons /or children of Judah. The first sect being the sons / or children of Israel.( whom for the most part fled south to Arabia and as far south as Yemen 200 plus years earlier).

    The Judah Jewish leaders, being put in concentration camps as refugees in Babylon decided the need to rewrite and restore their scriptures ( from memory and mangled copies ), hence the similarity to the NT.

    ( Isn’t it striking that the copiers of both the OT and NT were people of the same background? )

    There are sources which indicate the Israelites and Judahs had different theologies. As for Jews of Judah, the OT.
    Interestingly, the Jews of the Kingdom of Israel settled in Arabia don’t have any mention of them ( in the Bible that is ) of what happen to them ( Ishmael may be an exception and the people of Qadir ). However, there is mention of these particular Jews in other faith traditions with real meaningful references as The People of The Book. The book they held sacred was not the OT.

    Dr Ehrman,
    Have you come across this in any of your research / works or studies? What is your take?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2019

      Yes, I’m afraid it’s not completely right. There weren’t concentration camps, e.g. The vast majority of copyists of the NT were not Jews. The Jews of Israael did not settle in Arabia. Etc.

  7. Avatar
    brenmcg  September 10, 2019

    Can we know with certainty that Mark and Matthew say were always treated as separate books and therefore there’s a limit to how radically different the originals could have been from what we have now?

    That is, more ancient versions of Matthew can never differ so much from present Matthew that it becomes Mark.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2019

      They were never copies as the same book, no.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  September 11, 2019

        But it puts limitations on how radically different the originals can have been – we can know with certainty the original matthew cant be so different as to be confused with mark.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 12, 2019

          It put a *working* limitation on it. But there’s no way to know for certain. It’s just the way we proceed so we can get along with our work. And the evidence for it is simply that htere’s no evidence against it, which for some people is hard and certain proof and for others simply makes it highly probable.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  September 12, 2019

            ok – thanks

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 11, 2019

    Great post. Thanks

  9. Avatar
    dankoh  September 11, 2019

    Modern Hebrew copies of the Tanakh use the notation “k’tiv-k’rah” – meaning, it’s written this way. but we read it that way. That is, it’s obvious some scribe made a mistake since the text as written makes no sense. But we can’t be 100% sure, and in any case the text is frozen, so we can’t correct it, but even so you have to read it as if we had corrected it. (There’s also one place in Esther where you’re supposed to read it both ways, since either one could be right!)

    Interestingly, the Torah doesn’t have that many k-k notes – though it has some. There are more in the prophets, and even more in the writings, perhaps reflecting the fact that this was the overall order of their canonization.

  10. Lev
    Lev  September 12, 2019

    Do the translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (the Septuagint) and Aramaic (Targums) also shed light on ancient copying practices? I understand there are significant differences where the translators changed the meanings of words, or entire sentences when translating them.

    So if ancient translators felt free to change the texts, perhaps it was common practice for the copyists to do so also?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      It’s an interesting question, but there does not appear to be any evidence connecting the two kinds of changes made (i.e., where copyists said, Hey, if translators changed it, so can I!)

  11. Avatar
    D-men  September 14, 2019

    You don’t mention the disporra of Judea. Ik thougt that there are assimptions of persian OR assyrian influences in the scriptions of Isaiah or Daniël? Gould hou comment on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      The Babylonian exile was hugely important, both for 2 and 3 Isaiah (Isa 40-55; 56 – end) and Daniel, yes. I don’t know that there was much *religious* influence on any of the authors (though part of Daniel is written in Aramaic, the language of Persia at the time), though *opposition* to foreign ways certainly was.

      • Avatar
        Euler  September 30, 2019

        Many scholars don’t accept that there’s a 3rd Isaiah. Shalom Paul,for example… I agree that there’s 2 ‘Isaiahs’ though all the textual evidence says otherwise

        • Bart
          Bart  October 1, 2019

          I’m not familiar with any critical scholars who deny 3 Isaiah; but then again, there are lots of things I don’t know…

      • Avatar
        DirkCampbell  May 15, 2020

        ‘part of Daniel is written in Aramaic, the language of Persia at the time’

        Really? The Persians spoke Aramaic?

  12. Avatar
    Wes.A  September 25, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    What’s the difference Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint and Origin’s Hexapla ?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2019

      The Dead Sea Scrolls were documents produced by a sectarian sect of Jews from around (just before) the time of Jesus. They include copies (most of them fragmentary; some of them just scraps) of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew. The Septuagint is the term used for the ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, so Jews outside of Palestine could read it in their own language. The Hexapla was a six column edition of the Old Testament edited by the church father Origen in the 3rd century so readers could compare the Hebrew text and the various versions of the Greek text that were available. It no longer survives.

  13. Avatar
    jrkovan  May 2, 2020

    Hi Dr. Ehrman – Can you point to any hebrew manuscripts of the Pentatuech that are different? Anywhere? Or is it just a supposition that there are ‘differences’. Please provide sources. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      Yes. Compare the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts of Jeremiah or the books of Samuel with the Masoretic text. Absolutely there are differences. That’s why, by the way, the Masoretes had to do their work int he first place, to *standardize* the text. You don’t standardize a text that has no variations in it, because it is already standard.

      • Avatar
        jrkovan  May 4, 2020

        Hi – that was not my question. My question is in the 5 books of Moses (Torah, Chumash, Pentateuch) – are there any variations in the Hebrew manuscript, and with specificity, ‘Rabbinic Manuscripts’.

        Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 5, 2020

          I’m not sure what you’re asking? There is no such thing as Rabbinic manuscripts. What do you have in mind?

          • Avatar
            jrkovan  May 5, 2020

            The Torah scroll. 5 Books of Moses – found in any Orthodox synagogue. Are there any known variances, and if so, where can you find them, and how are they significant, etc? So if you go into a synagogue in Asheville and open a Torah Scroll, is it the same as one in Mubai, and are there any known differences that can be cited?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 6, 2020

            Torah scrolls are all based on Hebrew manuscripts that survive, going back to around 1000 CE. They are virtually the same everywhere in the world.

  14. Avatar
    jrkovan  May 6, 2020

    So this goes directly to my point. A torah scroll is written by a sofer, a trained scribe who is copying from an existing scroll. 304,805 letters. For over 1000 years no mistakes. Why no variants?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2020

      Because they are exceedingly careful. But the question is how many mistakes were made *before* that training started becoming the practice, and how many changes in the text before there was *any* set training, say, inthe first couple of hundred years. There is no way to know.

      • Avatar
        jrkovan  May 12, 2020

        Hi. Okay. So when do you believe the training started? We know from the talmud that this training was part of jewish law for at least the past 2000 years. Moreover, how can one explain that each jewish community had a torah scroll from spain to india? No internet. You couldnt order one on amazon or from sofers are us in jerusalem. And yet we have no evidence of there being anything other than the same torah scroll 304,805 letters in each
        community. Why would we assume anything different that this training has been going on for thousands of years with no mistakes? Where is the contrary evidence suggesting that such training only started 1000 years ago? There is none. And the fact that the jewish community was spread out in the diaspora after the destruction of the second temple into far flung communities with no central way of communicating is a testament to the fact that jews had a way of preserving perfectly their scriptures. Moreover, take tefillin as an example. Do you ever find teflillin in jewish communities that arent made from animal skin and in a perfect square? Of course not. The oral tradition survived millenium.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 13, 2020

          No, this training was not around for 2000 years before the Talmud. It was started by the Masoretes, who were active 500 – 1000 CE (note! CE! Not BCE…)

  15. Avatar
    mgamez777  May 10, 2020

    Hi Bart, so the septuagint is the oldest complete Old testament that exists. Right? there are older hebrew books and fragments of the old testament but none of them a complete Tanak. Right?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2020

      Ah, it’s actually trickier than that. We don’t have “a” Septuagint, but lots of ancient Greek translations that aer sometimes imagined as going back to one original translation. But that’s probably not right. Greek translations woudl have been made of different parts of the Hebrew Bible at different times, and different translators would have had a go at it, until later we have the legend of a one-time translation done once and for all. We don’t have “the Septuagint” in a manuscript from early times either, though we certainly have Greek translations of the OT prior to having the complete Hebrew Bible in a manuscript. The earliest full Hebrew manuscript we have dates from around 1000 CE.

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