Posts Tagged ‘Masoretic Text’

I said last week that  we were leaving the Old Testament for a while. After today we will. However, I felt it might be interesting to take this week to talk about the oldest fragment we have of the Hebrew Bible. Next week I plan to talk about the oldest manuscript we have of the New Testament. I hope you will find both of these to be interesting.

If you remember previous posts, you know that our present Old Testament is based on the Masoretic Text which was standardized @ AD 500. Until recently, our oldest manuscript of the Old Testament was from the 10th century AD.

All that changed with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included portions of the Hebrew Bible that date from the 2nd century BC. Most scholars thought we could not get anything older than that and for good reason. Papyrus and even parchment will not last much longer than that, so even if scrolls existed, it was thought they would have been lost or destroyed long ago.

Then in 1979 two small rolled pieces of silver were discovered in a burial cave in Jerusalem.

Silver Scroll, 600 BC

When the scrolls were unrolled, they were found to contain writing in a very ancient Hebrew script. The writing was from the priestly benediction in Numbers 6. Based on the form of the letters used, most scholars accept a date of approximately 600 BC for these amulets, although initially there were some who felt they came from the Intertestamental Period. This was partially due to the fact that the forms of the letters (which scholars use to date the writing) were in some places unclear. The amulets are so small and the letters difficult to read using the photography which was available at the time. In 1994 tests were conducted at NASA laboratories, using high-resolution digital images. These revised images cleared up a number of questions that had been raised. While a minority of scholars still hold with a later date for these amulets, from what I have read, the consensus still favors dating these fragments to approximately 600 BC. In other words, these scrolls go back to a time when the original Temple of Solomon was still standing!

These scrolls hold potential significance for the dating of the Pentateuch, or at least part of it. While tradition holds that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, a large number of modern scholars believe that the Pentateuch developed over a period of many years much later than the time of Moses. Some would even claim that it was compiled during or even shortly after the Babylonian Exile (586 – 515 BC). While this little scroll cannot by itself  settle the issue, it would seem to provide evidence that such a late dating for the Pentateuch (or at least for the book of Numbers) is unlikely. This does not necessarily translate into Mosaic authorship. It does, however, indicate that perhaps the Pentateuch (or portions of it) is older than has previously been argued.

So, we are left with these small silver amulets, apparently from a time when Solomon’s Temple still stood, and they can still speak to us today. What better way to close than by an English translation of the actual words they contain. It is my wish for everyone who reads this post.

May YHWH bless you and keep you;
May YHWH cause his face to
Shine upon you and grant you

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I wish to present an update relating to the post I did earlier this week on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Biblical Archaeology Review contains an article about corrections that have been found in the Isaiah A scroll, the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The article is written by Eugene Ulrich, John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and chief editor of the Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls in the Scrolls International Publication Project.

The Isaiah A Scroll (like almost all manuscripts) contains numerous corrections which were inserted by other scribes. This is not unusual, because manuscripts would routinely be checked for errors which, when found, would be corrected. According to Professor Ulrich, seven of the corrections represent something different, and perhaps more intriguing. Rather than being simply corrections, these seven additions to the text range from full sentences to full paragraphs.

In later posts, I will talk about how text can become added to a manuscript. The most interesting aspect of these seven additions, however, lies in the fact that they are included in the Masoretic Text, which forms the basis for the Hebrew Old Testament used today and on which our translations are primarily based.

The article is fairly academic, and therefore somewhat technical, but if you wish to read it, you may follow the link below.


Again, I would encourage you to view this in a positive light. It is because of discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls that we can continue to get closer to the original text of the Bible. By the way, there is nothing earthshaking in these seven additions. They have no effect on doctrine or theology.

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There is something hidden among the Dead Sea Scrolls so disturbing that scholars are keeping it secret. Have you heard that kind of claim before? I would almost be surprised if you had not. So many outrageous claims have been made about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here are just a few:
Jesus was a member of the community that produced the scrolls (perhaps even an alien from space).
There are scrolls that are being kept secret, because they disprove the essential claims of Christianity.
One of the scrolls points to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaton as the true founder of Judaism.

At least the title got your attention, didn’t it? While the more extravagant claims concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls have little connection with reality, the fact remains that the Scrolls are extremely important in understanding the development of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.

The first scrolls (according to the story) were found in a cave near the Dead Sea by a shepherd boy in 1947. From there they eventually ended up in the hands of scholars who recognized their tremendous value. The story has been ongoing since that time, but space is too limited to go into the history today. First a little background.

So far more than 900 scrolls have been discovered in eleven caves near the Dead Sea. Although there is still some debate, the consensus of scholars connects the scrolls to the ruins of a settlement near Qumran, which was believed to have been inhabited by a Jewish splinter group called the Essenes. So it was likely the Essenes who produced the scrolls and hid them in the caves during the first Jewish revolt, before their society was destroyed by the Roman army in AD 68.

The scrolls are copied on vellum, papyrus, and one scroll on pure copper. It is called (of all things) the Copper Scroll. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The scrolls date from the second century BC to AD 68. For our purposes their significance comes from the fact that 231 (or 233) scrolls are copies of Biblical texts, making them earlier than our previous old testament manuscripts by a thousand years. In fact at least a portion of every Old Testament book is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls with the exception of the book of Esther.

So what do these scrolls tell us about the accuracy of the text of the Old Testament? Do they confirm its accuracy or do they reveal that over the centuries the text of the Old Testament has been changed so as to be unrecognizable? Let me give you my conclusion first. The scrolls basically show that, for the most part, the text of the Old Testament is very close to what we have today. At the same time, there are some questions that arise from studying the scrolls. Obviously, there is little space here to do more than a summary study. Let me give a couple of examples that illustrate the points.

Perhaps the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Isaiah Scroll, part of which is pictured below.

Isaiah A Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Chapter 53

This picture shows Isaiah 53, and it is virtually identical to the Masoretic Text.

Actually, there are two Isaiah scrolls, Isaiah A, which is virtually complete and dates from @ 100 BC, and Isaiah B which contains chapters 41-59 and is a little later in date. The Isaiah A scroll was available in time for the translators of the Revised Standard Version published in 1952 to make use of it. They only made thirteen changes from the Masoretic Text based on Isaiah A, none of them significant. At the same time, we need to understand that Isaiah A does represent a third text type. It matches neither the Septuagint (see previous post) nor the Masoretic Text. But let’s understand what we mean by that. There are indeed differences, but they are not major differences. We are not talking about two totally different accounts in the two Isaiah’s.

While that really sounds encouraging for the accuracy of our text, this does not hold true for every one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Perhaps the most problematic is a scroll of the prophet Jeremiah. Although written in Hebrew, this scroll is in many ways closer to the Septuagint than it is to the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Septuagint version of Jeremiah differs from the Masoretic Text in two primary ways. First, it is seven chapters shorter than the Masoretic Text, and the remaining text is arranged in a different order. There is not time (and perhaps even less interest) in going into all the details; however, the differences are there. On the other hand, from the reading I have done, it appears that there are fragments of Jeremiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls which are closer to the Masoretic Text. This would mean that two different versions of Jeremiah circulated during Biblical times.

While we cannot be sure why there were two versions, we should recognize that the book of Jeremiah itself says that there were two versions. Chapter 36 of Jeremiah records that king Jehoiakim cut up Jeremiah’s original scroll and burned it. Jeremiah then had his secretary Baruch prepare a second scroll that was longer than the original one. If a copy of the original scroll survived, it might explain why two versions of Jeremiah circulated at the same time.

Ultimately, we cannot say why two versions of Jeremiah exist among the Dead Sea Scrolls. I also feel confident in saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not call for any drastic changes in the Old Testament text. They have even less to say about the New Testament text, because (despite some wild claims) the New Testament does not depend on them.

I would like to address one final issue. It has been suggested that Jesus spent some of His “silent years” among the Essenes and that many of His teachings arose from them. I believe this theory is highly unlikely. There are just too many differences. The Essenes were obsessed with ritual purity; Jesus and His disciples often got into trouble for breaking the Sabbath and not following ritual washings. The Essenes would have nothing to do with tax collectors and immoral people. One of Jesus’ apostles (Matthew) was a tax collector, and Jesus was notorious for hanging out with “sinners.” I believe a stronger case could be made that John the Baptist was influenced by the Essenes, or perhaps was an Essene himself; but even that is really conjecture.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are indeed important witnesses, not only to the Bible, but to the culture out of which Christianity arose. We have said virtually nothing about the other documents among the Scrolls, the War Scroll, the Copper Scroll (a treasure map?), or the Teacher of Righteousness and his adversary (the Wicked Priest). These scrolls are perhaps more important than the Biblical scrolls, because of what they tell us of the Essene community and Jewish beliefs around the time Jesus lived. What I find most intriguing is the possibility that more scrolls may be found in that ancient land. That would truly be exciting.

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The Septuagint is the name given to a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek @ 250 BC. The name comes from the Latin word Septuaginta which means 70. For this reason a common abbreviation for the Septuagint is LXX which is the Roman numeral for 70. An ancient story tells how when the translation was made, 70 (or 72) scholars all made independent translations. When their translations were compared, they were found to be identical, thus showing that God had divinely inspired the translation. As we saw in an earlier post, the desire for certainty has resulted in the claim that more than one translation is inspired.

One impetus for the creation of the Septuagint may have been the desire to have a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Library of Alexandria, and it is probable that the Septuagint was translated in Alexandria. Perhaps a more compelling reason for the translation had to do with the increasingly large Jewish population in the Greek world, who were no longer able to read Hebrew. These Jews would have wanted to have the Scriptures in a language they could read, and in the ancient world at that time, Greek was the most universal language spoken.

The Septuagint has been referred to as “the Bible of the early church,” and in many respects it was. Most of the quotations from the Old Testament which are in the New Testament are in fact taken from the Septuagint, rather than being independent Greek translations from the Hebrew.

Another characteristic of our present Bibles that we get from the Septuagint is the order of the books of the Old Testament. In an earlier post, we saw that the Hebrew Bible is divided into three divisions – The Torah (or Law), the Prophets, and the Writings. So while the Hebrew Bible begins with Genesis, it ends with 2 Chronicles. The Septuagint, however, contains the books of the Old Testament in the order in which we have them in our English Bibles.

The exception to his has to do with the series of books which are referred to as The Apocrypha. This designation refers to books which are included in the Latin Vulgate (and in various forms are recognized as Canonical by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Slavonic churches), but are not part of the Hebrew Bible. These books are normally included in the earliest complete Bibles we possess and in most early English translations, including originally the King James. Modern translations designed primarily for Protestants routinely omit these books, although it is possible to find Bibles that contain them. However, I digress; the Apocrypha is a study for another time.

The primary value of the Septuagint is that it provides a separate text that is older than the Masoretic text. We also have substantially complete manuscripts of the Septuagint that are significantly older than our earliest manuscripts of the Masoretic text. For this reason, the Septuagint can at times be helpful in determining the proper reading of texts of the Old Testament in which the current Hebrew text is in doubt. As an independent witness, it allows scholars to compare the two texts and benefit from the two readings.

Let’s consider just one example of how the Greek Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Masoretic text. As mentioned earlier, the Septuagint became the Bible of the primitive church. Because of that, one reading in the Septuagint has essentially replaced the Hebrew text. The Septuagint records the Israelites crossing at what is translated in English as the “Red Sea.” Almost everyone knows that. The Hebrew Masoretic text, however, does not say “Red Sea.” The Hebrew is “Yam Suph,” which is best translated as “Reed Sea” or “Sea of Reeds.” The early church, using the Septuagint, carried over its reading, and so most of our English translations continue to read “Red Sea,” although most Biblical scholars acknowledge that we would be on firmer ground to abandon that translation in favor of “Sea of Reeds.” So why don’t modern English translations do that? It’s simple; we won’t let them. If Bible translators were to make that change, can you imagine the firestorm of condemnation that would come from conservative Christians (of whom I am one)? I believe this is just one instance in which too many Christians do not want truth, but want instead to be comfortable. By the way, this is a malady that can plague conservatives and liberals alike. Normally knowledge and growth do not occur when we are “comfortable;” they are more often the result of being challenged, of being made “uncomfortable” if you will. If anyone reading this is old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo, perhaps you recall Pogo’s most famous line. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Something for all of us to consider.

Last week, we looked at the way the Divine Name was recorded and perhaps pronounced in ancient Israel. The Septuagint has something to contribute to that discussion. Last week, we saw a Hebrew manuscript that retained the Divine Name (the Tetragrammaton) in the archaic Phoenician letters. In earlier manuscripts of the Septuagint, the same practice is often seen. Sometimes, however, the Septuagint manuscripts will use the Tetragrammaton, but in the later Aramaic letter form. It is interesting that in this form the Hebrew letters look very similar to the capital forms of the Greek Letters Pi (English “P” sound) and Iota (English short “I” sound). So ancient readers, not understanding that they were looking at Hebrew letters, would pronounce the Divine Name as “PIPI.” This is another example of how the Divine Name can easily become confused, and we really cannot be certain how to pronounce it.

One final (and touchy) subject has to do with how the Divine Name was normally written in the Septuagint. As I said before, our earlier manuscripts render the Divine Name in Hebrew, whether the letters are Aramaic or the archaic Phoenician. The later manuscripts have the Greek word for Lord (kurios), which many scholars see as a throwback to the Masoretic practice of inserting vowel points for the Hebrew word for Lord (Adonai – see last week’s post for more information). The problem is that our oldest manuscripts of the New Testament quoting the Septuagint show the Greek “kurios.” The question arises, how did the originals of the New Testament read? Did they really use “kurios” as our oldest New Testament manuscripts read, or did the originals of the New Testament employ the Hebrew form, and was that changed in later centuries? Obviously, that is a difficult question; however, I promised that we would not cover up difficult questions. In reality, I cannot give a definitive answer to that question. If we go with the New Testament manuscripts we have, we should retain “kurios” or “Lord.” If we give weight to the reality that the earliest Septuagint manuscripts render the Divine Name in Hebrew letters, we would say that the Divine Name was changed sometime in the later centuries. It appears that two possibilities exist.

1. The original New Testament autographs contained the Divine Name, and it was changed in later centuries. Doing so, could be seen as a means of reinforcing the claims for the divinity of Jesus. This is conjecture, because we have no tradition of that being done.

2. The original New Testament autographs rendered the Divine Name as “kurios” or “Lord,” because the normal Jewish practice at that time was to pronounce the name as “adonai,” the Hebrew equivalent of “Lord.” Another reason for doing this would be the recognition that Greek speaking Christians might have no Jewish background at all. For them, retaining the Divine Name in Hebrew would have no meaning.

There is a practice of using abbreviations and special markings to designate sacred names. These markings are referred to as “Nomina Sacra.” Perhaps we will take a look at that practice and see if it can help with this issue. However, for today, I leave it as a question without a clear answer. I see that as all I can do with any degree of integrity.

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We saw last week that there are some problems with the text of the Old Testament. A group of scribes called the Masoretes (or Massoretes) was formed @ AD 500 with the lofty goal of preserving the text of the Old Testament. They made two major contributions.

One of their contributions was the attempt to preserve the sounds of Hebrew words. Remember that the Hebrew language does not employ written vowels. In later centuries, when the Hebrew language was no longer spoken, there was a danger that the proper pronunciation of Hebrew words might disappear. The Masoretes had such a reverence for the text that they did not believe it was proper to change the text itself. Instead they developed a series of symbols representing the vowels which were inserted above and below the Hebrew letters in the text to aid in the pronunciation. Below is a sample of a modern passage from the book of Ruth. You can clearly see the vowel points in the text.

Modern Hebrew text from book of Ruth

Do you remember the picture of the Aleppo Codex of the Old Testament that was in the last post? Here it is again.

Aleppo Codex of the Old Testament @ AD 925

Once again, you can see the vowel points in the manuscript. Thanks to the Masoretes, we can still read Hebrew today.

Perhaps the most significant tools the Masoretes developed for preserving the text were the various rules and procedures they set down for copying and verifying it. Here are a few of them.

They numbered the verses, words, and letters of each book.
They counted the number of times each letter was used in each book.
They noted verses that contained all the letters of the alphabet or certain combinations of letters.
They calculated the middle verse, the middle word, and the middle letter of each book.
So when a scribe finished making a copy of a book, he would check it for accuracy.

All of these procedures helped to standardize the text, and so we have now a text of the Old Testament virtually unchanged from the time of the Masoretes.

The downside of this, is that in the process, variant readings were discarded. So in some instances, readings which might have been original were not considered. We can see some of these readings in translations which were made before the time of the Masoretes, for instance the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. Perhaps the most significant archaeological discovery having to do with the Old Testament was the discovery of what have come to be referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. More about them at another time.

There is one Hebrew word that presents special difficulty in knowing how to pronounce it – and it is perhaps the most important word in the Old Testament. It is the divine name, referred to as the Tetragrammaton. It has been variously rendered as Lord, God, Jehovah, or Yahweh. In our next post, we shall look at this name in more detail.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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