Understanding The Bible
Clarence E. Mason's "BIBLICAL
Part II - Introduction to MANUSCRIPTS
II. THE TRANSMISSION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT TEXT
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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible
INTRODUCTION TO MANUSCRIPTS AND VERSIONS
- THE TRANSMISSION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT TEXT
- The time from Moses to Ezra - about 1000 years
Some of the books were written near enough to
Ezra's time to preclude any thought of corruption of the text, but what
about the earlier books written nearer to the time of Moses? Some of the
evidence is inferential here, but the general tenor of these things points
to careful preservation.
- 1. Scribes are continually mentioned in the OT.
In the early books, scribes serve primarily as writing experts, that is,
recorders or secretaries, fudges 5:14; 2 Samuel 8:17; 1 Kings 4:3. Later,
in the days of Jeremiah and Ezra, scribes are known as writers and
interpreters of the "Law of the Lord, " Jer. 8:8; 36:23,26,32; Ezra 7:6;
Wh. 8:1, 4, 9, 13; 12:26, 36.
- Provision was made that copies of the law should be
- Priests had copies of the law from which they taught.
- The scrolls from Moses' time were laid up before the
Lord in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple, 2
- Light is thrown on Hebrew writing by the discovery of
the Lachish letters by J. L. Starkey in 1935. These letters, written about
589-586 BC., use a Hebrew script which is actually contemporaneous with a
large portion of the OT. Also, the accuracy of the Biblical account of the
fall of Jerusalem is supported by mention in these letters of the invasion
of Nebuchadnezzar. Many names found in the letters can be identified with
Biblical names associated with the period.
- Ezra to the first century AD.
- At the beginning of this period Ezra founded a school
of scribes devoted to copying and interpreting the OT. The carefulness
that character- ized writing in this era can be seen in the attention paid
to "jots and tittles" in the days of Jesus.
- The Samaritan Pentateuch is a critical revision of the
five books of the Law done by the Samaritans, probably in the days of
Nehemiah around 450 BC. This text helps one see how well the first five
books of the OT were preserved.
- The Targums are Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew OT
which came to be used instead of the Hebrew text during the captivity (Neh.
8:8). For centuries the Targums were transmitted orally. Around the second
century AD, some of the Targums were reduced to writing. These Aramaic
paraphrases throw light on the preservation of the OT text.
- The Septuagint (LXX) is a Greek VS of the OT translated
between 285 and 150 BC. Since this VS was undoubtedly translated from
ancient Hebrew MSS, it is valuable in the study of the history of the OT
- The Isaiah MS, discovered in 1947 near the Dead Sea,
represents the olde'sTknown OT MS in complete form (around 100 BC). The
substantial agreement between this manuscript and those of a thousand
years later shows the care with which the Biblical MSS were copied (see I.
M. Price, The Ancestry of our English Bible, p. 32). This care in copying
is further attested by comparing thousands of fragments of Biblical MSS
discovered in the Dead Sea caves (1947-1956), dating from the period 200
BC to AD 100, with the Biblical MSS we had access to previously.
- First century AD to AD 1010
- The nature of the text
- There is a clear-cut channel of historical evidence
to support the assurance of the passing on of a pure consonantal text
during this period. In the first century, all existing texts were
carefully compared, variances harmonized, and an authorized text was
determined, called The Massoretic Text.
- Around AD 700, the pointings (vowels) were put into
the text. This reduced to writing a great body of traditional
pronunciation (Massora) collected and handed down by the Massoretes
(scribes). The fixity of all existing copies testifies to the
carefulness exercised in copying.
- The oldest Hebrew MS of the entire OT is dated AD
- Testimony of the New Testament
Is it not significant that although about 450 years elapsed from the time
the last OT book was written until the time of Christ and the apostles,
the NT indicates that the OT had not suffered in transmission? For both
Christ and the apostles put their stamp of approval upon the OT text as
the inspired and therefore authoritative Word of God (cp. Mt. 5:18; 19:4;
24:35; Jn. 5:39-47; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21).
In addition to this positive testimony, the very silence of the NT
concerning any textual errors confirms the purity of the OT text. This is
indicative of the providential care God exercises over His Word. Certainly
the Word given through inspiration was to be preserved for all generations
by His providence; otherwise, the fact of inspiration would be of
significance only to the generation which first received the Word. In the
light of God's limitless power, it is only logical to assume that His
providence guarantees the Word will not suffer appreciably in the process
of time, and it will provide the necessary manuscript evidence for an
essentially pure text.
- OT versions during the period
- Aquila made a Greek translation of the OT around AD
128. The extreme literalness of this VS gives it value since it helps
reproduce the second century Hebrew text.
- The Old Latin VS was made in Africa around the second
- Theodotian's vlTabout AD 180 is a free Greek
translation of the OT.
- Symmachus' s~Greek VS of the OT around AD 200.
- The Hexapla compiled by Origen had six columns. One
column had the Hebrew text; one the Hebrew text in Greek letters; one
the Septuagint; and three had other Greek VSS of the OT (about AD 250).
- The Coptic or Egyptian VS around AD 250.
- The Latin Vulgate VS was completed around AD 405.
This translation by Jerome has greatly influenced the English Bibles
- The Peshitta is a Syriac VS of the OT from about AD
- Other significant versions are: the Ethiopic from the
fourth century; the Armenian, AD 400; the Georgian, AD 570; the Arabic
from the eighth century; and the Slavonic, AD 870.
- Value of the VSS
These VSS are valuable in ascertaining the Hebrew text at the time the
VSS were translated. Uniformly, they show the Hebrew text to be
essentially the same in these widely differing periods of its
- The fact of the fixity of the text
- The scribes did not deliberately change words. With
microscopic accuracy copyists recorded faithfully every word and sometimes
even a letter which was larger or smaller than the others.
- The scribes counted the letters and words in a section
or book so that they knew of additions or omissions in the copy they were
- The scribes frequently double-checked their work by
repeating words aloud before copying.
- When the scribes were compelled to choose between two
readings which seemed to be equally attested readings, they did not
discard one in favor of the other, but transmitted both. One reading
was known as the Kethiv, i.e., "it is written" in the consonantal text,
but upon it were placed the vowel signs of another or preferred marginal
reading called the Qere, i.e., "to be read."
- The scribes had a reverent attitude toward the work of
preserving and transmitting the Scripture, which is reflected in the words
of a scribe who wrote, "Take heed how thou doest thy work, for thy work is
the work of heaven, lest thou drop or add a letter of the MS, and so
become a destroyer of the world."
- Problems in the transmission of the OT text
- Language difficulties
- The disuse of the Hebrew language
The captivity marked the beginning of a change from Hebrew to Aramaic,
first as spoken, then as written language of the Jews. Hebrew was the
language of Palestine, Aramaic of Mesopotamia and Syria. This change is
seen in process in Nehemiah 8:8. Sometime before our Lord came, Aramaic
became the spoken and written language of the Jews; in His time in
Palestine Aramaic was the spoken and often written language for ordinary
messages; Greek the commercial and normally the literary language; Latin
the political and governmental language. Hebrew became a "dead"
language. This necessitated the training of a specially trained school
of scribes called "Sopherim" and (later) "Massoretes." Only they knew
- The form of the Hebrew language
From earliest times Hebrews wrote only in consonants without regularly
showing breaks between words. The reader of a Hebrew consonantal text
learned to pronounce words according to the traditional pronunciation
used through the years. With the passing of centuries Hebrew became a
dead language to many, and a more fixed system of Hebrew pronunciation
was necessary. Around AD 700, a system of vowel pointings called
vocalization was developed to help the reader of Hebrew. The Hebrew text
of the Bible which includes vowels was sometimes called a "pointed text"
or the "Massoretic text."
- Scribal difficulties
- Errors of misunderstanding.
Failure to get the sense of the text; confusing marginal notes.
- Errors of the eye.
Repetitions, transpositions, omissions, mistaking one letter for
- Errors of the ear.
When one scribe dictated, as sometimes was done. For instance, "Lo" in
Hebrew meant "no, " while "LO" meant "to him"; in English, compare "sow"
- Errors of memory in copying. Jeremiah 27:1, cp. vv.
- Errors of carelessness or ignorance.
Negligible, but occasional.
- Summary statement about the OT text
On the whole, one may be sure that he has the books substantially as
they were written, not a promise dimmed or a-truth distorted, and though
(at least from (he first century AD).the, purity of the letter has been
almost miraculously preserved, one can rest content with something short
of the sacred autographs.
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