The Wartburg Project

March 23rd, 2021

68. Who wrote the scroll in Deuteronomy 17:18?

In Deuteronomy 17:18, why does the EHV say that the king had a scroll of the Law written for him? Other translations say that the king himself was to write a scroll. Will you correct your error?

Either translation is grammatically possible, but the interpretation that the king was to have a copy made for him is more probable historically and contextually. Most translations, however, opt for the interpretation that the king was supposed to make the copy himself with his own hand, and some even go so far as to say that the purpose for this command was so that the king would remember the content better if he had written it himself. This idea seems to give more weight to modern educational theory than to the realities of producing an ancient manuscript, which was a hard, tedious, very time-consuming job that was generally done by professional scribes with special training.

Deuteronomy 17:18 may be translated either “he is to write a copy of this law for himself” or “he is to have a copy of this law written for him on a scroll in the presence of the priests” (EHV). The command either tells the king to personally copy the text for his own use with his own hand or to have the words written for him by a competent scribe. In either case, the term “for himself” means “for his benefit.” The issue at hand is that the scroll is to be made for the king’s personal use. The mechanics of who copied the text is likely not the issue.

Whether it was possible or practical for the king to write the text with his own hand depends in part on how long the text was. Exactly what was the king to copy? There are several possibilities. Some interpreters suggest that he was to copy only a portion of Deuteronomy 17. Another possibility is that he is to copy Deuteronomy 1–30. That idea is supported by Deuteronomy 31:9: “Then Moses wrote down this law, and he gave it to the priests, the descendants of Levi who carry the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.” Also militating against the idea that the king is to write only a few verses is the instruction in Deuteronomy 17:19, where the king is told to read this text all the days of his life. That sounds like a reference to a larger document rather than to just a snippet of instruction. The scroll was in effect the king’s handbook of kingship and his Bible. It is even possible that this book of the law included other parts of the five books of Moses.

What makes it doubtful that the king would copy such a text with his own hand? At the time Deuteronomy was written, the alphabet was still a relatively new invention. In fact, technically, it was not yet an alphabet since it did not express vowel sounds. That great step forward was made some centuries later by the Greeks. The alphabet was the greatest invention in history since it made widespread literacy and large-scale preservation of knowledge possible. The alphabet was invented at just the right time and place, so that the Bible could be the first great alphabetic work. Some scholars suggest that it was Israel rather than the Canaanites who invented the alphabet.

To be literate in alphabetic writing a reader needs to master only a couple of dozen letters, rather than hundreds of signs as one must do in hieroglyphics or cuneiform. So it was not a great problem for the king to be literate. Literacy in Israel was much more widespread than many think. Graffiti from the period are wide-spread. Gideon was able to grab a guy who was passing by and ask him to write a list of 77 names (Judges 8:14). (Of course, the guy may have been the town clerk.)

The problem for the king’s reading of the text would have been that since the text had no vowels, the king would need someone to teach him how to pronounce some of the words. The writing of the time did not tell readers how to pronounce the text. It rather reminded them of pronunciations they had learned from a teacher.

Scribal issues—Genesis 1:1 in proto alphabets, archaic alphabet, and square alphabet.1

Reading a text was one thing, being able to copy a text accurately was quite another matter. Texts were written on papyrus, a writing material made from reeds, a predecessor of paper. Scribes wrote with reed pens that had to be regularly sharpened. The pen had to be repeatedly dripped in lampblack ink, since it had no ink reservoir. During the earliest stages of the alphabet, writing a letter was more like drawing a picture. There was no fast cursive form. Copying was a long, tedious job. Even after considerable improvement in the materials and technique of writing, it could take a scribe several months to copy a book the size of one of the gospels. In manuscripts, scribes often placed a note at the end of the text that lamented the patient labor involved: “As the traveler rejoices to see the home country, so the scribe rejoices to see the end of a manuscript!” Copying a text under these conditions was not an inspiring spiritual experience.

A more important reason for being skeptical about the king producing his own text was the fact that even prophets and apostles often did not write their own texts. The book of Jeremiah, especially chapter 36, gives us the best insight into how biblical texts were produced. In 36:2 the Lord tells Jeremiah to write a text. “Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, concerning Judah and all the other nations, from the day I began speaking to you in the days of Josiah until now.” Jeremiah obeys this command, not by writing a scroll, but by telling his scribe Baruch to write a scroll. “So Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah. While Jeremiah dictated all the words that the Lord had spoken to him, Baruch wrote them on the scroll.” Later in the chapter, the officials of Judah, hear the scroll being read and ask Baruch, “Tell us, how did you come to write all of this? Did Jeremiah dictate this to you?” Baruch answered, “He dictated all of these things to me, and I wrote them with ink on the scroll.” Later in the chapter, after the king of Judah had destroyed the scroll, Jeremiah in effect tells Baruch, “No problem, Baruch. You can write a new scroll.” “Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to his scribe Baruch son of Neriah, who wrote on it all the same words that had been on the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them.” Jeremiah seemingly wrote his book more with his mouth than with his hand.

Paul was another inspired writer who did not write all his books with his own hand. In Romans 16:22 we learn that Tertius served as the scribe who wrote down what the inspired apostle Paul dictated. In 2 Thessalonians 3:17 and Galatian 6:11 we learn that Paul sometimes wrote the final greeting with his own hand, but that someone else apparently wrote the body of the letter. In 1 Peter 5:12 it appears that Silas/Silvanus may be the scribe who assisted Peter with the writing of the book.

If even prophets and apostles did not write their books with their own hands, it seems unlikely that a king would be expected to do so. In Scripture a common way of speaking is that the responsible party for an act is described as the doer of a work even though the physical work was done by his agents.

In 2 Chronicles 1:6 Solomon goes to the bronze altar in the presence of the Lord at the Tent of Meeting, and he offers a thousand burnt offerings upon the altar. Solomon was not a priest, and he could not even offer incense yet alone offer burnt offerings. An Israelite would understand this sentence to mean that Solomon was responsible for the burnt offerings, but by the hands of the priests, not his own hand.

In Nehemiah 3 various individuals are credited with building a portion, or even more than one portion, of the wall of Jerusalem. That does not mean they lifted the stones themselves. Their most important role was probably financing that section and recruiting and encouraging their family members or fellow citizens for the work—though there is no reason to doubt that they also joined in the labor.

When Moses built the Dwelling, Bezalel was the chief craftsman for many of the furnishings. Moses was told by the Lord to make certain things. More direct responsibility for the action was delegated to Bezalel. Some of the Hebrew pronouns and verbs in the section about the construction are singular, referring to the leader Bezalel. Some are plural, referring to the craftsmen who worked under his supervision. It is likely that most items that Moses was told to make were the work of several craftsmen directed by Bezalel.

So while it is possible that we are to think of the king laboriously copying a lengthy text, a letter at a time, it seems unlikely that an Israelite would have heard the text in that way. He likely would have understood that the king’s duty was to obtain, use, and obey the sacred text.

A nearly exact parallel is found in John 19:

19Pilate also had a notice written and fastened on the cross. It read, “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.” 20Many of the Jews read this notice, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’” 22Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

Translated very literally the Greek reads “Pilate wrote a notice,” and some translations do render it that way. In this passage, however, the CSB and NIV are among the translations that follow the same approach as the EHV. None of them envision Pilate getting a piece of wood, mixing paint, and writing in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Someone else did the mechanics of writing, but Pilate was the “writer” of the text. Very likely the process followed by the king of Israel in Deuteronomy 17 was similar.2

Deciding on the best translation of Deuteronomy 17:18 requires more than looking up the word for “write” in the dictionary. It requires looking at the use of the term in Scripture. What would an Israelite understand when he heard the command for the king to write a text? It does not seem likely he would think that the king was going to write the text, letter by letter. The EHV translation avoids giving the reader this wrong impression.

While the best understanding of Deuteronomy 17:18 is debatable, it is incorrect to call the EHV rendering an error. Some translations and commentaries that have “the king is to write a scroll” in their main text have the reading “the king is to have a scroll written” in a footnote. These are alternate translations but the second is most plausible.

[1] This sample simply represents changing letter forms, not the grammar or spelling of the period.

[2] The text also says Pilate fastened the the notice to the top of the cross, but no one imagines him out at Calvary climbing a ladder.