The Wartburg Project

January 30th, 2024

102. Do we have a reliable text of the Hebrew Old Testament?

Do we have a reliable text of the Hebrew Old Testament? I have read that the reason we can have confidence in our texts of the Old Testament is that the Jewish scribes followed such precise rules for copying the text, even counting every letter. The scribes followed rules like the following:

  1. Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.

  2. The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.

  3. They must verbalize each word aloud while they were writing.

  4. They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the word “Jehovah,” every time they wrote it.

  5. There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.

  6. The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.

(This is just an abbreviation of much longer lists of rules one can find online.)

It is true that some scribes may have had rules like this, but these lists are from quite late in the history of the Old Testament text, and they are not uniformly followed in the manuscripts we have.

These lists may reflect rules proclaimed by some schools of scribes, but they tell us nothing about how the originals were produced and reproduced early during the Old Testament era.  Jeremiah did not write his own manuscripts but dictated them to Baruch. The originals of the Old Testament were written in alphabetic scripts very different from the ones in the Masoretic manuscripts that survive. The oldest Hebrew manuscripts have no vowels, so one could not pronounce the words just from the written text. A reader had to learn how to pronounce the text from his teacher, just as we must learn how to pronounce $ or #.  In the manuscripts that we have, the number of letters is not constant, and spelling changes and additional vowel letters were constantly added or omitted. There are notations in the Hebrew manuscripts that we use, which identify a certain letter as the middle letter of some part of a work, but if you actually count the letters, these notes are not always true. The scribes kept recording the letter counts in the margin of the manuscript that they were copying, but it seems they were not actually counting the letters themselves.

While these lists may reflect some rules proposed and followed by some scribes, this does not tell us much about the history of the manuscripts we actually have. There are some surviving copies that are more carelessly produced than others. There are some manuscripts in which we can see the corrections of the proofreaders on the page. The Tetragrammaton (YHVH) was sometimes written by a different hand, in a different script, and with various pronunciations. There are many variations within the manuscripts we have.

There is some value in these lists as evidence of the diligence of the copyists, but even if these rules were carefully followed, they would, at best, tell us how close our manuscript is to the manuscript from which it was copied. It would not tell us how close it was to the original or to its cousins copied in other places.  We find it best to not focus too much on scribal rules and practice, but on showing how faithfully the text that we possess has been transmitted. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s, we suddenly had Hebrew manuscripts 1000 years older than the oldest ones we had possessed. There was much speculation that now we would see how much the texts had changed in 1000 years of copying. It turned out that the biblical texts from Qumran were essentially the same as our Masoretic texts but without the vowel pointing.

When people have fears raised by textual criticism, we address those concerns in one of four ways. When they ask a specific question about a specific text, we address the question in a FAQ on our website  Then, if they desire more in-depth study, we can send them to one of three sources of varying difficulty. 

Our most basic source on textual criticism is Appendix 1 of our print Bibles.  In the pew Bible it is at page xv in the front. In the study Bible it is at page 2102 in the back. It says:

There are hundreds of handwritten manuscripts of the books that make up the Hebrew and Greek Bibles. There are many small differences of spelling and wording between these handwritten copies. Most of the variants in the handwritten manuscripts fall into the same category as typos—they do not raise any question about the meaning of the text. Correcting them is as easy as correcting obvious typos in an English manuscript. Many of the variants are simply different spellings of the same word originating from different periods of history. But occasionally manuscripts have copying differences that add or omit some words, or even whole verses, from the text. It is this type of variant that a textual apparatus (a list of textual variants) must deal with.

The EHV does not attempt to provide a full apparatus, but only to alert English readers to the existence of variants and to demonstrate that the existence of textual variants does not bring into question any doctrine of Scripture.

Rather than undermining confidence in the message of Scripture, a proper use of textual criticism increases confidence in the message of Scripture, because it demonstrates that there is no doctrine of Scripture that is seriously challenged or changed by textual variants.

A second source, the book Fascinating Facts, Puzzling Problems, and Matters of Taste: Controversies about the Bible, which is based mostly on FAQs from our website, is part of our Wartburg Bible series of books, which is available from Lulu, Amazon, and many other world-wide publishers. It addresses many questions our readers have about the Bible, including questions about the text.

The last source is John Brug’s book Textual Criticism of the Old Testamentwhich is also included in the Wartburg Bible series. It is for readers who want an in-depth study based on Hebrew and Greek, but many of the sections on the reliability of our biblical texts are also useful for English readers. This book also has a chapter about Martin Luther as a textual critic, since he was the pioneer of modern Evangelical textual criticism. 

For most questioners troubled by Old Testament textual criticism, a simple comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls and our Masoretic text is the best way to go, since it shows how faithfully the text was transmitted for 1000 years. This gives objective evidence of the providence of God in preserving the text and of the faithfulness of the copyists.

In the Old Testament, writing was so difficult that kings and even prophets often did not write their own scrolls. Professionals wrote them. Below are the words (r to l) “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The top line is in the writing of Moses’ time. The second and third lines are from the times of the kings. The fourth line is today’s style.

Note the third letter in the second line. It is our A. It is an upside-down ox-head.

Note that early letters were pictures of things, so they were very hard to write.