A General Overview of the Textual History of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament

Recently, I have encountered a number of tweets about biblical transmission and some YouTube videos about “the Original Hebrew Bible” as contrasted to the Masoretic Text or the Septuagint. (I’m not going to link them, since they’re offensive, innaccurate, dangerous, or some combination of these and I don’t want them to get views etc.) I think that it is important for people to know where the Bible they read came from, particularly if they are going to regard it as “holy scripture” or similar. Since this is a field that I happen to know something about, I thought that I could write some notes here for anyone interested in an extremely simplified overview in the matters for laypeople (or experts who want to argue with me). This will have to be a series. The best place to start is with the Hebrew text that serves as the basis of most modern English translations (as well as those of many other modern languages) of the Bible.

Part 1: The Masoretic Text (Hebrew)

Most modern English translations of the Hebrew Bible (the Jewish Tanakh or the Christian Old Testament) are based primarily on a textual tradition known as “the Masoretic Text”. This refers not to an individual manuscript, as many seem to think, but rather to a substantial group of Hebrew manuscripts (with some small portions of the text in Aramaic) that attest essentially the same consonantal Hebrew/Aramaic text as well as paratextual elements. It is important to emphasize that “the Masoretic Text” refers not to a specific manuscript, but is an abbreviation for a larger group of more or less consistent manscripts. The paratextual elements consist of vowels, accents, and marginalia. These paratextual elements serve a few important purposes, but the most important (for my purposes, at lesat) is securing the text to prevent errors from creeping in when the text is copied from one manuscript to another. To this end, the paratextual elements note things like unusual grammatical forms or orthography, the number of verses in the book, where the midpoint of the book is, wordcounts, recommendations for correcting or understanding the text, etc. For this reason, the Masoretic textual tradition is remarkably stable and an excellent tradition for the basis of the translation and study of the primary religious text of the Jews and one portion of the Christians’ canon.

However, the Masoretic Text is not the oldest version of the Bible that we know (whether in Hebrew or another language). It is a product of the Middle Ages. That does not mean that the whole text stems from the Middle Ages. The consonantal text is older, but the stabilizing paratextual elements developed in the Middle Ages and appended and inserted into the text during that era. In fact, the oldest complete Manuscript of the whole Hebrew Bible is the so-called Leningrad Codex, Codex B19A of the State Library of St. Petersburg. It is from ca. 1008 CE (i.e., it is only about 1012 years old). Here is a picture from a facsimile edition, to give you some idea of what it looks like.

Codex Leningradensis. Folio 40 Recto. Source: David N. Freedman. Leningrad Codex. A Facsimile Edition. 1998.

This particular folio presents the end of Exodus 14 and the opening of Exodus 15, which is written with special formatting. Normally the text appears in justified columns without so many gaps (the breaks here should resemble bricks in a wall). The primary text is clearly recognizable in the middle with the paratextual elements surrounding it in the margins and the accents and vowels above and below the consontal text.

An older complete manuscript exists, but parts of it have been destroyed or gone missing. This is the so-called Aleppo Codex. The beginning and end (and some other pieces throughout) are now lacking and their status unknown, presumably destroyed. This version is about a century older than the Leningrad Codex, though from a related family of texts. Here is a picture.

Aleppo Codex. Joshua 24:26-Judges 1:15
Source: http://www.aleppocodex.org
Accessed on 11 October 2019

So, the oldest known complete biblical manuscripts in Hebrew are from the 10th-11th centuries of the Common Era, though there are older manuscripts of portions of the text (like the Torah or the Prophets). These oldest manuscripts attest a text from the Middle Ages. We can be pretty sure that the text has been remarkably stable since at least the fourth century CE, when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin from a consonantal Hebrew text almost identical to the text we know now. Nonetheless, we can say with some certainty that the consonantal text was pretty stable much earlier based on some finds from Qumran. Some of the biblical (and other) manuscripts from Qumran attest a consonantal text (these predate the existence of Masoretic vowels) similar or identical to the Masoretic text (though often with a distinct orthography), though other manuscripts demonstrate the textual fluidity of that period of transmission. That, however, merits a further blog post.

I hope this presents a clear, general overview of the Hebrew/Aramaic text that serves as the basis of modern translations of the Bible. It’s a younger text than many assume, but still a reliable text for much of what it records. Feel free to post comments or questions (though they will be moderated), particularly if there is something specific you want further information about.

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1 Comment

  1. bleedingstar1011

     /  18/01/2020

    “(I’m not going to link them, since they’re offensive, innaccurate, dangerous, or some combination of these and I don’t want them to get views etc.)”
    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that perspective.

    “…though other manuscripts demonstrate the textual fluidity of that period of transmission”
    I was going to ask, can you elaborate on that, but then you said it merits its own post! Looking forward to it.


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