Understanding The Bible
Part II - Introduction to MANUSCRIPTS and VERSIONS


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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible


    1. 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. 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.
      2. Provision was made that copies of the law should be furnished kings.
      3. Priests had copies of the law from which they taught.
      4. 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 Ki. 22:8.
      5. 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.
    2. Ezra to the first century AD.
      1. 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.
      2. 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.
      3. 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.
      4. 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 text.
      5. 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.
    3. First century AD to AD 1010
      1. The nature of the text
        1. 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.
        2. 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.
        3. The oldest Hebrew MS of the entire OT is dated AD 1010.
      2. 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.
      3. OT versions during the period
        1. 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.
        2. The Old Latin VS was made in Africa around the second century AD.
        3. Theodotian's vlTabout AD 180 is a free Greek translation of the OT.
        4. Symmachus' s~Greek VS of the OT around AD 200.
        5. 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).
        6. The Coptic or Egyptian VS around AD 250.
        7. The Latin Vulgate VS was completed around AD 405. This translation by Jerome has greatly influenced the English Bibles
        8. The Peshitta is a Syriac VS of the OT from about AD 425.
        9. 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.

        10. 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 preservation.
    4. The fact of the fixity of the text
      1. 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.
      2. 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 making.
      3. The scribes frequently double-checked their work by repeating words aloud before copying.
      4. When the scribes were compelled to choose between two readings which seemed to be equally attested readings, they did not discard one in
      5. 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."

      6. 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."
    5. Problems in the transmission of the OT text
      1. Language difficulties
        1. 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 Hebrew.
        2. 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."
      2. Scribal difficulties
        1. Errors of misunderstanding.
          Failure to get the sense of the text; confusing marginal notes.
        2. Errors of the eye.
          Repetitions, transpositions, omissions, mistaking one letter for another.
        3. 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" and "sew."
        4. Errors of memory in copying. Jeremiah 27:1, cp. vv. 3,12; 28:1.
        5. Errors of carelessness or ignorance.
          Negligible, but occasional.
        6. 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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