The Text of the Old Testament


by Wayne S. Walker

     The basic Hebrew text that we have of the Old Testament is known as the Masoretic Text. The most ancient Masoretic manuscripts which have been discovered date from about the ninth or tenth century A.D. However, for a variety of sufficient reasons scholars are confident that the quality of the existing manuscripts is very good. The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who flourished from around A.D. 500 to 1000. Their main work was arranging, organizing, and copying the Hebrew scriptures. They counted the verses, words, and even the very letters of their copies, comparing everything to the text before them. The detection of a single mistake was often held to be sufficient reason for destroying an entire manuscript and starting over. Thus, careful and reverent copying was a hallmark of their activity.

     As accurate as the Masoretic text has proven to be, scholars do not depend solely upon it in trying to determine the original reading of the Old Testament, but also make use of the Samaritan Pentateuch (c. fourth century B.C.), the Aramaic Targums, the Septuagint or old Greek version, later Greek versions by various translators, the Latin Vulgate of Jerome (c. A.D. 400), and the Syriac Pe****ta (c. fifth century A.D.). It should be obvious that these translations were made from Hebrew manuscripts much older than themselves to which we no longer have any access. Therefore, we may reasonably conclude that their renderings, especially in places where there are questions, can be helpful.

     In addition, today we also have the Dead Sea Scrolls to confirm the accuracy of the Masoretes. A Jewish sect, perhaps the Essenes, lived at Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 68, and they also spent much time copying the Old Testament. When they learned that the Romans were about to destroy Jerusalem, they hid their scrolls in clay jars in nearby caves and left. They never returned, and in the spring of 1947 some Bedouin goat herders discovered them by accident. The scrolls contain fragments of every Old Testament book except Esther, including one complete copy of Isaiah and another one almost complete, as well as commentaries on various Old Testament books.

     What is the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Isaiah scroll demonstrates that when we have in our possession a first or second century manuscript of the Old Testament, we find it to be substantially the same text as that of the Masoretes. F. F. Bruce says that "the new evidence confirms what we had already good reason to believe–that the Jewish scribes of the early Christian centuries copied and recopied the text of the Hebrew Bible with the utmost fidelity. Their workmanship was much more accurate than the workmanship of the Christian scribes who copied and recopied the text of the Greek Bible" (quoted by Ferrell Jenkins in The Theme of the Bible, p. 7.)

     There is one other question about the text of the Old Testament, and that is if it should include the Apocrypha, books from the intertestamental period which are included in the Old Testament text of Roman Catholic Bibles as well as often placed between the Old and New Testaments in some Protestant Bibles. Most of them were written in Greek. They are two historical books (1 and 2 Maccabees), two didactic books (The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus by Sirach), two romantic books (Tobit and Judith), two prophetic books (Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy), an addition to the book of Esther, and three additions to the book of Daniel. Three other apocryphal books (1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses) are not accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.

     The truth is that these books were never part of the Hebrew canon. The introductory notes in the Catholic Douay Version say, "…They are not received by the Jews." The New Testament quotes from the Old Testament about 200 times, but there is not one quotation from the seven apocryphal books accepted by the Catholic Church. Later editions of the Septuagint do contain the Apocrypha, but Phillip Schaff says that the Septuagint did not include the apocrypha at the beginning. The apocryphal books did not come into common use until the second century A.D., and they were rejected by early Christians,, including the most eminent of early writers such as Origen, Athanasius, and Jerome. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was the first to favor canonizing them. And they were not declared canonical until the Council of Trent (A.D. 1546). These are sufficient reasons for not accepting the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament text.

     During the days of the writing of the Old Testament, the Bible teaches that "…Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:20-21). Based on the evidence available to us, we can rest assured that what we have in our Bibles is what they wrote, the word of God to the Hebrew people. It is preserved for us to help us in our understanding of God’s will for us regarding Jesus Christ and His teachings. "For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we though the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope" (Romans 15:4). (—taken from With All Boldness; February, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 2; p. 16)


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