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Equipped For Every Good Work

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Lesson 9

MANUSCRIPTS OF THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES

In the fifth century before Christ scribe Ezra departed out of Babylon and came up to the city of Jerusalem, about 140 years after it had been desolated by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. The time was one of great activity in the production of Hebrew-Scripture manuscripts. Not that much writing remained to be done to fill out the total number of books of the Hebrew Scriptures, for the bulk of these original writings was completed. Aside from Ezra and Nehemiah, only the prophet Malachi had yet to contribute to the Hebrew canon.

So it was not new Scripture production that gave rise to the humming activity in manuscript work. It was due to changed circumstances of the Jewish people. In 607 B.C. their central place of worship had been destroyed and themselves carried captive and otherwise scattered. When Jerusalem was later rebuilt and the temple reconstructed, not all the widely scattered Jews returned to Palestine. They could not come up to Jerusalem to hear the Scriptures read. Instead, synagogues sprang up all over the vast territory of the Jewish Dispersion, and at these synagogues the scattered Jews assembled in their many little groups to hear the reading of God's Word. Manuscripts, handwritten copies, had to be multiplied many times over to supply the demands for copies of the original writings. None of those copies produced in Ezra's day survives now. But as time passed more copies were made to replace those that succumbed to use and the ravages of time, so that even today there are existent about 1,700 handwritten copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, dating from the sixth century after Christ forward.

The earliest extant or now existing Hebrew manuscript known is the Nash papyrus. There are only four fragments, which, when pieced together, give twenty-four lines of a pre-Masoretic text of the Ten Commandments and some

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verses of Deuteronomy chapters 5 and 6. The writing is without vowel points, and has recently been assigned to the second century before Christ, by W. F. Albright.



Portion of the Nash papyrus, showing a pre-Masoretic Hebrew text, without vowel points and accent markings, and written in the Western style. The above is a part of the text of the Decalogue.


The men who copied the Hebrew Scriptures in the era of and before Christ were called scribes, or sopherim. As they copied and passed along the text of the Hebrew Scriptures they took liberties in making textual changes. The Masoretes (discussed farther on) in the period after Christ made no changes, and in the margins of their manuscript copies filled in notes on the text, in which notes they drew attention to changes made by the sopherim. They note the fifteen extraordinary points of the sopherim, namely, fifteen words or phrases in the Hebrew text marked by dots above and below. Some of these extraordinary points do not affect the English translation or the interpretation; but others do and are of importance. The sopherim allowed their superstitious fear of pronouncing the name Jehovah to ensnare them into altering it to read Adonay (Lord) at 134 places and to read Elohim (God) at 17 places. The Masorah (marginal comments on the text by the Masoretes) lists these changes. Also, the sopherim or early scribes are charged with making at least 18 emendations (corrections), according to a note in the Masorah. As an instance of

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this, read in The New World, page 274, paragraph 1, concerning Job 32:3. The Masorah also lists thirty-two passages which have different readings according to an important codex, and which are called Severin. Here again, some of these readings affect only such minor matters as spelling, but others check the scribes on points where the sense of the Scripture verses is involved.

Advancing in time from the period of the sopherim and their many alterations in the Hebrew-Scripture text, we find that as early as the second century after Christ the consonantal Hebrew manuscripts were probably fixed in form. The Hebrew text now presented in existing manuscripts and printed editions of the Hebrew Bible is that of "the Masoretic text", so called. Its development is usually placed between the sixth and the eighth century after Christ. This text does not alter the consonantal Hebrew text that was earlier established, but it does make certain invaluable provisions serving to make clear the consonantal form of the text.

The Masoretic text was the work of a group of trained Jewish scholars called "Masoretes", or Baalei Ha-masorali, that is, "lords of tradition." Prior to the Masoretic text the Hebrew Bible had no vowel points or signs to indicate the vowel sounds. The original Hebrew text was, of course, all consonants, the vowel sounds being easily supplied by readers versed in the language. The Masoretes devised a system of markings called vowel points, and by these vowel points they indicated the vowel sounds as handed down by oral tradition. A system of accent marks further assured correct pronunciation. The actual date when the vowel pointing was introduced is unknown. It was probably in the seventh century, for the Tiberian or Western system, and the sixth century for the Babylonian or Eastern system. The Western system has its vowel pointings under the Hebrew line, and is now found in all printed editions of the Hebrew Bible. The Babylonian system is above the line.

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Masoretic Hebrew text, with vowel points and accent markings, and written in the square Eastern style of letters. The above is the first part of the text at 1 Kings 6 : 1, and the word-for-word English translation reads from right to left.

The Masoretes also collected a number of notes on the text, now called "Masorah". Originally the Masorah was separate, but was later transferred to the margins of the Bible manuscripts. These notes are not interpretative of the text, but are a sort of index to textual peculiarities. They recorded how many verses were in each book, how many verses began with certain letters, and other such details. They noted whether words were to be written full or defective, their vowel pointing and accentuation, and how many times they so occurred. They even computed how often each letter of the Hebrew alphabet was found in the Bible text. They noted the fifteen instances of words or phrases marked by the extraordinary points of the sopherim or scribes, along with other notes of value. If the Masorah differed from the consonantal text, it indicated such in the margin with the word Qeri, which means "to be read". Hence, by such suggested readings' being in the margin, they did not change one bit the written text as it had come down to the Masoretes from the time of the sopherim. The Masoretic spirit, as Professor Rotherham said, was to "change nothing, reproduce everything, fence and guard everything". They made sure of passing on the traditional text as they had received it.

The Jewish scholar Pinner had a number of manuscripts named after him. No. 1, Pinner, is a roll of the Pentateuch

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on leather, and contains the five books of Moses complete. It has no vowel points, accents or Masorah, which facts mark it as quite old. According to the subscription of this manuscript or codex it was corrected in the year 580 (A.D.) and hence was written sometime earlier, likely 1,400 years ago. If its subscription be genuine, it is the oldest Hebrew-Scripture manuscript known, except another manuscript, the Codex Petropolitanus, suspiciously dated A.D. 489. (Older is the Nash papyrus; but it is only fragmentary.)

There were eight standard manuscripts which were celebrated, among the Jews for the correctness and value of their text. They are now lost, but extracts of them are still preserved. These eight manuscripts are: (1) The Codex of Hillel; (2) the Babylonian Codex of Ben-Naphthali; (3) the Codex of Israel; (4) the Egyptian Codex of Ben-Asher; (5) the Codex Sinai, on the Pentateuch; (6) the Pentateuch of Jericho; (7) the Codex Sanbuki; and (8) the book Taggin. The Helali or Hillel Codex (in Spain) was probably named after the Jew who wrote it, and was produced about A.D. 600. It had the Tiberian or sublinear vowels and accents, and also the Masorah. Up to A.D. 1500 it served as a model from which copies were made, but it is now lost. Nevertheless, Jehovah God saw to it that the flow of manuscript copies of the Hebrew Scriptures kept pace with passing time to preserve to this day his Word.


REVIEW: 1. What was the situation relative to Scripture manuscript production in Ezra's time? 2. What circumstances demanded the production of many copies of Bible manuscripts? 3. What is the earliest extant Hebrew-Scripture manuscript now known? 4. Who were the sopherim? and what changes did they make in the Bible text? 5. When did the consonantal Hebrew text become fixed in form? 6. What is the Hebrew text now presented in existing manuscripts and printed editions of the Hebrew Bible? and when was it developed? 7. What provision did it make in the consonantal text itself? 8. What is the "Masorah"? and what information does it present? 9. Aside from the Nash papyrus fragments, what extant Hebrew manuscript seems most likely to be the oldest? 10. What were the eight standard manuscripts most highly valued by the Jews?
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