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The standard critical theory enunciated by Herbert E. Ryle and others asserts that the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were canonized in three stages:

According to their dates of composition, into the Law (c. 400 B.C.E.).
Prophets (c. 200 B.C.E.).
The Writings (c. AD 100).

However, this view is untenable in light of the more recent developments and the arguments summarized by Sid Z. Leiman, Roger Beckwith, and others, which demonstrate that the canon was completed no later than the second century B.C.E. and possibly as early as the fourth century B.C.E.

In fact, a completed canon of the Hebrew Scriptures is evident from the testimony of the “Prologue of Ecclesiasticus” (c. 132 B.C.E.), Jesus, Philo, and Josephus well before AD 100.

Furthermore, there is evidence that inspired books were added to the cannon immediately as they were written. Hence, the Old Testament canon was actually completed when the last book was written and added to it by the fourth century B.C.E. (B.C.E. Before the Common Area)


The original manuscripts (autographs) of the Old Testament are not available, but the Hebrew text is amply represented by both pre-and post- Christian manuscripts. (Much of the following discussion is updated from Norman L. Geisler, “Bible Manuscripts.” In Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, 1:248-52.). As a result, the reliability of the Hebrew text can be evaluated from available manuscript evidence.

The Number of Hebrew Old Testament Manuscripts

The first collection of Hebrew manuscripts, made by Benjamin Kennicott (AD 1776-1780) and published by Oxford, listed 615 manuscripts of the Old Testament. Later Giovanni de Rossi (1784-1788) published a list of 731 manuscripts. The main manuscript discoveries in modern times are those of the Cairo Geniza (c. 1890ff.) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947ff.). In the Cairo synagogue attic storeroom alone were discovered some 200,000 manuscripts and fragments, some 10,000 of which are biblical. According to J.T. Milik, fragments of about 600 manuscripts are known from the Dead Sea Scrolls, not all biblical. Moshe Goshen-Gottstein estimates that the total number of   Old Testament Hebrew manuscript fragments throughout the world runs into the tens of thousands.

Major Collections of Old Testament Manuscripts

Of the 200,000 Cairo Geniza manuscript fragments, some 100,000 are housed at Cambridge. The largest organized collection of Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts in the world is the Second Firkowitch Collection in Leningrad. It contains 1,582 items of the Bible and Mosara on parchment (725 on paper), plus 1,200 additional Hebrew manuscript fragments. (The Antonin collection. Wurthwein. P. 23). The British Museum catalog lists 146 Old Testament manuscripts. At Oxford, the Bodleian Library catalog lists 146 Old Testament manuscripts, each one containing a large number of fragments. (Kahle, p. 5). Goshen-Gottstein estimates that in the United States alone there are tens of thousands of Semitic manuscript fragments, about 5 percent of which are biblica-more than 500 manuscripts (Goshen-Gottstein. p. 30).

Description of Major Old Testament Hebrew Manuscripts

The most significant Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts date from between the third century B.C.E. and the fourteenth century AD.

Nash Papyrus
Besides those unusual finds, which are about a thousand years older than most of the earliest Old Testament Hebrew manuscripts, there is extant one damaged copy of the Shema (from Deut. 6:4-9) and two fragments of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:2ff.’ Deut. 5:6ff.). It is dated between the second century B.C.E. (William F. Albright, “A Biblical Fragment from the Maccabean Age: The Nash Papyrus.” Pp. 145-76) ands the first century AD.

Orientales 4445
This British Museum manuscript is dated by Christian D. Ginsburg between AD 820 and 850, the Masora notes being added a century later. But Paul E. Kahle (Kahle, in Wurthwein. P. 118) argues that both consonantal Hebrew texts and pointing (the added vowel points or marks) are from the time of Moses ben Asher (tenth century). Because the Hebrew alphabet consists only of consonants, Hebrew writing normally shows only those letters, with a few of the letters being used in varying degrees to represent some of the vocalic sounds. This manuscript contains Genesis-Deuteronomy 1:33 (less Numbers 7:47-73 and Numbers 9:12-10:18).

Codex Cairensis
A codex is a manuscript in book form with pages. According to a colophon, or inscription at the end of the book, this Cairo Codes was written and vowel-pointed in AD 895 by Moses ben Asher in Tiberias in Palestine., (Wurthwein. P. 25). It contains the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve). It is symbolized C in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS).

Aleppo Codex of the Whole Old Testament
This was written by Shelomo ben Baya’a (Kenyon p. 84), but according to a colophon it was pointed (i.e. the vowel marks were added) by Moses ben Asher (c. AD 930). It is a model codex and although it was not permitted to be copied for a long time and was even reported to have been destroyed (Wurthwein. P. 25), it was smuggled from Syria to Israel. It has now been photographed and will be the basis of the New Hebrew Bible to be published by the Hebrew University (Goshen-Gosttstein. P. 13). It is a sound authority for the Ben Asher text.

Codex Leningradensis (B19A)
According to a colophon, or note at the end, this was copied in Old Cairo by Samuel ben Jacob in AD 1008 from a manuscript (now lost) written by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher c. AD 1000 (Kahle. P. 110), whereas Ginsburg held it was copied from the Aleppo Codex (Ginsburg. P. 243f.). It represents one of the oldest manuscripts of the complete Hebrew Bible that is known (Kahle, p. 132). Kittel adopted it as the basis for the third edition of his Biblia Hebraica (BHK), and it continues to be used as such in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), where is represented under the symbol L.

Babylonian Codex of the Latter Prophets (MS Heb. B3)
This is some times called the Leningrad Codex of the Prophets (Kenyon, p. 85) or the [St.] Petersburg Codex (Wurthwein. P. 26). It contains Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. It is dated AD 916, but its chief significance is that through it punctuation added by the Babylonian school of Masoretes was rediscovered. It is symbolized as V (ar)p in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.

Reuchlin Codex of the Prophets
Dated AD 1105, this is now at Karlsruhe. Like the British Museum manuscript Ad. 21161 (c. AD 1150), it contains a recension of Ben Naphtali, a Tiberian Masorete. These have been of great value in establishing the fidelity of the Ben Asher text (Kenyon. P. 36).

Cairo Geniza Manuscripts
Of the approximately 10,000 biblical manuscripts and fragments from the Geniza (storehouse for old manuscripts) of the Cairo synagogue now scattered throughout the world, Kahle identified more than 120 examples copied by the Babylonian group of Masoretes. In the Firkowitch Collection are found 14 Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts dating between AD 929 and 1121. Kahle contends also that the 1,200 manuscripts and fragments of the Antonin Collection come from the Cairo Geniza (Kahle, p. 7). He provided a list of 70 of these manuscripts in the prolegomena to Biblia Hebraica, seventh edition. There are other Geniza manuscripts scattered over the world. Some of the better ones in the United States are in the Enelow Memorial Collection housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York (cf. Wurthwein. P. 26).

Erfurt Codices (E  1,2,3)
These are listed in the University Library in Tubingen as Manuscript Orientale 1210/11, 1212,1213. Their peculiarity is that they represent more or less (more in E 3) the text and Masora of the Ben Naphtali tradition. E 1 is a fourteenth-century manuscript containing the Hebrew Old Testament and the Targum. E. 2 is also of the Hebrew Old Testament and Targum Ontelos, probably from the thirteenth century. E 3 is the oldest, being dated by Kahle and others before AD 1100 (Cf. Wurthwein, p. 26).

Some Lost Codices
There are a number of significant but now lost codices whose peculiar readings are preserved and referred to in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Codex Severi (Sev.) is a medieval list of thirty-two variants of the Pentateuch (cf. critical apparatus to Gen. 18:21; 24:7; Num. 4:3), supposedly based on a manuscript brought to Rome in AD 70  that Emperor Severus (AD 222-35) later gave to a synagogue he had built. Codex Hillel (Hill.) was supposedly written c. AD 600 by Rabbi Hillel ben Moses ben Hillel. It is said to have been accurate and was used to revise other manuscripts. Readings from that manuscript are cited by medieval Masoretes and are used in the critical apparatus of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia in Genesis 6:3; 19:6; Exodus 25:19; Leviticus 26:9. A critical apparatus lists the variant readings to the text that the editor considers are significant for translators or necessary for establishing the text.

The most remarkable manuscripts are those of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from the third century B.C.E. to the first century AD. They include one complete Old Testament book (Isaiah) and thousands of fragments, which together represent every Old Testament book except Esther.

Cave 1
1. St Mark’s Monastery Isaiah Scroll (Isaiah A, or IQIsa), earliest known copy of any complete book.
2. Manual of Discipline which cover rules and regulations of the Qumran sect.
3. Commentary on the Habakkuk, containing text of first two chapters with running interpretation.
4. Genesis Apocryphon, or Lamech Scroll which speak of the patriarchs of Genesis.
5. Hebrew University Isaiah (Isaiah B, or IQIsb) agrees with Masoretic text more than Isaiah A
6. War Scroll or War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness-end-time war with enemies
7. Thanksgiving Hymns containing thirty two hymns, which resemble Old Testament psalms.

Cave 1 was officially excavated Feb. 15 and March 9, 1949. It yielded fragments of Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms also Enoch and sayings of Moses (previously unknown), Book of Jubilee, Book of Noah, Testament of Levi, Tobit, and the Wisdom of Solomon. An interesting fragment of Daniel, containing 2:4 (where the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic), also comes from this cave. Fragmentary commentaries on Psalms, Micah, and Zephaniah were also found in Cave I.

Samaritan Pentateuch
The separation of the Samaritans from the Jews was an important event in the history of the post-exilic period of the Old Testament. It occurred probably during the fifth or fourth century B.C.E., and was the culmination of a long process. At the time of the schism one would suspect that the Samaritans took with them the Scriptures as they then existed, with the result that there came into being a second Hebrew recension or revised text of the Pentateuch. This Samaritan Pentateuch is not a version in the strict sense of the word, but rather a manuscript portion of the Hebrew text itself. It contains the five books of Moses and is written in a Paleo-Hebrew script quite similar to that found on the Moabite Stone, the Siloam inscription, the Lachisch letters, and in particular some of the older biblical manuscripts from Qumran. Because the Samaritan script is a derivative of the Paleo-Hebrew script that was revived in the Maccabean era of nationalist archaizing, and because of the full orthography of the Samaritan Pentateuch, Frank M. Cross Jr., believes that the Samaritan Pentateuch branched off from the pre- or proto-Masoretic text in the second century B.C.E.

A form of the Samaritan Pentateuch text seems to have been known to such early church Fathers as Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome. It did not become available to scholars in the West, however, until 1616, when Pietro della Valle discovered a manuscript of the Samaritan Pentateuch in Damascus. A great wave of excitement arose among biblical scholars. The text was published in an early portion of the Paris Polyglot (1632) and later in the text of the London Polyglot (1657). It was quickly regarded as being superior to the Masoretic Text (MT); but it became relegated to relative obscurity after Wilhelm Gesenius in 1815 adjudged it to be practically worthless for textual criticism. In more recent times the value of the Samaritan Pentateuch has been reasserted by such scholars as A.Geiger, Paul E. Kahle, and Frederic G. Kenyon.

So far as is known, no manuscript of the Samaritan Pentateuch is older than the eleventh century AD. The oldest codex of the Samaritan Pentateuch bears a note about its sale in AD 1149-50, but the manuscript itself is much older. One manuscript was copied in 1204, another dated 1211-1212 is now in the John Rylands Library at Manchester, and still another dated c. 1232, is in the New York Public Library.

The Aramaic Targums
There is evidence that the scribes were making oral paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Aramaic vernacular as early as the time of Ezra (Neh. 8:1-8). These paraphrases were not strictly translations, but were actually aids in understanding the archaic language forms of the Torah. The translator or interpreter involved in that work was called a methurgeman.

The necessity for such helps arose because Hebrew was becoming less and less familiar to the ordinary people as a spoken language. By the close of the last centuries B.C.E., this gradual process had continued until almost every book in the Old Testament had its oral paraphrase or interpretation (Targum).

During the early centuries AD., these Targums were committed to writing, and an official text came to the fore, since the Hebrew canon, text, and interpretation had become well solidified before the rabbinical scholars of Jamnia (c. AD 90), and the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine in AD 135.

The earliest Targums were apparently written in Palestinian Aramaic during the second century AD.; however, there is evidence of Aramaic Targums from the pre-Christian period (Harris. Pp. 154-59). These early official Targums contained the Law and the Prophets, but the Writings were included in unofficial Targums in later times.

It is interesting to note that a pre-Christian Targum of Job was written in Palestinian Aramaic and discovered in Cave 11 at Qumran. Cave 4 contained a Targum of the Pentateuch. These unofficial Aramaic Targums were superseded by official text in the second century AD.

During the third century AD, there appeared in Babylonia an Aramaic Targum on the Torah. This Targum was possibly a recension of an earlier Palestinian tradition but may have originated in Babylonia. It has been traditionally ascribed to Onkelos (Ongelos), a name probably confused with Aquila (Aquila is the name of the scholar who made a slavishly literal Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament as a substitute for the LXX; the confusion of the names was undoubtedly enhanced by the rigid rendering of the text of this Targum, which is itself regarded as a recension by many scholars.)

Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel
Another Babylonian Aramaic Targum accompanies the Prophets (Former and Latter), and is known as the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel. It dates from the fourth century AD, and is freer and more periphrastic in its rendering of the text. Both of those Targums were read in the synagogues: Onkelos along with the Torah, which was read in its entirety, and Jonathan along with selections from the Prophets (haphtaroth, pl.).

The Septuagint (LXX)
Just as the Jews had abandoned their native Hebrew tongue for Aramaic (In Jesus time they spoke Aramaic) in the Near East, so they abandoned the Aramaic in favor of Greek (Jesus quoted from the LXX) in such Hellenistic centers as Alexandria, Egypt. During the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the Jews were shown considerable favor. In fact, Alexander was sympathetic towards the Jews as a result of their policies toward him in the siege of Tyre (332 B.C.E.). He is even reported to have traveled to Jerusalem to do homage to their God. As he conquered new lands, he built new cities, which frequently had Jewish inhabitants, and frequently names them Alexandria.

It was during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (after the death of Alexander the Great) that full political and religious rights were granted to the Jews. It was in that period (c. 250-c. 150 BCE), that the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek-the first time it had ever been extensively translated. The leaders of Alexandrian Jewry had a standard Greek version produced, known as the LXX (It should be noted that the term Septuagint applies to the Pentateuch, which was probably the only portion of the Old Testament translated during the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.), the Greek word for “seventy.” It was undoubtedly translated during the third and/or second centuries B.C.E. and was purported to have been written as early as the time of Ptolemy II in a Letter of Aristeas to Philocartes (c. 130-100 B.C.E.).

Let us take a text from Genesis and see how it reads from these different books.

KJV  Gen 3:8
“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.”

Hebrew Canon
“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.” 

Samaritan Pentateuch
“And they heard the voice of the Word of the Lord God calling them in Paradise in the breathing of the day; and Adam and his wife had themselves from before the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”

Targum of Onkelos
“And they heard the voice of the Word of the Lord God walking in the garden in the evening of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from before the Lord God among the trees of the garden."

Septuagint (LXX)
“And when they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the evening, both Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God, among the trees of the garden.”

The Talmud
Following the first period of Old Testament scribal tradition, the period of the Sopherim (c. 400 B.C.E.-AD 200), there appeared a second, the Talmudic period (C. AD 100-c. 500), which was followed by the better-known Masoretic tradition (c. 500-c.950). Ezra worked with the first of these groups, and they were regarded as the Bible custodians until after the time of Christ (See Archer, pp. 61-65). Between AD 100 and 500, the Talmud (instruction, teaching) grew up as a body of Hebrew civil and canonical law based on the Torah. The Talmud basically represents the opinions and decisions of Jewish teachers from about 300 B.C.E. to AD 500, and it consists of two main divisions: the Mishnah and the Gemara.

The Mishnah (repetition, explanation, teaching) was completed at about AD 200, and was a digest of all the oral laws from the time of Moses. It was regarded as the Second Law, the Torah being the First Law. This work was written in Hebrew, and it covered traditions as well as explanations of the oral law.

The Gemara (to complete, accomplish, learn) was written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and was basically an expanded commentary on the Mishnah. It was transmitted in two traditions, the Palestinian Germara (c. AD 200), and the larger and more authoritative Babylonian Gemara (c. AD 500).

The Midrash
The Midrash (textual study, textual interpretation) was actually a formal doctrinal and homiletical exposition of the Hebrew Scriptures written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Midrashim (plural) were collected into a body of material between 100 B.C.E. and AD 300. Within the Midrash were two major parts: the Halakah (procedure), a further expansion of the Torah only, and the Haggada (declaration, explanation), being commentaries on the entire Old Testament. These Midrashim differed from the Targums in that the former were actually commentaries, whereas the latter were paraphrases. The Midrashim contain some of the earliest extant synagogue homilies on the Old Testament, including such things as proverbs and parables.


For more information on these subject, please read A General Introduction To The Bible by Norman L. Geisler and Willian E. Nix  Moody Press Chicago

The Traditional Hebrew Text - Tanakh
The forerunners and leaders of the Renaissance and the Reformation (14th century),  and especially Martin Luther and William Tyndale (16th century),  made use of  Latin translations of  the classic Jewish commentators Rashi,  Ibn Ezra, and Kimhi (11th – 13th century’s),  whose works were imbued with the direct knowledge of  the Targums.

Luther was greatly indebted to Nicholas of  Lyre (1270-1349 A.D.),  who had adopted Rashi’s exegesis for his Latin Bible commentary.  Rashi’s influence on all authorized and most unofficial English translations of  the Hebrew Bible becomes evident when Tyndale’s dependence on Luther is considered.
Tyndale is central to many subsequent English translations:

the King James Version of 1611,
the (British) Revised Version of 1881-1885,
the American Standard Version of 1901,
and especially the Revised Standard Version of 1952.

Alongside the close,  literal method of  Bible translation,  the earliest Jewish translators were also influenced by the widely held view that,  along with the Written Law (torah she-biktav),  God had given Moses on Mount Sinai an Oral Law (torah she-be’al peh) as well;  so that to comprehend God’s Torah fully and correctly,  it was essential to make use of both.

With the growth of Christianity in the first century,  the Church adopted the Septuagint (LXX) as its Bible,  and the Septuagint was translated into the languages of  the various Christian communities.  As Greek began to give way to Latin in the Roman Empire,  it was only a matter of  time before a Latin translation of  Scripture became the recognized Bible of the Church of Rome.

The Church father Jerome (340-420 A.D.) produced the official Latin version.  Drawing on Jewish tradition and consulting Jewish teachers,  he achieved what came to be known as the Vulgate,  the Bible in the language of  the common people.  The Vulgate,  the Bible of  European Christianity until the Reformation,  is clearly the most significant Bible translation after the Septuagint.

After World War 2, when the Jewish Publication Society began to consider a new edition of the Bible,  the idea of a modest revision of the 1917 translation met with resistance, and the concept of a completely new translation gradually took hold.  The proposed translation would reproduce the Hebrew idiomatically and reflect contemporary scholarship,  thus laying emphasis upon intelligibility and correctness.

It would make critical use of  the early rabbinic and medieval Jewish commentators,  grammarians,  and theologians and would rely on the tradition Hebrew text,  avoiding emendations.  The need for this new translation was the focus of  the Jewish Publication Society’s annual meeting in 1953.  Later that year the Society announced its intention to proceed with the project,  and in 1955 the committee of  translators began their task.

The committee undertook to follow faithfully the traditional Hebrew text,  but there were certain points at which footnotes appeared necessary:

(1) Where the committee had to admit that it did not understand a word or passage
(2) Where an alternative rendering was possible
(3) Where an old rendering, no longer retained, was so well known that it would very likely be missed, in which case the traditional translation was given in the name of “Others”
(4) Where the understanding of a passage could be facilitated by reference to another passage elsewhere in the Bible
(5) Where important textual variants are to be found in some manuscripts.
(Preface, Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia-Jerusalem)




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