OUR BIBLE & THE ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS by SIR FREDERIC KENYON - formerly Director of the British Museum - © Sir F Kenyon 1895. First published Eyre & Spottiswoode 1895. - fourth edition 1939. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.

Chapter IV:


HOME | Contents | Responsibility of Critical Examination | Principal of Free Enquiry | Higher Criticism | True History not necessarily Contemporary | OT Historical Books based upon Earlier Material | Composite Materials of OT Books | Dates of Final Composition | Arrangement of OT Books | Stages | Synod of Jamnia | OT Text: History-1 Targums | 2 Talmud | 3 Massoretes | Extant Hebrew Text entirely Massoretic | Copying of Hebrew MSS | Hebrew Characters | Hebrew Language | Extant Hebrew MSS Late | - but faithful | Destruction of older copies | Classification of Hebrew MSS | Chief Extant MSS | MSS now Lost | Printed Hebrew Text | Summary

THE history of the Hebrew Old Testament falls into two parts, divided by the great national catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem. In the earlier part the history of the text is closely bound up with the history of the Canon - the history, that is, of how and when the several books came into existence, a
nd how and when they were accepted by the Hebrews as the authoritative sacred books of their faith.

The Responsibility of Critical Examination.

The consideration of these questions is made more difficult and delicate because of beliefs and misconceptions, which have at certain times and among many people assumed almost the character of dogmas of faith. The Bible is so intertwined with our inmost religion, is so rightly regarded as the immutable basis of our faith, that to many people it is hard to admit that any doubt can be allowed to attach to either the form or the substance of any of its statements. But this is to make an assumption with regard to God's methods which is not warranted by what we see of His methods elsewhere. Doubtless He might have imposed the true doctrines of religion on mankind in such a manner that no possible opening could have been left for doubt. He might have made it impossible for man to sin. He might have solved the mystery of pain. But that has not been His method. He has left to man the privilege of free will, and has imposed on him the responsibility of thought, of examination, of faith. There is therefore nothing that need disturb or unsettle us in the idea that He has also imposed on us the responsibility of using the intellectual faculties with which He has endowed us in the study of the records in which the history of the chosen Hebrew people and of the foundation of the Christian Church have come down to us. These intellectual faculties may lead us astray, just as we may go astray in far more important matters of faith and conduct; but it is a poor faith which does not believe that the Holy Spirit will, if we trust Him, ultimately lead us to the truth. It is incredible, to anyone who believes in God, that there should be an irreparable discrepancy between the truth and the results to which we can attain by the exercise of those faculties which God has given to us, and which He has imposed on us the responsibility of using. 

This is not to say that every result which every new critic proclaims is to be accepted forthwith as truth. It is only to say that it is not to be condemned forthwith without examination because it offends our present opinions and beliefs. The history of Biblical criticism, as of the criticism of all ancient history and literature, is full of erroneous views, confidently proclaimed, eagerly accepted by those who wish to appear in the vanguard of advance, and then disproved or allowed gradually to sink into obscurity. The way to counter the results of research which are distasteful to us is more research; and it is surely a healthier faith to believe that truth is great and will prevail than to hide one's head, ostrich-like, in the sand.

The Principle of Free Inquiry.

This insistence on a stereotyped form of faith which must not be questioned is a relatively late development. It was not the attitude of the Fathers of the Christian Church. They readily admitted that there were doubts about the authorship of certain books. They knew, only too well, that there were differences of opinion about articles of faith, and were not disturbed by obscurities as to the history of the Hebrew people. We do not always accept their interpretations of doubtful passages, or their reading of the history of the past; but we can follow their acceptance of the principle of free inquiry, and can hope that with fuller knowledge we may gradually come nearer to the truth.

In these pages, therefore, an attempt will be made to set out the results which modern criticism is at present disposed to accept with regard to the history of the books composing our Bible; fully recognising that many of these results are still uncertain, but also deriving satisfaction from the belief, of which proofs will be given in the following pages, that the tendency of modern research has been, again and again, to confirm the substantial integrity and trustworthiness of the Bible record.

"Higher Criticism."

It seems advisable at this point to utter a warning against the misuse which is frequently made of the phrase "Higher Criticism," as if it implied an attitude of disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible. This is a complete misunderstanding of the real meaning of the words. "Higher Criticism" is criticism applied to the substance or contents of a book, while "Lower Criticism" is criticism applied to its form or text. And criticism is not necessarily hostile criticism. It is merely examination or judgment. It is just as much "Higher Criticism" to argue that Moses personally wrote all the books of the Pentateuch as it is to maintain that they are of late date and consequently untrustworthy. The question of importance is not whether the criticism is "higher," but whether it is sound; and that is a question of evidence and argument, not of a priori assumptions or of impeaching the motives of those whose views we find unpalatable or consider to be unsound.

True History is not necessarily Contemporary.

It seems sometimes to be thought that the credibility of the Old Testament history depends on the books in their present form being contemporary with the events that they describe. A little reflection will show that this is contrary to experience. For the most trustworthy histories of the reigns of Elizabeth or Charles I, and still more for those of Alfred or William the Conqueror, we do not look to the contemporary chroniclers, but to the modern historian. It is of course necessary for a satisfactory history that good contemporary evidence should be available, but this evidence can generally be best handled by a later writer, who is in a position to collate materials from several quarters, and to combine the evidence of different writers. So long as it was maintained that writing was unknown in the time of Moses and Joshua, and even in that of David, there was ground for questioning the trustworthiness of the narratives of the early history of the Hebrew people; but now that archaeology has shown that writing was well known and commonly used from times far earlier than that of Abraham, we are free to examine the materials and structure of the historical books in the light of the ordinary principles of historical and literary criticism, without feeling that we are in the least impugning their general reliability.

Historical Books of OT based upon Earlier Material.

It is to be observed that there is nothing in the books themselves inconsistent with this way of looking at them. The books of the Pentateuch do not claim Moses as their author; they may be referred to in later times as "the books of Moses," but that is because four out of the five are books about him. His words or actions may be quoted from them, without implying that he himself' recorded them. That older materials underlay them appears, for instance, in the reference to the book of the Wars of the Lord (Num.xxi.14). The later historical books also repeatedly refer to the materials out of which they have been constructed: the book of Jasher, the book of the acts of Solomon, the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel, or of Judah, and so on. They are avowedly works composed by a later writer or writers, based upon such materials as were available.

Composite Materials of OT Books.

This a priori probability is confirmed by the literary examination of the books themselves. This reveals to a Hebrew scholar differences in language and style, which are concealed from the English reader by the uniformity of the English translation. He can, however, easily understand it if he imagines what a history of England would be like which was compounded of extracts from Holinshed, Clarendon, Hume, Macaulay, Green and Trevelyan. The several elements would reveal themselves by the difference of their style and language. And this method of compiling history by putting together sections from different sources can be paralleled from our own medieval chroniclers. Their general practice was, not to rewrite the history of a past period in their own words, as a modern historian would do, but to take over whole slabs from an earlier chronicler, with insertions from other sources or of their own. Thus Matthew Paris, the great St. Albans historian of the thirteenth century, in his Greater Chronicles took over (with additions and corrections) the work of his predecessor Roger of Wendover, who himself adopted the chronicle of Abbot John de Cella, which was itself compiled from the Bible and various early historians and romancers. Similarly Roger of Hoveden wrote a history of England from 731 to 1201 which has been thus described:

For the part from 731 to 1148 he simply copied an earlier chronicle, written at Durham, which was itself compounded from the histories of Simeon of Durham and Henry of Huntingdon; while, to go still further back, Simeon's history was largely derived from Florence of Worcester and an early Northumbrian chronicle. From 1148 to 1169 Hoveden's narrative appears to be original, though partly based on the Chronicle of the Abbey of Melrose and the lives and letters of Becket. From 1170 to 1192 his work is merely a revision of the chronicle assigned to Benedict of Peterborough. Finally from 1192 to 1201 he is an original and independent witness.


Dates of Final Composition.

This analysis of the methods of the medieval chroniclers of England may help us to understand the methods of the chroniclers of Judah and Israel, and may satisfy us that there is nothing unnatural or unreasonable in the differences which Hebrew scholars discern in the strata of which the historical books of the Old Testament are, according to their analysis, composed. When they were finally put together in their present form may never be definitely known, and it is not necessary to suppose that modern scholarship has yet said its last word. The Jews themselves attributed the definite fixing of the Canon of the Law to Ezra, who promulgated it at the great assembly of the people recorded in Nehemiah (chapter VIII.); but of course that does not mean that the books themselves were not of earlier date. The book of Deuteronomy is generally believed to be (at any rate in its main substance) the book found in the Temple by Hilkiah the high priest in the time of Josiah (2 Kings x.8). Its discovery at this time (621 BC) was evidently a complete surprise, and the book itself may have been composed a century or so earlier, perhaps in the time of the early prophets. The earlier strata in the other books of the Pentateuch are variously assigned by scholars to dates between 900 and 750, with full recognition of the fact that they rest on materials of earlier date. The later (the so-called "priestly") elements, and the final redaction of the whole, are attributed to the time of Ezra (about 400 BC), or by some even later. There is still great divergence in the views of scholars, and none can claim decisive authority. 

Of the other historical books, Joshua has strata similar to those of the Pentateuch. The books of Judges, Samuel and Kings are evidently and avowedly compiled from a large variety of materials of different dates, put together after the fall of the monarchy. Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah all hang together, and are of the fourth century. Job may be of the same date, but there is little evidence, and opinions vary greatly. The Psalms and Proverbs are composed of several collections, ranging from the eighth to the third, or possibly the second century. Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Daniel are the latest books of the Old Testament. The Prophets range from Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, in the eighth century, to Joel and Jonah, probably in the fourth; but in all cases there may be later additions or editorial revisions. On this point there is infinite scope for the ingenuity of scholars. Some are never tired of subdividing, and see the hands of editors everywhere. Some seem to have very little sense of the way in which it is reasonable to suppose that books were written and circulated.

Arrangement of the Books of the OT.

We have therefore in the Old Testament a collection of books, the materials of which go back to an indefinite antiquity, and which were put together in their present forms, or approximately in their present forms, at various times between the ninth and the second centuries. The process of their adoption as having canonical authority appears to be indicated by the classification which the Jews themselves made of them. This classification is into three groups, known as the Law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa, or sacred writings. The Law included the five books of Moses, which we now call the Pentateuch. The Prophets comprised the historical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings (these four being a continuous work, known as the four books of "Kingdoms" or "Reigns"), [The sequence of nomenclature appears to be as follows. These books originally formed a continuous work in two books, to the first of which the title of "Samuel" is given in Hebrew MSS., although Samuel himself disappears before the middle of it. The Septuagint divided it into four books (presumably to suit the length of a normal papyrus roll), with the title of 1-4 Kingdoms. Jerome followed the Septuagint division, only substituting "Kings" for "Kingdoms." The Hebrew printed Bibles, from 1517 onwards, also adopted the division into four books, but restored the title "Samuel" to the first two. The English translators accepted this, together with Jerome's "Kings" for "Kingdoms" in the second pair.] which were known as "the Former Prophets"; and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets, known as "the Later Prophets." The Hagiographa consisted of the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, Esther, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. The origin of this classification and of the inclusion of several historical and prophetic books among the Hagiographa is unknown; but it almost certainly implies that those books were written later, and were among the last to be recognised as inspired. Divisions of the books themselves into reading-lessons, paragraphs, and verses (very nearly corresponding to our modern verses) were made in very early times; but they are not of much importance to us here. They are indicated in the manuscripts by blank spaces of greater or lesser size.

Its Stages.

1. The Law.

It seems tolerably certain that the three divisions of the books of the Old Testament, just mentioned, represent three stages in the process known as the formation of the Hebrew Canon of Scripture. Whenever the books of the Pentateuch were written, it is at least certain that they, constituting the Law, were the first group of writings to be thus accepted. In the days of the kings it was possible for the "book of the Law" (perhaps meaning our Deuteronomy) to be lost and forgotten, and to be recovered as it were by accident (2 Kings x.8); but the Captivity taught the Jews to be careful of their Scriptures, and the Canon of the Law may be taken as fixed about the time of the return from exile, possibly under the guidance of Ezra, to whom Jewish tradition assigned a special prominence in the work of collecting the sacred books. [The Jews themselves attributed the formation of the whole Canon to Ezra, with the help of elders composing a body known as "The Great Synagogue"; but it has been shown that this body is an imaginary one, and it is now generally recognised that the formation of the Canon must have been gradual, following the stages here indicated.] From this time forth the five books of Moses, as they were commonly called, were regarded as a thing apart. They were sacred; and by degrees the greatest care came to be devoted to copying them with perfect accuracy and studying minutely every word that they contained. There is reason to suppose that this extreme accuracy was not at first required or obtained; but in the time of our Lord it is clear that the text of the Law was held in the utmost veneration, and the class of the "scribes," whose special duty was to copy the sacred books, was fully established and held in considerable esteem. 

2. The Prophets.

The second group of books to obtain recognition as inspired, and to be adopted into the Canon, was that of the Prophets. This must have taken place between the date of Malachi, the last of the Prophets, about 430 BC, [Modern criticism would place Joel and Jonah later than this, and holds that a good deal of editorial work which gave the books their present form was done on some of the other prophets in the fourth century or later.] and the reference to "the twelve prophets" in Eccles.xlix.10, written about 180 BC; but the date cannot be fixed precisely. 

3. The Hagiographa.

The remaining group, known as the Hagiographa, is of a miscellaneous character, and for some time the books composing it evidently circulated on much the same footing as other books which were eventually excluded from the Canon, such as Judith, Tobit, and Ecclesiasticus.

It is certain that this was the case among the Greek-speaking Jews at Alexandria, for in the Septuagint translation made for them (see p.54 below) the books which now constitute our Apocrypha appear intermingled among the canonical books. It would not appear, however, that they enjoyed the same acceptation elsewhere; for it is noticeable that while there are many quotations in the New Testament from each of the three divisions of the Old, there is not a single direct quotation from the Apocrypha. A similar distinction is found in Josephus and Philo.

The Synod of Jamnia.

A decisive point in the history of both the Canon and the text of the Old Testament seems to have been reached about the end of the first century of the Christian era. Throughout the period of the wars of the Maccabees, there may well have been little time to spare for the labours of scholarship; [In the description of the persecution of Antiochus in 1 Macc.i.56, 57, it is said: "And they rent in pieces the books of the law which they found, and set them on fire. And wheresoever was found with any a book of the Covenant, and if any consented to the law, the king's sentence delivered him to death." But in 2 Macc.ii.13, 14, after a reference to "the public archives and the records that concern Nehemiah, and how he, founding a library, gathered together the books about the kings and prophets, and the books of David, and letters of kings about sacred gifts," it is added: "And in like manner Judas also gathered together for us all those writings that had been scattered by reason of the war that befell, and they are still with us."] but with the return of peace came greater attention, to study, and in the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai, about the beginning of the Christian era, we may find the origin of the long line of rabbis and scribes to whom is due the fixing of the Hebrew canon and text as we now have them.  The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and the annihilation ofJudaea as a nation, compelled the Jews to find their centre in their sacred books; and somewhere between AD 90 and 100 a synod is recorded to have been held at Jamnia (near Jaffa), at which certain disputed questions with regard to the acceptability of some of the books were decided. It is from this point that we may regard both the Canon and the text of the Hebrew Scriptures as having been definitely fixed. The books accepted as canonical were those which now appear in our Old Testament; and there is good reason to think (as will appear below) that the text has suffered no material alteration since that date. The two great centres of Jewish scholarship were Palestine and Babylonia, the former having its headquarters successively at Jamnia and Tiberias, the latter in Babylon, where a Jewish colony had remained since the days of the Exile. It is from the records of these schools, each of which preserved to some extent distinct traditions of text and interpretation, that we derive our earliest direct knowledge of the Hebrew text as it existed among the Jews themselves. Indirect evidence for an earlier time may be derived, as we shall see, from the Samaritan and Greek translations which have come down to us from the pre-Christian period; but in the present chapter we are concerned with the Hebrew text alone.

History of the Hebrew Text.

1. The Targums.

The earliest direct evidence which we possess as to the text current among the Jews themselves is that provided by the TARGUMS, or paraphrases of the Scriptures into the Aramaic dialect. After their return from the Captivity the Jews gradually adopted this language (a tongue closely related to Hebrew, being a kindred branch of the same Semitic family of speech, sometimes called, as in the margins of our Bible, Chaldee); and it became thenceforth the current language of ordinary life. Thus, it may be remarked by the way, it was the language commonly spoken in Judaea at the time of our Lord's life on earth. Meanwhile the ancient Hebrew remained as the language in which the sacred books were written, being studied and preserved by the educated and literary class among the Jews, but becoming continually less familiar to the common folk. Hence arose the necessity of paraphrasing the Scriptures into the current Aramaic tongue. At first these paraphrases were simply given by word of mouth, as in the scene described in Neh.viii.1-8, when Ezra read the book of the Law before the people, "and Jeshua and Bani and Sherebiah ... the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law"; but subsequently the method of interpretation was reduced to a system, and written down, and this practically became the popular Bible of the Jewish nation. These written paraphrases are known as "Targums," the word itself probably meaning "paraphrase." In the form in which we now have them, they probably represent accumulated layers of tradition, going back to a time before the foundation of Christianity, of which they show no knowledge; but they did not reach their present shape until a much later date. The Palestinian and Babylonian schools possessed distinct Targums of their own. The best of those that have come down to us is the Babylonian Targum on the Pentateuch, which is ascribed to a writer named Onkelos (and hence is cited in the Variorum Bible as Onk.). The date of this is rather uncertain. Onkelos is sometimes identified with Aquila, the author of a very literal translation of the Old Testament into Greek (see p.56), who lived in the second century after Christ; but the best opinion seems to be that this Targum was produced in its present shape about the third century, on the basis of an earlier paraphrase. It is a very simple and literal translation of the Pentateuch, and is for that reason the more useful as evidence for the Hebrew text from which it was taken. Of the other Targums (cited collectively as Targ. in the Variorum Bible) much the best is that which bears the name of Jonathan ben Uzziel, on the Prophets (using that term in its technical sense, see p.33). It was written about the fourth century, and is somewhat more free than that of Onkelos. There is also a Palestinian Targum on the Law which is ascribed, but falsely, to this same Jonathan (hence cited as Ps.-Jon.); but this, which was probably not written till the seventh century, and all the other Targums are of small critical value compared with those of Onkelos and Jonathan. It is not always possible to use the Targums as evidence for the Hebrew text of the sacred books on which they are based, since they at times paraphrase freely, inserting explanations, moderating strong expressions, and otherwise introducing alterations. It is, however, clear that the Hebrew text from which they are made (that is, the text current in Judaea about the end of the first century BC, to which their tradition reaches back) was not identical with that which has come down to us. The student of the Variorum Bible will find many passages in which they are quoted as differing from the received text, sometimes for the better -
Deut.xxi.13; Josh.ix.4; Judg.v.30; 2 Sam.xviii.13; 1 Kings i.12; Ps.c.3; Isa.xlix.5; etc. They have this advantage at least over most of the other versions, that whenever we can be sure of the Hebrew text which they represent we know that it was a text accepted by the leaders of criticism among the Jews themselves.

2. The Talmud.

The period of the Targums is overlapped by that of the TALMUD. While the Targumists paraphrased the Hebrew text, the scholars known as the Talmudists explained and commented on it. The fact that in ancient Hebrew writing the vowels were entirely omitted led, as explained below, to the occurrence of many words and phrases in which a different sense could be obtained according as different vowels were supplied. Hence plenty of scope was left to the ingenuity of the Talmudists, who gradually accumulated a mass of tradition concerning the proper reading and explanation of the text. It does not appear that they themselves did much towards fixing the actual text which appears in the manuscripts. On the contrary, even in the earliest among the writings of the Talmud, the quotations from Scripture generally agree with our received text; the existence of a settled text of the Scriptures seems to be implied, and the most minute rules are laid down to ensure the faithful copying of this text by the scribes. The Talmudist scholars did not by any means confine their attention to textual matters; on the contrary, the Talmud contains the essence of many generations of traditional commentary of all kinds on the sacred books, concentrated and approved by the judgment of the leading scholars of the period.

3. The Massoretes.

The Talmudist period extends from about AD 270 to 500, and is succeeded by that of the MASSORETES. This is the final and decisive stage in the history of the Hebrew text. From about the beginning of the seventh century the scholars whom we now call the Massoretes set themselves to sift out from the mass of the Talmud the traditions which bore on the actual text of the sacred books. Hitherto, although the Talmudists had accumulated a great quantity of tradition concerning the correct vowel-punctuation of the Hebrew, the vowel-points had not been introduced into the manuscripts in use, and the textual traditions of the Talmudists were not separated from the exegetical or explanatory. The work of the Massoretes was to edit the Old Testament books in accordance with the traditions preserved in the Talmud. The headquarters of the school of Jewish doctors which undertook this labour was at Tiberias; but it was not the work of a single generation or of a single place. The text was provided with points to indicate the vowels; and this in itself went far towards fixing the interpretation of doubtful passages. In addition, the body of traditional remarks handed down from previous generations was recorded, so far as it related to strictly textual matters, with additions by the Massoretes themselves, and the whole of this textual commentary received the name of the "Massorah," which means "tradition." So far were the Massoretes from introducing alterations into the actual text of the sacred books, that, even where the traditional text was plainly wrong, they confined themselves to stating in the margin the reading which they held to be superior. Such variations were known by the names ofKri ("read") and Kthib ("written"), the latter being the reading of the text, the former that of the margin, which was to be substituted for the other when the passage was read. The Massorah is generally found in manuscripts in the margins of the pages, surrounding the text; and according as it is given in a fuller or a more abbreviated form it is called the Greater or the Lesser Massorah. Sometimes both are found together. Thus in our illustration of a Hebrew MS. (Plate IV) the Lesser Massorah is written in the margins to the left of the columns, and the Greater Massorah at the top and bottom of the page.

Besides recording varieties of reading, tradition, or conjecture, the Massoretes undertook a number of calculations which do not enter into the ordinary sphere of textual criticism. They numbered the verses, words, and letters of every book. They calculated the middle word and the middle letter of each. They enumerated verses which contained all the letters of the alphabet, or a certain number of them; and so on. These trivialities, as we may rightly consider them, had yet the effect of securing minute attention to the precise transmission of the text; and they are but an excessive manifestation of a respect for the sacred Scriptures which in itself deserves nothing but praise. The Massoretes were indeed anxious that not one jot nor tittle - not one smallest letter nor one tiny part of a letter - of the Law should pass away or be lost.

The Extant Hebrew Text is entirely Massoretic.

The importance of the Massoretic edition to us lies in the fact that it is still the standard text of the Hebrew Bible.
All the extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament contain substantially a Massoretic text.


The Copying of Hebrew Manuscripts.

When once that revision was completed, such precautions were taken to secure its preservation, to the exclusion of any other form of text, as to make it certain that the text has been handed down to us, not indeed without any errors or variations, but without essential corruption. Extraordinary care was taken to secure perfect accuracy in the transcription of the sacred books. Especially was this the case with the synagogue rolls, or copies of the Pentateuch intended for use in the synagogues.
These were written on skins, fastened together so as to form a roll, never in modern book form. Minute regulations are laid down in the Talmud for their preparation. "A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals, prepared for the particular use of the synagogue by a Jew. These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex. ["Codex" is a Latin word, meaning properly a manuscript arranged in modern book form (see p.13). It is, however, often used simply as equivalent to "manuscript" generally, and especially of manuscripts of the Bible.] The length of each column must not extend over less than forty-eight, or more than sixty lines; and the breadth must consist of thirty letters. The whole copy must be first lined; and if three words be written in it without a line, it is worthless. The ink should be black, neither red, green, nor any other colour, and be prepared according to a definite receipt. An authentic copy must be the exemplar, from which the transcriber ought not in the least to deviate. No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him. ... Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene; between every word the breadth of a narrow consonant; between every new parshiah, or section, the breadth of nine consonants; between every book, three lines. The fifth book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line; but the rest need not do so. Besides this, the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body, not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him while writing that name he must take no notice of him. ... The rolls in which these regulations are not observed are condemned to be buried in the ground or burned; or they are banished to the schools, to be used as reading-books," [Davidson, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1856, p.89.]

Private or common copies were not subject to such precise regulations. They are written in book form, sometimes on vellum, sometimes on paper. Inks of various colours are used, and the size of the columns is not necessarily uniform. The Hebrew text is often accompanied by an Aramaic paraphrase, arranged either in a parallel column or between the lines of the Hebrew. In the upper and lower margins (generally speaking) the Great Massorah may be written; in the external side margins are notes, comments, corrections, and indications of the divisions of the text; between the columns is the Lesser Massorah. Vowel-points and accents, which are forbidden in synagogue rolls, are generally inserted in private copies; but they were always written separately, after the consonant text had been finished.

It is under conditions such as these that the Massoretic text has been handed down, from manuscript to manuscript, until the invention of printing. Now what of the actual manuscripts which are still in existence? What will the student see when he opens one of the old Hebrew volumes in one of our great libraries, and what will it tell him concerning the text which it contains? 

In the first place he will see the page covered with characters which to most people are quite unfamiliar. It is writing such as that represented in Plate IV. The letters are generally of a square shape, and underneath them are little dots and strokes. The writing is usually arranged in columns, two or more going to the page if the manuscript is in book form; and the margins are filled with other writing of similar appearance. What, now, is the meaning of this? What is the history of the Hebrew writing?

The Hebrew Characters.

The characters in which modern Hebrew manuscripts are written are not the same as those which were in use when the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were composed, and to which reference was made above, when dealing with the origins of writing (p.6). In the time of the Jewish kingdom, Hebrew was written in characters which were common to the Hebrews themselves, the Samaritans, and the Phoenicians; and these characters, having been preserved by the Samaritans when the Jews abandoned them, are known to us in the manuscripts of the Samaritan Pentateuch (see Plate V). As explained above, the origins of this writing can now, as the result of recent discoveries, be traced back to the inscriptions in the Sinai peninsula, of about 2000 BC, and it is found approaching its recognised ancient form in the Lachish inscriptions of about 1300 BC, and on the tomb of Ahiram at Byblos about 1200 BC. Then come the famous Moabite Stone of about 890 BC, and the Siloam Inscription (about BC700), carved on the conduit leading to the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem. After this date it appears on coins and later inscriptions, and, as just stated, in MSS. of the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Jewish story of the origin of the "square" writing, as the later Hebrew characters are called, is that Ezra brought it back with him from Babylon, and that it was forthwith adopted for general use. This is only an instance of the common habit of tradition, to assign to a single man and a single moment a change which must have been spread over several generations. The contemporary coins and inscriptions enable us to trace the process, though imperfectly. In the first place, the old stiff Hebrew characters were gradually modified, after the Exile, so as to make them more cursive - more easily written, that is, in running hand; a change partly due to the example of the contemporary Aramaic writing in Syria and Arabia. Then, by way of reaction from this, and with the intention, no doubt, of making the writing of the sacred books more beautiful, the square characters were developed, and were thenceforth adopted as the essential form for the manuscripts of the Scriptures. A similar phenomenon is seen in the case of the Greek Bible, where we find the handsomest uncial writing springing up, in the fourth century, for use in great copies of the Bible in the midst of a very debased and un-ornamental style of cursive characters, of which many examples have come down to us on papyrus. In the case of the Hebrew writing, the change must have taken place before the time of our Lord, for the proverbial use of "jot" (= yod  the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet) to indicate a very small object (as in Matt.v.18) would only be possible after the adoption of the square characters, since in the earlier alphabet yod was by no means the smallest letter.

The Hebrew Language.

The language in which the manuscripts we are examining are written is, of course, Hebrew, a branch of the great Semitic family of languages, which includes the Babylonian, Assyrian, Chaldaean, Phoenician, and other tongues spoken in Western Asia. It was the spoken language of Palestine down to the time of the Exile; and even after that date, when Aramaic was adopted for ordinary use, Hebrew remained the literary language of the educated Jews. It is written from right to left, not from left to right as in our modern European books. But the special peculiarity of it is that in its original state only the consonants were written, the vowels being left to be filled up by the reader's mind. In the Hebrew manuscript which we have supposed ourselves to be examining, the great letters which form the lines of the writing are all consonants. The vowels are indicated by the dots or points beneath these letters, and these vowel-points are only a comparatively late invention, as described above (p.37). This ancient practice of omitting the vowels is one fertile cause of varieties in the text, for it will readily be understood that doubts might often occur as to the proper vowels to be supplied to a group of consonants. To take a parallel from English, the consonants M Rmight be read either as m(a)r(e) or m(i)r(e), or m(o)r(e), and it is quite possible that in some cases the sense of the passage would not show for certain which way was right. A glance at the notes of the Variorum Bible will show that this danger is far from being imaginary; e.g., in Deut.xxviii.22, either "sword" or "drought" may be read, according to the vowels supplied; in Judg.xv.16, "heaps upon heaps" or "I have flayed them"; in Isa.xxvii.7, "them that are slain by him" or "those that slew him"; and see Gen.xlix.5 and Judg.vii.13 for more extensive variations due to the same cause. Besides the vowel-points, accents are also added, to indicate the rhythmical pronunciation of each word; but these, too, are a comparatively late invention.

Extant Hebrew MSS. late,

Now with regard to the manuscripts themselves. How well are we provided with manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament? It is generally rather a shock when one first learns that the oldest extant mss. are no earlier than the ninth century after Christ. Over a thousand years separate our earliest Hebrew manuscripts from the date at which the latest of the books contained in them was originally written. It is a disquieting thought, when one reflects how much a text may be corrupted or mutilated in the course of transmission by manuscript over a long period of time; but in the case of the Old Testament there are several considerations which greatly mitigate this disquietude,
and which account for the disappearance of the earlier manuscripts.

...but Faithful.

In the first place, the extreme care with which manuscripts were written, as described above, is a guarantee against serious errors having crept into all the copies which have come down to us.  The comparison of existing manuscripts does indeed show that, in spite of all precautions, variations have arisen; but as a rule they are not of much importance. Scholars are generally agreed that from a comparison of manuscripts, especially of those from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, which are the oldest that we have, the Massoretic text can be ascertained with almost complete certainty. The Massoretic text, as we have seen, is substantially the same as that which was used by the writers of the Talmud, and the way in which the writers of the Talmud speak of it shows that it had been in existence for some time previously. There is good reason, therefore, to believe that we have in the Massoretic text substantially the text of the synod of Jamnia, or in round figures about AD100. It is for the period before that date that the evidence of the Hebrew manuscripts fails us. They do not carry us back so far as the time of the actual composition of the several books of the Old Testament; but within their limits their evidence may be accepted as trustworthy.

Destruction of Older Copies.

The same extreme care which was devoted to the transcription of manuscripts is also at the bottom of the disappearance of the earlier copies. When a manuscript had been copied with the exactitude prescribed by the Talmud, and had been duly verified, it was accepted as authentic and regarded as being of equal value with any other copy. If all were equally correct, age gave no advantage to a manuscript; on the contrary, age was a positive disadvantage, since a manuscript was liable to become defaced or damaged in the lapse of time. A damaged or imperfect copy was at once condemned as unfit for use. Attached to each synagogue was a "Gheniza," or lumber cupboard, in which defective manuscripts were laid aside; and from these receptacles some of the oldest manuscripts now extant have in modern times been recovered. Thus, far from regarding an older copy of the Scriptures as more valuable, the Jewish habit has been to prefer the newer, as being the most perfect and free from damage. The older copies, once consigned to the "Gheniza," naturally perished, either from neglect or from being deliberately buried when the "Gheniza" became overcrowded.

The absence of very old copies of the Hebrew Bible need not, therefore, either surprise or disquiet us. If, to the causes already enumerated, we add the repeated persecutions (involving much destruction of property) to which the Jews have been subject, the disappearance of the ancient manuscripts is adequately accounted for, and those which remain may be accepted as preserving that which alone they profess to preserve - namely, the Massoretic text. There is consequently not much to be said in the way of description of individual manuscripts. When we come to speak of the Greek text, whether of the Old or of the New Testament, we shall find it both interesting and important to describe the chief manuscripts with some minuteness, in respect of their age, their comparative value, and the groups or families into which they fall. In none of these respects is it possible to distinguish effectually between Hebrew manuscripts. The reader of the Variorum Bible will easily see this for himself; for whereas in the New Testament the readings of a considerable number of manuscripts are cited individually, each manuscript being distinguished by its own letter, in the Old Testament no manuscript is named individually. Since all represent the same type of text, and none is conspicuously older than the rest, there is little opportunity for marked pre-eminence. Moreover, even the best authorities differ widely both as to the age and the relative value of different copies, so that we have no certain ground beneath our feet.

Classification of Hebrew MSS.

The points to be taken into consideration in examining a Hebrew manuscript are the following; but it will be seen that their importance is not very great. First, whether it was intended for public or private use; since those intended for the service of the synagogue, like the great leather rolls of the Law, are most likely to be accurately copied. Next, its age; but on this head it is difficult to arrive at any certainty. Many manuscripts contain a statement of their date; but these statements are extremely misleading and of doubtful authenticity. Sometimes we do not know by what era the date is calculated; sometimes the date is evidently that of the manuscript from which it was copied, not of the manuscript itself; sometimes, unfortunately, the date is simply fraudulent. And it is not possible always to test such statements by the handwriting of the manuscript, as can generally be done with Greek writings. The best authorities differ so widely (in the case of one well-known manuscript, one good authority assigns it to the tenth century, and another to the fourteenth, while another copy has been assigned to various dates between the sixth and the fifteenth centuries) as to prove that the science of dating Hebrew writing is very imperfect. It is more possible to distinguish the country in which a manuscript has been written. But even so our advantage is small; for while the Jews themselves have generally held manuscripts written in Spain to be the best, two most distinguished scholars (the Englishman Kennicott and the Italian De Rossi) prefer those which were made in Germany. Finally, manuscripts may be distinguished as containing an Eastern or a Western text, the former being derived from the school of Babylonia, the latter from that of Palestine. Each of these schools had its own Talmud, each had a different system of vowel punctuation, and each had a certain number of textual variations peculiar to itself, which are recorded in several manuscripts; but these very rarely affect the sense to any material extent.

The Chief Extant MSS.

Probably the oldest manuscript now in existence of any part of the Hebrew Bible is one acquired towards the end of the last century by the British Museum, of which a page is reproduced in Plate IV. It is not dated, but its writing is of an earlier type than that of the earliest copies of which the precise date is known, and it is consequently supposed to have been written not later than the ninth century. It contains the Pentateuch, written in book form (not as a roll), and is imperfect at the end. Both Greater and Lesser Massorah have been added in the margins, the former at the top and bottom, the latter at the side. The text is furnished with vowel-points and accents; the Massorah is without them in some places, but in others, contrary to the usual practice, it has them. The passage shown in the plate is the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus (Gen.1.23-Exod.ii.14). 

The oldest manuscript containing a precise statement of its date which can be trusted is the Leningrad manuscript of the Prophets. This was written in the year 916, and contains the "Later Prophets," written on vellum, in double columns, with the Massorah between, below, and on the outer margin. The accents and vowel-points are written above the letters, instead of below, according to a system in use at Babylon. The text is correctly written, and furnishes a strong proof of the truth of the assertion that all extant Hebrew MSS. are descended from a single copy; for although it contains an Eastern text, while the commonly received text is based on Western MSS. (no Babylonian MSS. having been known to exist until within the last eighty years), and although it only came to light long after the formation of the received text, yet on a comparison of it with a standard edition of the latter in a single book, that of Ezekiel (in which the Massoretic text is certainly often corrupt), it was found to contain only sixteen real variations from it. [Cornill, dos Buch des Propheten Eychiel, p.9.] Similarly, the British Museum MS. of the Pentateuch is substantially in full agreement with the received text.  

Although these two copies have been described as the oldest now in existence, there are many others which claim a considerably earlier date. There are quite a large number of such in Russia, one of which purports to have been corrected in the year 580, while others are dated 489, 639, 764, 781, 789, 798, besides many of the ninth and tenth centuries. Unfortunately these dates are universally discredited, and most of them are known to be due to the fraudulent enterprise of a Jew named Firkowitzsch. A manuscript in the Cambridge University Library bears the date of 856, and the correctness of this date has been maintained by at least one capable scholar; but it is not generally accepted. Of other manuscripts perhaps the most notable are -

  1. the Codex Ben-Asher, now at Aleppo, supposed to have been written in the tenth century, and held to be one of the best authorities for the text of the Old Testament, though both its age and its value have been strongly questioned;
  2. Codex Laudianus, at Oxford, containing the whole Old Testament except a large part of Genesis, numbered 1 by Kennicott, and held by him to have been written in the tenth century and to contain a very important text;
  3. No. 634 in the list of De Rossi, containing the Pentateuch, assigned by him to the eighth century, by others to the tenth or later. It seems useless to extend the list, in view of the great doubts attaching to all dates, and to the general unimportance of the divergences.


MSS. now Lost.

One other source of knowledge for the Hebrew text should, however, be mentioned - namely, readings quoted in the Middle Ages from manuscripts since lost. The chief of these is a manuscript known as the Codex Hillelis, which was at one time supposed to date back to the great teacher Hillel, before the time of our Lord. It is, however, probable that it was really written after the sixth century. It was used by a Jewish scholar in Spain, and a considerable number of its readings have been preserved by references to it in various writers. Other lost manuscripts are sometimes quoted, but less often, and their testimony is less important.

The Printed Hebrew Text.

The first portion of the Hebrew Bible to appear in print was the Psalms, which issued from the press, probably at Bologna in Italy, in 1477. The first complete Old Testament followed in 1488, at Soncino. Both these editions were due to Jews. The first edition prepared by a Christian scholar was that which appeared in the great Bible printed by Cardinal Ximenes at Alcala (and hence known as the Complutensian Bible, from Complutum, the Latin name of Alcala), in Spain, during the years 1514-17. In this Bible the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts were printed side by side; and it forms, as will be seen more fully hereafter, a most important landmark in the story of the beginnings of Biblical study in modern Europe. It was not, however, until the end of the eighteenth century that scholars fairly took in hand the critical study of the Hebrew text. The first collection of the evidence was made by Bishop Kennicott, who published at Oxford in 1776-80 the readings of no less than 634 Hebrew manuscripts (giving, however, only the consonants, without vowel-points). He was followed, in 1784-8, by the Italian scholar De Rossi, who published collations of 825 more manuscripts. De Rossi used better MSS., on the whole, than Kennicott, but the general result of the labours of both is the same. It is to them that the proof is due of the fact that all Hebrew manuscripts represent the same text - namely, the Massoretic - and that without substantial variation. Other manuscripts have come to light since their time, notably in Russia, where a number of MSS. of the Babylonian type were discovered within our own day; but, as has been shown above in the case of the most important of these, the Leningrad MS. of the Prophets, the conclusion established by Kennicott and De Rossi remains undisturbed. A critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, "diligently revised according to the Massorah and the early editions, with the various readings from MSS. and the ancient versions," occupied Dr. G. D. Ginsburg for many years, and was ultimately published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1926. But this has now been superseded by the work of R. Kittel and P. Kahle, of which the third edition, completed by A. Alt and O. Eissfeldt, was published by the Wurttemberg Bibelanstalt at Stuttgart in 1937.

Summary of Results.

The result of our examination of the Hebrew text is, then, this. We have manuscripts which collectively give us a good representation of a text which reached its final shape about the seventh century. We also have evidence that the scholars who made this final revision did not substantially alter the text which had been in use for some five centuries previously. We may therefore be satisfied that the text of our Old Testament has been handed down without serious change from about AD100. Further back we cannot go with the aid of the Hebrew manuscripts alone. The great, indeed all-important, question which now meets us is this - Does this Hebrew text, which we call Massoretic, and which we have shown to descend from a text drawn up about AD100, faithfully represent the Hebrew text as originally written by the authors of the Old Testament books? To answer this question it is necessary to bring up our second line of authorities, described in Chapter III. We must refer to those translations of the Old Testament into other languages which were made before the date at which we have arrived. We must see what evidence they can give us as to the Hebrew text from which they were translated, and examine the extent and credibility of that evidence. In this way alone can we hope to bridge over the gap in our knowledge between the actual composition of the books of the Old Testament and the text whose descent from about the first century of the Christian era has been traced in this present chapter.