AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME | Hebrew Writing | The Hebrew Text | The Versions | The Use of the Versions


The Old Testament was originally written in two languages, the greater part being in Hebrew, and portions of Daniel and Ezra in Aramaic. It has been suggested (e.g. by Naville) that the Law was originally written in cuneiform script and in the Akkadian language, being translated into Hebrew at a comparatively late date. This view, however, has not found general favour and lacks direct evidence.

Forms of writing may be divided into three classes. The first is called ideographic, in which the sign represents an idea and not a sound. It is often a little picture of the thing intended, or a conventionalized form of a picture in which only a few lines survive. Examples of ideographic writing may be seen in ancient Sumerian and in modern Chinese, and in the numerals commonly used by us all. The second type of writing represents syllables; to it belong the ancient Akkadian and modem Japanese writing. In the third form the syllables themselves are split up into their constituent sounds, and we have an alphabet. In comparatively early times (c.1400BC) we know that a Semitic dialect resembling Aramaic was written in a kind of alphabet in northern Syria. (See especially in the literary treasures unearthed at Ras-Shamra. Details will be found in Syria, i.pp.1-27 (Schaeffer), and pp.113-169 (Virolleaud) (1932), xiv.pp.93-127 (Schaeffer), pp.128-151 (Virolleaud) (1933). See also Schaeffer, "The French Excavations at Minet el Beida and Ras Shamra in Syria", in Antiquity, pp.460-466 (1930) and Virolleaud, "The Gods of Phoenicia," pp.405-414 (1931); Montgomery, "Notes on the Mythological Epic Texts from Ras Shamra," in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.53, No.2, pp.97-123 (1933); Gaster, "The Ritual Pattern of a Ras Shamra Epic," in Archiv. Orientalni, Vol.5, No.1 (1933).]

And such evidence as is available supports the view that, about the same period, a Hebrew alphabet was coming into existence in the south, which proved to be the ancestor of most of the forms of writing now current in the western world. [On the so called Sinaitic alphabet cp. A.H. Gardiner, "The Egyptian Origin of the Semitic Alphabet," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol.III.pp.1-15 (1916); H. Bauer, Zur Entzifferung der neuentdeckten Sinaischift (1918); H. Grimme, Althebraische Inschiften vom Sinai (1923).]

The shapes of the letters were very different in early days from those that appear in modern printed Hebrew, being much nearer to the early Greek forms. But, in spite of changes that took place between the sixteenth and first centuries BC, Hebrew writing preserved two characteristics that were not retained in the Indo-European languages. In the first place, the alphabet was always written from right to left, not from left to right. In the second place, it indicated consonantal signs only, like modern reporters' shorthand, and had no means of representing the vowels save by additional signs.

For details of the changes that have taken place, the reader must be referred to special works on epigraphy. [Cp. E.g. the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarium, Lidzbarski's Ephemeris, G.A. Cooke's North Semitic Inscriptions, Driver, Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel, pp.i-xxvi (2nd ed., 1913).]

The peculiar nature of the Semitic languages (the group to which both Hebrew and Aramaic belong) made it possible to read with fair certainty as long as Hebrew was a spoken language. It was, however, gradually replaced by a form of Aramaic in the post-exilic period, and, by the beginning of the Christian era, apart from the regular reading of Scripture in the synagogues, it was almost confined to a body of learned men. There arose then the need for representing the vowels, in order to safeguard the traditional pronunciation and meaning. The consonantal text was gradually acquiring so high a degree of sanctity that men dared not alter it, even to make its pronunciation clearer, and two systems of vowel-representation were ingeniously devised. One of these consisted of marks placed over the consonants, and was current among Eastern Jews. The other was a system of dots and dashes, mostly placed under the consonants. This was used in the west, and is that normally found in MSS. and printed Hebrew Bibles. It may be remarked that the copies of the Law used in synagogue worship to this day have no vowels indicated at all.


Until the invention of printing, the Hebrew Bible was necessarily copied by hand. The similarity between certain letters made mistakes very easy, but this danger was largely avoided by the extraordinary care bestowed on their work by Jewish scribes. No literature has ever been copied with such absolute fidelity and accuracy as the Old Testament, and there are, probably, 'not many printed books which contain so few mistakes as did the average MS. of the Hebrew Bible. Among the hundreds of copies known, the variations are only slight, and the great majority of those quoted, e.g. by Kennicott, De Rossi and Ginsburg, affect the vowels and not the consonants. Even when scribes were sure that the text before them was wrong, they copied the consonants as they stood, though they wrote a corrected text in the margin. Sometimes the fidelity of the scribes led them to copy ungrammatical or even meaningless sentences, due in the earlier copy to the carelessness or thoughtlessness of an older copyist. But they placed the vowels of their suggested reading in the text, a procedure that often produces a curious appearance, since the vowels of one word seem to be applied to the consonants of another. The most familiar example of the process is to be found in one of the divine names. The consonants were YHWH, probably pronounced Yahweh. But the word was too sacred to be uttered, and readers always used the term 'Adonay = Lord. So the vowels of the latter were actually written with the proper consonants, thus producing the composite form Yehowah, whence our familiar word Jehovah.

The task of preserving and handing down the sacred text fell to a body or class of men who are commonly known as Massoretes. The name is derived from the Hebrew term Massorah, which means " tradition." But the work of the Massoretes went much farther than merely copying the, text accurately and seeing that it was provided with the proper vowel signs. They studied it with the utmost diligence, counting the verses in each book, identifying the middle word, and appending in the margin countless notes, calling attention to anything unusual or remarkable in the text; even such variations as an abnormally large or small letter were faithfully copied, and a note showed that the peculiarity was traditional, not arbitrary. (For a general description of the Massorah, cp. Geden, Outlines of Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, pp.85 ff. (1909))

A great many MSS. are known, but no complete Bible can be definitely stated to be older than the ninth century AD, though there are MSS of portions of it that are as old as the seventh century. [Perhaps an exception should be made in favour of the Nash Papyrus, which contains some verses from Deuteronomy, though not in the usual order, and dates from the second century AD at the latest. Some authorities hold this to be a liturgical text; see Burkett, "The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments," in The Jewish Quarterly Review (April 1903); S. A. Cook, "A Pre-Massoretic Biblical; Papyrus," in the Proceedings of Biblical Archaeology (Jan. 1903).]

Since the process of fixing, the text seems to have been complete by the end of the sixth century; it is not surprising that the variants are few and insignificant. One MS, known as G1, in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, presents an abnormal number of slight differences, but clearly represents the usual text. [H. W. Shephard, who published a transcript, with notes, of Ps.i-xli has especially studied the MS. In 1920.]

Occasional differences of reading are found in other MSS. But, in general, the text is so uniform as to make it possible to cite it comprehensively under the title Massoretic Text (MT).

There is, however, one important group of MSS. giving evidence of the pre-Massoretic text of the Pentateuch. This consists of a few MSS. belonging originally to the Samaritan community, which clearly represent the text, as it was some centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. While there are many deliberate alterations, made in the interests of Samaritan as opposed to Judean orthodoxy, yet, when allowance has been made for these, the number of variants is not extraordinarily large. It is clear that the Samaritan scribes gave to the copying of the Pentateuch almost as much care as did the orthodox Jews, and the general agreement of the two lines of text carries us back with some certainty at least to the second century BC. Like the MT, the Samaritan text can usually be cited as a general whole.


All Hebrew MSS., whether Jewish or Samaritan, belong to that type of tradition that we may call Palestinian. Their practical identity greatly enhances the importance of the Versions, especially when it is clear that these latter were translated from a text far older than the archetype on which all Jewish MSS. were ultimately based. Three of these clearly belong to the Palestinian tradition, and they show how the form of text now current was gradually reached. These are:

  1. The Syriac (often cited as the Peshitta "The Simple") made, probably, in the second century AD.
  2. The Targums. These were popular Aramaic renderings, which were often very free, even paraphrastic. The more important, known as the Targum of Onkelos on the Pentateuch and the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets, reached their present form not later than the end of the second century AD.
  3. The Vulgate; a Latin translation made by St. Jerome in the fourth century AD, There was an older Latin version, but that was based on the common Greek text, and was not rendered directly from a Hebrew original.

The differences between the text underlying all these translations and the MT are comparatively slight. But it is interesting to notice that the nearest is the Vulgate, which is the latest of the three, while the Syriac diverges more than either of the others. It is thus clear that, the fixing of the text was a process that was gradually carried on down to the fourth century AD, when it was very nearly complete. But it was already far advanced when the Syriac translation was made, a conclusion to which we are forced by the evidence of the standard Greek version. To this we may now turn.

The text that we have been considering up to this point represents, as we have already observed, a Palestinian tradition, even in the Samaritan Pentateuch. But, after the Exile, and especially from the time of Alexander the Great, there were communities of Jews in many places outside Palestine. By far the most important of these lived in Egypt, and Jews formed a considerable element in the population of Alexandria. [The very much earlier settlement at Elephantine does not come into consideration, since there is no evidence to suggest that the Jews there possessed or knew the Bible or any part of it. They were certainly unaware of some of the provisions in Deuteronomy.]

We may assume that, when they first settled there, they took with them Hebrew copies, at least of the Law and perhaps of later books also. Other books were from time to time introduced among them. These would be copied in Hebrew for some time, until, as the Jews forgot their ancestral language, a need for a Greek version would be felt. Probably, also, close contact with the heathen world made the Egyptian Jew anxious to exhibit the treasures of his own literature in a form intelligible to his neighbours. Jewish tradition held that the Law was translated into Greek by the orders of Ptolemy Philadelphus, by seventy-two scribes, whence the version is commonly known as the Septuagint, and is normally indicated as "LXX". (285-246BC. For the story see the well known Letter of Aristeas.]

It may be remarked that, while the tradition refers only to the Law, the term just mentioned is applied to the whole of the Greek Old Testament, including the books now classed as Apocrypha. Whether the narrative be correct in placing the initiative with the Egyptian king or not, there can be no doubt that the Septuagint Pentateuch dates back to the middle of the third century BC. Other books followed during the next hundred and fifty years, and it seems that by the opening of the first century BC, practically the whole of the Old Testament was available in Greek. At the beginning of the Christian era a complete Greek Bible was in existence, largely used by New Testament writers, including, not only the books preserved in the Hebrew Bible, but also some, at least, of those which we now class as apocryphal and apocalyptic. The evidence suggests that in some books, notably in the Pentateuch, scribes who were familiar with the Palestinian Hebrew form from time to time corrected the text, though in other cases, especially in Samuel and Jeremiah, it retained practically complete independence.

During the second century AD three other Greek versions appeared. These were those of:

  1. Aquila, a slavishly literal translation of the Hebrew, designed to meet the Christian use of the Septuagint in argument. It was claimed that the traditional version did not fairly represent the Hebrew, and the object of this undertaking was to tell the Jews exactly what the Bible really said. It is held by some scholars that Aquila is to be identified with the Onkelos, whose name is associated with the Targum of the Law.

  2. Symmachus. This is a somewhat free translation into Greek of a more elegant literary type than that of the Septuagint.

  3. Theodotion. A very thorough revision of the Septuagint, bringing it to some extent into harmony with the MT as current in the translator's time.

These last three versions (though that of Theodotion is rather a revision than an independent version), like the Syriac, Targums and Vulgate, show comparatively little divergence from the standard Palestinian text preserved in our Bibles. The Septuagint, however, often differs very widely from the MT, and is, therefore, of the highest value for textual criticism. The divergence is smallest in the Pentateuch, and is at its highest point in Samuel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

We are thus able to reconstruct the history of the materials we have for textual criticism, and to represent it in tabular form:

Egyptian Text ← COMMON ARCHTYPE →

Palestinian text
Septuagint   Syriac
    Later Greek Versions
    M T 

(No account is taken here of the numerous secondary versions, since they are evidence, not for the Hebrew Text itself, but for the version from which they were rendered. Thus the Septuagint was the parent of the Old Latin and of the Coptic and Ethiopic versions, while the Arabic was translated from the Syriac.)


In view of the practical identity of all extant Hebrew MSS, the versions are of the highest importance for the recovery of the original text. The three later versions, together with the post-Septuagint Greek translations, can be used to help us to reconstruct the Hebrew text as it was generally accepted at the beginning of the Christian era. For where they all agree with the MT we may be sure that the readings thus attested go back to that age. But the Septuagint stands on a very different footing. The Hebrew text originally taken to Egypt clearly antedated the age of accurate copying and careful textual study. As the Samaritan form of the text suggests, we may have to make an exception in the case of the Law, though even there it is possible that Alexandrian Jews in the later Ptolemaic age had their copies revised so that they might agree with the Palestinian standard. The constant intercourse between Jerusalem and Egypt would make this almost inevitable in the case of the Pentateuch, while the lower grade of sanctity ascribed to other books would make Greek-speaking Jews less careful to adopt the " orthodox " forms. Where, then, we find agreement between the MT and the Septuagint, we may safely assume that we have recovered a text, which, for some parts of the Bible, was as early as the fourth century BC and in none was later than the end of the second.

Where the Septuagint and the MT differ, we have to use our judgement in each individual case. The divergences seem to be due to three causes:

(a) Different pronunciation of the same Hebrew consonants.

Variations due to this cause need not detain us, though we should remember that even by the time the Vulgate was translated there was no complete system of representing Hebrew vowels. A typical illustration may be seen in Gen.xlvii.31, where the Hebrew ran: "Israel bowed himself upon the bed's head." The Septuagint, quoted in Hebr.xi.21, reads: "top of his staff." Both Palestinian and Egyptian texts clearly had the Hebrew consonants MTH, but the former pronounced them mittah, the latter matteh. It is usually (though not always) fairly easy to decide which of the two pronunciations gives the better sense.

(b) One word substituted for another.

This needs a good deal more consideration. We have to assure ourselves, in the first place, that the divergence is not due to corruption in the Greek text, rather than to a different Hebrew original. [The textual criticism of the Septuagint is in itself a separate and elaborate branch of study, for which we have no room here. The reader is referred to Swete, Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (1900), and to R. R. Ottley, A Handbook to the Septuagint (1920).] Forms like ἔτι and ὅτιare often confused, while the Hebrew words which they represent עור - 'odh and כּי - ki have no resemblance to one another. A more complicated, but very instructive, illustration may be drawn from Lam.iii.63, where the English version, following the MT as traditionally vocalized, has "I am their song". The Septuagint has ἐπ' ὀφθαλμοὸς, which seems to represent a totally different text until we realize that it is corrupted from ἐγὼ πὸ ψαλμοῦ ατῶν, "I from their psalm". This is hardly lucid, and it is no wonder that copyists failed to produce it accurately, but it is a possible literal rendering of the Hebrew consonants, though they must have been differently vocalized. In spite of appearances, the reading of the Egyptian text was here identical with that of the Palestinian, though its meaning is by no means clear, and there may well be some corruption which crept into the text at an early period. In countless other cases however, the Septuagint was translated from a text which differed from the MT. A single illustration may be taken from Isa..1, "Keep silence before me". Here the Septuagint has ἐγκαινίζεσθε - "renew", and clearly read a different word - habadhishu for haharishu. As the Hebrew letters d (dh) (ד) and r (ר) were very similar at all stages of their development, we can easily understand how the mistake arose in Hebrew, though it would be unnatural in Greek. In choosing between two such readings, no general rule can be laid down, though there is a slight presumption in favour of the MT, since the Egyptian scribes would be less familiar with Hebrew than their Palestinian brethren, and would be more likely to copy a word wrongly.

(c) Insertion or omission of words, sentences, or even longer passages.

In variations of this class, we find that they occur most frequently in, certain books. In Jeremiah the Septuagint is appreciably shorter than the MT; individual words are often omitted, especially expansions of the divine name; and sometimes longer passages, e.g. Jer.xxi.14-26 is not represented in the Greek text at all. Still more striking is the fact that the collection of prophecies dealing with foreign nations, which appears in the MT (and so in the English version) as chs.xlvi-li, is placed in the Septuagint immediately after xxv.13, instead of towards the end of the book. In i Samuel we find instances where the Greek text is longer or shorter than the MT; e.g. the former Omits xvii.55-xviii.5, perhaps in order to avoid the difficulty raised by the suggestion that Saul did not know who David was when he went out to fight Goliath. Again, in i Kings xi, , the Septuagint has a much longer account of Jeroboam, differing from that of the MT in many details. Some of these additions are clearly translations from Hebrew originals, not free compositions in Greek, and this fact makes it the more difficult to decide as to the more primitive text. A scribe or reader sometimes made marginal notes, which he never intended to be included in the text. Later copyists', however, did not always realize this, and often incorporated the additional matter in the text itself. Where the MT is longer than the Septuagint, there will be a slight balance of probability on the side of the Egyptian reading, since the Palestinian scribes, being the better acquainted with Hebrew, would be the more likely to expand the text.

(d) Conjectural emendation.

Even when we have reached the common form that lay behind both the Palestinian and Egyptian traditions, very many passages remain which arouse suspicion. We know that, even in the comparatively short time which elapsed between the separation of the two lines of texts and the translation of the Septuagint, very many corruptions made their way into both texts.

Now the common archetype of the two cannot be traced back farther than the middle of the fourth century BC, at the earliest, and this still leaves a gap of several centuries for which we have no alternative evidence. [We do, however, find occasionally passages which appear more than once in the Bible, e.g., Isa.ii.2-4 = Mic.iv.1-4, and here we may be able to compare two ancient forms of text. But these passages are too few to give us any general help.]

We cannot but suppose that other errors will have crept in during that long period, and again and again we meet with passages which are unintelligible in all extant forms of text. To correct these we can fall back only on conjectural emendation. This is often very interesting, and modern scholars have made countless suggestions for the improvement of the text. In a comparatively small, number of places we may be reasonably sure that the emended reading is the right one. A good instance occurs in Amos vi.12, where the EV reads "shall one plough there with 'oxen?" But no word for "there" is to be found in the MT; the English translators have inserted it in order to make sense of an otherwise meaningless sentence. We may add that the Hebrew itself presents us with an anomaly, which would be closely paralleled in English by saying, "shall one plough with cattles?" But, if the last word in the verse be divided into two, and the correct readjustment of the vowels be made, we get "shall one plough the sea with cattle?" which gives just the sense required by the context, and is, almost certainly, the original reading. In many instances, however, we are forced to admit that, while a modern conjecture is often an improvement, and may possibly restore the true text, we seldom have ground for asserting with confidence that it has certainly done so.

Yet, in spite of all uncertainties, the great fact remains that the text as we now have it does, in the main, represent fairly the actual words of the authors who lived, some of them, nearly three thousand years ago. And we need have no serious doubt on the score of textual corruption as to the validity of the message, which the Old Testament has to give us.

We do, however, find occasionally passages that appear more than once in the Bible, e.g., Isa.ii.2-4 = Mic.iv.1-4, and here we may be able to compare two ancient forms of text. But these passages are too few to give us any general help.