Text of the Old Testament
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Text of the Old Testament



1. Invention of Alphabet

2. The Cuneiform

3. References to Writing in the Old Testament

4. Inscriptions after Settlement in Canaan

5. Orthography of the Period


1. The Old Hebrew Alphabet

2. Aramean Alphabets

3. The New Hebrew Script

4. New Hebrew Inscriptions

5. Summary


1. Various Theories

2. The Change in the Law

3. In the Other Books

4. Evidence of the Septuagint

5. Evidence of the Text Itself

6. Conclusion


1. Internal Conditions

2. External Circumstances

3. The Septuagint Version


1. Word Separation

2. Other Breaks in the Text

3. Final Forms of Letters

4. Their Origin

5. Conclusion

6. The Vowel-Letters

7. Anomalous Forms

8. The Dotted Words

9. Their Antiquity

10. The Inverted Nuns ("n")

11. Large and Small Letters

12. Suspended Letters and Divided Waw ("w")

13. Abbreviations

14. Conclusion


1. Yahweh and Baal

2. Euphemistic Expressions

3. "Tiqqun copherim"


1. Misunderstanding

2. Errors of the Eye

3. Errors of the Ear

4. Errors of Memory

5. Errors of Carelessness and Ignorance


1. Changes Made in Reading

2. Preservation of Text

3. Division into Verses

4. Sections of the Law

5. Sections of the Prophets

6. Poetical Passages

7. Division into Books


1. Antiquity of the Points

2. Probable Date of Invention

3. Various Systems and Recensions


1. The Consonants

2. The Vowels

3. The Accents

4. Anomalous Pointings


1. Meaning of the Term

2. The "Qere" and "Kethibh"

3. Other: Features


1. Manuscripts

2. Early Printed Texts

3. Later Editions

4. Chapters and Verses


I. Earliest Form of Writing in Israel.

The art of writing is not referred to in the Book of Genesis, even where we might expect a reference to it, e.g. in Genesis 23, nor anywhere in the Old Testament before the time of Moses (compare however, Genesis 38:18, 25; Genesis 41:44, which speak of "sealing" devices).


1. Invention of Alphabet:

About the year 1500 B.C. alphabetic writing was practiced by the Phoenicians, but in Palestine the syllabic Babylonian cuneiform was in use (see ALPHABET). The Israelites probably did not employ any form of writing in their nomadic state, and when they entered Canaan the only script they seem ever to have used was the Phoenicia. This is not disproved by the discovery there of two cuneiform contracts of the 7th century, as these probably belonged to strangers. There is only one alphabet in the world, which has taken many forms to suit the languages for which it was employed. This original alphabet was the invention of the Semites, for it has letters peculiar to the Semitic languages, and probably of the Phoenicians (so Lucan, Pharsalia iii0.22; compare Herodotus v.58), who evolved it from the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

2. The Cuneiform:

Of the literature of Canaan before the Israelites entered it the remains consist of a number of cuneiform tablets found since 1892 at Lachish, Gezer, Taanach and Megiddo, but especially of the famous the Tell el-Amarna Letters, discovered in Egypt in 1887. Although this non-alphabetic script was in use in Canaan when the Israelites entered it, they do not seem to have adopted it.

3. References to Writing in the Old Testament:

The earliest reference to writing in the Old Testament is Exodus 17:14. The next is Exodus 24:7, mentioning the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23). The Book of the Wars of Yahweh is named in Numbers 21:14. Other early references are Judges 5:14 margin; 8:14 margin. By the time of the monarchy the king and nobles could write (2 Samuel 11:14; 2 Samuel 8:17), but not the common people, until the time of Amos and Hosea, when writing seems to have been common.

4. Inscriptions after Settlement in Canaan:

The Phoenician script prevailed in Palestine after the conquest as well as in the countries bordering on it. This is shown by the inscriptions which have been discovered. The chief of these are: the Baal Lebanon inscription found in Cyprus (beginning of the 9th century); the manuscript of about the year 896 of the ordinary chronology; a Hebrew agricultural calendar of the 8th century; fifteen lion-weights from Nineveh of about the year 700; the Siloam Inscription of the time of Hezekiah; about a score of seals; and, in 1911, a large number of ostraca of the time of Ahab.

5. Orthography of the Period:

In this oldest writing the vowels are rarely expressed, not even final vowels being indicated. The only mark besides the letters is a point separating the words. There are no special forms for final letters. Words are often divided at the ends of lines. The writing is from right to left. The characters of the Siloam Inscription and the ostraca show some attempt at elegant writing.

II. The Two Hebrew Scripts.

1. The Old Hebrew Alphabet:

Two distinct scripts were used by the Hebrews, an earlier and a later. The Old Hebrew alphabet contained 22 letters, all consonants. The order of these letters is known from that of the Greek, taken in order of their numerical values, and later by the alphabetic psalms, etc., and by the figure called 'at-bash (see SHESHACH). In the acrostic passages, however, the order is not always the same; this may be due to corruption of the text. In the alphabet, letters standing together bear similar names. These are ancient, being the same in Greek as in Semitic. They were probably given from some fancied resemblance which the Phoenicians saw in the original Egyptian sign to some object.

2. Aramean Alphabets:

The development of the Phoenician alphabet called Aramaic begins about the 7th century B.C. It is found inscribed as dockets on the cuneiform clay tablets of Nineveh, as the Phoenician letters were upon the lion-weights; on coins of the Persian satraps to the time of Alexander; on Egyptian inscriptions and papyri; and on the Palmyrene inscriptions. The features of this script are the following: The loops of the Hebrew letters beth (b), daleth (d), Teth (T), qoph (q) and resh (r), which are closed in the Phoenician and Old Hebrew, are open, the bars of the Hebrew letters he (h), waw (w), zayin (z), cheth (ch) and taw (t) are lost, and the tails of kaph (k), lamedh (l), mem (m), pe (p) and tsadhe (ts), which are vertical in the old Aramaic, begin in the Egyptian Aramaic to curve toward the left; words are divided, except in Palmyrene, by a space instead of a point; vowel-letters are freely used; and the use of ligatures involves a distinction of initial, medial and final forms. There are of course no vowel-marks.

3. The New Hebrew Scripture:

After the Jews returned from the exile, the Aramaic language was the lingua franca of the Seleucid empire, displacing Assyrian, Old Hebrew and Phoenician. The Phoenician script also had given place to the Aramaic in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. In Syria it divided into two branches, a northern which grew into Syriac, and a southern, or Jewish, from which the New Hebrew character was produced.

4. New Hebrew Inscriptions:

What is believed to be the oldest inscription in the modern Hebrew character is that in a cave at `Araq al-`Amir near Heshbon, which was used as a place of retreat in the year 176 B.C. (Ant., XII, iv, 11; CIH, number 1). Others are: four boundary stones found at Gezer; the inscriptions over the "Tomb of James" really of the Beni Hezir (1 Chronicles 24:15 Nehemiah 10:20); that of Kefr Birim, assigned to the year 300 A.D. (CIH, number 17), in which the transition to the New Hebrew script may be said to be accomplished; and others have been found all over the Roman empire and beyond.


5. Summary:

The inscriptions show that the familiar Hebrew character is a branch of the Aramaic. In the 3rd century B.C. the latter script was in general use in those countries where Assyrio-Babylonian, Old Hebrew and Phoenician had been used before. The Jews, however, continued to employ the Old Hebrew for religious purposes especially, and the Samaritans still retain a form of it in their Bible (the Pentateuch).

III. The Change of Script.

It is now almost universally agreed that the script in which the Old Testament was written was at some time changed from the Phoenician to the Aramaic. But in the past many opinions have been held on the a subject.

1. Various Theories:

Rabbi Eleazar of Modin (died 135 A.D.), from the mention of the hooks (waws) in Exodus 27:10 and from Esther 8:9, denied any change at all. Rabbi Jehuda (died circa 210) maintained that the Law was given in the New Hebrew, which was later changed to the Old as a punishment, and then back to the New, on the people repenting in the time of Ezra. Texts bearing on the matter are 2 Kings 5:7; 2 Kings 18:26 Isaiah 8:1, from which various deductions have been drawn. There may have been two scripts in use at the same time, as in Egypt (Herod. ii.36).

2. The Change in the Law:

In regard to the change in the Law, the oldest authority, Eleazar ben Jacob (latter part of the 1st century A.D.), declared that a Prophet at the time of the Return commanded to write the Torah in the new or square character. Next Rabbi Jose (a century later) states (after Ezra 4:7) that Ezra introduced a new script and language. But the locus classicus is a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedhrin 21b): "Originally the Law was given to Israel in the Hebrew character and in the Holy Tongue; it was given again to them in the days of Ezra in the Assyrian characters and in the Aramaic tongue. Israel chose for herself the Assyrian character and the Holy Tongue, and left the Hebrew character and the Aramaic tongue to the hedhyoToth." Here Hebrew = Old Hebrew; Assyrian = the new square character, and hedhyoToth is the Greek idiotai = the Hebrew `am ha-'arets, the illiterate multitude. From the 2nd century on (but not before), the Talmudic tradition is unanimous in ascribing the change of script in the Law to Ezra. The testimony of Josephus points to the Law at least being in the square character in his day (Ant., XII, ii, 1, 4). The Samaritan Pentateuch was almost certainly drawn up in the time of Nehemiah (compare 13:28; also Ant, XI, vii, 2), and points to the Old Hebrew being then in use. So Rabbi Chasda (died 309) refers the word hedhyoToth above to the Samaritans. On the other hand, the Samaritan Pentateuch may have been the original Law, common to both Israel and Judah. In any case it is written in a form of the Old Hebrew character.

3. In the Other Books:

In regard to the other books, the old script was used after Ezra's time. Esther 8:9 and Daniel 5:8; must refer to the unfamiliar Old Hebrew. So the Massoretic Text of 5:18 implies the New Hebrew, but only in the Law.

4. Evidence of the Septuagint:

The Greek translation known as the Septuagint was made in Alexandria, and is hardly evidence for Palestine. The Law was probably translated under Ptolemy II (284-247 B.C.), and the other books by the end of the 2nd century B.C. (compare Ecclesiasticus, Prologue). The variations of the Septuagint from the Massoretic Text point to an early form of the square character as being in use; but the Jews of Egypt had used Aramaic for some centuries before that.

5. Evidence of the Text Itself:

The variations between parallel passages in the Massoretic Text itself, such as Joshua 21 and 1 Chronicles 6 2 Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 11, etc., show that the letters most frequently confused are "d" and "r", which are similar in both the Old and New Hebrew; "b" and "d", which are more alike in the Old Hebrew; "w" and "y" and several others, which are more alike in the New Hebrew. Such errors evidently arose from the use of the square character, and they arose subsequent to the Septuagint, for they are not, except rarely, found in it. The square character is, then, later than the Septuagint.

6. Conclusion:

The square character was ascribed to Ezra as the last person who could have made so great a change, the text after his time being considered sacred. This is disproved by the fact of the coins of the Maccabees and of Bar Cochba being in the old character. The Talmud permits Jews resident outside Palestine to possess copies of the Law in Coptic, Median, Hebrew, etc. Here Hebrew can only mean the Old Hebrew script.

IV. Preservation of the Text.

1. Internal Conditions:

Judaism has always been a book religion: it stands or falls with the Old Testament, especially with the Pentateuch. Although no manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament is older than the 10th century A.D., save for one minute papyrus, we know, from citations, translations, etc., that the consonantal text of the Old Testament was in the 1st century A.D. practically what it is today. The Jews transliterated as well as translated their Bible. All the most important translations-the Septuagint, Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus-were made by Jews and aimed at a more literal rendering of the Hebrew-that of Aquila being hardly Greek. The Syriac (Peshitta) seems to be also by Jews or Jewish Christians. Great care was taken of the text itself, and the slightest variant readings of manuscripts were noted. One manuscript belonging to Rabbi Meir (2nd century) is said to have omitted the references to "Admah and Zeboiim" in Deuteronomy 29:23 and to Bethlehem in Genesis 48:7, and to have had other lesser variations, some of which were found also in the manuscript which, among other treasures, decked the triumph of Vespasian (BJ, VII, v, 7).

2. External Circumstances:

Religious persecution makes for the purity of the Scriptures by reducing the number of copies and increasing the care bestowed on those saved. The chief moments in which the existence of the Jewish Scriptures was threatened were the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple under Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C., in which the Book of Jashar and that of the Wars of the Lord may have been lost; the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes, during which the possession of the sacred books was a capital offense (1 Maccabees 1:56, 57; Ant, XII, v), in which the sources used by the Chronicler may have perished; and the capture of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D. By this time, however, the Law at least was known by heart. Josephus says Titus made him a gift of the sacred books (Vita, 75). It is also said that at one time only three copies of the Law were left, and that a text was obtained by taking the readings of two against one. However that may be, it is a fact that there are no variant readings in the Massoretic Text, such as there are in the New Testament.

3. The Septuagint Version: The only ancient version which can come into competition with the Massoretic Text is the Septuagint, and that on two grounds. First, the manuscripts of the Septuagint are of the 4th century A.D., those of the Massoretic Text of the 10th. Secondly, the Septuagint translation was made before a uniform Hebrew text, such as our Massoretic Text, existed. The quotations in the New Testament are mainly from the Septuagint. Only in the Book of Jeremiah, however, are the variations striking, and there they do not greatly affect the sense of individual passages. The Greek has also the Apocrypha. The Septuagint is an invaluable aid to restoring the Hebrew where the latter is corrupt.

V. The Text in the 1st Century A.D.

The Massoretic Text of the 1st Christian century consisted solely of consonants of an early form of the square character. There was no division into chapters or, probably, verses, but words were separated by an interstice, as well as indicated by the final letters. The four vowel-letters were used most freely in the later books. A few words were marked by the scribes with dots placed over them.

1. Word Separation:

The Samaritan Pentateuch still employs the point found on the Moabite Stone to separate words. This point was probably dropped when the books came to be written in the square character. Wrong division of words was not uncommon.

Tradition mentions 15 passages noted on the margin of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 30:11, etc.) in which two words are written as one. One word is written as two in Judges 16:25 1 Samuel 9:1, etc. Other passages in which tradition and text differ as to the word-division are 2 Samuel 5:2 Ezekiel 42:9 Job 38:12 Ezra 4:12. The Septuagint frequently groups the letters differently from the Massoretic Text, e.g. (see the commentaries) Hosea 11:2 1 Chronicles 17:10; Psalm 73:4; Psalm 106:7.

2. Other Breaks in the Text:

The verse-division was not shown in the prose books. The present division is frequently wrong and the Septuagint different from the Hebrew: e.g. Genesis 49:19, 20 Psalm 42:6, 7 Jeremiah 9:5, 6 Psalm 90:2, 3. Neither was there any division into chapters, or even books. Hence, the number of the psalms is doubtful. The Greek counts Psalms 9 and 10 as one, and also Psalms 114 and 115, at the same time splitting Psalms 116 and 147 each into two. The Syriac follows the Greek with regard to Psalms 114 and 147. Some manuscripts make one psalm of 42 and 43. In Acts 13:33, Codex Bezae, Psalm 2 appears as Psalm 1.

3. Final Forms of Letters:

Final forms of letters are a result of the employment of ligatures. In the Old Hebrew they do not occur, nor apparently in the text used by the Septuagint. Ligatures begin to make their appearance in Egyptian, Aramaic, and Palmyrene. Final forms for the letters k, margin, n, p, ts, were accepted by the 1st century, and all other final forms were apparently rejected.

4. Their Origin:

The first rabbi to mention the final forms is Mathiah ben Harash (a pupil of Rabbi Eleazar who died in 117 A.D.), who refers them to Moses. They are often referred to in the Talmud and by Jerome. The Samaritan Chronicle (11th century) refers them to Ezra. In point of fact, they are not so old as the Septuagint translation, as is proved by its variations in such passages as 1 Samuel 1:1; 1 Samuel 20:40 Psalm 16:3; Psalm 44:5 Jeremiah 16:19; Jeremiah 23:14, 23, 33 Hosea 6:5 Nahum 1:12; Zechariah 11:11; Ecclesiasticus 3:7. From the fact that the final forms make up the Hebrew expression for "from thy watchers," their invention was referred in the 3rd century to the prophets (compare Isaiah 52:8 Habakkuk 2:1).

5. Conclusion:

After the adoption of the square character, therefore, the only breaks in the text of prose books were the spaces left between the words. Before the 1st century there was much uncertainty as to the grouping of the letters into words. After that the word-division was retained in the copies, even when it was not read (as in 2 Samuel 5:2, etc.). At first the final form would occur at the end of the ligature, not necessarily at the end of the word. Remains of this will be found in 1 Chronicles 27:12 Isaiah 9:6 Nehemiah 2:13 Job 38:1; Job 40:6. When the ligatures were discarded, these forms were used to mark the ends of words. The wonder is that there are not more, or even an initial, medial and final form for every letter, as in Arabic and Syriac.

6. The Vowel-Letters:

The four letters, ', h, w, y, seem to have been used to represent vowel sounds from the first. They are found in the manuscripts, but naturally less freely on stone inscriptions than in books. The later the text the more freely they occur, though they are commoner in the Samaritan Pentateuch than in the Massoretic Text. The copies used by the Septuagint had fewer of them than the Textus Receptus, as is proved by their translations, of Amos 9:12 Ezekiel 32:29 Hosea 12:12, and other passages, The four letters occur on Jewish coins of the 2nd century B.C. and A.D.

7. Anomalous Forms:

In the 1st and 2nd centuries the vowel-letters were retained in the text, even when not read (Hosea 4:6 Micah 3:2, etc.). In the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 32:13 seems to be the sole instance. The Pentateuch is peculiar also in that in it the 3rd person singular, masculine, of the personal pronoun is used for the feminine, which occurs only 11 times; Genesis 2:12; Genesis 14:2; compare Isaiah 30:33 1 Kings 17:15; Job 31:11. This phenomenon probably arises from the stage in the growth of the script when waw (w) and yodh (y) were identical in form; compare Psalm 73:16 Ecclesiastes 5:8. Frequently the 1st person singular perfect of the verb is written defectively (Psalm 140:13 2 Kings 18:20; compare Isaiah 36:5); similarly the "h" of na`arah (Deuteronomy 22). All this shows there was no attempt to correct the text. It was left as it was found.

8. The Dotted Words:

When a scribe had miscopied a word he sometimes placed dots over it, without striking it out. There are 15 passages so marked in the Old Testament, and the word naqudh, "pointed," is generally placed in the margin. The word may also be read naqodh, "speckled" (Genesis 30:32), or niqqudh, "punctuation." It is also possible that these points may denote that the word is doubtful. They occur in the following places: Genesis 16:5; Genesis 18:9; Genesis 19:33; Genesis 33:4; 37:12 Numbers 3:39; Numbers 9:10; Numbers 21:30; Numbers 29:15 Deuteronomy 29:28 (29); Psalm 27:13 2 Samuel 19:20; Isaiah 44:9 Ezekiel 41:20; Ezekiel 46:22. For conjectures as to the meanings of the points in each passage, the reader must be referred to the commentaries.

9. Their Antiquity:

These points are found even on synagogue rolls which have, with one exception, no other marks upon them, beyond the bare consonants and vowel-letters. Only those in the Pentateuch and Psalms are mentioned in the Talmud or Midrashim, and only one, Numbers 9:10, in the Mishna before the end of the 2nd century, by which time its meaning had been lost. The lower limit, therefore, for their origin is the end of the 1st century A.D. They have been, like most things not previously annexed by Moses, assigned to Ezra; but the Septuagint shows no sign of them. They, therefore, probably were inserted at the end of the 1st century B.C., or in the 1st century A.D. As four only occur in the Prophets and one in the Hagiographa, most care was evidently expended on the collation of the, Law. Blau thinks the reference originally extended to the whole verse or even farther, and became restricted to one or more letters.

10. The Inverted Nuns ("n"):

In Numbers 10:35 and 36 are enclosed within two inverted nuns as if with brackets. In Psalm 107 inverted nuns should stand before verses 23-28 and 40, with a note in the foot margin. These nuns were originally dots (Siphre' on Numbers) and stand for naqkudh, indicating that the verses so marked are in their wrong place (Septuagint Numbers 10:34-36).

11. Large and Small Letters:

Large letters were used as our capitals at the beginnings of books, etc. Thus there should be a capital nun at the beginning of the second part of Isaiah. But they serve other purposes also. The large waw (w) in Leviticus 11:42 is the middle letter of the Torah; so in the Israelites' Credo (Deuteronomy 6:4). Other places are Deuteronomy 32:4, 6 Exodus 34:7, 14 Leviticus 11:30; Leviticus 13:33 Isaiah 56:10, and often. Buxtorf's Tiberias gives 31 large and 32 small letters. Examples of the latter will be found in Genesis 2:4; Genesis 23:2 Leviticus 1:1 Job 7:5, etc. The explanations given are fanciful.

12. Suspended Letters and Divided Waw ("w"):

There are four letters suspended above the line in the Massoretic Text. They will be found in Judges 18:30 Job 38:13, 15 Psalm 80:14 (13). The last probably indicates the middle letter of the Psalter. The first points to Manasseh being put for Moses. The two in Job are doubtful. In Numbers 25:12 will be found a waw cut in two, perhaps to indicate that the covenant was in abeyance for a time.

13. Abbreviations:

Abbreviations are found on early Jewish inscriptions and on coins. Thus the letter shin stands for shanah = "year"; yodh sin = "Israel"; 'aleph = 1; beth = 2, etc. In the text used by the Septuagint the name Yahweh seem to have been indicated merely by a yodh, e.g. Psalm 31:7 (6), "I hate" = Septuagint 30:7, "Thou hatest" (compare 5:5), and the yodh of the Hebrew = "O Yahweh." In Judges 19:18 the Hebrew "house of Yahweh" = Septuagint "my house"; so Jeremiah 6:11; Jeremiah 25:37. A curious example will be found Jeremiah 3:19. The great corruption found in the numbers in the Old Testament is probably due to letters or ciphers being employed. For wrong numbers compare 2 Samuel 10:18; 2 Samuel 24:13 1 Kings 4:26 with parallel passages; also compare Ezra 2 with Nehemiah 7, etc. Possible examples of letters representing numbers are: Psalm 90:12, "so" = ken, and kaph plus nun = 20 plus 50 = 70; 1 Samuel 13:1, ben shanah is perhaps for ben n shanah, "fifty years old"; in 1 Samuel 14:14, an apparently redundant k is inserted after "twenty men"; k = 20.

14. Conclusion:

Such was the Hebrew text in the 1st Christian century. It was a Received Text obtained by collating manuscripts and rejecting variant readings. Henceforward there are no variant readings. But before that date there were, for the Greek and Samaritan often differ from the Hebrew. The Book of Jubilees (middle of 1st century) also varies. The fidelity of the scribes who drew up this text is proved by the many palpable errors which it contains.

VI. Alteration of Principal Documents.

1. Yahweh and Baal:

For various reasons the original documents were altered by the scribes, chiefly from motives of taste and religion.

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