How accurate is our Hebrew Bible?

My Christmas essay

Most Christians are aware that the Bible was not originally written in English, though some have thought so.  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in ancient Greek.

But both were written over two thousand years ago.  So how do we know that we now have accurate copies of what was originally written so long ago?  That is what I want to address here.

The basic problem is that we do not have the originals of what was written.  All we have copies.  And the copies do differ in various ways.  So which -- if any -- is the correct version of the originals?

One way of looking at that is to find the oldest possible copy -- on the assumption that errors are less likely to have crept in the closer we get to the original.  But the oldest copies we have of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) go back only about a thousand years.  A lot could have happened in the thousand years before that.

Over 60 years ago, however, there was a great find.  Hidden away in some caves in Israel were some copies of the Hebrew scriptures that dated from about the time of Christ.  They are sometimes referred to as the "Dead Sea Scrolls", though the term Qumran scrolls would be more accurate.

So how do those scrolls compare with the Hebrew Bible we have today?  That has been the focus of a huge body of scholarly enquiry and analysis.  And the broad answer is that some of the scrolls are exactly as we have them today and some are not.  So how do we account for that?

The biggest wonder is that some parts of the Hewbrew text  -- particularly the book of Isaiah -- have survived without change for so long.  What we have today is the result of copies of copies of copies of copies and it is well known how inaccuracies can creep into any text that is the result of much copying.  So how did at least one book of the Bible survive copying without error?

The answer is religious.  About a thousand years ago a group of religious Jews emerged -- the Masoretes -- who devoted huge efforts into copying accurately.  It is the copies that they made which are the basis for our English Bibles. And the Masoretes claim that the copies that they have so painstakingly produced are an accurate copy of what was originally written.

So how can we check up on that?  There is one major way.  Since before the time of Christ, the old Hebrew text had been translated into Greek -- the language of learning in the ancient world. Those translations are called by scholars the LXX.   When Jesus and the apostles quoted from the OT, the words they used as quoted in the NT came from the LXX.  And we have some very old copies of the LXX -- going back to around the 4th century AD.  And being much older than the copies we have of the Hebrew Bible itself, the LXX could be regarded as as closer to the Bible as originally written. So how does the LXX compare with the Hebrew Bible we have today?

There are many differences, most minor but some major. So how do we accout for those differences?  Based on very detailed studies by many scholars, it looks like the copy of the Hebrew text that the translators used was different from the Hebrew text that we have today.  Some scholars have even done a careful back-translation from the LXX to produce a probable version of the Hebrew text underlying it.  That version is usually referred to by the German word "Vorlage".  But the Vorlage too differs clearly from the current Hebrew Bible.

So the fact that the Vorlage differs in many ways from our current Bible reinforces what the Qumran scolls tell us -- that there is much uncertainty about what the Bible authors originally wrote.  The broad outline is there but many details are different.

One of the most prolific and authoritative writers on the Qumran scrolls is Emanuel Tov, an Israeli. From 1990-2009 he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the international Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project, so he knows his subject.  And a few years back he produced a summary of what the many years of research into the scrolls have taught us.  Find it here. I have just read it and find much interest in it.

His final deduction is the most interesting. He concludes that, before and during the time of Christ, the Pharisees maintained in the Jerusalem temple copies of the sacred Hebrew texts that they regarded as authoritative.  Christ himself admitted that the Pharisees were meticulous scholars with a great reverence for Jewish law so we can assume that they went to great lengths to ensure that their copies of the ancient texts were as accurate as possible.  What they produced was probably nearly as good as what modern scholars would have produced in their position.

But Jews have always had great reverence for their scriptures so there would have been many copies of them in whole or in part throughout the land.  The Temple scrolls would have been in part a reaction to that.  They were an attempt to sort out from the many scrolls available what could be relied on.  And access to the Temple scrolls for any purpose would have been closely guarded.  So only a minority of the scrolls in circulation would have been copies of the Temple scrolls.  

But here's the thing:  From the copies of them that we have, it seems that the Temple scrolls were almost identical to the version that the Masoretes gave us, identical to our Hebrew Bible of today.  One could proclaim that to be a blessed miracle but the more likely explanation is that the early Masoretes of a thousand years ago did have access to good copies of the Temple scrolls and relied on them.  So what we have today is the version of the Hebrew scriptures that originated from the ultra-careful work of the ancient Pharisees

So the explanation for variations in ancient versions of the scriptures becomes clear:  There WERE different versions of some of the scriptures circulating in ancient Israel but we have the Pharisees to thank for sorting out that confusion and arriving at a version of the scriptures that is as close as possible to what was originally written.

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