The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: B

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Bible text, manuscripts (OT)

For the Old Testament, the traditional text is what is known as the Masoretic. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who worked diligently between the 6th and 10th centuries AD in Babylonia and Palestine to reproduce, as far as possible, the original text of the OT. Their intention was not to interpret the Bible, but to transmit to future generations what they regarded as the authentic text. Therefore, to this end, they gathered manuscripts and whatever oral traditions were available to them.

They were careful to draw attention to any peculiarities they found in the spellings of words or the grammar of sentences in the OT, and since Hebrew in their day was a dying language, they introduced a series of vowel signs to insure the correct pronunciation of the text, since traditionally, the text was written with consonants only. Among the various systems developed to represent the vowel sounds, the system developed in the city of Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, gained the ascendancy.

The earliest complete copy of the Masoretic text of the OT is located in the St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Public Library; it was written about 1008 AD.

The Masoretic text is not a single, unbroken thread, but rather a river of manuscripts, with both a western and eastern branch; within the texts labeled "Masoretic" there is a certain amount of variation, and the Masoretes carefully noted the differences in the texts that they used as their sources. Therefore, it must be stressed that the so-called "Textus Receptus" that one may hear of occasionally (especially from those who believe that the King James Version is the only acceptable translation) is mostly a fiction; it is a concept that has little basis in reality beyond wishful thinking.

Remember, too, that English is not the only language into which the Bible has been translated. It has been translated into over 2,000 languages by scholars using the original Greek and Hebrew texts.

The earliest copies of OT books are called the Dead Sea Scrolls, a body of Biblical manuscripts discovered since 1947 inside caves near a place called Qumran, right next to the Dead Sea in Israel. The texts all date prior to 70 AD, the period when the community at Qumran was destroyed by the Romans following the Jewish revolt. Some texts date as far back as 150- 200 BC, based on epigraphic dating and Carbon 14 dating.

Other manuscripts useful for establishing the text of the OT are as follows:

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