Old Testament Manuscripts

In this follow up to the last post, we discuss important manuscripts (hand-written copies) of the Old Testament.


The Oldest Manuscripts of the Old Testament

The original manuscripts (the autographs) written by the sacred authors themselves are no longer extant for any book of the Bible.  The oldest partial copies of the text of any biblical book are to be found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (treated in next post).  However, the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew of the protocanonical books of the Old Testament is a codex (a book formed by leaves of paper stitched on one side; i.e. the form of book most familiar to us) called Leningradensis, held in the Imperial Russian Library in St. Petersburgh (formerly Leningrad).  Leningradensis is a complete copy of the Masoretic Text written in Galilee around AD 1000.

The Masoretic Text

The Masoretic Text is the standard Hebrew form of the books of the Jewish Bible, the form used for chant and proclamation in traditional Jewish synagogues to this day.  It takes its name from the Masoretes, a school of Jewish scribes who flourished between AD 700 to AD 1000.  The Masoretes raised the reproduction of the Hebrew Scriptures to a high art.  Among other innovations, they devised a system of markings (called “points”) placed above and below the Hebrew consonants to indicate the vowel to be pronounced after the consonant.  In this way, they were able for the first time to record in writing the Jewish oral tradition of the pronunciation of Scripture.  The Masoretes also introduced various quality control measures for the reproduction of manuscripts: they tabulated the number of words and letters in each biblical book.  Subsequently, every newly-written copy was carefully counted to verify its accuracy.

Leningradensis is almost universally regarded as the oldest and best copy of the Masoretic Text, the name given to the precise form the Hebrew developed by the Masoretes as their standard.  When translating or studying the Old Testament today, scholars typically begin from the Hebrew of the Masoretic text, usually a printed (or increasingly, an electronic) edition of Leningradensis.

The Septuagint

When translating the Old Testament, scholars also consult the readings of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament books.

According to a semi-legendary account in a document known as the Letter of Aristeas, the Septuagint translation was begun when the Hellenistic king of Alexandria in Egypt, Ptolemy II, brought Jewish scribes from Jerusalem to Alexandria in order to translate the sacred books of the Jews into Greek for the Library of Alexandria in the third century BC.  According to the legend, seventy scholars were commissioned for this project: thus the name Septuagint, meaning “seventy,” and the commonly used abbreviation “LXX,” the Roman numeral for seventy.

Although the accounts of the translation of the Septuagint in the Letter of Aristeas, Philo, Josephus, and other ancient authors sound embellished, the historical kernel of the story seems plausible and fits known data: Ptolemy II commissioned a Greek translation of the Pentateuch for his library.  The translation of the Pentateuch was the first and perhaps best, and dates to c. 250 BC.  The remaining Old Testament books were translated progressively over the next two centuries.  The Septuagint translation began to circulate in a collection that was broader than the Hebrew canon mentioned by Josephus [discussed many posts ago], and did not have a clear limit—in other words, the Septuagint had an open canon, including deuterocanonical works and some apocrypha.

The quality and style of translation exhibited in the LXX can vary quite widely from book to book.  The rendering of Daniel in the LXX, for example, was so loose that the Church replaced it with a better translation executed by Theodotion, a Hellenistic Jew of the second century AD.  Other books, such as Genesis, were much more literal in translation.

The LXX translation carried enormous prestige in the ancient world.  Jewish scholars like the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus regarded it as virtually inspired, a view shared by some Church Fathers.  For the millions of Greek-speaking Jews living in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine, it was the only form of the Scriptures they used.  The majority of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are taken from the LXX, since the Apostles and other New Testament authors typically wrote for a broad audience, rather than just the Jews of Palestine.

In the fourth century A.D., the Church, with the newly-acquired support of the Roman government, had the resources to produce codices (bound books, not scrolls) of the entire bible for use in major churches (e.g. Cathedrals).  Our oldest more-or-less complete manuscripts of the entire Bible, consisting of the Septuagint plus the New Testament in Greek, come from this century.  The three most important are named for the places they were found or now reside: Vaticanus, the best manuscript of the complete Greek Bible, Old and New Testaments, stored in the Vatican Libraries at least since the middle ages; Alexandrinus, an excellently-preserved Greek Bible from Alexandria, now stored in the British Library; and Sinaiticus, another Septuagint + Greek New Testament discovered in the nineteenth century in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and now also residing in the British Library.

The Septuagint remains the official version of the Old Testament in use by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Revisions of the Septuagint

Before the rise of Christianity, Jewish authors like Philo and Josephus had high praise and reverence for the Septuagint translation.  As Christianity grew and became the leading religion of the Roman Empire, however, a reaction set in, especially among Jews in Palestine.  Increasingly, Jews rejected the Septuagint, calling it inaccurate and misleading.  At least three Greek-speaking Jewish scholars published recensions (revised versions) of the Septuagint which were closer to the Hebrew in use in Palestine: Aquila (c. AD 130), Theodotion (c. AD 150?), and Symmachus (c. AD 170).

The Latin Vulgate

Also of some value to Bible scholars and translators is the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Catholic Bible executed (largely) by St. Jerome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.  St. Jerome translated most of the biblical books of the Old Testament directly from the best Hebrew copies he was able to procure.  However, the Hebrew available to St. Jerome tended, by and large, closely to resemble the Masoretic Text we now have.  For that reason, when the Masoretic Text is itself unclear or appears disturbed, St. Jerome’s Vulgate is usually not helpful in resolving the issues.

Other Ancient Versions and the Cairo Geniza

Scholars also consult other ancient versions (that is, translations) of the Old Testament, such as the Syriac translation (known as the Peshitta), the Coptic (Egyptian), and Ethiopic versions.  Fragments of biblical books dating to the medieval period were also found in the genizah (a store room for worn biblical scrolls) of the oldest synagogue in Cairo in the nineteenth century.  Many of these “Cario genizah” texts have been published and are of some interest to biblical scholars.

Important Ancient Texts of the Old Testament
Name Language Date Translated Date of oldest surviving complete copies
Masoretic Text (MT) Hebrew Not a translation; standardized AD 700-1000 11th cent. AD (c. 1000)
Septuagint (LXX) Greek 250–100 BC 4th cent. AD (late 300s)
Vulgate Latin AD 382–405 8th cent. AD (mid-700s)
Peshitta Syriac AD 100’s 6th-7th cent. AD (500s–600s)