Old Testament Manuscripts and Why They’re Important

old testament manuscripts

The Old Testament text that we have today in our various Bible translations is based upon ancient manuscripts that date from as early as 200 BC up to the Medieval Age. The Old Testament manuscripts (OT MSS) that we have access to today include examples in Hebrew and Greek, mostly, but also Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, and more. This article will focus on the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament.

  1. What are OT MSS
  2. Why are OT MSS important for biblical studies?
  3. What additional resources are available for studying OT MSS?

What are OT MSS?

Old Testament manuscripts fall into two basic categories: early and late. The early OT MSS include the Nash Papyrus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). These manuscripts are written in an ancient Hebrew script without the vowel pointing present in later Masoretic texts. The Nash Papyrus is likely an excerpt of a liturgical text, as it contains only the Shema (Deut 6:5) preceded by a portion of the Ten Commandments. It is usually dated to approximately 200 BC. The other early OT MSS example is the DSS. These scrolls, discovered in the Qumran caves in the Dead Sea region, contain examples of every book in the Hebrew Bible except for Esther. The various scrolls are usually dated anywhere from mid-second century BC to the first century AD. As with the Nash Papyrus (and presumably every lost OT MSS), the DSS contain no vowel pointings.

The later OT MSS include texts in both Hebrew and Greek. Indeed, while the earliest examples of late OT MSS containing Hebrew are dated from the tenth and eleventh century, manuscripts of the OT in Greek translation (i.e., the Septuagint [LXX]) have been dated as early as the second century BC. Thirteen LXX manuscripts have been dated to before the first century, with a hundred more falling in the period of the first to fourth century. The late OT MSS with Hebrew script begin to emerge around the tenth century, but in contrast to the DSS and other early examples, they now contain vowel pointings and vocalization indicators. The Masoretes also filled the margins of their copies with various “cantillation notes” and indicators concerning the number of words in each book to help other scribes with accuracy in copying.

While there are numerous codices (books) that are included in the OT MSS, two of the most prominent are the Aleppo Codex and Codex Leningradensis. The Aleppo Codex is the earliest available evidence of the vowel pointing and cantillation marks, dating from the early tenth century. Codex Leningradensis is a complete Hebrew Bible that dates a century later than the Aleppo Codex.

Why are OT MSS important for biblical studies?

The OT MSS are significant for biblical studies in at least three specific ways. First, both the correspondence and difference of the text in its Greek and Hebrew forms is a fascinating area of study for textual critics and linguists. There are large portions of Jeremiah, for instance, that are present in the LXX but not in the Hebrew Masoretic text. These differences provide rich content for biblical scholars to analyze, and they add to our understanding of ancient Jewish practices.

Second, the early OT MSS, especially the DSS, present a rich picture of Jewish understandings of their authoritative and ancient Scriptures in the period before the advent of Christ. They also provide a helpful comparative resource for the Masoretic text, creating a fascinating area of research into the original text of the Old Testament.

Finally, the existence of the OT MSS in both Greek and Hebrew is a testament to the preserving activity of God in the time before and after Christ. Biblical scholars can trace the work of God in providing for his people’s spiritual welfare through the preservation of his word, both to Jews and later to Christians. The available LXX manuscripts enable us to better understand the use of the OT by NT authors, who mostly relied upon the Greek translation of the OT in their compositions.The implementation of vowel pointings (although a later addition) has enabled generations of scholars to better engage with the ancient text through verbalization and lexical and syntactical information.

Resources

Essential Monographs

Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, 2nd ed

This introduction to OT textual criticism contains valuable information about the history of the OT MSS, their transcription and transmission, and the relationships between the manuscripts. Learn More.

The Old Testament: Text and Context, 3rd ed.

This is an excellent introduction, now in its third edition, that includes essential information about the text of the Hebrew Bible. Learn More.

The Old Testament Manuscripts in the Freer Collection

This contains the text of the Washington Manuscripts of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and the Psalms. Learn More.

Video Lectures

Can the Old Testament Be Trusted Historically?

In this video, Peter Williiams, principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge, discusses the historical reliability of the OT MSS.


Mike Heiser: How We Got the Old Testament

In this interview with Mike Heiser (scholar-in-residence, Faithlife), Heiser explains the origin of the text of the Old Testament and the history of the OT MSS.

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The Bodleian Library arguably contains the best collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the world. Their collections can be explored online, and a visit to the library is highly suggested.

Codex Sinaiticus Online

Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest Christian Bible in existence and contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in Greek. This online resource contains high-definition, searchable images of the entire codex.

The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts

The British Library contains an impressive collection of OT MSS, which can be viewed online.

Text and Canon Institute

Based at Phoenix Seminary, the Text and Canon Institute is devoted to the study of ancient OT and NT MSS, including text criticism and the history of the canon.

Centre for Septuagint Studies and Textual Criticism

Based at the University of Leuven, the CSSTC is focused on the linguistic and text-critical study of physical manuscripts of the LXX.

Evangelical Textual Criticism

This online resource is a “forum for people with knowledge of the Bible in its original languages to discuss its manuscripts and textual history from the perspective of historic evangelical theology.” The contributors are some of the biggest names in evangelical scholarship, and the topics include both OT and NT MSS.

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Further resources

Hebrew Bible Manuscript Explorer

Hebrew Bible Manuscript Explorer

Regular price: $9.99

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The Old Testament Manuscripts in the Freer Collection

The Old Testament Manuscripts in the Freer Collection

Regular price: $19.99

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Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols.)

Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols.)

Regular price: $399.99

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Mobile Ed: OT281 How We Got the Old Testament (5 hour course)

Mobile Ed: OT281 How We Got the Old Testament (5 hour course)

Regular price: $189.99

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The Old Testament: Text and Context, 3rd ed.

The Old Testament: Text and Context, 3rd ed.

Regular price: $35.99

Add to cart
Mobile Ed: Text of the Bible Bundle (4 courses)

Mobile Ed: Text of the Bible Bundle (4 courses)

Regular price: $399.99

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Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, 2nd ed.

Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, 2nd ed.

Regular price: $24.99

Add to cart
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