Reviewing a Brief History of the Transmission of the Old Testament Text


This blog post takes a brief look at the history of the transmission of the Old Testament text. Extant “Earlier Testament” copies, though not inerrant, contain virtually ninety-five percent of the original.

Q. Do we today possess an inerrant Earlier Testament? Why or why not?
In the study known as textual or lower criticism, scholars compare many copies scientifically to discover (as close as humanly possible) what the original MSS (manuscripts) looked like.

Errors (scribal slips) have crept into the copies—for example: writing a word more than once when it should have been written only once (dittography); combining two words into one (fusion); omitting a line because of accidental skipping—but they can be easily corrected by using other copies.

God has marvelously guarded the transmission of the text, preserving it in such a way that, even though the copies themselves are not inerrant, no errors affect a single doctrine of Scripture (See: Gleason Archer, Old Testament Introduction, 55-7).

Example from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)


Copies of Isaiah discovered in 1947 in Qumran*

Cave 1 (designated 1QIsaa+b—the first discovered or most important MSS found) were more than one thousand years earlier than the oldest Isaiah MS previously known (A.D. 980), yet were ninety-five percent identical with our standard Hebrew Bible. Spelling changes and slips of the pen account for the five percent variation.

*Qumran community – An ascetic clan, known as the Essenes and founded by “the Teacher of Righteousness,” copied the Scriptures; all of the OT books are now represented among DSS.

*Qumran is the name of a wadi (a river channel, usually dry).


From composition to 400 B.C.

1. The writers recorded books because they understood them to be authoritative/canonical; that is, they were used to order lifestyles. See: Deuteronomy 31:9-13, 24; Josh. 24:26; 1 Sam. 10:25; Jer. 36:2, 32.
2. They penned only consonants, no vowels.
3. Scribes made revisions; possibility of errors increased with increased number of copies made.
4. The fall of Judah in 587 B.C. brought about the development of text traditions in different geographical locations: Babylon, Egypt, and Palestine.
5. Ezra the scribe (Ezra 7:6-11; Nehemiah 8) reintroduces the Babylonian text after this return. He prepares a revision after comparing it with the Palestinian text, and gives preference to the Babylonian.

From 400 B.C. until A.D. 70

DSS reveal the existence of three text traditions

1. Babylonian – The most conservative; fewest scribal errors; became the foundation of the standard text.
2. Palestinian – Scribal glosses abound; the text is expanded to include explanations.
3. Egyptian (Alexandrian) – Comprises a middle ground between the Babylonian and the Palestinian; eventuated in the Septuagint (LXX) in 200 B.C.

The style of writing changes from the angular Hebrew to the square Aramaic.

From A.D. 70 until A.D. 1000

1. Standardization of the text occurs (A.D. 70-100) under the supervision of the Sopherim1 (scribes).
These men make up what might be described as an ancient Bible society.

2. Vowel points were introduced in the text by the Masoretes2 (A.D. 500-950)

*Scribes devoted to preservation and pronunciation received the unpointed, consonantal text from the Sopherim and inserted vowel points which gave to each word its exact pronunciation and grammatical form.


From A.D. 1000 until the present

1. Chapter-verse divisions occurred circa 1330.
2. Versions of the Hebrew Bible (Kittel’s and later editions come from the Leningrad MS). [See Archer 43].


1Sopherim – These scribes counted all the verses, words, and letters of each book of the OT, and appended figures at the end of the book concerned.
2Masoretes – These scholars gave the final form to the text of the Old Testament. Their name comes from masora—oral tradition.
The standard text of the Hebrew Bible is based on the work of Ben Asher, a famous Masorete (Leningrad MS).

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