Yahweh’s Book – Part 4 – The Manuscripts of the Bible

by | Apr 23, 2020

Dead Sea Scrolls – Isaiah Scroll

The followers of Yahshua owe a great debt to the Hebrew people. The Bible exists because Yahweh inspired Hebrew men to record His words for mankind. Although the Bible has One primary Author, that being the Spirit of God, it has numerous human authors. We are told in the Scriptures that Yahweh’s Spirit inspired holy men of old to record His words. These men were all Jews. The apostle Paul affirms this in his epistle to the Romans.

Romans 3:1-2
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.

The word “oracle” may be unfamiliar to modern believers. In the day in which Paul wrote, the word “oracle” was well understood. Temples were built for the various Greek and Roman deities, serving as centers of worship for these pagan gods and goddesses. It was common to appoint an individual at these temples to hold a sacred role as the spokesperson, or mouthpiece, of the deity. People would come from far and wide to inquire of these individuals. They were even sought out by the rulers of nations who hoped to receive counsel from the gods. These temple servants who spoke for the deity were referred to as “oracles.” Somewhat confusingly, the words they spoke were also referred to as “oracles.”

Yahweh has appointed oracles to speak His words as well. We recognize these individuals today more readily as “prophets.” Moses is declared to be a prophet. He is also said to have been entrusted with the oracles of God.

Acts 7:37-38
“This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you.”

The manner in which Yahweh moved upon these men to proclaim His words is aptly defined by the word “inspiration.” The apostle Paul attests to the Bible being written through means of men being inspired by the Spirit of God.

II Timothy 3:16
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness…

The word “inspiration” came into English via the Latin word inspirare which means “inflame; blow into.” This is an interesting derivation. One can imagine a man sitting by a small stack of kindling that is smoldering. In an attempt to get the material to combust, to erupt into flames, he would blow upon it. Suddenly flames would appear, light and heat would be produced, as the breath of man exhaled upon the material caused it to ignite. Even as the breath of man “inspires” a fire to burst forth, so too does the breath of Yahweh inflame the soul of man.

One can readily see the similarity between the words “spirit” and “inspiration.” Throughout the Bible words for breath and wind are commonly used to describe both the spirit of man and the Spirit of God. On the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, there was a sound as of a mighty, rushing wind. Then tongues of fire appeared over the heads of the 120 individuals gathered in obedience to Yahshua’s command. These individuals were “inspired.” The Spirit came upon them and manifested as tongues of flame above their heads.

A prophet can aptly be described as a man set aflame by the Spirit of God. Jeremiah used a term related to fire to describe the sensation of containing the words of God within his being.

Jeremiah 20:9
But if I say, “I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,” then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.

I believe what Jeremiah described in these words was the common experience of many prophets. When the Holy Spirit moved upon them, the words of God would be like a fire within them seeking to erupt. The divine breath seeks a way to be expressed, to go forth as a purifying flame altering everything that it touches.

Isaiah 55:11
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

When Yahweh set forth to deliver to mankind a book of divine authorship, He sent His Spirit upon appointed men who acted as conduits of His words. These “oracles,” or “prophets,” were borne along with the Spirit who entrusted to them the message of Yahweh.

II Peter 1:21
For no prophecy ever originated because some man willed it [to do so – it never came by human impulse], but men spoke from God who were borne along (moved and impelled) by the Holy Spirit.
[Amplified Bible]

We can be sure when Moses set out in obedience to Yahweh to write the first five books of the Old Testament, that his writings were marked with the breath of God. These were divine writings, and the message of Yahweh was communicated faithfully. This is true of all of the writings contained in the Bible and designated as holy Scriptures. The most recent of these anointed writings are nearly 2,000 years old, and the oldest of them are about 3,500 years removed from this present day. Understandably, none of the original autographs of these “holy prophets” (Luke 1:70) remain to this day. The animal skins, papyrus, or other material upon which the Scriptures were written were subject to decay, destruction, and loss.

The Hebrew people who were entrusted with the words of God placed great emphasis upon maintaining the holy writings. A group of men were assigned the task of safeguarding the divine words, of making new copies of the Scriptures when the existing ones began to show wear. These men were known as scribes.

The Bible itself does not set forth any instructions for scribes to follow, but the Jewish people developed elaborate instructions to guard against the encroachment of any aberration into the word of Yahweh. In the Talmud (writings of Jewish civil and religious law) we find some of the earliest recorded instructions to scribes.

A synagogue scroll must be written on the skins of clean animals, prepared for the particular use of the synagogue of the Jew. These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex. The length of each column must not extend over less than forty-eight, or more than sixty lines; and the breadth must consist of thirty letters. The whole copy must first be lined; and if three words be written in it without a line, it is worthless. The ink should be black, neither red, green, nor any other colour and be prepared according to a definite recipe. An authentic copy must be the exemplar, from which the transcriber ought not in the least to deviate. No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him…

Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene; between every word the breadth of a narrow consonant; between every new parashah, or section, the breadth of nine consonants; between every book, three lines. The fifth book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line; but the rest need not do so. Besides this, the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body, not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him while writing that name he must take no notice of him…
[Source: Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, Frederic Kenyon]

These words were recorded in the early centuries following the time of Christ. It can be assumed that similar instructions had been passed along orally for many centuries prior. Around 500 A.D. a group of scribes called the Massoretes (meaning “tradition”) arose. They are renowned for their attention to accuracy as well as for innovations to preserve the pronunciation of Hebrew words. Before you read the following quotation from the writing of Neil R. Lightfoot, let me define the words “codex” and “codices” for those to whom they may be unfamiliar. The earliest Biblical writings were recorded on scrolls. This began to change around the first century A.D. at the same time that the Christian church came into being. The Romans began to place their writings in book form. Such a book was called a “codex.” The plural of this word is “codices.” At first, the pages of these books were made from wood, and later from papyrus, vellum, or paper. The Latin word “codex” literally means “trunk of a tree.”

Chinese Bamboo Book, or Codex

In Europe, the bark of the Beech tree was used for the pages of a codex. It is from the word “Beech” (German bok  – pronounced “boke”) that we get our English word “book.”

The following excerpt describes the meticulous attention to detail employed by the Massoretes to ensure that the Hebrew Bible was copied with flawless precision.

The Massoretes, who go back to about A.D. 500, succeeded the earlier scribes. The Massoretes of Tiberias were the most important of the Massoretes, and the Ben Asher family of Tiberias, with whom several of the model codices are associated, are especially renowned.

The work of the Massoretes is truly significant. Their labors are spread out over a period of four or five centuries, and their contributions are many. They are perhaps best known for their system of vowels and accents which they devised for the Hebrew text. It will be remembered that all of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet are consonants. Thus the Old Testament was first written without vowels. Although this may seem strange to us, it was sufficient during the many centuries when Hebrew was a spoken language. When eventually Hebrew was no longer spoken, the danger was imminent that the proper pronunciation of the consonantal text might be lost. To meet the danger, the Massoretes, on the basis of their well-kept traditions, inserted vowel points above and below the lines of the text. It must be emphasized, however, that they did not bother the text itself; they only added a means by which to ensure the correct pronunciation of the text.

The Massoretes were not concerned with only such things as proper pronunciation. They also sought ways and methods by which to eliminate scribal slips of addition or omission. This they achieved through intricate procedures of counting. They numbered the verses, words, and letters of each book. They counted the number of times each letter was used in each book. They noted verses that contained all the letters of the alphabet, or a certain number of them. They calculated the middle letter, the middle word, and the middle verse of the Pentateuch; the middle verse of the Psalms, the middle verse of the entire Hebrew Bible, and so forth. In fact, they counted almost everything that could be counted. With these safeguards, and others, when a scribe finished making a copy of a book, he could then check the accuracy of his work before using it.
[Source: How We Got the Bible, Neil R. Lightfoot]

You may wonder why I would write about Scribes that created copies of the Hebrew Scriptures as recently as the tenth century A.D.. The reason is that these copies that the Massoretes made are the oldest existing copies of the Hebrew Scriptures known today. (The Dead Sea Scrolls are much older, but they contain primarily fragments of the Hebrew Bible.) There are actually much older copies of the Old Testament in languages other than Hebrew, such as the Greek Septuagint, but these are not valued as highly because they are a translation, and not the original language of the Old Testament.

You may well ask, “What happened to the older Hebrew manuscripts, for they first began to be recorded as far back as 1,500 B.C.?” This means that there are no existing manuscripts of the first 2,500 years of the Hebrew Scriptures. Neil R. Lightfoot provides the answer for us.

The Jewish scribes looked upon their copies of the Scriptures with an almost superstitious respect. This led them to give ceremonial burial to any of the texts that were damaged or defective. Their motive was to prevent the improper use of the material on which the sacred name of God had been inscribed. Before burial, however, faulty manuscripts were hidden away in a “ginizah” (from Aramaic genaz, to hide), a kind of storeroom for manuscripts that were unusable. But however noble the intentions, the replacement of older copies with newer ones, and the burial of those discarded, have deprived us of early Hebrew manuscripts.
[Source: Ibid]

The modern Hebrew Bible (Old Testament only) is based upon the Massoretic text of the Scriptures. Following is a list of five of the most important Hebrew manuscripts.

1. The Aleppo Codex. First in rank among the Hebrew manuscripts, the Aleppo Codex derives its name from the city in Syria where it had long been located. A beautifully written codex of the entire Hebrew Bible, it was finished sometime in the tenth century. Unfortunately, it is no longer complete; large sections of it were destroyed in Arab riots against the Jews…

Arab mobs, looting and burning and killing, destroyed all the synagogues in Aleppo, including the 1,500 year old Mustaribah Synagogue. Found in the ashes of this synagogue was the prized Aleppo Codex. A quarter of the manuscript had been destroyed – almost all of the Pentateuch and all of a number of other books as well. Smuggled out of Syria to Jerusalem, it is now being used as the base of a new critical edition of the Hebrew Bible to be published by Hebrew University.

2. The Leningrad Codex. Of equal rank with the Aleppo Codex is the Leningrad Codex. Now the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, it was written in Cairo about the year 1010. It, too, is a beautiful manuscript, with pages ornately wrought.

The manuscript today is in the National Library of St. Petersburg, Russia. Although the city’s name is once again St. Petersburg, the manuscript is still known as the Leningrad Codex… It is the Leningrad Codex that mainly underlies most editions of the modern Hebrew Bible…

3. The Cairo Codex. This manuscript of the Former and Latter Prophets was written by Moses ben Asher in 895. Subsequently, it came into the possession of a Jewish sect in Jerusalem known as Karaites. After being carried off by the Crusaders and later returned, it made its way to the Karaite community in Cairo, where it remains today.

4. The Leningrad Codex of the Prophets. Written in 916, this manuscript includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets.

5. British Library Codex of the Pentateuch. Containing most of the Pentateuch, this codex is an important witness to the text. An undated manuscript, which formerly was thought to be from the ninth century, is now dated a century later.

Since we have no ancient manuscripts of the Bible in the Hebrew language, how do we know whether it has been copied accurately during the preceding two and a half millennia? There are actually a number of ways. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, they do include large portions, including the entire book of Isaiah on a single scroll. The Dead Sea Scrolls were made by a sect of Jews called the Essenes who dwelt in the wilderness of Judea from the first century B.C. until the second century A.D.. This means their writings are nearly a thousand years older than the existing Hebrew Scriptures copied by the Massorete scribes. Among the Dead Sea scrolls is a copy of the book of Isaiah. When comparing the Isaiah scroll to the Massoretic text copied nearly a thousand years later, they have been found to be nearly identical. In a thousand years there was no significant change to the text. Comparison of the Massoretic text to other scrolls and fragments discovered with the Isaiah scroll reveal that there has been no substantial change to the text. This takes us much closer to the original writings, but we can go further back still if we look at the Old Testament in other languages.

In the second century B.C. the Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II, wanted to build a great library. There were many Jews dwelling in Alexandria, Egypt at the time. These Jews spoke Koine Greek, and were not fluent in Hebrew. Ptolemy sponsored a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and 70 Jewish scholars were appointed to make the translation. The word “Septuagint” means “the seventy.” The Septuagint became a very important translation for the Jews, for many Jews no longer spoke Hebrew fluently.

There are diverse views among scholars regarding the differences/similarity between the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Some scholars focus on the similarities, for the same thoughts are conveyed in both Hebrew and Greek in the great majority of instances. This has led some scholars to suggest that the translators of the Septuagint must have worked from a Hebrew manuscript very similar to that of the Masoretes. Other scholars focus on the differences between the Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments, for the fact that there are differences cannot be denied. There are verses found in the Hebrew that are absent in the Greek Septuagint, and vice versa. The Septuagint also contained numerous apocryphal books, and some sections from apocryphal writings were added directly into the text of books such as Daniel.  However, in the great many places where we find agreement between the old Greek texts and the Masoretic texts of the Scriptures, we are once more assured that the basic message of the Bible has remained consistent throughout its thousands of years of existence.

Keep in mind that the Old Testament was written over a span of about one thousand years. The last book, Malachi, was likely written somewhere between the years 445 and 420 B.C.. The Torah portion of the Septuagint was written in the 3rd century B.C., and other books were completed in the next two centuries. Therefore, the gap between the time the last book of the Old Testament was written, and the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek was at most a few centuries. There are existing manuscripts containing some books of the Septuagint that date back as far as the 2nd century B.C..

Although the Latin Vulgate is a translation of the Bible into a secondary language, it is important due to its antiquity and the prominent role it has occupied in the church age. The word “vulgate” means “common.” This Latin translation was the standard Bible used in Europe for more than a thousand years.

In 382 A.D., Pope Damasus I commissioned Eusebius Hieronymus (also known as Jerome) to create a standardized Latin edition of the Bible. At the time many disparate Latin translations existed, and a need was perceived to bring some order and harmony to the Latin scriptures. Jerome began by producing a revised Latin version of the four gospels. This was completed in 384 A.D. shortly before the death of Pope Damasus I. Jerome then fell out of favor in Rome and departed to the Holy Land where he took up residence in Bethlehem. There, he obtained access to a copy of the Hexapla, a version of the Scriptures produced by Origen in about 150 A.D.. The Hexapla was an ancient form of what may be compared to a parallel Bible today. Origen’s Hexapla listed six translations of the Bible in parallel columns. This massive work spanned some 6,000 pages and was originally contained in 15 volumes. Included in the Hexapla was a Hebrew Bible (written in the Hebrew alphabet), as well as a Hebrew Bible transliterated in Greek letters, a copy of the Greek Septuagint, and three additional Greek versions of the Scriptures written respectively by Theodotion, Symmachus, and Aquila of Sinope. Using the Hexapla as his primary resource, Jerome was able to complete his Latin translation of the Old Testament.

By the 6th or 7th century, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible had become the standard throughout Europe, replacing the Old Latin scriptures. In 1546 at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church officially assigned Jerome’s Latin scriptures the title “Vulgate,” making this the official Bible of Romanism. One rather serious shortcoming of this official sanction of the Roman Church is that when Catholic translations of the Bible were later made into English, they were translated from the Latin Vulgate, rather than from the original Hebrew and Greek. Thus, Catholic Bibles in English have actually been translations of a translation.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, one of the first books to be printed was the Latin Vulgate, which was done in the year 1456.

The Textus Receptus

In 1516, Desiderius Erasmus sought to revise Jerome’s Latin Bible, improving upon it. Perhaps in order to demonstrate the superiority of his translation, Erasmus placed the Greek text of the Scriptures in parallel with the Latin. The inclusion of a Greek text of the Bible proved to be quite valuable, causing Erasmus’ Bible to be highly sought after. For many, the Greek portion of Erasmus’ Bible became far more valuable than the Latin. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament would eventually become known as the “Textus Receptus,” meaning “Received Text,” though Erasmus himself never referred to it as such. More will be mentioned about this in the next chapter.

Undoubtedly, the great prominence attained by Erasmus’ Greek and Latin text was due to the fact that it was the first Greek New Testament to be published in Europe. Note the emphasis on the word “published.” There were many extant Greek New Testaments at the time, but none had ever been published using the relatively new invention of the printing press. The printing press made books much more financially accessible to the general population. To have a book copied by a scribe was prohibitively expensive. A great many Bible scholars and students rejoiced to find a printed copy of the Greek New Testament that they could afford.

Erasmus’ Textus Receptus
(Latin and Greek Text Side by Side)

Erasmus’ Greek New Testament has been criticized due to the fact that he had access to only six Greek manuscripts, none of them of great antiquity, and there were some portions of the New Testament missing from the manuscripts (specifically the last six verses of the book of Revelation).  It is suggested by numerous scholars that Erasmus was under some pressure to quickly produce his Latin/Greek translation, which led to hasty, and somewhat sloppy work. Rather than seeking out a Greek manuscript with the missing verses from Revelation, Erasmus re-created the missing verses by translating backwards from Latin into the original Greek, a process whereby he was forced to guess what Greek words were originally used by the New Testament writers. There were also numerous spelling errors in his translation, and many other corrections that needed to be made. Erasmus would eventually publish five versions of his Greek New Testament, making corrections and improvements with each edition.

Erasmus’ Greek New Testament proved to be highly sought after by European Christians who wanted to produce a Bible translation in their native languages. Martin Luther used Erasmus’ Greek New Testament when creating his German translation of the Scriptures (Luther’s New Testament was completed in 1522 and the Old Testament in 1534). William Tyndale used Erasmus’ New Testament when creating his English Bible, as did the translators of the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible. In fact, from the 16th through the 19th centuries, most English Bibles used the Textus Receptus as the foundation for their translations. In the 19th century, older, and more reliable, Greek manuscripts began coming to light, leading to better Greek New Testaments. Westscott and Hort published their Greek New Testament in 1881 based largely upon the highly regarded Codex Vaticanus. The Textus Receptus has declined in favor among Bible scholars and translators as more ancient Greek manuscripts have come to light.

The Great Manuscripts

I will bring this chapter to a close by making mention of three of the oldest and most valuable (to scholars) Bible manuscripts extant today. All three of these manuscripts were discovered AFTER Erasmus published his Greek New Testament, and AFTER the King James Bible was published. These manuscripts, listed in the order of their importance, are as follows.

Page from the Codex Vaticanus

Codex Vaticanus
The Codex Vaticanus contains both the Old and New Testaments and is written in Greek. It derives its name based upon the place in which it resides. Since the 15th century this manuscript has been located in the Vatican library. The codex became known to Western scholars due to a correspondence between Erasmus and the Vatican, but access to the manuscript was restricted until 1889-1890 when a complete photographic facsimile was produced. The Codex Vaticanus is regarded as the oldest and purest quality New Testament manuscript, and it is among the oldest Old Testament manuscripts in any language, though it is not in the original language of Hebrew.

The Codex Vaticanus is missing the following portions of Scripture:

Genesis 1:1-46:28
Psalms 106-138
Hebrews 9:14 to end of book.
I and II Timothy

The Codex Vaticanus has been dated to the first half of the 4th century A.D. (Prior to 350 A.D.). It differs significantly from both the Latin Vulgate and the Textus Receptus.

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus
A close rival to Codex Vaticanus is Codex Sinaiticus. It is dated accurately to between the years 325 A.D. and 360 A.D.. The nearer date would make it slightly more recent than the Vatican manuscript. The Sinaiticus manuscript was discovered by Constantin Tischendorf at St. Catherines Monastery near Mount Sinai. The discovery was made in the late 19th century. The manuscript is currently divided up between four locations, with the majority of it residing at the British Library. The story of the discovery of the manuscript, and Tischendorf’s efforts to gain access to it, makes for exciting reading. Like Codex Vaticanus, it is written in Greek. The Codex Sinaiticus is especially valued because it contains the complete Greek New Testament.

Codex Alexandrinus
The Codex Alexandrinus is a 5th century Greek Bible. It contains the majority of the Septuagint and the New Testament. The manuscript resided for some time in Alexandria, Egypt, from whence its name is derived. It was later taken to Constantinople in the possession of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was subsequently gifted to King Charles I of England (the son of King James VI of Scotland  – King James I of England) in the 17th century, and now resides in the British Library along with Codex Sinaiticus. Thus the manuscript came to England too late to be of use to the translators of the King James Bible.

Aside from the Bible manuscripts in their original Hebrew and Greek, and translations into other languages such as the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, there exist ancient manuscripts in Syriac, Coptic, Georgian and other languages. These are also valuable to use to compare with the original language manuscripts. There additionally exists a large assortment of writings by the early church fathers in which nearly every Bible passage is discussed. These writings include quotations of the various passages of Scripture, and are also valuable to Bible scholars who are seeking to arrive at the original words of the Bible.

Although there exist a great many variations in the existing Bible manuscripts, the vast majority of the differences are nothing more than the spelling of specific words, alterations of word order, or other non-critical differences. There are no differences that would alter the basic doctrines of the faith. The Bible is by a wide margin supported by a greater number of ancient manuscripts than any other book in the world today.

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