The Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scroll

Dead Sea Scroll

It is not just the addition of vowel points and word spacing that differentiates the Masoretic text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, but that entire texts have been changed. The Book of Psalms, as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, is quite different, including a number of psalms missing from both the Masoretic text and the LXX.[i] The book of Jeremiah is quite different, and agrees with the Septuagint instead of the Masoretic text. Karel Van Der Toorn, in his book “Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible”, writes:

Biblical scholars have long been aware of the fact that the Greek translation of Jeremiah as extant in the Septuagint is shorter by one-seventh than the text in the Hebrew Bible. Its arrangement of the material, moreover, differs at some points from that in the Hebrew text. The most striking instance is the position of the Oracles against the Nations. Whereas the Septuagint places them right after 25:13 (“ And I will bring upon that land all that I have decreed against it, all that is recorded in this book — that which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations”), the Hebrew Bible has them at the end of the book (Chapters 46-51). The discoveries in the Judean Desert have yielded a fragment of a Hebrew version of Jeremiah (4QJerb) that agrees with the Septuagint (henceforth JerLXX) against the Hebrew text known from the Masoretic tradition (Henceforth JerMT). Based on this fragment, scholars have concluded that the Greek translation goes back to a Hebrew text of Jeremiah that differs in important respects from the Hebrew Bible. The differences between JerMT and JerLXX are such that they cannot be attributed to scribal errors in the process of transmission. Nor can the Hebrew vorlage[ii] of the Septuagint be interpreted as an abbreviated version of the book. In view of their different placement of the Oracles against the Nations, JerMT and JerLXX represent two different editions of the same book. Chronologically, the edition reflected in JerLXX  precedes the one extant in JerMT.[iii]

Lawrence Boadt, in his book “Reading the Old Testament, confirms this. He writes:

There were quite a variety of copies of the Hebrew Old Testament available by the time of Jesus. Since copying had gone on for a long time already, many different editions circulated, some longer with sections added in, some shorter with sections omitted. All had some change or error in them. Since a scribe in one area often copied from a local text, the same error or change often appeared regularly in one place, say, Babylon, but not in text copied in Egypt. Thus, at the time of Christ, three major “families” or groupings of text types could be found: The Babylonian, the Palestinian, and the Egyptian. …Only at the end of the first century A.D. did the rabbis decide to end the confusion and select one text, the best they could find, for each part of the Bible. In the Pentateuch they chose the Babylonian tradition, but in other books, such as the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, they followed the Palestinian-type text.

These first century rabbis also inaugurated a method of guaranteeing the text from any more glosses and additions, though not completely from copying errors. They counted words, syllables, and sections, and wrote the totals at the end of each book of the Old Testament. …The standard Hebrew text that resulted from the decisions of these early rabbis has become known as the “Masoretic text,” named after a later group of Jewish scholars of the eighth to eleventh centuries A.D., the masoretes, or “interpreters,” who put vowels into the text, and thus “Fixed the words in a definitive form. No longer could a reader be confused by whether the word qtl in the text meant qotel, “the killer,” or qatal, “he killed.”[iv]

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible were from the 10th or 11th century. The fact that these two manuscripts exist at all is something of a miracle, because the Jews have a tradition of destroying old, worn manuscripts. Because these were the only extant manuscripts in Hebrew, the Reformers (and the scholar Erasmus) chose them when translating the Old Testament, under the influence of the Renaissance humanists and their cry: “ad fontes”; to the sources. However, we not have older manuscripts in the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts supporting the ancient idea that the Hebrews altered their texts in response to the challenge of Christianity.

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest texts of the Hebrew Bible were in two manuscripts from the 10th or possibly the early 11th century known as the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex. These manuscripts—the Aleppo Codex, which was recovered partially after a fire and somehow brought to Jerusalem, and the Leningrad Codex, which is now in St. Petersburg—both of these nearly identical texts are what scholars call the rabbinic recension.[v]

The problem is this. The Masoretes fixed the text in a form significantly different than that used by the Jewish diaspora for several hundred years. This was a radical emendation of the text which, when coupled by the Masoretic vowel pointing, fixed the interpretation of the text. Thus it is clear that as Judaism underwent substantial changes subsequent to the destruction of the temple, so too did the text used as the basis for their faith.


[i] (J. A. Sanders n.d.)

[ii] Vorlage: a prior version of a text under consideration.

[iii] (van der Toorn 2007, 199-200, van der Toorn 2007)

[iv] (Boadt 1984, 73-74)

[v] (Shanks 2007, 19)


Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

Sanders, J. A. “English Translation of the Psalms Scroll (Tehillim) 11QPs.” n.d. (accessed January 02, 2014).

Shanks, Hershel. “The Dead Sea Scrolls—Discovery and Meaning.” Biblical Archaeology Society. Biblical Archeological Society. 2007. (accessed January 30, 2014).

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.


The People of the Word

People of the Book

People of the Book

The Koran defines Muslims, along with Jews, Sabians,[1] and Christians, as “people of the book.” This makes sense in a Islamic context, because the Koran is the Word of God made text. Moreover, by the time the Koran was spoken (and later written down), both Jews and Christians had a defined canon considered to be inspired, and a process to preserve the inspired text relatively uncorrupted from additions and errors.

Most modern Christians would agree with the Islamic assessment of themselves as being people of the book. After all, they have the bible, which they refer to as Sacred Scripture and as the Word of God. And yet it is unlikely that the ancient Jews, or the earliest Christians, would have defined themselves as people of the book, for they had no such book.

Judaism was in flux during the time of Christ, with multiple canons and textual traditions; the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was not formalized until the 3rd century, and the differing textual traditions were not merged into a single text until the 9th century Masoretic text. Meanwhile primitive Christianity used the Septuagint text as Sacred Scripture, but the various New Testament writings only gradually became thought of as scripture, and the current canon of the New Testament was not formalized until the 9th century.

In the ancient world, the oral word was primary; the written word was of little importance, useful only to a very small class of people in government, religion, or business. John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy write:

After the discovery of writing, whether for the Egyptians or Sumerians, the Greeks or Romans, it was often only the priestly or commercial elites that acquired enough literacy to carry out their duties (or they purchased slaves who had been trained to read and write on behalf of their masters). Beyond that, the wealthy may have been educated enough to be literate. For the general populace literacy was rare, for it was almost never a necessity. (Walton and Sandy 2013, 90)

This seems odd to us, being raised in a literate culture, one in which someone who is illiterate is seen as uneducated, backwards, and unintelligent. And yet, even in our literate age, people learn to speak before they learn to write; and the mass media of television and radio are oral means of communication. Speaking and hearing are fundamental; reading and writing come later. Walton and Sandy write:

Fundamentally, speaking is primary; writing is derivative. So it is in the Bible: nothing in the biblical creation accounts suggests that God wrote or created writing. Speaking was the focus; writing would come later. So it is for children: learning to speak is essential and comes first; learning to write is helpful and comes second. So it has been in history: a society that does not speak to one another has never existed ; a society that does not write to one another has always existed. (Walton and Sandy 2013, 89-90)

This may be hard for us to grasp, but the bible was primarily oral before it became the written text we know today. In the synagogues, the reader would translate the written text on the fly into the vernacular tongue. In the early churches, Christians would gather together to hear the Gospels and the epistles read to them.  Even today, we gather together to hear the scriptures read to us, after which we hear a sermon or a homily, usually interpreting the text we just heard. The distinction between an oral culture and a textual culture revolves around the question of authority. Walton and Sandy write: “For oral communication, authority focuses on the persons who transmit the tradition. In written communication, authority shifts to the words on the page.” (Walton and Sandy 2013, 89)

The Holy Prophet Jeremiah

The Holy Prophet Jeremiah

In an oral culture, the speaker is the one who transmits the tradition. In other words, it is the speaker who determines what is said, and how it is understood. In a textual culture, the hearer is responsible for determining what the author meant, irrespective of the tradition. And thus it is that modern Protestantism, which developed side by side with the Gutenberg press, is compelled to disregard the oral tradition in favor of its own interpretation. And having disregarded the apostolic tradition (2Th 3:6), it is no wonder that each reader, having determined a new meaning in the text, is compelled to create a new denomination, leading directly to the confusion of denominations.

If, as the scriptures state, “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Co 14:33), is it possible that we are approaching Sacred Scripture incorrectly? That the God who spake the worlds into existence, who commanded the prophets to speak the words of God unto the people, and who gave prophets, evangelists, and teachers unto the church, expects the oral transmission of tradition — including Sacred Scripture?


Walton, John H, and D. Brent Sandy. The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.


[1] The Sabians seems to refer to a variety of monotheistic faiths that are neither Jewish nor Christian, although they appear to have more in common with Christianity than with Islam.

The Septuagint and the Canon

Psalm 90 from the Septuagint

Psalm 90 from the Septuagint

The Septuagint is a version of the Hebrew Scriptures that was translated into Greek. At a minimum, the Pentateuch (also known as the five books of Moses), were translated sometime between 285-240 BC, and for sure the rest of the books were translated by 130 BC.  (Gentry 2009, 24) This translation was in widespread use among the Jewish diaspora, who for the most part no longer spoke Hebrew. Even in the Holy Land, most people spoke Greek and Aramaic instead of Hebrew, so the Septuagint was in use even in Jerusalem.

Many people find it curious that when the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, the quotations often don’t match. The reason is that the Masoretic Text, which is the primary source material for English language translations, did not exist at the time of Christ. It is possible to trace the Masoretic Text back to some text contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the Masoretic Text itself is an edited text, a fixation of a particular strain of Jewish interpretation.  (Clarke 1833, iii)

The Septuagint was the Bible for the earliest Christians. This presents all manner of difficulties for conservative Protestants, who have a marked preference for the Masoretic Text, and a formal, literal, word for word translation. The Septuagint, by contrast, represents a grab bag of translation techniques. Bruce Metzger informs us the translators “avoided literalistic renderings of phrases congenial to another age and another language.” (Metzger 2001, Kindle Locations 266-267) Peter J. Gentry, writing in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, describes the translation styles as follows.

Individual books [of the Septuagint] vary in character and quality of translation and exhibit a full spectrum from extreme formal correspondence and literal translation to dynamic and functional translation and even paraphrase. (Gentry 2009, 24)

We therefore have to deal with the fact that the early church, and indeed Christ Himself, used a bible that not only was based on different texts than ours, but was translated using a variety of methods that would not pass muster with most people today. And yet, the Septuagint was referred to by the New Testament writers as Scripture, and was the Bible for the early church.

When I was still a Lutheran, I raised the question of why we didn’t use the Septuagint instead of using the Masoretic text as the basis for our Bible — to which one pastor replied: “Which Septuagint?” Not a bad question, since the Septuagint is not a book in the modern sense, but instead an amorphous collection of scrolls. (In this way it is similar to the Hebrew Scriptures, which also consisted of a similar collection of scrolls.) In fact, given the rather fluid condition of Judaism at the time of Christ, it can be argued that until the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism existed in multiple sects, using multiple and somewhat undefined canons. Instead of asking “Which Septuagint”, one might as well ask “Which Bible”, as even today there are multiple canons in use amongst the different Christian communities.


Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible: containing the Old and New Testaments, with a commentary and critical notes. Royal Octavo Stereotype Edition. Vol. I. New York: B. Waugh and T. Maxon, 1833.

Gentry, Peter J. “The Text of the Old Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological 52, no. 1 (2009): 19-45.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Bible in Translation. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2001.